The Artful Dodger

Act I: The Initiation

I’m four Old-Fashions deep after a happy hour celebrating my last day of employment in NYC, sporting a fashionable blazer with adorable J. Crew suede loafers…and I’m sprinting down the street like a maniac. It’s nearly 10:00 PM, chilly October air whips my face as I manage to juggle all my belongings accumulated over four years at a desk. It’s only been four months since I was violently mugged on this street, and I find the daily terror lessens if I make a mad dash down the half-block from the bus stop to my front door. As I rapidly approach my apartment, I see three men sitting on my stoop. I relax slightly as I see Billy, my landlord’s 20-year-old son, is one of them and blurt out to the strangers in my tipsy excitement:

“Hi! Pay no attention to me! I got choked on this street a few months ago and now I prefer to run. How’s it going?”

Bourbon makes me so charming.

I attempt to catch my breath as I notice two distinct British accents. I learn Billy’s friends live just outside London and are here on holiday. They’re both handsome, as far as I can tell from the flickering porch light in the dark. One has a strong athletic build and a friendly smile; the other is lean and tall. I assume they are Billy’s age, and pay little attention beyond small talk. I tell them how much I love London and that I hope to go back one day. The tall one tells me to look them up if I’m ever back across the pond. It seems a bit too familiar considering we just met, but I’m never one to turn away international contacts. I say my goodbyes and bounce upstairs to sleep off the bourbon.

The next day, I go downstairs to borrow packaging tape from my landlord, Meredith. She tells me her houseguests mentioned our run-in the previous night and that I somehow managed to come off cute and charming. I told her that was sweet and asked how old they were and how they knew Billy.

“Oh, they aren’t Billy’s friends. One of them used to coach our youngest son’s soccer team. They got a terrible Airbnb deal and needed a place to crash. They’re 33 actually, and really great guys.” Soccer coach. I thought he looked athletic. I am intrigued.

“You mean to tell me you’ve been harboring smart, handsome thirty-something Englishmen down here all week and it didn’t occur to you to introduce me?”

She gave me their names and insisted in a strong maternal way that I look them up on Facebook. Over the course of the past year, Meredith had become a surrogate mother to me checking in on me frequently after the aforementioned mugging. I realize in this moment, I’ll miss her a lot when I move. She insists me they would be glad to hear from me.  The tall one, Thomas, lists himself as “In A Relationship” with an adorable blonde, so I sent David, the soccer player, a friendly message. By morning, both of them had accepted my Internet friendship.  With only one night remaining in NYC, I stop by to return the packaging tape and fill Meredith in on my moving details. I’m standing in the hallway, clad in sweatpants, my hair sloppily tossed in a ponytail and nary an ounce of makeup on my face, as Thomas comes up from the basement.

“Who’s that pretty girl?”

Puzzled by who he was talking to, I give him an awkward side hug and continue my conversation. Meredith invites me to join them for lunch, and I seat myself next to Thomas as David also joins us in the dining room.  I try to get a conversation going with David, but he appears to be too hung-over for chit-chat. Thomas starts asking questions about me and seems genuinely interested in my new career path, and laughs at my sarcastic remarks.

It’s amazing how quickly you start to notice someone when they start to notice you.

In addition to his charming accent, Thomas became increasingly more handsome and interesting. He told me about his job in some sort of risk assessment role in construction, and I gathered he was quite intelligent.  His deep-set eyes were wide and engaged, his hair neatly groomed with tiny patches of grey around his temples. After a late night exploring Manhattan, a five o’clock shadow had formed around his sharp facial features.

“Have you enjoyed your trip here so far?”
“Definitely. We managed to find ourselves in the tail end of the Halloween parade last night.”

He showed me pictures of himself dressed in a skin-tight Spiderman suit.

“Where did you keep your wallet?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” he cheekily replied.

“I would actually.” I really did wonder.

“Backpack.”
“Last I checked, Spiderman doesn’t wear a backpack.”

“So are you ready to move tomorrow and say goodbye to NYC?” he asks

“Yeah, it’s been a fun week. Everyone wants to buy you expensive cocktails when you move away. I should have announced my move years ago just for the free drinks.”
“Well, I don’t know what you have planned for your last night in town, but can I buy you an expensive cocktail?”

“Don’t worry, I like cheap ones too.”

I invited him and David to join my friends in the Village for dinner and drinks to send me off. While I was hoping to see them, I was distracted by saying goodbye to dear friends and preparing to move to Denver. I put them out of my mind and headed into the city from Brooklyn. Halfway through dinner, Thomas texts me to let me know they have decided to stay in Brooklyn for the evening, but he wishes me well. The next day, he messages me on Facebook to let me know he was really sorry he couldn’t make it out and that he hopes I have a safe flight. It is then I notice his relationship status had just changed to single. After touching down in Denver, I send him a picture of the Rocky Mountains. He responds in kind that he is preparing to fly back home the next day, and reminds me again to call upon him should I ever find myself back in the UK. I smile to myself, thinking that I had just crossed paths with an interesting person that I very likely would never hear from again, and I was content with that. Sometimes even the briefest encounters with strangers can be enriching.

            Act II: The Escalation

A few days later, my phone pings. It’s a message from Thomas. He sends me a picture of his neighborhood as he walks to work. I am excited to hear from him, and not knowing anyone in my new town, I welcome the human interaction. We chat about our week. I tell him about my posh temporary corporate apartment and how majestic the mountains look from my window. Small talk turns gradually into an almost daily occurrence, and I start to wonder if there is possibly any attraction involved in this connection, or if it’s just another friendly pen pal I have managed to pick up. So far it all reads very platonic, and I don’t detect much flirtation, but I’m undoubtedly curious. He starts every message with “Hey you” and ends every message with a single “X.” I google to find out if an “X” is a casual sign-off in the UK or if it indicates anything romantic (Does an X mean a hug or a kiss, I neurotically obsess to myself). Results are inconclusive. Because of our sprawling time zones, the only times I find myself talking with him are just before I close my eyes and fall asleep and immediately upon waking, usually one’s most private daily moments. This comes up suddenly in conversation one day. On a cold winter night for me and a chilly morning for him, he writes:

“Hey you. I write from my hot bed again. So when do you move to your permanent place. X”

“Glad we have isolated our correspondence to our bedrooms. I write from my warm bed as well”

I insert a winky face because I’m feeling saucy.

“I think it is the best place to chat!!! So tell me about the new place and its bedroom areas for chatting?” He winks back.

Flirting. In my limited experience, I can at least tell this is most definitely flirting. I am a big proponent of the “fake it ‘til you make it” approach to life, so I do my best to keep up with him, but flirting is most definitely not in my wheelhouse. Sometimes this is painfully apparent:

“The movers lost my bed,” I tell him as I get settled into my new place.

“It’s 21:40 and I’m in bed. And my bed is so big and cosy,” he responds.
In this moment, I sincerely believe he is merely gloating about the fact he is currently in possession of a bed and I am not.

“That is so mean,” I say.

“But……just find my bed.”

Gulp. The things that manage to go over my head sometimes amaze me.

It’s been a couple of weeks now, so I ask him if he’d be interested in taking the conversation to the land of Skype so we could chat face to face. He rarely uses Skype, but makes a point to say that he is ready to change that for me. We make plans to talk the next weekend. He messages me towards the end of the weekend to say that he was too busy to sync up, but that next week would be better. He flakes a few more times before I finally get the impression he is losing any interest he might have had.

I head to Las Vegas for my first sales meeting in my new job. It’s overwhelming and I don’t really know anyone yet. Thomas’s messages keep me company, and I decide to ignore his video chatting evasion. After a few exhausting days of presentations and work sanctioned gambling, I’m sitting in the Las Vegas Airport suffering through flight delays with a few of my new coworkers. My phone lights up. It’s after 8:00 PM in Vegas and I deduce it is a very late evening for Thomas. He tells me of his night out with friends in Norwich where he lives. I sigh and think about how much I loved the UK when I went over there last summer.

“You’d love Norwich so much. Come visit soon. XX”

“Maybe one day. I see I go two XX’s on that one.”
“Hey you, well you can XXX if you want…or maybe XXXX”

I freeze. I am unaccustomed to such blatant innuendo. I send a coy winky face because I am clearly out of my depth here. Also, it’s late and I’m calculating the odds that he will even remember this conversation in his next morning’s hangover.

“Goodnight and have a safe flight.”

He sends me a picture of Norwich and I sigh, wishing my plane was heading there instead of back to Denver. Just as I’m about to put my phone away and board the plane, he sends me a photo of himself, shirtless posing in front of a gym mirror, his abs and chest are perfectly sculpted. I had no idea that was hiding under the collared shirts and blazers.

I drop my phone as I panic to close the app before my coworkers glimpse the shirtless man on my phone or my face turning five shades of red. In most cases, late night shirtless photos would repulse me because they are usually coming from sleazy online strangers, but in this case I am both amused and very much attracted. I rarely hang out with men who have six-packs. Unfortunately, I must board my plane and have to cut the conversation short. Before I go he brings up our missed connections:

“Hey, have a good flight. We need to get this Skype thing going when you get back.”

In the instances I think he is slipping away, he comes back with enough to continue to stir the pot. I think of him the entire way home. I can’t wait to chat, to hear his accent, and see if sparks fly in a realm as close to “in person” as we can possibly get living so far apart.

He cancels again. And a few more times after. If I hadn’t met him in person once, I would swear I was being Catfished and that he actually was a 65-year old woman living a fake online life somewhere in Oklahoma. He comes up with an excuse every time, and I am puzzled as to why he is simultaneously avoiding Skype and engaging in playful banter almost every day.

At this point, most of my friends have heard about him because I often crowd-source my flirtatious responses to Thomas. I’m not beyond asking for help in such matters. I’m out celebrating my birthday with a good friend of mine, Erin, that I grew up with who happens to also live in Denver now. As we are sipping beers, I see the familiar notification that I have a new message:
“You need to be here now xx”

“I must practice patience. Mountains today. London eventually.”

“You have a way with words.”

“It’s part of my charm.”
“So it appears. Get on that flight to the UK. Wish you were here right now. I’d show you a great birthday. XX”

“I wish I could take you up on that. Rain check?”

“Tell me about it. Cute and sexy…you and me!”

I smile and Erin notices my distraction.

“I hate these time zones, gorgeous. Right now, I’m drunk and laying butt naked on the sofa. What a thought, eh? X”

I show her the messages and ask for a clever retort. I want to play ball, but I also sense I am two clicks away from a dick-pic ending this entire flirtationship. I quickly click on the giant thumbs up graphic that Facebook has enabled on their messaging, for situations like this I presume. When I confess my response, Erin laughs and then immediately scolds me:

“Stephanie. You are a grown woman. Today, you are thirty. When a man is interested in you this way, you cannot simply respond with a digital thumbs up!”

She’s absolutely right. I have never experienced mutual sexual attraction like this. My pattern has always been to chase the uninterested. For those of you unfamiliar, I got a very late start romantically. After a shy nerdy adolescence, I spent my college years in a religious cult that prohibited any normal dating behavior (a story for another day). It wasn’t until my late 20’s that I joined the dating pool, and even still it has been a very slow process for me. I usually connect with men on a more cerebral field, which I find very attractive, but often does little in the ways of turning on a man. This is not to say that Thomas isn’t a smart man, but for once, that is not the basis of the interaction. This is new. I am exhilarated. And completely terrified. I make up an excuse to end the conversation before he says something he’ll be embarrassed about the next day, and compartmentalize my feelings on this for a later day.

Act III: The Resolution

Every day, I find myself more and more fond of Thomas, but I do my best to keep a cool, casual demeanor (which is easier to do in print). I can tell he’s only interested in fun, flirtatious banter, and the moment I begin to inject anything more serious into the interaction, I am met with a cold shoulder. This troubles me at first, but then I realize that I too am enjoying the fun nature of our exchange. Maybe this is all it is ever going to be.

I’m in the process of planning a trip to visit friends in Munich in the spring, and I mention the thought that I was considering adding a few days in London when I come. He tells me that this is fantastic news and that he’d love if it I add him to my list of people to see when I go. Suddenly, this becomes very real to me. He can avoid Skype, but what will happen when we are once again in the same room together. Unfortunately for me, it is about this time that Thomas’s messages grow more infrequent. I try not to be bothered as he has told me that he is in the process of selling his house and starting a new career. The sudden removal of his affections though starts to drive me a little crazy. I start to overthink the whole situation. Every fear of rejection I carry around with me comes bubbling to the surface in the most unpleasant way. I convince myself that I did something to turn him away or that he has met someone who actually lives in his time zone. I don’t say any of these things to him, but I start to feel the correspondence become drastically imbalanced. I try my best to wait for any replies before sending him any messages, but sometimes my excitement over sharing things with him get the best of me. I usually prefer to think of things like this as a tennis match: you lob a ball over and then wait for the volley to start. You don’t just keep lobbing balls over the net unflinchingly. That’s not how the game works. I feel a few unreturned serves and grow disheartened.

Instead of daily messages now, they are consistently rolling in on a weekly basis. The salaciousness of the exchange has died down. He continues to ask about how my life is going, but there is even more distance between us than the Atlantic Ocean. I finally ask him why he is avoiding talking to me, especially over Skype, and he apologizes. He tells me that he’s a bit “useless” at the moment but that he’d sort it out ASAP. I have no objective reason to not believe him with only the words on the screen to guide me. Any other speculation as to his silence would not benefit me emotionally.

“You got any more selfies for me?” he asks.

“You got any for me?” I respond trying to keep things equal.

“Always.”

“Go on. In the area of narcissistic selfies, you are lagging behind, Mister.”

“I’m at work now, but I will send one later tonight.”

I send him my latest photo and wait. A week goes by before I hear from him again.

“Hey you. Crazy town here. Sorry I haven’t messaged. How are you? XX”

I catch him up on the week and tell him that I booked my plane ticket to London. Two weeks go by before he responds. I know that I shouldn’t engage any more, that this is drifting away and I need to let it go, but the fact that I don’t understand the cause for the shift plays with my thoughts. Finally, too curious to function, I ask:
“ Can I ask you if there was something I did to offend you? I was really enjoying talking to you and I just want to make sure everything is ok in your neck of the woods.”

I am hoping at this moment to get some answer, some nice closure as to what changed his mind. A new girl, a lack of interest in me, something solid so I could alleviate the wonder. Instead I get this:

“Hey so sorry. Just my world is very hectic right now with this new job. I’m sitting in Heathrow airport about to head to Dubai for work. Let’s catch up soon.”

So he really is sticking to the “I’m just busy” story? I tell him that I am trying to secure tickets to a football match in London when I’m over there. He graciously offers to keep me company, and I allow myself to hope there was a chance we would get our spark back. He sends me scenic pictures from Dubai, and seems to be messaging a little more frequently. Maybe his schedule is relaxing a little. I take a few days off because of my own work trip, and when I return I mention how soon it will be that I’ll be over there, and that I hope all is well in his world.

“Hey, sorry. I’ve been super busy. So how’s work? Mine’s crazy. Also, I’m off to Brazil in April with a new female friend of mine!”

A needle scratches over a record and I can hardly believe I’m reading the message correctly. In true overanalyzing form, I am not only disappointed in this news, I am upset at his delivery and that damned exclamation point at the end drives me over the edge. Was there not a better way to tell me this? If he is already planning trips with this new friend, perhaps he could have told me sooner?

I take a couple of days to process the entire situation. My initial instinct is to simply wish I had never met him. It seemed like such a wasted endeavor, and I don’t really understand why he kept the conversation going so long after he was interested. I felt used and rejected, and I would much rather feel none of those things. I have learned over the past year or so that when unpleasant emotions erupt, it is better to acknowledge them, explore them, and understand them. A lifetime of burying my emotions and getting heartbroken has left me bewildered, and I find lately that embracing one’s true emotions can only bring about healing and growth. It took me 30 years to learn this, and it will probably take me thirty more to master it. But then I star to think how some of these feelings are feelings that have haunted me for a long time. How perhaps, I am less upset about losing this particular individual as I am about losing the affection and positive attention he had been giving me, like someone had taken a drug from me and I needed it back immediately to function. Maybe in the end, I was using him in much the same way I was accusing him of using me. He had tapped into a more visceral, wild side of me that would never have emerged had we not met, and for that I should be grateful. He had added an aspect of a relationship into the fold that I had no clue I deeply desired. These are all valuable lessons to learn about myself, and bring with me as I move forward regardless of how little our words might have meant to him or his intentions of keeping me on the hook. This is not a story about a lost love–truth be told, I hardly know Thomas, but instead, this is just another chapter in my attempt to understand Pandora’s box of complex human emotions….that and when not to utilize a digital thumbs-up in romance.

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