A Secondary Education of Love

I was sitting with my friend Cris, and she had asked me to tell her about my most recent dating travails. She tried to provide me with some comfort by telling me that she was older than me and she was still going through similar things. I said, “So I guess some people get it right, and others, well, we take more time?”

She had been married before, and considering how successful she is in her field, as well as how accomplished she is as a writer, she seemed to be in a pretty good position to provide me with some insight. She said that it never gets easier, even if you get older. And man, don’t I believe it.

But as we talked, I could not help but think, perhaps it isn’t merely a looking forward to the future, an expectation that as we go through relationships and we get older and we, in video game parlance, accrue experience points, we become better at the whole enterprise. It’s not a looking forward that will allow us to be better, but rather, a place in our past from which we never moved from. As the cliche goes, “Those who do not learn from their mistakes are doomed to repeat them.” And I wonder if the mistakes of our past are what doom a lot of our relationships. I speak specifically of high school, and I speak here based on my own experiences.

I think that the scars inflicted by failed high school romances never leave us. They never left me anyway. I think that each relationship I’ve had since has been haunted by elements from those high school failures. That period of adolescence marks us so powerfully that it is so difficult to move beyond it.
By the time I had hit high school I was fully invested in the Hollywood myth of high school sweethearts winding up together. Too many movies, too many for sure. And it’s not like other film romances would make sense—rogue-smuggler-turned-rebel and princess from Alderaan, time-traveling protector and mother of the leader of the human resistance, and every action-movie hero and his love interest—none of these could possibly inform my attempts at romance. No, the kinds of romance that fit my life at the time were those found in high school flicks.
But life, my life anyway, refused to conform to the plots and beats of Hollywood. I’ll have to admit that I was a messed up kid at the time, dealing with family issues, a lot of anger, and an overwhelming feeling of alienation that I would assuage with great amounts of alcohol. I believed, like the misfit outsider kids in the movies, that if I were only able to make a romantic connection, then everything else in my life would start coming to right.
The problems, apart from my not being a character in a Hollywood high school flick, were that I was totally ignorant of how to talk to girls and I was totally unprepared to be in any kind of relationship.
Initial attempts at courtship ended in me being, as we say it here, busted. “Binasted ako e,” was the inevitable outcome of things when I would manage to gather the guts to actually ask a girl out. And there were always the buts, the “you’re nice, but,” the “you’re sweet, but,” and always the most painful of them, “but I like someone else.” It was the bad boy, the misfit, the jock, the team captain, the pretty boy, the cool guy, the class clown, it was always somebody but me.
After a string of these failed attempts at courtship—bearing in mind that there were many times when I would contemplate asking a girl out from afar, and take so long in contemplation that someone else would make a move, along with the actual attempts that ended in the buts—I finally got lucky. Then not so lucky. After two weeks of dating my crush from the neighboring section, she decided she wasn’t ready to have a boyfriend. This would be the foreshadowing to all my short, quick relationships. Then I wound up with a college girl who had a penchant for planting hickeys on my neck; she was really hot, half-Italian with green eyes and she got really crazy (when we broke up she wound up stalking me, waiting for me to come home outside my house, once it was raining and she stood there in a hoodie just waiting). She was needy and overbearing and paranoid but I put up with it because as a pubescent male who had longed for that kind of intimacy for so long, I couldn’t say no. This would then serve as the precursor to my falling into relationships with emotionally unstable but extremely attractive women. And then the smartest girl in school sat me down and told me I had to stop seeing the crazy half-Italian girl; she said that I should be dating her instead. So I wound up dating the smartest girl. Until she dumped me for some other dude. And there is another foreshadowing, how I would think that things were alright and then I’d be unceremoniously discarded and replaced.
These experiences then typified the relationships that I would have in the years after high school. While I got my act together in other aspects of my life—I graduated with cum laude standing, though due to technicalities I wouldn’t get the distinction, I started working at 18 and have managed to hold down all kinds of work, I repaired my family life generally and have managed to build a supportive home environment for my sister, and I have managed to be relatively successful in my literary and publishing attempts—it’s as if these things would become the recurring themes of my failed relationships as an adult.
I was able to have a relatively successful relationship for two years which did not fail because of these things. But then, being a young aspiring writer and musician, I got it into my head that I should not be encumbered by the demands of a long-term relationship. I was an idiot. I threw that away, and in hindsight that is one of the greatest mistakes of my life. That one thing, I have at least learned from. I now know how to value when I am loved. Once I had realized the mistake I had made, some five years or so after the fact, I tracked the girl down, badgered her into letting me see her, and apologized for the wrong that I had done. There’s no way I can ever fix that or make up for it, except I suppose to try and do better once I find something like it.
But there’s the problem. While I did have that one good thing that I threw away, pretty much the rest of it has fallen into the patterns of high school. And for some reason, I can’t find a way to move on, even with the knowledge of the patterns and the attempts to move away from them. 
    I believe that it’s because those scars are so deep that they have really embedded themselves into my subconscious in a fundamental way. Observing myself and my behavior as of late, I can offer some examples.
These days, having gained a measure of literary notoriety, I am perceived to be popular, likable, and some might even go so far as to say cool. My female friends have referred to me as “a catch” and the kind of guy that most girls would be lucky to have as a boyfriend. And yet, even with all the times I’ve been told these things, with all the compliments and the accomplishments and everything, when in front of women, I am unable to perceive myself as cool or accomplished.
In other situations, such as at conferences where I’m giving talks, or in the classroom, or at meetings and negotiations, I can ramp up my confidence, control the way I think about myself, and just say in my head, “Dude, you’re the shit.” Then I do alright, I can do extremely well and be aware of that. I can slap down credentials (I hate to do that, but when you’re still relatively young and making presentations and trying to get your point across to people who will dismiss you for your age, you have no choice). I’ll rock out a sports coat or a necktie (or sometimes both) and establish my authority in a setting. Which is to say that in certain contexts I can be wholly aware of how accomplished I am for someone my age, and that I know how to utilize this to my advantage.
But with women, especially women who I am attracted to, and most especially women with whom I would like to attempt a romantic relationship, I return to the way that I perceived myself as a high school kid. I’m the “but” guy, the guy who is socially awkward, the guy who can’t really express himself and doesn’t know how to go about talking to girls. I become the guy at the party who hangs back and mixes drinks and stands in a corner and drinks himself into a stupor while the other guys start talking to the girls and dancing and taking them out “to get some air.” And in that moment I am thrust further back in time, to when I was a scrawny little kid with glasses who was always last picked at kickball or basketball or baseball, the kid who warmed the bench during P.E., the kid who still played with toys and believed in Santa Claus when his classmates were getting braces and learning how to make out.
Just recently I was introduced to someone who I had known online for a while. I had no problems with online interaction, but in person everything changed. She was talking to me and I wasn’t hearing anything. In my head there was just this kind of low buzzing and this repeated thought: “What is this beautiful woman doing talking to me? Why is she talking to me? Why would she talk to me?” While the normal dude would take the opportunity to talk her up, I wound up like an old computer whose OS had suddenly hung, overloaded and unable to process the information that it was being presented (incredibly beautiful woman talking to Carljoe Javier/error/error/error cannot compute>system failure) and my mental processes were stuck in that feedback loop until she had left.
If there were some way to override my programming, to develop a subroutine that would redirect any attempts to access that part of my brain that brings me back to that, that part of my brain that pulls me back into the past and turns me back into that awkward, socially inept awkward kid, then I might probably do better. To be honest, I have found something of a workaround, alcohol. But then alcohol drives me to the other extreme, turning me into a sputtering, oversharing mess.
But really, I think it’s a matter of perception, and this inability to escape how I perceived myself in high school. It’s an insistence on returning to these past personas, past ways of thinking and behaving, which have all but ensured that I will never progress beyond what I see myself as.
I suppose that as with my many other self-improvement projects, this will necessitate a good deal of work, especially as it involves almost wholly reworking the way that I have viewed myself since I was in high school, which is now over a decade. To attempt to break one’s more than ten year old perception of something is an incredibly large task, but I do believe that if I am to progress beyond whatever errors and issues and mistakes I have made, it will be essential for me to come to an understanding of who I really am, and not merely who I perceive myself to be.


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