MASK OFF, MIDD: Everything on a pedestal falls

By Maria Kaouris

The first time I saw Asher, I was at that little cafe on Logie’s Lane — you know, the one right off Market Street by Pizza Express and was sorely in the mood to not meet anyone. 

In the past 48 hours, I had cried all the way through JFK Airport’s security (nevertheless, TSA showed no mercy), spent my flight to Scotland cooped up on a Boeing 737-700 next to a middle-aged man who asked me what type of wine I liked to put in movie theater Slushies (no comment) and gone to lunch with my roommate and her parents — the latter of whom thought I was 17 years old instead of the ripe almost-20 I boasted (my mom says I have a youthful face).

And so, it’s rather rude that the universe conspired against me, allowing me to fall in love when I was vulnerable, especially when such a feeling had so often been unrequited —a hopeless combination of emotions that routinely went unrewarded, unacknowledged, dismissed.

Nevertheless, Asher struck me not in that way of unadulterated admiration, not at first. It was quite the opposite actually. 

He had the coldest face I had ever seen, his skin nearly translucent. Green eyes that should have been animated were dull and vacant. Had I not been fascinated by him, that gaze would’ve deadened the nerve endings in my body. 

When his server brought him his coffee, Asher barely glanced up from his laptop, a silver Macbook Pro outfitted with a singular sticker, a depressing black-and-white outline of Australia. He poured an embarrassing quantity of milk into his cup (coffee is the only sweet thing in life, he’d later say to me). Had I felt fun-’n’-flirty, I would have been inclined to make the joke “how ‘bout some coffee with that milk?” But I too was in my own head.

I silently returned to the cafe each day for upwards of a week.

Sometimes, we were the only ones there. I blatantly scanned my eyes over his body, starting from his black Vans to his bony ankles, his tightish olive-green pants to his broad chest rigged out in an oversized black t-shirt with a dolphin logo. Truthfully, I was unconcerned he would ever notice me; that would require some sort of concession, and this boy was unyielding, drenched in indifference.

Guilty about taking up a table for hours, I’d order three or four coffees at a time Americanos for the American and write positive Yelp reviews for restaurants I had never heard of in cities I had never been to. I was aimlessly homesick in the way that everything relating to the US even  places like Tuscaloosa, AL, Salt Lake City, UT, and Muncie, IN felt meaningful.

Nine days into my cafe stakeout, I bought him a coffee and introduced myself.

It was the biggest romantic mistake I’ve ever made.

So began my intense infatuation with a boy four years my senior (he made sure to remind me of that) who, to this day, is my biggest heartbreak.

The most haunting thing about Asher was his inconsistency. 

He was hard to pinpoint, unable to sit still unless he was glued to his single-stickered computer. Canceling on me often, changing plans rashly and then apologizing profusely were all in his job description. On two occasions, he disappeared for two days out of touch without a warning and then, when he came back, he gave me a massive hug and said in his Australian accent, “I was just taking care of business, mate!” as if he ran some sort of secret, on-foot postal delivery service that had been passed on for generations.

The few times he gave me his undivided attention, however, he made me feel valued, appreciated and respected. 

Recovering from an eating disorder and a severe bout of depression, I sought out encouragement from any sources that weren’t obligated to love me, unlike my family and close friends. To earn his affection was a victory, a privilege that indicated, perhaps, I was lovable despite my wounds.

The joy was ephemeral. Most times, he was novocaine, leaving me visibly intact but numb on the inside. Nothing more than a checkerboard of insecurity.

When his words would turn into blunt weapons, I’d say: “Asher. This isn’t you.” 

But it was him.

At nearly every point in our relationship, Asher had proven he was unreliable and unstable. It should have been unsurprising, really, when he made plans and broke them or misdirected his anger at me. These habits were part of his personality a big part of it, actually and were predictable, likely, even inevitable. Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior.

And yet, every time it happened, I had some perfect explanation for his actions. He means well, I’d say to my friends. Prior obligation. Forgot to let me know he couldn’t make it. It’s no big deal, really. In my mind, I was dating a totally different person, one I had constructed in the early days of our connection. He was my ideal guy, I was sure. I mean, yeah, he had some cracks and breaks and bruises, but they were in all the right places, right?

While Asher probably meant well, it was my prerogative to draw boundaries, and… I didn’t. I was so in love with the idea of him loving me that I couldn’t acknowledge that I had exaggerated his positive qualities and ascribed to him those he did not even possess. The onus, then, fell on me more than anyone. 

Part of me is embarrassed to share this story. Usually, my anecdotes revolve around the ways I uphold my principles, not compromise them. 

And yet, when I reread my journal entries from abroad, I can tell I was in so much pain from the months before I met Asher some of my most challenging days that I couldn’t tell fact from fiction when it came to romance. With this, I also came to terms with the need for grace.

The image I had of Asher was statuesque. There he stood, proud on my pedestal, regal on the outside but hollow on the inside. 

 

MASK OFF, MIDD: A hollow statue will always crumble.

Maria Kaouris is a member of the class of 2021.