Love Mishandles

A new year means one thing: that it’s not any of the old years.

A new year means one thing: that it’s not any of the old years.

By Susan Anspach  • Illustration by Matt Mignanelli

Illustration by Matt Mignanelli.


Happy New Year’s, Northern Virginia. For me, it’s a holiday awash with memories of Y2K. I was 16 that year, at a party where I declined the pretzel sticks and Solo cups of Andre for fear the world really was going to end. I remember sitting cross-legged in front of the TV, watching the ball drop, thinking how what I most wanted before I died was for the boy hosting the party to kiss me.

Actually, that had less to do with New Year’s and the fake-out end of days than it did the way I felt most of the time at 16, 17, 18, all the way on up to 25. The boys changed (so did the threats to the planet), but the big idea stayed the same. “Unlucky in love” … is the tagline of a B-grade ‘90s rom-com. What I was is “slightly overweight,” and “too lazy some mornings to wash my hair.”

From experience, I can tell you that New Year’s is more fraught with anxiety for people who are involuntarily single than Valentine’s Day, a day perfectly suited for sharing a bottle of wine with yourself and watching “The Notebook.” Valentine’s Day is private, or at least used to be private before rainforest-bouquet office deliveries became trendy. New Year’s has always been public, marked by large parties and the pressure to find yourself amidst a crowd, one in which you’ve pre-cut a deal with someone about midnight.

Part of the problem, and not just on New Year’s, was it never occurred to me I’d have a problem. I blame my aunts, in equal parts kind and dishonest: “The boys will be lined up for you around the block.” I heard that so many times growing up that a small part of me couldn’t help but think it was true. For the record: The only boy to ever come strolling up my block was Jason Woolard, for a make-out session in the woods behind my house, a “date” arranged 10 minutes in advance on AOL Instant Messenger.

The lies went on (as did the lax hair routine; hindsight really is 20-20). When a love connection didn’t pan out for me in high school, I was promised it would work out in college. In college, everyone said to wait for the years after college. After college I worked as a reporter for a small town whose dating pool presented to me the choice between a 35-year-old renting out his parents’ garage, and an English Springer Spaniel named Tex.

The brief bright spots in the midst of all this platonic gloom were camp boyfriends. Ah, camp boyfriends. Too fleeting to sour, just long enough to merit a shared song off a Savage Garden album. Also if you went to a camp with uniforms they’d never see you in your trademark floral-patched stonewashed jeans! The flipside was you never saw them in their flannel camo button-down shirt, at least not til the end-of-camp dance, the same evening their full catalogue of memorized Al Yankovic lyrics was revealed. The biggest mistake you can make with a camp boyfriend is giving them your home phone number. 

God bless the Internet, for cats riding Roombas, illegal downloads of “Breaking Bad”, and online dating. Most especially online dating. I met met my husband online in 2009. That gets us a lot of wide eyes and patronizing compliments masking surprise because today it’s more stylish to pretend not to care. But there was a time when it was commonplace to criticize meeting on the Internet. People thought it was desperate and overprescribed. That was perfect for me! I was desperate! Overprescribed? Like too much advance warning someone would be sizing me up? Yes, please—I had the greasy hair thing, remember?

It was abundantly clear I needed the Internet. Before that, not counting the special categories (Jason W., camp), there had been three boys. Not boyfriends. Just boys who hung around long enough for me to privately inflate their significance into something more than a homosexual prom date, or stubborn evangelist. I was lucky enough to have one of each.

Gay Mike was a clarinetist. That should have told me something right there. You can be a boy, play a woodwind, and not be gay. You cannot be a boy, play a woodwind, make your own reeds, and not be gay. Gay Mike took me to our senior prom. We danced to Kylie Minogue and Sugar Ray. He was polite enough not to tell me I was second-choice date, as I was later to learn, after his camp boyfriend.

Southern Dustin was the first boy I met in college. He walked me to my dorm after a shared astronomy lecture. I introduced him to my suitemate, and they dated for three weeks. After that, though, it was back to me. Southern Dustin and I sometimes bought and ate cheesy breadsticks together. He showed me a photo of his dad’s rifle collection. We fooled around once on his twin bed. His pillowcase bore the design of a Confederate flag. Southern Dustin’s roommate was gay. Southern Dustin did not know this.

Rob the Christian was a Christian named Rob. In some ways similar to Southern Dustin, he was also in college, also a lover of breadsticks. It only took me two full semesters to realize my rendezvous with RTC were restricted to his Evangelical group’s Thursday-night meetings at the campus chapel, and “accountability lunches” at the undergraduate dining hall. In fairness, I did spend a New Year’s with RTC. That is, technically we were under the same roof—at a Hilton hotel in Washington, D.C., the site of a winter-break Christian retreat (his idea). The night of the 31st, they sorted the women and men into separate ballrooms so we wouldn’t get any big ideas about “necking” or “copulating,” I guess.

Not every New Year’s was an absolute bust. In 2005 I spent the night swing dancing, and pretending to enjoy it. The year 2009, when I meet my husband, it was all heat and flurry: He rushed me home from dinner with a fever of 102. Some years I was single; other years I was single. There’s a difference: You either do or do not have a Springer Spaniel to return to at night’s end.

The irony is my husband tells me he spent some of those NYEs wishing he had someone, too. Wouldn’t it have been great, he’ll say, if we’d met 10 years earlier? Which is so sweet. And so utterly terrifying. Because here’s what I made sure my dating profile never contained: a photo of me being lurched around in a red flip skirt to the overblown brass strains of “Zoot Suit Riot.” I love the man dearly—which is why I’m glad we didn’t meet until after I learned about clarifying shampoo.

This year we stayed in, split a six-pack of beer, and made a pact to meet next year at the same time and place. I’ll bring the clean hair; he’ll chip in the promise never to rap a Coolio hip-hop parody wearing fatigues. It can only get better from there.

(January 2014)