it's complicated

I Wanted to Feel Athletic and Hot, So I Dated an Awful Jock

Illustration: J. V. Aranda

Alone in my living room, I Google my ex and pull up his wedding website. I haven’t spoken to Jason in six years, but this site — his engagement photos, the Crate and Barrel registry, the video of the ceremony itself — still hold a strange power over me. I’m entranced by the sense of boring, conventional purity they embody: In the wedding video, my ex is big and muscular, and his new wife is petite with long, beach-wavy hair. Both are impeccably groomed as if carved out of soap. In another shot, the bride’s princess-cut-diamond ring glimmers from inside a dewy rose.

The Jason I see on his wedding site is both familiar and totally alien to me. When I knew him, he was often sloppy drunk, out partying with his college athlete friends, who were young, white, tall, wealthy, and entitled. Even on Jason’s last beer of the night, slurring his words, his preppy athleticism allowed him to maintain a façade of good health and wholesomeness. Watching the wedding video, I’m reminded of that illusion of propriety, the one that drew me to him in the first place.

The first time I saw Jason, he was standing by the keg in a frat basement, looking like a hot teen-movie villain in his Abercrombie polo. His arms were toned from mandatory team workouts. I made all the first moves: I asked him to pour me a beer and to dance. The only thing we ever had in common was a lack of rhythm, so we awkwardly bobbed up and down, his crotch pressed up against my back. “I’m here on a sports scholarship,” he said from behind me. I felt popular and athletic by extension.

Jason’s most vanilla qualities quickly became novelties for me to fetishize. I liked the idea that I could be blandly, conventionally hot enough to attract someone like him. I had grown up in Manhattan in an insular Jewish community and attended a yeshiva, where intellectualism was prized and sports were unimportant. I was artsy, a little nerdy, and totally uncoordinated. Whenever anyone threw something to me, I’d wince and duck.

In the frat basement, surrounded by boys, I saw an opportunity to escape my own awkwardness. When men were interested in me, I felt confident, more embodied, and like I might fool someone into believing I could catch a ball.
“You look like you might play a sport,” Jason said as he leaned over me. It was the best compliment I had ever received. “I like sports,” I remember telling him. I don’t think this comment registered for him as weird.

Jason and I started dating over the summer. He invited me to visit him at his parents’ house by the Jersey Shore, where we spent days on the beach getting tan and drunk on Southern Comfort and lime. He took me to a mediocre restaurant for dinner, where I nervously picked at a Caesar salad; he removed the lettuce from his burger and inhaled it. Later, we kissed for hours in his parents’ finished basement.

After years of covering my body to adhere to my high school’s religious dress code, sex was a shock; a revelation of physicality. I can still recall the sensual details of that weekend: the sugary acidity of Rose’s Lime, the smell of detergent on Jason’s polo shirt, his scruff against my upper lip, sand collecting in the crevices of the couch. I also remember that across from each other at the restaurant, Jason was silent and stoic. This was part of his appeal, but it was also a sign that we just didn’t have that much to talk about. “What do we have in common?,” he once asked during one of the many breakups that followed, “aside from sex.” Still, I couldn’t shake his hold on me.

After college, I moved back home to Manhattan, and Jason moved to New Jersey. In those years, he struggled with the transition from team captain to ordinary citizen. He was bored at his entry-level marketing job and stopped working out. “Sometimes I feel depressed,” he once admitted in a rare, vulnerable moment. Perhaps this was when he first started to lose his hold on me. Beneath the virile exterior, I saw that he was sad and fragile.

Although we weren’t officially together — and he sometimes had a girlfriend — I never failed to reply to his 1 a.m. text messages. Saturday nights, I would take the PATH train and meet him at the bar on his corner. He would be roaring drunk, dead-eyed, his breath sour with stale beer. He’d drape his heavy arm across my shoulders and I’d slouch uncomfortably under his weight. But I stayed in that position because it approximated the behavior of a real, functioning couple. His attention remained my measure of legitimacy and self-worth.

Jason’s girlfriend eventually broke up with him, and I suggested that we go away together to revive our relationship. We booked a room at an Atlantic City hotel for a Tuesday night in February. I packed high heels and a short, tight American Apparel dress with mesh sleeves. But when we arrived at the casino, I saw women in sweatpants drinking Gatorade, hunched over the slot machines. The air was stale and smoky. Jason, dressed in an oxford shirt and khakis, trudged along beside me in his usual moody silence.

We got dinner at P.F. Chang’s, where he ordered sesame chicken, hold the broccoli. I realized that his lack of sophistication was no longer charming but depressing. Since college, he had started to look not only thinner but paler and slightly anemic from long New York winters. We ate in silence and I downed a syrupy Singapore sling. “Let’s go back to the room,” Jason said. But even sex failed to alleviate the suffocating sense of inertia. The next morning, we waded in the hotel’s indoor pool where the gray winter light shone too brightly on the yellowed walls. Jason held me in the water, fingers slipping up my bikini bottoms. “At least I still have you,” he said, leaning in to kiss me. I instinctively swerved my head away. “What did you just do?,” he demanded, wounded and furious. I had never before refused to give him what he wanted. Soon after, I stopped responding to his texts.

I no longer desire the conventional life Jason represented for me. But sometimes I think back tenderly on the way he looked with his boyish head turned away from me, light brown hair cut neatly and squared at the nape of his neck. In the wedding video, I pause on the image of Jason’s back as his bride taps him on the shoulder for their “first look.” The camera lingers on the couple as they tilt toward each other in chaste suspension. Watching it repulses me — partly because I find their generic display of commitment so distasteful, but mostly because of my own voyeurism. I’ve watched the video so many times that I’ve started to see Jason everywhere.

Every time I see a white man in a suit on the subway, I think it might be Jason. Thank God it never is. There are so many men who look like him. Each one reminds me of that dark period in my life when I was so eager to please them. Jason’s stock-image quality once made him irresistible to me. Now I realize the ubiquity of men like him is what makes them so impossible to escape.

I Wanted to Feel Athletic and Hot, So I Dated an Awful Jock