The Three-Month Curse
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I’m not in the habit of arguing with clairvoyants, but today I’m fed up.
“Don’t sugarcoat it,” I say. It’s already October 7th.
“Uranus is on top of your natal Chiron right now,” she soothes, “a powerful aspect for healing old wounds…if you’re open to radical change.”
I roll my eyes. She can’t see me over the phone. I imagine her crouched over my star chart, rings heavy on every finger. I can almost smell the mugwort.
“If things aren’t going to change, do the kind thing,” I insist, exposing my throat chakra to her ceremonial dagger. “Euthanize my hope.”
“Darkest before the dawn,” she croons. “Someone is coming before the new year!”
I scoff. Of course someone is coming. That’s how the curse works.
I’m thirty-nine years old and live alone on Venice Beach. Every October or November I meet someone. I don’t “start a new relationship” so much as launch out of Earth’s orbit, depriving my brain of oxygen as I hurtle through the firmament like Apollo on amphetamines. Obsessed, possessed, and professed, I’m incapable of thinking or talking about anything else.
The men who have appeared in October or November have all seemed perfect at first, each carved from clay by the hand of my fantasies. At a press event for one of my sports documentaries, I met the gaze of a mysterious Dutchman across the room. He’d written a book about his life as a wandering ultra-marathon runner. I imagined us crossing the Atlantic. Scaling the Alps. Writing steamy international best sellers together.
Then there was the Greek god with sexy hipster mullet who whittled wood and surfed the breaks off Ventura. In a fit of kismet-induced ecstasy, I discovered he hailed not from Mount Olympus, but rather my own earthly hometown of Syracuse. His mother had befriended mine thirty years before. She’d designed our plum and pink kitchen curtains.
Then came the Hollywood director, who shone with laughter and brought good times wherever he went. He played the guitar and premiered regularly at The Tribeca Film Festival. His close personal friend, Courtney Cox, had seen my online dating profile and insisted that he take me out. Swoon! He surprised me with sushi then took me to see Birdman, where we geeked out over spotting the invisible cuts.
Each union felt cosmically anointed. The perfect setup—by a malevolent matchmaker. Only after lifting me to the highest cliff would the curse be satisfied to push me off the edge. Or rather—make me jump. None of these men broke up with me. By the end of three months, it was so painfully obvious that each relationship was doomed; I broke up with them. My curse, cruel even by curse standards, made me do the work of breaking my own heart again and again.
I’d hoped the Dutchman’s obsession with running meant he’d understand my compulsion to finish my self-funded film at night and on weekends. But he pouted when I took work calls at 11 p.m. and threw a tantrum when I didn’t see him for three days. After he sulked through my friend’s New Year’s Eve party, I’d had it.
The Adonis surfer boy refused to talk about his erectile dysfunction. Fixing his problem consumed me. He admitted that his mother had been abusive—was that the cause? He told me that all of his previous girlfriends thought he was gay—maybe that was it? He erupted when I texted him Christmas presents ideas from Babeland. “Run,” my therapist said.
Things fell apart with the Hollywood director in my car across from the Los Angeles philharmonic, following a holiday spectacular date he’d orchestrated. Tipsy from the red wine he’d selected, I asked if I was the only person he was dating. He fumbled through an incoherent response about “the false ontology of dating” and I stopped listening. We waited two excruciating hours in an empty parking garage after our relationship died for AAA to give the car a jump. Looking back I have to admire the curse’s dark-humored panache.
Days later I became transfixed by my Google calendar. My focus went soft. A pattern emerged. How the hell had I missed this until now? (Pumpkin spice lattes brewed from The River Lethe?!) It was absurdly specific. For seven years I’d met the perfect man in fall, dated him for three months, then wailed as Fate plucked out my heart and devoured it, whole and beating. (Only to grow back and be eaten again twelve months later.) This was some Prometheus-level bullshit.
These breakups couldn’t be random. Life had to hold more meaning than that. Nihilism makes for a boring story. And the possibility that I was attracting or even engineering these disasters was too absurd to consider. No, it had to be a curse. My ego liked that story. Rather than holding me personally responsible, “the curse” cast me in the role of beleaguered hero, replacing the harsh lamp of interrogation with a soft Campbellian glow. Plus, this version of reality dangled the possibility of a cure—every curse has a cure, right?—if only I could find it.
I considered Icarus, Macbeth, Babel—even the Curse of Star Baker on The Great British Baking Show. These curses punished pride, and I was guilty of that sin. I’d bragged to my sister that I was a great first date. I could wrap any man around my finger for an evening, even (or especially) if I never wanted to see him again. Cockiness vexes a spiteful god. “Think you’re such a good date, huh? Here are a bunch of perfect dates that will blow up in your stupid mortal face.”
Or maybe I’d broken a different sacred rule? Once I’d tricked a guy out of my league into dating me for a year. I’d flown too close to the sun, figuratively and literally. I’d climbed 11,000 feet up into the Sierras trying to reunite with this mountain man and had gotten stuck in a hailstorm. Maybe that had been a clue.
My transgressions multiplied the more I considered them. I’d ghosted men I’d met online! I’d forced my sister to dump my elementary school boyfriend on the bus! I’d harbored impure thoughts about Jo from The Facts of Life! Or maybe I was being punished for a crime my ancestors committed. I simply did not know.
I remained steadfast and self-flagellating in a very New England Protestant sort of way, first deciding I could outstrip Fate and then beating myself up for the staggering, inevitable result. I scheduled dates every week (with a personal record of five dates in one day), hired a tantric coach, and attended a cuddle puddle. I took a course entitled, “Calling in ‘The One’: 7 Weeks to Attract the Love of Your Life”—twice. Years passed.
By the time I call the clairvoyant, I’m three months from my fortieth birthday. All my efforts to find love have failed. A cement heart pulls my hunching bones toward the earth. It’s over. Sure it’s sad to give up on love, but isn’t it more dignified to accept destiny instead of thrashing against it? I tried so hard, for so long, as with everything in my life. But none of us are a match for the supernatural, I tell myself, feigning humility—as if the gods are listening. Why not give up? This is a daring, shameful notion (see: New England Protestant upbringing), but total submission to the curse all at once feels easy, even peaceful. I’ve heard there’s a curious comfort to death once you’ve accepted it—nothing more can hurt you. Especially if this particular kind of death protects your precious ego and leaves you in perfect control.
“Just keep whatever dates you’ve already set up,” the clairvoyant insists.
“Fine,” I say with a grunt, annoyed that she’s ruined my plans for spiritual seppuku. I’ve agreed to meet a tall software engineer from OkCupid for coffee at 3 p.m. on Halloween. I decide to give Nick one hour of my time, then delete my online dating accounts forever.
Nick jokes at the coffee shop about a guy in latex gloves being a Dexter-style serial killer. What a weirdo! So my type. He’s a sexy nerd—vegan, outdoorsman, meditator. 6’10” to my 6’4”. He was born one day after me, has kind eyes, and quotes Hunter S. Thompson and Rumi.
That such a man—somehow even more fairytale perfect than the rest—exists is rationally impossible. That he’d magically pop up at the exact moment I’m ready to give up on love reeks of a set-up. I marvel at the curse’s wickedness to conjure such a mirage. Nick drops his spoon and says, “man down!” just like I always do. Nice try, I’m onto you. This maiden shan’t be lassoed again. I bat his arm to show the Universe I know what’s coming and he pulls my fingertips into a quick, electric squeeze. Before I can breathe he lets me go.
He sends a flirty text. So cute, this one! Ministers of Heartbreak, you have outdone yourselves! An ember flares in my chest. I can’t push the smile down. How to respond? (“I see your Doris Lessing and raise you one Nabokov!”) No—delete, delete!—I won’t respond. Snuff out the flame before it burns down the house. Or, another option still—use Nick to set the pyre? Go down the river in one last blaze of glory. Why not enjoy the final immolation of my love life? If I’m in command, I can’t get hurt.
I send a red balloon emoji back. Just one little balloon.
I figure I’ll drop off Vietnamese soup at Nick’s door and scamper away. It’s nothing more than I’d do for a sick friend, really. Yet he winds up asleep on my lap in the backyard. His breath is easy in the dappled shade. I study his profile up close, a prince inspecting her sleeping beauty. Sodden bees laze their way through a cathedral of flowers and a frog, perhaps in disguise, cools his belly in a rivulet from a leaky hose. I’m pulled into sleepiness myself.
Hold on. My mind inspects the perimeter for traps. Is his ‘meditation group’ a cult? When he listed polyamory OR monogamy on OKCupid, what did that mean exactly? Oh stop it! How ridiculous that a lovely moment on the lawn makes me slash at the air for puppet strings of cosmic fuckery.
Narrative is my superpower. I’ve always been able to surmount challenges when I can see them as speed bumps on my hero’s journey. So it occurs to me that some hungry part of me loves this curse, leans on it to support my sense of self, as if being cursed is some perverse indication of specialness: the ultimate balm for a middle child sandwiched between a genius IQ and a blonde cherub. Who am I without this story? A working girl who never got her priorities straight? A plain old thirty-nine-year-old with bad luck? A vaguely unlovable lump? Maybe there is no curse. I feel a bit seasick. I look down; my heart whirls. Nick’s eyes dart back and forth beneath closed lids. Maybe it could work out with him?
I’m in the zone. My jokes are landing. My outfits are on point. I’ve made him wait just long enough for sex. As I dance naked through my bedroom, reaching for the dress with the plunging neckline, my brain interrupts: There it is again, Pride. I wince at myself in the full-length mirror. Any second this will all smash to the ground.
I crank the music louder to push my thoughts away.
I roll over in bed, alone. My body feels light, euphoric—floating in the liminal state. Was it a good dream? Nick, Nick… I remember he exists. A colony of bees knit their honeycomb up my thighs and in between. I become so giddy, flipping over to burrow my blush into the covers, that I can’t fall back to sleep.
Nobody could live this way long-term, I realize. It has worked for me, on some level, to burn inside my lovesick fevers for three months at a time, then recede to the privacy of my castle to regenerate. What strange comfort it has been to live honeymoon-to-honeymoon, knowing there’s a ninety-day expiration date. And while it hurts when it ends—it’s not the pain of rejection exactly, because how can I suffer rejection if I’ve never fully revealed myself? I’ve never had to be vulnerable. I’m always brand new.
I decide to fight the curse. Nick is worth it. No matter what fatal flaw he might reveal, I simply won’t break up with him. I’ll hang in there. And just like that, the cosmic tables turn. What if I’m the one with the fatal flaw? What if he dumps me? I feel the pressure of investing, of opening to the uncertainty of falling for someone. I must play things perfectly for the next six weeks.
Neither of us wants to use the “L” word first. “I’ve got upward trending positive emotions,” he says. I smile and keep a hand over my mouth to prevent a slip. My palms glisten with sweat. Don’t see him too often, don’t be needy, and don’t say, “I love you” first. Be perfect.
Looking back, I marvel at my brain’s acrobatics to ignore the obvious. If anything, the performance of perfection is what cursed me to begin with. So “being perfect” to keep Nick was a preposterous strategy. But approaching the battlefield I grabbed well-worn armaments, ready to fight my spectral affliction, blind but convinced I could see.
It’s almost been three months; maybe I’m out of the woods. I feel so entranced by Nick, so lulled into comfort; my boundaries start to break down. I’ve seen him three times this week—four counting tonight. Our Sunday night ritual includes watching The Wire—debating whether Great American Television has supplanted the Great American Novel—while eating buffalo cauliflower pizza and drinking 805 beer in bed. Nobody compares Jimmy McNulty to Tom Joad like Nick.
He reaches for me and I melt into his arms in the wee morning hours. I should give myself over to this moment but my eyes flash open. Don’t fuck it up. Maybe I’ll start allowing myself to feel vulnerable on Day 91. This is not the time. I must get through this last week. Little do I know, my curse feeds on this fear, lurking in the darkness, growing stronger.
A lavender grey dawn breaks. I complete my hair and makeup in the bathroom by the time Nick rouses. Flawless. Well, almost. I ate too much pizza and pull down my shirt so he can’t see that I’ve unfastened the top button of my favorite skinny jeans.
“Want to go for a walk?” he asks. I should go straight to work but he looks like a teenager when he smiles at me like that. He hands me a mug of matcha with his signature blend of coconut oil and calcified marine algae—a little heart drawn in the foam. How can I say no? Besides, I need to walk off the brick in my stomach.
“Let’s do it!” I say. I should have gotten into my car and left.
He hands me a KIND bar from his kitchen cabinet—Sweet Cayenne BBQ, a cloying mélange of almonds, pumpkin seeds, and barbeque spice. I’m not hungry, but I start eating. Perfect girls are polite. It tastes like Care Bear jambalaya but I force it down.
We set off around Mar Vista, suburb by the sea. The new day sparkles. We stride past lush lawns and neighbors with NPR tote bags on their way to work. What a lovely life this could be, living here with him. I’m no match for his stride and hustle to keep up.
But something is off. A “rumble in the Bronx” as my little sister calls it. Gas—or maybe this what love feels like? A crow alights upon a grand eucalyptus. Aren’t crows a bad omen? The curse is making me paranoid.
It will be fine.
It will not be fine. I begin to sweat. I remove my vest in the brisk morning air. What’s happening to me?
Nick smiles. I’m pale and sweaty. We’ve only been dating eighty-three days; maybe he thinks I’m always pale and sweaty. Did he spike my matcha?
We turn left onto Clover Ave. I spy a McDonald’s a couple streets over. It looks so beautiful. I could cut through backyards, trample a small garden… but alas, there’s a fence.
I hang back a step or two from Nick and float one out. I’m grateful to be facing into the wind. For a moment all is well. But the wave mounts again. The curse is here. Just as I feared, it’s not going to reveal some intractable flaw in my guy. It is here to destroy me.
“I’m having a situation,” I blurt.
He turns and looks at me, concerned. “A what?”
“I think I need to use a bathroom.”
He laughs and points to a row of azaleas along a white picket fence. “Want to just go behind that bush over there? It’s like camping, really.”
I hold my stomach and remember our Joshua Tree weekend. I’d had no qualms about peeing in the desert. He’d been impressed with my speed. “You really are a wilderness girl!”
This is not at all like camping, really.
“It’s not pee,” I say in a quiet voice.
“Oh,” he says.
The cement mixer in my stomach tumbles buffalo cauliflower, cayenne syrup, and calcified marine algae into an unholy stew. I’ve never felt like this before.
“Melissa, it will be fine.”
“It was that fucking bar!” I shout at him. His eyes are as wide as vegan pizzas. I start muttering, “Please dear Jesus, please dear sweet baby Jesus,” on a manic loop.
A sweet-faced grandmother power-walks past us. “Good morning!” she twinkles. I moan like a wounded animal.
“Do you want me to get your car?”
I can see his front porch down the street, caught in a beam of divine light. Hope floods my heart. Maybe I can make it in time! An angelic chorus beckons. But suddenly, the angels stop and the clouds darken. Sweat trickles down my cheek. My skinny jeans are sausage casings, three sizes too small.
I look up at him—his harvest gold beard and luscious locks, incandescent in the sun. His blue-green eyes sparkle like Caribbean waters. He is magnificent. Alas! Our love is fated, doomed—the curse is too strong. I am Mount Vesuvius, terrible and quaking with every slow-motion step, ready to blow. He will ride off into the sunset and I’ll be left here shitting my pants.
I sit down on the sidewalk. Resistance is futile. Ring the bells in Pompeii.
“You’re going to make it.”
“I’M NOT GOING TO MAKE IT!”
This is how it ends. Me, dead in a pile of my own feces in front of a house with a doormat that reads “Yay You’re Here!”
“I’m here with you,” Nick says. This must be how he speaks to the animals at the shelter where he volunteers—right before they put in the needle.
“This is happening,” I say as I erupt.
“Like . . . now?”
I put my hand over my face and nod.
It’s over. The world goes dark. I am dead.
Unfortunately, I’m not dead. I’m still very much in my body. My favorite skinny jeans fight valiantly, holding up the last vestiges of my dignity.
I waddle behind Nick the final two blocks in a storm of shame, certain that every passing car is screaming with laughter. I use his bathroom to hose myself down and borrow a pair of sweatpants.
As I leave, I turn to him like a Victorian viscountess and whisper, “Let us never speak of this again.” It’s moot because he will be (ahem) dumping me. He’s just too classy to do it right now.
“FUCK!” I scream as I drive away, fists pummeling the steering wheel, tears blinding me. How could I have let this happen? How did I let my guard down? I’d played it so well; I’d been so close. I scream again at the red light.
I meet Nick at a restaurant on Friday night. I bring his sweatpants. We eat pappardelle. His voice becomes shaky, nervous—I’ve never seen him like this before.
Our plates are cleared. My throat closes.
This is it. Take it like a woman.
“I know these words aren’t a magic spell,” he says. So what if he dumps me. Maybe he has a criminal record. Maybe “Nick” isn’t even his real name.
“But Melissa Rachel Johnson . . . I love you.”
My epiglottis flips.
“I love all of you,” he says. “Even the parts you don’t like. Even the parts I don’t like.”
I stare at him, frozen as Medusa looking in a mirror, unable to process the statement.
But all at once my body takes over, hot blood rushing, reanimating my cold brain as I cover his face with kisses. “I love you too,” I say. The curse shrieks a pitiful wail, then drags itself back to its hollow.
To the Dutchman: You were right; I hid in my work. To the surfer: I liked fixing your problems so I could ignore mine. To the Hollywood director: You were a commitment-phobe, but I bolted at the first opportunity.
I’d kept myself safe and apart—mistrustful of love and believing in a self-fulfilling prophecy for so long. The curse was real. I had cursed myself.
Sunday morning. Nick and I enter the Mystic Journey Bookstore in Venice. They’re having a sale on crystals. I pick out a smokey quartz obelisk, good for dispelling nightmares and manifesting dreams, and head to the cashier with it.
“Would you like a reading today?” she asks, green eyes flashing. I am the easiest target.
Nick smiles; of course we have time. (It’s a setup. Out of all the clairvoyants in the shop, Nick has hand-picked this woman for me.)
I follow her to a tiny room with a wooden table where she flips colorful cards, one at a time, and tells me to confer with my angels. And to stop criticizing myself so much.
“What are your questions?”
I consider the uncertainties in my life and the questions come easily. I ask about my creative projects, my career goals. Which film to focus on? What should I write next?
“The one about intuition,” she says.
Nick meets me in the sunlight. “Walk or drive?” he asks. He knows I will choose “walk.” I think I have free will but it’s predetermined. His plan hinges upon it. We reach the end of the block and he bends down to tie his shoe. Something feels off. My stomach tightens. I glimpse my brother-in-law behind a palm tree. My sister holds a camera to her eye but I don’t see her yet.
Nick’s shoe is not untied. He pulls a small box from his sock and opens it. My body, at once aware of the conspiracy, fireworks into his arms.
Later he turns to me with an eager grin. “So, did the fortune teller give you a heads up?”
“No,” I say, delirious and loud, finally understanding the extent of Nick’s machinations. For the first time ever I hadn’t requested a sneak peek on my love life.
We will elope on Venice Beach. Everyone will call it a “blessing” and it is. Yet I’ve come to resist the trappings that blessings share with curses. Both suggest a story that happens to you, rather than one you must actively write.
I have a co-author now, which is always humbling. But he quotes Hunter S. Thompson and Rumi. What a weirdo! So my type.