Life as a Loser
Exhuming McCarthy
By Will Leitch
Mar 22, 2004

The Life as a Loser series will end at No. 200, on March 29, 2004. There is now one left.

We should have stayed 15 forever. If we had stayed 15 forever, everything that happened to us would be this wonderful new experience that we appreciate unconditionally, this thing that we can't believe is happening to us. We would have no history, no cynicism, no reason to doubt. We would take everything at face value, and it would all be beautiful.

I used to make out with my pillow when I was 15. It was not a sexual thing, or at least not that I remember. I would just lie alone in bed, late at night, and hold my pillow and kiss it and tell it how important it was to me. My fantasy at 15, when it was late and it was just me was not of fame and fortune, was not of large-chested women covered in oil, was not even of playing catcher for the Cardinals. My fantasy was having a woman I could hold and tell her how much I loved her.

That's what I did to my pillow. I would caress its imaginary hair, and rub its imaginary back, and whisper into its imaginary ear. I would kiss its imaginary lips, tenderly, no tongue, just soft light touches, my mouth moving so slightly, like I'd seen people do on the television. Sometimes I would pull my pillow on top of me, and it would nuzzle its imaginary head into my shoulder, purring, content. My pillow was so happy to be with me. I was my pillow's world, and I never disappointed. I even let the pillow sleep on the same side of the bed every night; I knew it didn't like to be pressed up against the wall.

I think I told my pillow I loved it every night for a year. And I did love that pillow. I really did.

***

A friend of mine from back home is always telling me how she can't find any men. She'll call, and after a few minutes of cursory narrative about the mundane matters of the day, she'll launch right into it, which is the only reason she called in the first place. She went on a date with this guy, or this one, or this one, but they all have something wrong with them. It's never anything all that serious; someday she'll surely tell me the guy she went out with last night was just outed as a serial killer, but it hasn't happened yet. They just have those little human flaws that we compile as the years mount. One's too bald, one's too unambitious, one's too married. One guy said he was going to the bathroom and just never came back.

In high school, this woman was a firecracker, and a knockout. But, since she had such a variety of choices on the menu, she kept holding out until the perfect guy came around. And, well, he just never did. She is now noticing wrinkles formulating a triangulated crossfire on her face, and her ass, she's constantly reminding me, is beginning to expand in a way that, all told, reminds her of her mother.

She has regrets, but not really. This guy that she left a few years ago, he was all right, she might have been happy with him, but she wasn't ready to settle then, and if you're not ready, you're not ready. No reason to force it, right? And now here we are.

And now she's terribly unhappy. She wears it in her eyes, in her clothes, in her walk. She has the look of someone who just missed a free throw that cost her team the championship. She knows that I know it. She knows that everybody knows it. I don't think she cares, either.

***

A guy I know had a nasty breakup about three years ago. He loved this woman, with abandon, was loyal and true, and one day, she had sex with another guy and told him about it. From what I understand, he was calm. He just said OK, it's over, you've made your choice. And then he made his: I will not play this game again.

Since then, he has slept with just about every woman in the tri-county area. He's diligent and disciplined about it; I'm told he even makes up Excel spreadsheets to schedule his trysts without conflict from any corner. He makes no movements whatsoever toward a relationship with any of them. If they imply that they want their current involvement to evolve toward some sort of longer-term commitment, he coolly drops them without a second thought. And he then just finds another one.

This is what he does. He makes no apologies for it. He's a jerk to a lot of these women, obviously, but at a certain point, you almost have to respect him. He has a plan. He is not flailing around, hoping to stumble across something lasting. He just wants to have sex with a number of different women whenever he feels like it.

I can't imagine living my life like that. But that might be a failing of myself rather than one of him. Because it's not like I've been successful in planning out long-term relationships either. I have no plan. I'm just drunk in the dark basement, hands out in front of me, feeling around for anything I can find, tripping over stuff, knocking over valuables. I could have someone next to me, with a flashlight, making sure I don't kick the dog, but I choose not to. I could choose to avoid the basement all together, but I don't do that either. I just bump into the walls and leave everybody just as lost and blind as I am.

This guy is just avoiding the basement all together. I might question his methods, but I understand where he's coming from.

***

People often ask me how I could be so foolish as to get engaged at the age of 20. My response is simple: Only then was I so devil-may-care about the whole thing. I was in love, she was in love, of course we were gonna get married. Isn't that why any of us are doing this anyway?

Years have passed now, and I don't feel that way anymore. How could I? I have scars now. Everything is in the gray area now; every decision must take into an infinite amount of variables.

Isn't it amazing relationships happen at all, considering what must go into each of them? You have to find two people who, first off, have to be physically attracted to each other. Then you have to hope they're in the same mindset in regards to the value of relationships. Then you have to have them interact with each other on a day-to-day basis in ways that don't make them want to kill each other. Then you have to make sure their real-world goals intersect in a way that won't make one partner more dominant or more satisfied than the other one. Then you have to hope that past experiences haven't made either partner slow to trust anyone, or at least too slow for the other person to put up with it. Then you have to be certain that both partners actually want to take the step of devoting their life to the other person, usually at the exact same time. And you have to make sure that both people consider themselves equals, lest the insecurity virus infest the whole thing.

Oh, and then you have to make sure that all these factors stay locked in place for about 40 years.

Whenever I've had problems in relationships before, people often tell me, "Well, if you're having this many problems, you're probably better off just ending it. When the right person comes along, all that other stuff won't matter." This theory seems like horseshit to me. The right person, if this person exists, won't make all my fears and worries and doubts and guilts and everything else go away. If I were to meet a person who enraptured me so completely that I no longer thought about all my reservations and peculiarities ... wouldn't I want to run away from that person, and fast? I am me, after all, and if someone is theoretically so wonderful and incredible that I throw all everything out the window just because they are so wonderful and incredible, aren't I doing both of us a huge disservice? Because I'm not always going to find them so wonderful and incredible, at least not at such a high level of intensity. And what happens then? Because I'm still me. I can push that aside for a while, in the name of love, but eventually, we cannot hide from who we are.

When I was 20, I had little idea who I was. At 28, I'm all too familiar.

***

When I was 15, all I needed was that pillow. That pillow had no history, and neither did I. That pillow was whatever I wanted it to be. It could handle that. It was very easy for a pillow to simply be what I wanted. People are not so flexible. And neither am I.

Yet there we are, still down in the basement, wreaking havoc, searching desperately for a light switch.

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