The Quotable


To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing 
but the shadows of images.
– Plato, “The Allegory of the Cave”

He lives in a psychiatric ward. At least, that’s what you think the first time you walk into Ryan’s apartment. It’s your third date after meeting online, and he has invited you over for post-dinner drinks. There’s an odd smell; it’s a more pungent version of what you’ve picked up off his clothes when he hugs you. You inhale and get a nose full of the aftermath of candles when their aroma fades and the stale stench of old cigarette smoke emerges. He had been a non-smoker for two months, but his apartment is highly nostalgic and clung to the fading carcinogens.

The rooms are contained within dingy white walls. There are no more than six pieces of furniture in the entire place. The only accessories are books, which are stacked in corners, piled onto the dining table, and bowing the wood on the shelving unit in the living room. He has lived there for three years, but you wouldn’t know it. He will tell you later that he doesn’t want to get too locked in to any place, and the best way to avoid that is to accumulate as little as possible.

You sit on the worn leather couch and sink so low your knees are chest-level. There’s no way to be comfortable and look sexy, so you choose comfort. He sits down next to you and turns on the television, a reflex that makes you roll your eyes. When the TV is there, you must obey, you think, and begin to realize why there are so many unread books piled around the room. You look over at him, and he grins at you with his lips pressed together. When he leans in to kiss you, the inane smile on his face gives you flashbacks to middle school when a boy in tapered jeans and high-top tennis shoes would sweat all morning working up the nerve to hold your hand in the lunchroom. You try not to fixate on how unsmooth the whole experience is, reminding yourself that this is a nice guy. Why not give him a break?


It takes a lot of convincing for you to try online dating sites. You expect them to be slightly more complex versions of the superficial chat rooms that peaked in popularity in the nineties among pedophiles, predators, and sex addicts. But after a year of being single, you become one of the 40 million Americans to ditch the bar scene in favor of searching for a mate while wearing pajamas in the privacy of your home. One of your friends recommends a site that has worked for him, so you set up a profile that results in your inbox filling up with requests for naked photos, inquisitions into your sexual interests (“Are you into bi guys?” a few will ask), and unimaginative invitations for threesomes and anonymous sex. You have been ushered onto the battlefield of the casual sex revolution without realizing you had enlisted.

You’re equally disgusted and impressed with their bravado, and even respond to some, leading them to think that yes, you will gladly invite them into your home for drinks to “see how it goes,” because that’s completely normal and entirely safe. You’ll indulge them for a day or so then quickly turn cold, ignoring their messages that appear on your computer screen because there’s no such thing as a pop-up blocker for communications you once accepted. After about two weeks, you decide to delete your profile. From then on you stay away from the free dating sites. You decide to never again heed the advice of a gay man who proclaims, “I am so horny!” whenever he has more than three cocktails; not when it comes to choosing the best places to look for love on the internet, at least.

You forget about online dating for a few months, distracting yourself with work, friends, booze, acquiring more cats, home renovations. Then, you try a different site, one that comes recommended from recently married, happy couples. You sign up for a one-month membership, and obsess over your profile more so than you ever did your professional resume. It takes you two days to decide which photos show what an interesting person you are—how well-traveled, how versatile, how sophisticated, how adventurous—while hiding that you’re a little bit chubby, a little bit of a workaholic, and drink just a little too much. You wish your pixie cut had grown out more, and ask yourself why you take so many pictures wearing sunglasses considering your eyes are one of your most attractive features. Your binary sense of self and the resulting uncertainty take Judith Butler’s idea of performativity and push it into the digital age. You can be anyone you want on the internet.

Finally, after a few days, you’re ready for some preliminary thoughtful conversation and anticipate the messages that will pop up in your inbox. So you wait. And you continue waiting. And wait some more. With each day that you aren’t contacted, your self-esteem swan dives. You finally decide to do a little outreach and craft witty emails responding to details you find in other profiles, such as roadrunner3304’s favorite foods or TheITguy6811’s preferred vacation spots. A few kindhearted, much-too-attractive-for-you men will politely decline the opportunity to converse. But most of your messages will be read and go unanswered.

By the time Ryan’s greeting appears in your inbox, you’re jaded by all the rejection and welcome his attention. You click on his profile and like what you read, but not necessarily what you see. His main photo is a little fuzzy. He’s sitting with his back to an aluminum shelf full of textbooks, wearing a sweater, and looking square at the camera. Something is off with his smile, though it’s not possible to see what. He only has one other picture posted, where he’s washed out by the sun and squinting, looking annoyed. You don’t consider that image, though, because squinting is not an attractive expression on anyone.

You give it a day before replying to his message. You finally decide to because he asks you questions about yourself, and you are sensitive to what it feels like to be ignored. You give him your personal email address because your thirty days are almost up, and you’re not willing to contribute another $19.95 to the $1.049 billion industry. You consider setting up a completely separate email account to keep your full name private, but you get too busy with work and soon lose interest in being anonymous and discrete.

You will exchange emails for about a week before he invites you to coffee on a Saturday afternoon. You accept his invitation, mostly because his emails are lengthy and detailed and you enjoy stories. He offers to meet up in your neighborhood, and you agree because it’s winter, and you don’t have any interest in driving twenty miles in the snow, especially not for a coffee date. A full meal? Maybe. But just coffee? Not a chance.

You arrive first, partly on purpose and partly because the weather has delayed him. You order a chai latte, slide into a booth near a window, watch the snow fall, and wait. You’re not nervous, but you are worried that you’re wasting your time because you won’t like him. You think about the messages you had sent back and forth, and it occurs to you that you agreed to meet him before even talking on the phone. This only adds to your doubt, and you decide that you will give him an hour. If, after one hour, you find that you’re not interested, you’ll tell him so, and walk out. Having a plan makes you feel a little better, and so you wait for him to arrive, patient and relaxed.

You’re paying attention to your phone and not the door when he approaches the table. You look up and he’s just staring down at you, slightly fidgety, his expression unreadable. He doesn’t offer a greeting; he just waits until you smile and invite him to join you. It isn’t until after he gets his coffee—without offering you a second one, you notice—that you have a chance to study his face. That’s when you see the scars. From the front, you can see skin between his nose and upper lip pulled tight, while the rest puffs out, reminding you of the snout on a pug puppy.

When he turns to the side, his profile morphs into a more severe deformity. His nose is flat, the rounded fleshy tip almost entirely absent. The skin above his lip pulls his nose downward, and his upper lip tight. His lower lip—which is too big for his face—juts out, making it appear as though he has an under-bite. When he’s concentrating, he has a tendency to thrust his eyebrows downward and push his lip out further. He has thinning hair and a small smile—the scars around his lips making it impossible for them to stretch when he is happy or amused. Instead he squishes his mouth together, laughs from his throat, and nods, his eyebrows bouncing up and down.

He’s ugly, you conclude. Nice eyes, yes, and he’s tall with broad shoulders, but you definitely don’t think he’s attractive. It doesn’t help when he tells you his middle name is Dick. Who does that to their child?

“It’s a family name,” he’ll explain. Words that required him to push his tongue off the roof of his mouth come out as a slur or a mumble.

Your family is cruel.

Instead of putting you off, though, he puts you at ease. He may not be attractive, but at least he has confidence, and you want to be the kind of person who doesn’t fixate on physical imperfections because you know how hurtful that can be. You sit across the table from him and talk for a few hours, finding yourself drawn to him because you share common professional ambitions and political affiliations. You’re among the 64 percent of online daters who rank common interests as a more important factor in online dating success than physical characteristics.

When it’s time to leave, you’re the one who initiates the hug good-bye, and you say, “We should meet up again sometime.”

The next night you’re sitting at your desk in your bedroom and your sister calls.

“I like him,” you say of Ryan, knowing what you’re really saying is that you want to like him. “We talked, we laughed. He’s an academic, so he understands my world, my passion for teaching.” You go on to describe the conversations you had, his reaction when you tell him you’re vegan, and yes that means you don’t even eat cheese. You ask your sister if she’s ever had a grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwich because Ryan insists it will change your life. Then you tell her about his scars and together contemplate the cause: car accident, cleft lip, some other injury or birth defect.

“So I’m worried,” you tell her.

“About what?”

Then you admit to her what you were, until that moment, afraid to admit to yourself. “I’m worried what people will think.” You feel shallow as you say it. “I wonder how my friends will react to him, how mom and dad will react to him. I’m worried they’ll wonder what I see in him or something.”

Mary Beth’s response is immediate. “If he makes you happy, who cares what people think?”

“I know that in my head,” you say. “But you know it’s not that easy.”

“Well,” she says. “If this guy is a ’10′ to you, the people in your life who care about you are going to see that. And they’ll see him as a ’10′ as well.”

You don’t expect this level of insight from her whose own history with men is even more capricious than yours. You are stunned to silence. You compare notes about your exes and agree that they’re all downright atrocious looking to you now. But when you loved them, you loved everything about them, and they appeared better looking to you, even if no one else could see it.

You decide to listen to your sister and go out with Ryan again. He surprises you by taking you to dinner, an ice sculpture festival, a comedy show, and he is always the first to pull out his wallet. He seemed so cheap and uninterested on your first date that this gesture makes you think that maybe you had misjudged him in more areas than just his appearance. Making time to spend with him is difficult considering you work two jobs, have a house, and a dog to care for, and he doesn’t work, lives in an apartment, and doesn’t have any pets. You find yourself frustrated, at times, with his requests to see you, but tell yourself that this is what it means to be in a relationship. Sometimes laundry doesn’t get done, or the dog goes unwalked, or you delay returning papers to your students by another week. To show your commitment, something in your life has to give. Doesn’t it?

The first time the two of you have sex is on a lazy Sunday afternoon. It starts as cuddling on the couch under a blanket, watching TV. Soon enough, you turn to each other, grasping at buttons and zippers, and trying to not topple onto the floor. You’re body conscious, breath conscious, vocally shy, and obsessing about the timing of it all: too soon? too fast? too much in broad daylight in the middle of the winter when your legs are so pale that oh-my-god-can-he-see-that-cellulite? loops your brain.

Then you relocate to his bedroom, clothes come off, a condom wrapper falls to the floor, and fumbling coitus takes place for three whole minutes.

Oh my god, you think, for all the lead-up, what a complete miss on the delivery. Uncomfortable and frustrated, you’re not even sure why it ended; it was so sudden and abrupt. One minute he was on top of you, a few minutes later, next to you. You’ll later realize that he stopped because he finished, and he gives no vocal indication that he’s nearing the end. You’ll only learn to eventually recognize it in his face as his skin reddens, twists, and contorts into something that’s both so hideous and hilarious that you have to look away.

“That,” he pulls you into his body and kisses your forehead, “was super awkward.”

You don’t know whether to feel relieved or offended. Instead you tilt your chin and stare at him.

“It’s never good the first time,” he says. “I’m not a serial dater, but I know that.”

You laugh, knowing he’s right. But your lack of post-coital satisfaction leaves you still feeling unconvinced about being with him. You’re afraid that you’ll wake up in three months or six months or three years or thirty years, and realize that you can’t accept him, and you have to walk away.

Regardless of your concerns, everything between the two of you is on a steady incline until that afternoon when your clothes come off. Then it’s officially the end of the relationship as you have known it. It doesn’t matter how much rolling around, hands under shirts, or lazy fumbling of belt buckles that has occurred up to that point. The closeness, the trust, the long-winded conversations, three-hour-long make out sessions, and intimacy in general gradually fall by the wayside after you two get naked. After that, your relationship becomes transactional. He always buys dinner, and all he wants from you is sex.

You don’t get a chance to meet his friends, but he meets yours. The first time a group of you go out for drinks, you notice quickly that unless he’s talking to you, he isn’t talking. Granted it’s loud in the bar, but that doesn’t prevent anyone else from yelling over the music. Not initiating conversation you can understand, but he doesn’t even react. When the rest of the table laughs, he just sits there, his disfigured expression unchanged, his eyes distant.

You’re annoyed, but you decide to ignore it, knowing that sometimes you’re a little shy around people you don’t know, and that some people are observers in groups. When you walk home that night, the two of you are caught in heavy snowfall, stomping through deep drifts that have filled the sidewalk. You shiver and complain and laugh the entire mile, snowflakes catching in your eyelashes, making your mascara run. You cling to each other and endure the snow, enjoying every minute, and quickly forgetting his lack of social participation at the bar.

It’s February. You invite Ryan to come with you to Chicago to accept an award you will receive at the end of a weekend-long conference. He joins you at the awards dinner, where you find a table together in a large banquet hall packed with more than 450 college-age men dressed in suits. After you’re presented with your award, twenty or so swarm you with congratulatory hugs, while Ryan stands off to the side or behind you, eyeing each of them suspiciously. You don’t care. You’re not there for him; you’re there for them: those young men for whom you volunteer your time to guide their personal and professional development.

Later that night, you gather in a hotel suite with others to celebrate and spend time with friends who you don’t get to see often because they live out of state. Just two hours in to the party, Ryan is pleading with you to leave. He claims he’s nervous about sharing space with so many people drinking. You encourage him to go back to the room if he doesn’t want to stay, but he insists that you go with him. It’s not jealousy talking; it’s his libido. You delay as long as possible, and finally give in because his complaining is making it difficult for you to enjoy yourself.

Just as you’re getting ready to leave, you notice Max, a young guy, maybe twenty, who you have just met that night, wander out of the bathroom and perch on the edge of the bed. He has a red cup in his hand, tipped slightly, the beer hovering at the brim. He’s struggling to keep himself upright while sitting on the corner of the mattress, his eyes narrow red slats drooping on the front of his face.  You approach him and put your palm on his shoulder to steady him, while you take away the beer with your other hand. “Max?” you say, and he looks at you without recognition, his eyes unable to focus. You bring him some water and talk to him, asking him where he’s from, what his major is, how many siblings he has. You feel a little better when he starts being responsive, but you don’t want to leave until you know for sure that he’s coherent. Ryan nudges you out the door anyway, ignoring your protests and pleas to stay.

Back in your hotel room, you raid your snack bar for carbs. You grab a bag of chips for which you will pay $5 the next morning, and head back toward the door, knowing Max needs something in his stomach besides the water bottle you left him with.

Ryan yells, “Babe, that’s not your responsibility!” just as the door is closing behind you, and you’re filled with fury at his lack of compassion. You walk Max to his room while he crunches the chips one at a time, quietly weeping that he doesn’t deserve for you to be so nice to him.

Back in your room, you crawl into bed, fuming as Ryan ignores you. You ask him how could he ever question that it was your “responsibility” to take care of someone who drank too much?

He puts his face close to yours, the blue light from the alarm clock illuminating the room just enough for you to follow his lips as he says, “You’re right. You have a big heart. And that’s why I love you.”

It’s the first time he has said it. You respond by rolling over and pulling the blankets tight around your shoulders.

The rest of the night you lie there, almost until dawn, replaying the scenes from the evening in your mind. You wanted to celebrate. He wanted to copulate. He didn’t come with you to Chicago to support you; he was there under the impression that it was some kind of romantic getaway for the two of you, with no regard for your plans for the weekend. Disappointment and regret fill the room around you as the minutes fade into hours.

He had been a different person in the beginning. Talkative. Inquisitive. Interested. Interesting. That is, until you slept with him. Then every minute spent together was a preamble to sex. You connect the moments and think of all the times he pressured you to leave events early, pass up on one more drink, skip the movie on dinner and movie nights, just to get home sooner and shag. You want to like him. But you also want a relationship that doesn’t need sex to have substance, and you can’t get that with Ryan.

So, on a Monday in late April, you go over his house after teaching, just like you had done all semester. He calls the little restaurant on the corner and orders dinner: a chicken gyro for himself and a Greek salad for you. “No feta and esthra beeths,” he says, and you cringe at his impediment.

You sit side-by-side on the couch in front of a rented movie, feeling trepidation the closer and closer it gets to bedtime. He’s going to want you to stay over, just like you had done every other Monday. You feel him looking over at you occasionally, but you don’t meet his gaze. You recoil when he shifts and moves too close to you. You look around the room; it’s exactly the same as it was the first time you saw it, and the smell hasn’t gotten any better. It feels even more confining than the first day, even though the windows are open, and there’s a light breeze circulating throughout the apartment. You feel as though every nerve in your body is bursting through your skin, and you want to scream. This place, this relationship has made you unrecognizable to yourself.

At 11:00, he turns off the TV. It’s time. You know it’s time. “I’m tired,” you say, and you shudder at the unoriginal statement women have used for decades to get out of sex. “I need a good night’s sleep. In my own bed.” You know this is the end, and maybe he knows it too, but he doesn’t try to convince you to stay. Maybe he doesn’t realize this is the last time he will see you, but you know it is. You’re a coward, and you’re going to disappear on him without any explanation or closure. You drive the thirty-five minutes home, leaving behind four DVDs on his table, shampoo in the shower, and a small chunk of dignity in his bed.



Melissa Grunow’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, 94 Creations Literary Journal, Eunoia Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, and others. She teaches English and creative writing courses at a small college in Michigan, and is writing her first book titled Epilogues: A Memoir. Visit her website:

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The Quotable 9 Night and Day