The way I see it, Anjelica Huston saved my life.
Many years ago, I went with the great love of my life to see Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. Don was 32 years my senior and game-show-host handsome; he had been married four times and was currently living with a wealthy woman who supported him. That woman wasn’t me. He was a well-known journalist and bon vivant (okay, alcoholic). Gina Lollobrigida and Angie Dickinson—Angie!—had been among his many lovers, so clearly I was in good company. I grant you, it didn’t look good on paper. But I was 25 and an idiot. I knew it would all work out.
In Crimes and Misdemeanors, a married ophthalmologist has been having an affair for years, and his mistress, played by Huston, threatens to reveal their relationship if he doesn’t marry her. His brother convinces him that the mistress must be killed. His dilemma: a divorce, or a dead mistress? Spoiler alert: There is a gunshot. I left the movie devastated.
“Darling, it was just a movie,” he said with a laugh. And that was the last time I saw him.
“Of course, she had to die,” Don said smoothly. “There was no choice for the man. She was going to wreck his life. What else could he do?” I stared at him. “Darling, it was just a movie,” he said with a laugh. And that was the last time I saw him.
All right, no it wasn’t. Because life doesn’t work that way. But within two months I managed to leave the man I wanted most in the world. I didn’t break up over a movie, exactly. I left because the man who had me as his mistress believed a man who murdered his mistress acted rationally. Call me old-fashioned, but that was a deal-breaker.
Plastic Owl Lamps: The Canary in the Coal Mine?
Whether we acknowledge it or not, we all have deal breakers. I’m not talking about the kind of differences that make life with someone clearly incompatible: smoking, different concepts about hygiene, profound religious or political schisms. I mean the differences that may, from the outside, look like mere quirks—but turn out to be anything but. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that small discrepancies in style can indicate much larger ones in substance.
I mean the differences that may, from the outside, look like mere quirks—but turn out to be anything but.
When my husband and I were still courting, we went shopping for furniture, and I fell in love with a pair of plastic owl floor lamps. They were enormous, and hideous, and I had to have them. John, whose taste ran more to furnishings found on a Downton Abbey set, looked so sad. He could not see the fun of the owls; he just saw a grim future with a wife with no taste. It’s not that he was wrong; it’s just that he couldn’t enjoy kitsch, or the spontaneity of buying something cheap and silly that brought me joy. The owls stayed in the store. These days, my home is dark wood and oak floors and is a little foreign to me. My office — my space — is painted red and… well, would you like to see my life-sized parrot toilet paper holder?
I posted on Facebook about deal breakers, and over 100 people responded passionately. There were many sartorial wake-up calls, women who could not get past the tube socks or ugly gym bag (“it didn’t have a long strap, so he carried it like a purse”) or bow ties: “Ties…well, they seem like a symbol for something else that’s supposed to be long,” one woman said. (What does this say about our current President and his love for ties that practically reach his waist?)
Bow ties, in fact, seem to be a great bit No Thank You to a number of women. “At an early and tough point in my marriage, I was tempted to have an affair with this man I was working with,” began Lucy T. I couldn’t stop thinking about him. I really thought he might be The One.” After a (chaste) night out, Lucy walked into his office the next day, her head full of fantasies. “ I think he was worried I was going to make some sort of declaration. Then, right at that moment, I saw he was wearing…a bow tie.” The spell was broken. “The symbolism was clear: Conventional Life Ahead. My husband was (and is) difficult but he is adventurous and creative and never boring. I took it as a sign from God that I needed to go home to him.” Lucy and her husband just celebrated 25 years of marriage.
Tattoos also figure largely in the areas where potential love can falter. Not so much the having of a tattoo as having a lame tattoo—the tattoo cliché. “I love tattoos, but I see someone with a comedy/tragedy mask or a tribal armband made of musical notes and…well, what’s the female equivalent of a boner-shrinker?” said my friend Marjorie.
The Words That Must Not Be Mispronounced
And then there’s that devastating moment when you discover something…untoward…about a potential mate’s taste in music, movies, art. And once you know about this, you can never un-know it. “For me, the horror is discovering that an adult I’m interested in is a huge fan of Harry Potter,” says my friend Spencer. “I mean, go to the movies, if you must. Read the books to your kids. Go to Harry Potter Land at Universal, see Daniel Radcliffe naked in Equus, anything, just don’t gush about what great literature these novels are if you’re over 21.” Recently Spencer met a woman who seemed great for him in every way—until the HP subject popped up. She’d read all seven. “I wish she’d just lied to me,” he sighed.
Similarly, there are those were entirely sunk by using or misusing words repeatedly. “Ciao” turns out to be, for some, a devastating irritant. Ditto the promiscuous use of LOL. And “dude.” As one woman put it, “If I wanted to hear ‘dude’ in every other sentence I’d date 13 year olds.” Another friend told me she had to break up with someone when she couldn’t get him to stop saying “ekcetera ekcetera ekcetera.” Was she dating Yul Brynner, I wondered, but then I discovered it was the mispronunciation that set her teeth on edge. “Why was it so hard to learn ETcetera? WHY?” she asked.
And once you know about these kind of things, you can never un-know it.
Years ago, my friend, the writer Lynn Snowden Picket, wrote an NPR essay about dates with people suffering from what she called “Norm Crosby Syndrome,” after the comedian whose entire act consisted of malapropisms. Her deal breaker? “A man who ordered a crèche of wine instead of a carafe, and when I told him he’d just ordered his wine in Jesus’s manger he said, `Oh, I’m a writer, I play with words.’” She fired him as her date not so much for the wrong word, but for being a pretentious git.
A Slip Up Between the Sheets
Then there is an entire subset of relationships that faltered when the attractive Other revealed himself or herself (but usually himself) by saying something in bed that—well, nothing short of a Silkwood scrub could erase it from memory. “I was with this new man, and we were having a fantastic time,” said my friend Lily. I was really losing myself in the moment when he looked up from what he was doing and said, “You likee?” And that was it. I knew he would never be in my bed again.” At first I thought Lily was being ridiculous; after all, wasn’t it nice that the guy was trying to please her? Then I remembered an incident in my own life when, at a distinctly inopportune time, the new man I was with shouted, “Yee-haw!” Maybe this would have been ok if he were a cowboy. He was a plastic surgeon.
Then I remembered an incident in my own life when, at a distinctly inopportune time, the new man I was with shouted, “Yee-haw!”
And that, of course, is the thing about all deal-breakers: they are not about the objectionable object or book or word choice itself. They are about what that object signifies to the one whose deal has just been broken. Often these deal-breakers are critical signifiers of masculinity or femininity. “I won’t date a man who doesn’t know how to drive a stick shift,” says Kristen K. To those who grew up in cities, where cars are not really erotic symbols of much, this makes no sense. But Kristen, who grew up in Kentucky, was adamant that a man who couldn’t drive a stick shift was not a real man. (To me, that position would be taken by a man who didn’t know how to litigate, but then I grew up in Scarsdale.).
The Elvis Oracle
A tattoo cliché tells you the person isn’t as worldly or creative as he thinks,” Marjorie adds. “A boring fine-line Elvis portrait, zzzz. Fat Vegas Elvis riding a giant Seconal or something—okay!”
Almost everyone says “sense of humor” is a deal-breaker, but what does that mean, exactly? It’s the particulars that count. How could I possibly make a life with someone who didn’t find Louis CK and Kevin Hart achingly funny and, more to the point, truth-tellers? And I’m sure there are plenty of people who could, and should, reject me because when I listen to Daniel Tosh I’m thinking, If someone wanted to shoot me, now would be a good time.
Should I have overlooked my deal breakers? Should he have overlooked his?
But here’s the point. I did make a life with a person who doesn’t share my taste in comedians, who thinks my favorite novel, “Lolita,” is dirty, who thinks my favorite singer, Joni Mitchell, is “caterwauling.” And as wonderful as he is in ways, I have my regrets. Should I have overlooked my deal breakers? Should he have overlooked his?
Taste matters. Style matters. And sometimes they matter more over the years, not less. To those of you on a first date to that Broadway musical that makes your heart soar: If he’s sighing and looking at his watch, pay attention.