I was more than thrilled. His name was Eric and he was blond with deep blue eyes, not to mention extremely tall—around 6’3”. It was a Friday night, and my close friend, Lia, and I were at the Kollege Klub, a bar close to the University on N. Lake Street in Madison, WI, hanging out with some other sorority sisters. Lia and I were, in a word, dorks. We met at the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority house during my sophomore year. While everyone else’s favorite drink was either pop (soda to everyone except people from the Midwest) or beer, we had a deep love and appreciation for cold milk. In fact, we met in the Kappa kitchen. The first time I saw what would turn out to be my life-long friend, she was slurping her milk from a glass at a table from across the room as I was similarly slurping mine.
Despite our aversion to alcohol, we still chose to hang out at the bars because they were a huge part of the undergrad social scene. “Meg, don’t look now but that tall guy is looking at you. He seems interested.” Knowing that my closest pal was around 5’10” herself, I knew she thought he was tall, he must’ve been towering. At that point, however, I assumed his interest was most likely curiosity about my very different-looking hands. But then I felt a slight tap on my shoulder. “Hi, I am Eric. This is my friend Matt. Mind if we sit here?” It was then I noticed that Eric was on crutches. “Here-take my chair!” I replied. Eric thanked me but refused, despite his injury. Instead, he and his friend both stood next to us and we all ended up talking for quite some time. Eric had injured his leg at a game the week before. At one point, Lia left to talk to another sorority sister, and at the same moment Eric’s friend Matt excused himself. I, admittedly, was quite smitten. Eric was on the University’s Men’s Varsity soccer team. He had the build of a star athlete, and was adorable. About ten minutes later I heard my friend beckoning. “C’mon, Meg Let’s go!” Lia began to take my hand to leave. I hesitated, unsure of her rush. “I’ll call you, Meg,” Eric shouted after us. I had already given him my number.
As we walked together up Langdon Street, Lia looked me directly in the eyes. “What a jerk!” “What do you mean?” I replied with genuine surprise. “Meg, didn’t you notice how arrogant Eric was? He couldn’t stop talking about himself.” My heart sank. Eric had already asked me out on a date, and I had accepted instantly back at the KK. When I informed Lia, her reaction was swift. “You just CANNOT go on a date with him. He is not interested in you—except maybe seeing how far he can get with you…..I just know it.” I became angry. “Why are you judging him merely based on the way he looks? Just because he is a jock and seems cocky doesn’t mean that is the whole package?” Here was my best friend in the world and she didn’t get it. Having the opportunity to go on a date with such an attractive guy was a highlight for me. Even if it turned out he was a creep, most guys that cute held no interest in dating someone like me, so physically imperfect. So I insisted on going and Lia backed down, even loaning me one of her cutest outfits for the date (after all, differences aside, we both knew I needed to look good for the date).
The next weekend, I went out with Eric. There is not much more to say except that Lia was right. He had been arrogant and creepy. My infatuation was over. When I returned to the Kappa House I expected to find Lia gloating about how right she had been. I was mistaken. I hadn’t trusted her judgment, and by the time I returned, she had enough time to stew on that point and work herself back into a fury. While her anger came from a place of love and protection, and she would soon get over it, that night was our first and only fight in 25 years of friendship. In hindsight, I should have listened to Lia.
Last month or so, I read in the New York Times (“Social Q”) section by Philip Galanes a brief story about a Caucasian woman named Elizabeth who began dating an Asian man. Being her second Asian boyfriend in a row, according to the woman, every person she has introduced him to has made a comment along the lines that she must have some sort of Asian fetish. Elizabeth posed the following question to Mr. Galanes: “I know that if I dated two white men in a row, nobody would even notice. How should I respond?” Galanes offered an initial humorous response, then an observation about the glaring interracial spotlight, but ultimately arrived at, “The heart wants what it wants…..Mercifully, within a date or three, hair and skin and eyes give way to actual people—with personalities and everything. Telling pals to buzz off will only alienate them.” And then he followed with an interesting quote from Terence, the ancient Roman playwright: “Nothing human is alien to me—neither the incidental features that first catch our eye, nor the way they reliably fade as we gain deeper sight.”
Bear with me. Lately I have longed to play my own version of Dear Abby. I have decided to also offer Elizabeth my thoughts.
I just read your question and Mr. Galanes’ reply in the Social Q’s section of the New York Times Style section. As a person born with a blatant physical difference (one finger on each hand, one toe on each foot if you are curious), I was intrigued by your concern about the unwelcome thoughts and comments of others. Although I appreciate Mr. Galanes’ statement that, “the heart wants what it wants,” our choices in love can still invite complications. The fact is, everybody has an opinion and they love to share . When you invite difference into your life – by whom you choose to love, or by any other method – you are bound to face unwelcome comments and judgments. Of course, to be fair, not every opinion ought to be disregarded. Some of those opinions will emanate from genuine unconditional love, and will have nothing to do with the way your date looks or the difference you have welcomed into your life.
To me, the answer to your question in wondering how to respond to unwelcome comments about your relationship is actually in the form of a question to you. Why do you care what anyone thinks? Using your own words, if you dated two white men in a row, no one would notice. But if you are truly willing to follow your heart, willing to pursue a relationship that invites unwelcome stares and scrutiny, then it is time to fully let go of what people think about you. Once you cross the invisible line and invite difference into your life, you must learn to disregard other people’s reactions or they will consume you.
And so, what is the best reaction to any insensitive comments about your relationship? No reaction. But not because getting angry might “alienate” your friends. It is because you simply are above it all. If you can get there–you will feel liberated. Your heart will not only know what it wants, but you will have made peace with your choice. If you don’t believe me, feel free to check in with my husband, who has loved me despite my difference, unconditionally, since the day we met, more than fifteen years ago.
This post is dedicated to my friend Lia. I cherish her (and her sister Laura) as the sisters I never had.
Lia is my rock and my go-to girl forever. Fortunately, Lia loved my husband John from the start.
This is also dedicated to Pauline Phillips (aka Abigail Van Buren, “Dear Abby”), who died on January 17, 2013 at the age of 94. For those that only knew her through her advice columns, Phillips should also be remembered for her dedication to (in her words a few years ago,) “equal rights for women, minorities, people with mental illness and those who are physically challenged.”
In a 1990 interview with CNN’s Larry King, Phillips explained the bottom line of dispensing advice:
“There is always an answer, even if it’s say, look, pal, you can’t change anybody but yourself. You got to play the cards that are dealt you and you have to live with this, do the best you can. But you got to accept what fate deals you.”