We went for a drink in Brooklyn. Then we stopped for a late-night breakfast bagel on the way to the train. We took in a stomach-churning action movie in Manhattan. We dragged our date out across the boroughs, delaying our inevitable parting and the inevitable question: Would I go in for a hug or a good-night kiss? I imagined so many scenarios, from snuggling up and leaning over the movie theater armrest to brushing aside her hair under the romantic lighting of a street lamp.
Here’s what really happened: We stepped out into the night, and I promptly vomited on the sidewalk.
I never got that kiss, or heard from her again. I told myself that the combination of beer, bacon and the big screen made me sick. I tried not to think about it too much.
And then it happened again. I was out with a different woman in a hip underground Mexican restaurant. We were drinking margaritas, eating guacamole and talking about our favorite boy band. Then suddenly I ran to the bathroom. I knelt down over the toilet, threw up and thanked myself for having the good sense to do it in private this time.
Sitting on that cold, tiled floor, I remembered a short story a friend wrote in college about a man who keeps dreaming about slicing open the sole of his girlfriend’s foot. It has one of my favorite lines about vomiting: “Over the toilet, he throws up, and hopes that whatever’s wrong with him will come with it, will come into the light.”
My anxiety is such a sneaky feeling that it’s rare I get to see it out in the light. In times of stress, it usually starts off innocently. My thoughts race while trying to predict what’s about to happen. A kiss? An invitation to a fourth date? A rejection? I was a literature major, raised by a librarian and a classics professor. Telling stories and guessing how they will end is the only way I know.
But too often, I get caught in a rut carved out by the worst-case scenario: She’s going to reject me. Reject me. Reject me.
When I throw up, my anxiety is made tangible. My body calls my mind back to the present, where I must face the discomfort of being on a date.
My mother teased me gently about how nervous I get. I had called her from the bench outside my favorite cafe on a sunny Saturday shortly after that second incident. “Dating is supposed to be fun,” she said. Her words made me imagine the dates I’ve seen on TV: free drinks, making out with strangers in bars, laughing about it afterward over Cosmos with your friends.
But my friends and I tend to take the analytical thinking that brought us success at school and in our careers and apply it to dating. We download apps. We line up dates. We act like there’s a formula we can crack. If we line up X number of dates per week, by Y month one of them must pan out, right?
When it doesn’t work out, we wonder what we did wrong: Did I text back too soon? Was I too needy? Was I too much? We take pictures of our texts to get a second opinion. There’s little talk about what we’re looking for in a partner, or the ways someone might have fallen short of our expectations. This makes dating feel like a performance, an audition, a race, with a relationship viewed as the ultimate achievement.
I thought that if I told my friends about my stomach’s reaction to dating — if I listed all my anxieties out loud — I could start loosening up and stop vomiting. I could start having fun.
I was ready to test my theory when Mariel came along. We had first met in college, when she was dating a good friend of mine. And then one day, out of the blue, she reached out to tell me that she was living in New York, and did I want to get dinner and catch up? That first dinner was so easy. It was a freezing cold night; we sat together in an empty, overpriced restaurant talking so much we barely touched our food. I left wondering whether it had been a date, but finding comfort because I felt certain I would hear from her again.
Inevitably, there were dates. I know they were dates because we called them that — and because I started throwing up.
The beginning of our relationship can be mapped out by the bathrooms I puked in. The public toilets in Chelsea Market. My step-grandmother’s recently renovated bathroom on the Upper West Side. Another Mexican restaurant. Mariel’s apartment. She was sitting on the side of the tub, worried it was her perfume that made me sick.
I had so many questions that I couldn’t speak out loud: Is she seeing other people? Will she invite me back to her apartment? How are we going to tell her ex-girlfriend that there’s something between us? Is it serious enough for us to tell her? Is it presumptuous of me to think it is?
I was too scared to ask because I could imagine only the worst-case scenario: rejection. I could fill a library with all the worst-case scenarios I’ve told myself about what might happen next: She’ll break up with me in this restaurant. This is my last ride in her elevator.
I say these terrible things to myself, and then, of course, I feel terrible. It’s like candy. If I tell myself one terrible story, it feels good. I’m in control of the situation and can prepare myself for the worst. An emotional go-bag. But then they pile up and crowd me in, and the only thing to do is let them back out. So I get sick.
I tell myself gloomy stories while Mariel tells herself happy ones. Sometimes the stories are about us. She dreams up dates for us, vacations to Miami, a future. We walk through the city at night, hand in hand, and she pulls me over to a window to look at real estate listings. We could probably afford to live there next year. She texts me in the middle of the day: What do you think of Crown Heights?
Not all of the stories pan out. (We never did make it to Miami. Not yet at least.) But if we’re telling ourselves stories, why not make them happy ones?
Nearly a year in, I still get anxious. But I don’t throw up anymore. Sometimes I feel a burn at the top of my stomach where it meets my esophagus, and I say, “I think I’m going to puke,” just to drive off the possibility. Sometimes I need to ask for help with driving off the possibilities. I ask Mariel for very specific reassurances when we fight. Do you still love me? Do you still want to date me? Are you still my girlfriend?
When she answers, I can dismiss the stories buzzing around my head. She gives reassurances freely, daily, without being asked. She does it more than anyone I’ve ever met. I wake up in the morning and she says: I love waking up next to you. Or: You look so regal. Or: I love dating you.
I’m still training my brain to tell happy stories, but I’m an expert at talking back to the gloomy ones: This story isn’t over yet. I’m not writing it alone. I never was.