Over Easy

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“In winter, when the fields are white, I sing this song for your delight-

“In spring, when woods are getting green, I’ll try and tell you what I mean:

“In summer, when the days are long, Perhaps you’ll understand the song;

“In autumn, when the leaves are brown, Take pen and ink, and write it down.”

-Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty

On the other side of the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty is a hyper-literal prissy pants; having a conversation with him could justifiably be classified as torture, and if I were Alice I probably would have pushed him off that wall myself. Still, his understanding of linguistic nuance is admirable.

Different words have different definitions because they mean different things, and those differences matter. “When I use a word,” he tells Alice, “it means what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” Dumpty may also be completely nuts and kind of a snot about it, but that doesn’t make him wrong.

“Nice is different than good.”

                                                                        -Stephen Sondheim’s Little Red Riding Hood

Also a pretty big brat, Red is the poster child for blissful ignorance before she heads Into the Woods and has wisdom (pelvic) thrust upon her. She starts out so inexperienced and self-absorbed that she can’t tell the difference between her granny and a wolf in a bonnet, survives a major trauma, then comes out the other side knowing things, many valuable things, that she hadn’t known before.

Her biggest lesson? Just because someone is friendly, cool, (super well endowed), and a source of exciting new adventures, he isn’t necessarily good for her. If a girl’s not careful, she can end up swallowed whole.

“You know me – I like things to be easy.”

                                                                        -My Ex-Boyfriend

I should know better than to open up old wounds, but Cancer 2 has always been impossible to resist. It would not surprise me at all to learn that my genetic code is programmed to bond with his chemical signature. And there he was: seven years older than when he broke my heart, not an inch less charming or attractive. The bastard.

Time does not heal all, but it soothes things enough to allow conversation. We joked like old times, discussed life choices – mine to keep after the improbable dream, his to return to science and help the world – and apologized for past behavior. Inevitably, we compared relationship statuses – mine a freshly broken heart, his a recent engagement. The frakking bastard.

It is no fun to learn that someone so great, who was simply too young when we met, is older and wiser and bestowing his gifts on someone else. I cursed fate, and circumstance, and myself, and of course him. Then I did something totally crazy – I actually listened.

There was a theme running through our conversation: a big easy.

We hadn’t spoken in seven years because he didn’t like to deal with having hurt me. He left the industry for science because he didn’t see himself pushing through the decade of humiliation and struggle it takes to break in. His current relationship was so good in part because it was so easy.

“As much as I liked you,” he said at one point,” I don’t think our relationship was right for me.” Finally, I understood the song. He prefers the path of least resistance; he likes pleasantville; he wants things to be easy.

I want things to be great.

Neither choice is better than the other, but they are definitely two different things. Greatness is rarely easy, and ease is rarely exceptional. No matter how awesome we consider each other, or how strong our chemical attraction may be, he has no need for ‘extraordinary’ in his life, and I have never been interested in ‘easy’.

No quantity of king’s horses or men could make us fit together, now or back then.

As Red would say, isn’t it nice to know a lot? (And a little bit not.)

Manic Pixie Dream Hurl

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When Cancer 3 broke up with me, we were in the final stages of planning his belated birthday celebration – a weekend away at a lake-side cabin with a half-dozen of his closest friends. In the same breath, he told me that he didn’t feel like being in a relationship anymore but he hoped I would still come on the birthday trip; it was going to be so much fun! Was he serious? Of course he was; who else was going to make his birthday cake?

Four years earlier, my relationship with Cancer 2 came to an abrupt end when, as I helped him pack for Coachella, he noted how great it was we had started out as friends – because when our relationship ended we’d be able to go right back. Almost a year in, he honestly thought that a breakup would change nothing about our dynamic except the sex. (And who are we kidding? At 23 he probably thought occasional sex would still be an option too.)

I could chalk those two experiences up to random chance or an astrological streak of stupidity, but my rebound after Cancer 3 – not born in July – also ended things by swearing my value to him and proclaiming his desire to keep me around. Which – benefit of the doubt – he might have followed through on had I not called him a lying asshole. (In my defense, he totally was one.)

Two instances might be coincidence, but three is a trend. FOUR is a frakking Code Red.

This month, as I face yet another Eggplant who wants to have his Kate and eat others too, I have to admit that this has become a serious problem. In my head, I hear the voices of every grandmother in history chiding that “no man will buy the cow if he can get the milk for free,” and I am starting to think they have a point. Not the point they meant, of course – you should absolutely test drive a car before committing to it – but in the sense that it seems every man I find desirable wants to guzzle the precious leche of my love and attention at no cost.

Over palliative mimosas this weekend, my wise friend sunk the nail with a single swing of the hammer: “You are their Manic Pixie Dream Girl. That’s the problem.”

My inner feminist immediately reared up, wanting to shriek, “Inconceivable!” After all, the MPDG is a construct of male writers that serves as a prop in the self-actualization of their deeply soulful (read: mopey and infantile) autobiographical protagonists. Surely I, a real-life writer of the female variety, would never allow myself to become the creation of some guy!

Sure, Brain. You keep telling yourself that.

There are many characteristics of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl – she is usually attractive, and quirky, and highly spirited – but the key trait (the thing that makes her awful) is that she has absolutely no needs, issues, or even goals that are independent of her main man. This is in no way actually true of me, of course, but it consistently seems true to the men in my life.

It starts with an at-least-partially immature man. Peter Pans are pretty common these days, especially in creative professions, and I have a penchant for them to boot. Combine this with my improviser’s philosophy of trying to live in the moment, and the result is an infinity mirror of reflected nonchalance. He exhibits early concerns about things getting “too serious”; I validate with no expectations beyond the enjoyable Now (and the assumption that eventually love will render us naturally committed); time fills my heart with memories of happy moments and teaches his to stop worrying about my hopes or desires.

In the middle, it is entirely my fault. While I should not try to be less intelligent, or vibrant, or attractive (do I smell humble pie in here?), I do need to quash my over-achiever’s drive to aim for perfection. I often hide or apologize for moments of emotional weakness, because I am afraid that he will be annoyed and leave – instead of trusting that if a few bad moments make him go I don’t want him around to begin with. I invest so much energy into getting to know his life better that I forget to notice if (or demand that) he also shows interest in return. To be a legitimately low-maintenance person is fine, but being no-maintenance drives a girl straight into Manic Pixie Fantasy Hell.

By the end, it’s no wonder it doesn’t occur to them I won’t want to be their friend. I have asked for minimal emotional investment on their part, so they cannot understand how great mine has become. They haven’t had to think about my feelings in ages, so they cannot comprehend that it might feel bad to be around them. All they see is me being stubborn – removing myself from their lives as a punishment. Why can’t I just keep thinking that they are awesome, like I always have, and watch them be awesome around other, newer, more exciting women?

The myth of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is that after she does her job of helping the main character self-actualize, her purpose is served and she leaves his life (or his romantic life) with no consequences. At least, no consequences for him. In fantasy land, there are no hurt feelings because she doesn’t have any feelings to begin with. In real life, hanging out with someone who used to love you back feels worse than food poisoning.

(Okay, very little feels worse than food poisoning. But it is close.)

Love is a Cancer

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The three most significant relationships in my life thus far all involved men with birthdays in early July. Now, I’m not one to buy into the idea of astrological fatalism, but my horoscope says my energetic Scorpio mind is drawn to research, so I had no choice but to investigate.

Cancer #1 arrived in my life when we were both 18. We met in Washington D.C. as part of a national program celebrating nerdy teenagers, and despite having nothing in common other than over-achievement and home states that started with “New” (Hampshire for me, Mexico for him), we immediately determined that we were soul mates. Apparently, this was inevitable, since Cancers and Scorpios are both emotional water signs, and our positioning 120 degrees apart from each other on the Zodiac wheel makes us ideally compatible. Sharing an element (water, air, fire…) but not a sign gives two people enough similarities for deep understanding but sufficient differences to keep it interesting, which increases the chance for a strong bond and – hello – unlimited passion and compassion. How could Cancer #1 and I not have fallen for each other instantly? I blame my mother, for not forcing me out of the womb on my original due date (which would have made me a Libra).

When we met, my astrological Mr. Right and I were about to embark on the college adventure, so we were destined to be apart for at least the next four years. This made our short week together that much more intense; it was just like Romeo and Juliet, only without the warring families or any of the dying. As it turned out, we would remain in separate schools, states, or countries for the next seven years, but through it all we remained devoted pen pals and idealized romantic fantasies for each other. Had I known then that the powerful initial attraction between our sun signs also brings great emotional pain at separation, would I have thought twice about the romantic fantasy? Probably not, because teenagers are stupid no matter their birth dates. In our first seven years, he and I spent a grand total of 14 days together over four visits, and his immense pain at our separations must be the reason he, with religious devotion, began a relationship with someone else immediately after each one. Twice with someone else named Kate.

Finally, at the age of 25, both of our life paths led us (for different reasons) to Los Angeles. Two star-sign-crossed lovers coming together at last.  I raced to his new apartment, reveling in the idea of us actually sharing the same longitude and latitude, and he joyously introduced me to the woman who is now his wife.

The basic personality profile of the male Cancer states that they are highly emotional creatures who protect themselves with an outer image of care-free confidence. It’s why their symbol is the crab – all soft and squishy inside, with a hard candy shell. Scorpios are interested in all things deep and mysterious, which makes us not only obsessively attracted to masked personalities like Cancers, but also good at puzzles. Clearly, I had some work to do in solving human puzzles, as I had managed to miss every red flag in my first Cancer relationship. My favorite is this: during our last romantic tryst – a five-day adventure in London a few months before we both moved to LA – he repeatedly played the song “Brick” by Ben Folds Five. I love Ben Folds (not a Cancer), but if a guy thinks of that song as the theme to your relationship, it is not going to end well.

Cancer #2 and I were doomed from the start, really. He was seven years my junior, just a year out of college, but I didn’t care because he had all of those wonderful Cancer qualities: quiet self confidence, a sharp intellect, a strong sense of humor, and the classic easy-going personality. In other words, he was The Dude. Astrology posits that when Cancers become successful, it is almost entirely due to a natural charm rather than any particular skill or work ethic. My Cancers were all smart, but Cancer #1 was a proudly apathetic genius who majored in four subjects over ten years and only dated girls who made the first move, while Cancer #2 described our ideal relationship as one where I would be around whenever he wanted but didn’t require any effort on his part to plan ahead or even think about me the rest of the time. His commitment to detachment was aspirational.

As it turns out, dreaming big is a quality shared by both Cancers and Scorpios, but Cancer #2 was way better at it than I was. I am an optimist who goes all in when in love, and I have faith in the power of that love to overcome many relationship obstacles, like an age gap, or religious differences, or chest hair. But this guy put me to shame; his idea of love was beyond utopian. About a year in, it came out in conversation that I was, in fact, in love with him – a surprising moment, but not unexpected. We’d both said “I love you” very quickly, actually, as we’d been good friends for a year before dating, so I figured we’d probably been in love for a while and this was just the first time it was getting articulated. Apparently not. Exactly 24 hours later, he informed me that he’d thought about it, and he figured he must not be in love with me. Why? Because, “Sometimes, you annoy me.” For Cancer #2, being in love meant never having to say, “You bug me.” I imagine he is off somewhere still searching for his impossibly friction-less someone, and I wish him the best of luck.

We Scorpios tend to be melodramatic, and true to form I remained single for four years after Cancer #2. According to my research, one of the reasons Cancer-Scorpio relationships are so successful (clearly) is because “the Cancer man will allow the Scorpio woman to care and trust others again.” Sure enough, it was Cancer #3 who got me over the relationship hump at the end of those four years. The third time appeared to be the charm, as this Cancer possessed to the greatest degree yet my favorite of the Cancer character traits: “a streaking sophistication”. I have no idea what that is actually supposed to mean, but to me it beautifully captures the dichotomy of Cancer #3 emulating the rat pack and old-school British movie stars while also storing his underwear in random piles on his bedroom floor. At age 40.

Cancer men tend to seek out a stable emotional home base (i.e. this sucker) to use as an anchor for their wandering spirits. Cancer #3 was a quintessential explorer, trying on new hobbies, seeking out quirky corners of the city, and traveling around the world for fun and adventure; I loved it. He was the perfect complement to my dark-dwelling scorpion soul. We were the definitive Cancer/Scorpio match made in heaven – for about six months. The dark side to the adventurous Cancer is that he is often too restless to create a permanent home, and unwilling to compromise. Combine this with the Cancer’s desire to avoid confrontation at all costs, and our relationship soon became a game of passive-aggressive cat and obsequious mouse. One night, I suggested we watch a movie that I had recently seen and knew he would find hilarious. Instead of simply saying he wasn’t in the mood, this grown man spent the next fifteen minutes suggesting every movie he owned in his library until I finally gave in and picked one. Soon, every aspect of our relationship operated this way, including his ultimate decision to behave increasingly aloof until I finally threw in the towel – break up by technical knockout.

Has my exploration of the zodiac taught me anything? Yes. For one, astrology is bullshit. For every instance of my Cancers being emotional, easy-going, imaginative, and sensitive, I can cite just as many times when they were cold-hearted, stubborn, devoid of any sense of wonder, and even cruel. In all my research, the description of Cancer that comes closest to capturing the magic of our relationships is the one I found in the dictionary: “something malignant that spreads destructively.”

But that in itself is enlightening. Much like in fighting a real cancer, I came out alive by cutting the negative out of my life, stripping down most of my defenses, and rebuilding myself from the bottom up. And I have come out wiser for it. My Cancers taught me that you will have more success if you are sometimes willing to make the first move; that people who are in their twenties will think like people in their twenties, no matter how mature they may seem; and that sometimes people in their forties also think and act like people in their twenties. Most of all, my three bouts with Cancer have taught me that, no matter how much you believe in the perfect pairing of zodiac signs, Patty Smyth and Don Henley were still right: sometimes, love just ain’t enough. Which is why I have started researching love potions.