The reason I started dating “Carmen” was because she wanted to be featured on this blog. For better or for worse, for the last year most of my dating exploits have ended up on here. Several of my friends joke about this, Carmen knew this, and on an unusually warm evening in mid-winter on a Richmond rooftop, Carmen told me, “I want you to write about me. I want my name to be Carmen.”
The first time I heard about Carmen, my friend texted me I had to meet her new friend, I would love her. I didn’t know if she meant platonically or romantically, but I was interested either way. When we finally did meet, I felt immediately attracted, but Carmen was also so not my type. Physically, she was—tall, athletic blonde with Cate Blanchett’s profile. Yet, her resume read in stark contrast to mine: Mississippi transplant, sorority princess, Homes & Garden cover girl fresh out of a two-year engagement with another one right before that, all before the age of 30.
I asked her to dinner. We drifted from a museum happy hour to the intended dinner and then back to her car five hours later. I discovered small details that grounded her: she enjoyed solo travel; she had been president of her sorority, not just in it; she ran an online business; she thrifted for both her clothes and her furniture; and she recognized that pink as her favorite color was basic. I asked if she wanted a pink diamond for her wedding. I don’t remember what she said.
For our ambiguous second date, she asked me to be her date to a friend’s party. I thought she was involved with a friend of ours, but she seemed to have called that off, and this was confirmed when we locked lips at the friend’s party.
The next two weeks were a movie montage. Paint night, donut shops, cocktail bars, and lunchtime catchups. We even spent Valentine’s together. I cooked her steak and bought her a sunflower because I was too cheap to ever consider a bundle of roses.
Looming over all of this was an inevitable terminus: I moved away in six weeks. This fact shaded almost the entirety of my last year in Richmond, relationship-wise. By the time I met Carmen, I had come to terms with my reality and even solidified some details like departure date, destination, and salary. In fact, the day I signed for my new apartment was the afternoon I met Carmen. From our first date to my last night in Richmond, at least as a resident, my going away drifted in and out of the conversation. I myself, with friends and with lovers, could never decide how to handle my imminent leaving when asked how I felt. I varied between flippant disregard and restrained cynicism, and overall hesitated to externalize my many overwhelming anxieties and projections that I still have never released to anyone except through vague Instagram captions (and in drunk ramblings on my roommate’s bedroom floor). I contributed one too many flings’ failures to my exit and to my approach to the problem (and if it was problem), so I decided to just not address the situation, or when I did address the situation, I employed enough superficiality so that no one could hang a hat on my words without some fear it might blow off. Thankfully, Carmen (or anyone for that matter) never called me on my BS.
Some people say that they are good in long distance relationships. I am never sure if this is a boast or, rather, a whispered hope. No one seeks a long distance relationship. Intimacy is not about distance. If you want distance, then you don’t want a relationship. You want an out. You want that breeze that could blow off your hat.
I needed to leave Richmond for many reasons. The reasons became much more personal as the deadline approached. I seemed to manifest many foils that would keep me entrenched in a city I had called home for five years and swore I would always leave, but that seemed to foster greater reluctance to leave than I expected as the date neared. I recognized this confusion in myself, and it fueled my reticence to speak at large and at ease about what I really wanted when it came time to get in my car and drive up I-95. I wondered very privately if Carmen was my last attempt at an anchor to keep me in Richmond in some way.
Dating in your late twenties is a bizarre setting. Even when we don’t speak it aloud, we know the end of the road, or at least this highway, is near. We are searching for our ultimate partners even if we’re just having fun (and saying that’s all we want). Otherwise, we will be on this road for a longer time, alone. Carmen always recognized this and understood the gravity more than I did. She had come close to marriage twice if not more. I was the pure innocent.
Due to a previous breakup, I made a conscious decision not to pause my life just because I was moving away. I should not put dating, romance, or any type of relationship on hold just because my geography would change. I should enjoy opportunities. While I was adamant about that, I was less clear about end goals. Did I want a long distance relationship? Did I want a relationship at all?
When with Carmen, in conversations at candlelit restaurants or on her sofa with her pets between us (including a one-eyed cat she rescued years before), I felt into her. On our second date, I remember gazing across the table and thinking I could see myself with her in the long term. I could see her meeting my mom. I saw her choosing our bathroom towels (because that’s something she enjoyed, and maybe they wouldn’t be pink). I saw us traveling together. I have felt much deeper for certain other people in my life and never considered these scenarios because they were impractical scenarios. With Carmen, these things felt compatible.
However, in the in-between’s and with passing time, I questioned how much I liked Carmen and how much I just liked the idea of her. I wondered if I wanted an anchor or wanted to think I wanted an anchor or if I just wanted to spite an ex or if I just wanted a f***ing distraction because I had a lot I did not want to think about before I left town. These disquiets started as whispers and blossomed when Carmen began to fertilize them.
Flashback to the rooftop when Carmen courted my interest and said she wanted to be on this blog. That night, we also discussed dating. I had a date later in the evening, publicly acknowledged, whom I had met via Bumble. Carmen, fiancée extraordinaire, claimed to have never touched a dating app other than arguably being the laughing accomplice swiping on her own friends’ phones probably at a bachelorette weekend. As somewhat an expert in the realm, I advised which apps were better and how to engage a suitor.
The day after our dinner date, but before we ever kissed, she appeared on my Bumble. Both of us: guilty? I swiped. She already had. I was her first match. It would have been a cute romance story. “Bumble started it, but they already knew each other,” the gossips at the wedding would say. Imagine the toasts.
She already had a date via the app by the time we went on our first “official” date. I found myself giving advice. “Don’t have too much fun,” I half-joked.
“After I ended things with my ex,” Carmen told me, “I promised myself I would date.” As a serial monogamist, she wanted to break her bad habit and not fall into the nearest male suitor’s arms and wedding band.
“And you’re moving,” she reminded me. “Plus, you’re dating other people.”
Carmen kept me informed of three other men revolving around her: a long-distance, 36-year-old lawyer; a divorced mountain biker who invited her to the dog park for their second date; and an awful brunch date that ended on date one. “But I’ve only kissed you,” she seemed to add as comfort. I’m not sure if I believed her.
On our sixth date, I told her I had stopped seeing other people. She countered: “Are you not dating other people because of me or because you’re moving?”
I have never been able to juggle multiple infatuations. In the past when confronted with more than one crush, I always chose one. Even more promising for Carmen, she had no direct competitor in my life. I liked her and wanted to date her.
However, when Carmen pressed me (“You’re not talking to anyone else?”), I admitted I had some chapters to close. Compared to Carmen’s excruciating transparency, I felt mummer on my questionable loose ends. I maintained a friendship with an ex that bordered on emotional sabotage, and I also hung out with a friend that I met on a dating app, but nothing ever happened, and I wasn’t holding out for anything to happen. “Nothing has happened,” I emphasized to both friends and Carmen who all responded with raised eyebrows. “I just happen to have keys to her apartment and she makes me dinner because I walk her dog,” I did not add.
I have never dated anyone else who has been so open about being so single. Yes, I have dated multiple people for one or two dates, but is that even dating multiple people? I don’t think it is. And make no mistake, I do not think Carmen misled me; in fact, her honesty implies the opposite. However, I also never asked to compete on The Bachelorette. I suddenly felt like one of the contestants who complains about how hard it is to know the person they’re seeing is going out with someone else. Except…I didn’t feel much anguish over it.
Between keeping me abreast of my competitors and flaking on two dates, I steadily nourished suspicion of both my own emotional state and my romance with Carmen. I knew the odds disagreed with us. I was moving. She owned a home. She wanted more serious. I didn’t know what I wanted. But she had a job that was flexible, a house she wanted to flip, and an appetite for adventure that rivaled mine. She also liked pink, had a Southern accent, and wanted to go on dates with other men and tell me about them.
I attempted to address the situation when she bailed on another date because she was tired. “I want to say let’s try for next week, but I also don’t want to keep trying to hang out if you aren’t interested anymore,” I put my cards on the table one by one. “And I also don’t want you to think I’m ghosting if I do that.”
“I love hanging out with you,” she responded instantly.
“Good to know!” I tried to recover. “I know we’re both busy. I didn’t want to read between the lines.”
“My lines are 0.01 spaced.”
“But what size font?” I replied.
She did not reply.
I ended up seeing her that evening. Between make outs, she said, “I can’t believe you thought I’d ghost you.”
She brought it up several times more in the next weeks. “I can’t believe you thought...” “And you thought I’d…” Every time I’d protest, laugh, kiss her, remind her why I thought it, and she would pout and kiss me back. She narrowed her dating pool. She told me she stopped seeing the local mountain biker. She had an upcoming second date with the faraway lawyer.
“This weekend?” I said.
“I was going to stay in town to see you, but I guess not,” I teased. Was I teasing?
“Where are you going?”
“No, with Sophia.” Sophia was the friend who I met on a dating app and nothing had happened. “Sophia’s from there.”
A few days later, my friend asked me about Carmen. “I don’t know what we’re doing,” I said bluntly. “I like her, but I don’t know if she likes me. And I don’t know how much I like her. And I’m not sure how interrelated those two things are.”
“She likes you,” my friend assured me. “She asked about you actually…and Sophia. And your ex. I didn’t know what to tell her.”
“Nothing’s happening with either of them.”
I liked knowing I had made Carmen jealous. But I also felt confusion. Objectively, I know not to confuse jealousy as affection, but Carmen generally embodied apathy. She grew up as and still was the crown jewel of any party, a cultured Aphrodite, and she knew she would never have to compete for a man’s attention. To hear, though, that she cared about this man’s attention—mine? Did she actually care? Had I cracked her veneer? I often wondered what was Southern culture and what was Carmen.
I balanced certain minutiae that kept me optimistic with accumulating misgivings. Her offense that I thought she would ghost me. Her lack of initiative for our dates. Her suspicion at my romantic present. The picture she sent me of something funny at her work. The stasis of our romance. The time she watched my favorite comedy and not because I asked her. The moment she shared a childhood hobby with me and told me she had only ever shared this pastime with her childhood best friend and her ex-fiancé. The times she was too tired to see me.
Romance at its apex does not release one to mortal toils like sleep, sickness, or a need to run errands. I distrusted her excuses. Rot crept over my infatuation. I returned from Savannah and went on two dates with strangers. I hung out with my ex. I did not feel guilty.
My last night in Richmond, Carmen invited me to her house. We had dinner, I brought her another sunflower, I think we walked her dogs, and I remember we kissed goodbye. I did not think it was our actual last goodbye. Earlier in the evening, we discussed that she was seeing the lawyer again that weekend. It dawned on me then, on her thrifted, antique, faded pink sofa, that I was second choice. I had always known, but I had not slowed down to grasp it. I also did not feel disappointed.
She also asked me if I had ever been in love. I smirked. “No, I haven’t,” I said.
When I arrived back to my apartment, still not packed for my move in ten hours, I announced to my roommate, “I don’t think I like her. I’m not even upset.”
I returned to Richmond less than a week later. Carmen and I messaged in my geographic absence, but nothing of feelings and only vague plans to meet up before she left to see the lawyer again. I decided to wait for what she would do. At 11 PM, while I sat beside someone else I had begun to pursue, she asked me what I was doing. I invited her out; I knew she wouldn’t come. She asked how was it. Several vodka Diet Cokes deep, I texted back, “I miss you a lot.”
I forgot I sent my lie, each syllable typed as a taunt and a gamble, until I woke to her response, sent at 2 AM. “I miss you too.”
We were both liars.
The next day, Carmen broke up with me in an Instagram post. Besides discussing love and her lawyer suitor at our last meeting, Carmen asked me when I thought a couple should go “official” on social media. I didn’t have firm guidelines, but suggested after two or three months. She thought sooner if you were serious.
I opened my phone to a couple’s photo at a vineyard: Carmen with her new man, a sandy-haired lawyer who looked more stable than I could ever promise or want to be. Two weeks later, the photo appeared to have been deleted. Through the rumor mill, I learned that the lawyer turned out to not entirely be the sort of guy she hoped for.