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Mock Intimacy in a Fake House
By Chelsey Drysdale


The 28-year-old surfaced after I’d abandoned the idea of love. I was the queen of involvement with kings of mixed messages, and my tendency for caregiving kept my focus off nurturing myself. My attraction to emotionally unavailable men was written in my genetic code, it seemed.

The first time we had sex, we were semi-clothed, unprotected, and in an open garage concealed by temporary plywood walls. He was constructing an annual haunted house around his mom’s home. He laid me down on the garage floor among dirt, nails, headless dolls, and a chipped gold chandelier that would be part of a low-lit, spooky scene.

Afterward, he didn’t call, and the pointless pining commenced.

*

At 37, I feared my age and not finding reciprocated love. Yet, I was frightened of the love I desired. I’ve often traced my dating behavior to the post-college fear of rejection that resulted from the first time a marriage-averse lover ground my heart into a fine powder, but it started earlier. My first boyfriend brought a bouquet of red roses to school when I turned 18. He was delighted to show off his budding devotion. I was embarrassed. I shoved the flowers into my locker and left them to wilt. Even then I had trouble accepting gifts. Even then I didn’t think I deserved them. 

*

On Halloween I visited the haunted house to try to prolong a fleeting dalliance. It worked. So began our protracted off-and-on love affair that devoured one of my last baby-making years. We paid for dinners separately, compromised on film choices, and watched his Lakers on TV. I tagged behind him as he scurried to the front row of concerts. In the interim, I wondered if I’d hear from him. When I’d start to release my grip, he’d text me a zing of false hope. 

We continued to have tentative sex on a twin mattress in the haunted house in his mom’s driveway because we both lived with our parents again and had nowhere else to go. The intimacy was as temporary as the makeshift structure around us, but one-sided physical attachment usurped logic. It was as close to a real relationship as I’d gotten in two-and-a-half years. 

On giddy days, I felt like his girlfriend. On frustrating ones, I felt like an acquaintance with meager benefits. Some days he kissed me like he was hungry, and we shared past stories and current feelings. Other days he barely accepted my pecks before pulling away to his smartphone. I wanted to throw it against a wall.

Deep down I knew this wasn’t love because love is easier. 

“There are still things you don’t know,” he said. And, “I’m in no place to be anyone’s boyfriend right now.” And, “Don’t like me.” But he wouldn’t elaborate until, after a year, I finally got it out of him. He was ambivalent about all women. Despite my anger and humiliation, his state of flux wasn’t our definitive problem. It wasn’t his fault he strung me along. It was my fault I let him.

*

I’ve been single for more than a decade. I still want affection, but I no longer know how to date. So, instead of making poor decisions, I make no decisions. Unrequited lust in the haunted house wasn’t healthy, but neither is crying into my wine over memoirs at the dinner table. 

I wish I’d paraded youthful flowers across campus when I had the chance.

Dismantling a lifelong outlook and attracting a man who’s all-in is a monumental task. Inaccessible individuals aren’t always outwardly recognizable, but my heart has radar for them because they’re like me. I’m unavailable. 

Long ago, I built a fortress around my threadbare soul, only to experience pain each time I lowered the drawbridge or rescued someone swimming toward me across the moat. The agony of loss, however, isn’t as unbearable as the sorrow of what will never be. Because of my ingrained anxiety and propensity toward a certain demographic, I lost out on motherhood. I mucked about until it was too late. 

Joy is an elusive emotion wed to hope, both of which flicker as memories. I was ill-prepared for all-consuming middle-aged loneliness. When does sadness stop being an emotion and become who you are? When life’s plans didn’t pan out, where does a woman go from here? Does she begin anew because she is free?
Chelsey Drysdale's essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Manifest-Station, Bustle, Brevity, Ravishly, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Luna Luna Magazine, Reservoir Journal, Book Lovers: Sexy Stories from Under the Covers, and other international publications. She is a Best of the Net Anthology nominee and has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize.