Two days after paying for my own food and on the same day I posted this story about dating multiple men, Scruff ordered dinner and sent it to my house. I didn’t think it was a coincidence. Whether Scruff realized his error and sought to correct it or wanted to stay one step ahead of the competition or genuinely wanted to do something nice for me, I’d never know. I didn’t ask questions.
Well, at first because I honestly didn’t believe he’d do it. At this point, he’d spoken of doing so much for me without following through I figured ordering dinner would just be another string of words to add to the very long list. But to my surprise, he actually did and I was greeted by a half dozen oysters, shrimp and dessert on my doorstep.
That’s more like it, I thought, as I went back into the house to work on my podcast. Maybe this not arguing thing was actually going to work.
I thanked him and told him I was looking forward to seeing him that weekend. It was his birthday and we’d already made plans months before to spend the night together. Since he was turning 30 (yes, I was wrapped up in another situationship with another man turning 30) I wanted to plan a surprise. Being typical me, I wanted to go above and beyond. But the rational side of me said to take it slow, to match his energy and to stop going above and beyond for men who didn’t go above and beyond for me.
So I planned to wear some heels and cute lingerie and call it a day. And to give him a card. Oh, and also maybe a cake with some candles. And a helium balloon would be nice. And was I sure I didn’t want to get him a real gift? Maybe a bottle of his favorite liquor. Or a record, he collected those. Maybe I could get some strawberries and cream —
Stop it. I had to shake myself into reality. This man couldn’t even get you flowers, why would you get him a gift?
Ok, just lingerie it was. Men were so easy.
Over Thanksgiving weekend, my older brother and I did what we always do when we catch up: talk about our trauma and how it shows up in our adult lives. Growing up in a very discordant household together meant that our traumas were similar and showed up similarly in our lives. So when I made a realization it usually led him to one and vice versa. However, I was not prepared for one of the biggest realizations of my life.
He was telling me about his friend who had characteristics that started to ring a bell.
“Oh yeah, he’s a narcissist,” He said about his friend.
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard that word, but every time I’d look it up I’d get confused.
“What exactly is a narcissist?” I asked him.
“You know when someone is really engaged in talking to you when it’s about their life but when you talk about your life they show no interest? That’s a narcissist.”
I was taken aback. A handful of people ran through my mind. In fact, I had cut many friends off throughout my life for the exact same reason.
“You know, that always happens to me! I always meet people like that.”
“Oh yeah, you’re a narcissist magnet. We both are.” He said dismissively, as if this were something I’d already known for years. As if this were everyday information that I’d already seen plastered all over the news.
You’re a narcissist magnet. The words echoed as past friendships and relationships flashed through my memory in an instant. Brett who consistently prioritized his feelings and could never understand mine. My old friend who’d hunt me down when she needed relationship advice but would openly scroll through Instagram when I tried to talk to her about mine. The feeling of being dismissed, discarded, and not as important as someone else’s life. It all washed over me along with the realization: I am a narcissist magnet.
“How do you know that?” I sputtered, even though I knew it was true.
He shrugged. “We were raised by one.”
It had never occurred to me that my father was a narcissist, but it made sense once he explained. We commiserated, once again, over our trauma — this time about what it was like being raised by a narcissist (in short: not good). It felt great to put the pieces of my childhood together from an adult lens, but in the back of my mind, the thought lingered: was Scruff a narcissist?
Turns out, Narcissistic Personality Disorder was actually a lot more complicated than simply ‘someone who likes to talk about themselves’. A lot of people liked to talk about themselves, but it didn’t make them narcissists. In scouring the internet, I realized that people could have narcissistic traits without necessarily being a narcissist. But that didn’t make them any easier to deal with.
Ultimately, what I really wanted to know was whether I was dating one or not, which led me to this helpful article. While it couldn’t say for sure I was dating a narcissist, it did list 11 narcissistic traits that were absolutely not ok in a relationship. I read the article hungrily, stunned to see some of Scruff’s defining traits laid clearly on the page: Charming at first (check), not understanding (check), lack of empathy (CHECK, CHECK, CHECK!). By the time I’d finished, I counted seven traits. Eight, if I counted the last time I’d broken it off with him 8 years ago and he’d lashed out terribly.
My heart sank. I didn’t want to believe I was in something so unhealthy but the facts were laid right before me. The huge one I simply couldn’t ignore was that he couldn’t empathize. No matter how clearly or gently I tried to explain my emotions, he didn’t get it because he simply couldn’t. Because narcissists (or people with narcissistic traits) can’t empathize. It’s just not within them.
I panicked. I had plans to celebrate Scruff’s birthday with him the following night but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to anymore. I wasn’t sure if I wanted him anymore. Why would I try to make it work with someone who couldn’t empathize? I let the research I’d done all day on the internet temporarily distort Scruff into this heartless monster who did nothing but drain my energy.
On the other hand, it was his birthday. Not just any birthday, his 30th. We’d made these plans months before and I’d already bought the lingerie (and I looked really good in it, if I did say so myself). Wouldn’t I be the monster if I cancelled? Besides, Scruff might have had narcissistic traits, but did that mean he was a terrible person?
I called my friend in a panic who brought me back down to earth (and I started to see how friends like that are so valuable when I’m often caught up in my own world).
“It doesn’t have to be something serious, right?” She’d said. “If you don’t want to do it, don’t do it. But you could just go and have fun.”
And I realized she was right. Maybe Scruff had narcissistic traits and maybe that meant it wouldn’t work out. But did that mean we couldn’t celebrate his birthday? In a time where sex, and celebrations were few and far between, did I want to ruin that chance for him? For both of us?
Also, did I want to paint him as a monster after reading one article?
I decided I’d follow through on my plans but also investigate. I would listen out for key signals that meant he was indeed a narcissist and I’d review them once I got back. In the meantime this would just be something fun and light.
Fun and light. Fun and light, I kept telling myself as I did my make up and slapped on my lingerie. And dammit, I looked good.
Scruff’s eyes nearly popped out of his head when he finally saw me. He’d picked me up and taken me to his (now clean) apartment where I did absolutely nothing except strut out in lingerie and give him a lap dance. He was extremely happy about it and I was happy I did nothing more. Men were too easy.
I donned my fun and light persona and kept it exactly that: fun and light. And it was fun. We talked and joked while I watched carefully for key narcissistic traits. I was happy not to find any. Yet.
And then it developed into one of the worst nights of my life (heads up: I’m being dramatic). At 2 a.m. I was ready for bed but Scruff was not. We were both proclaimed night owls but he took his to the extreme.
“I’ll let you to sleep.” He said as he settled on his couch. I looked at his bed that was dressed only in thin sheets. Seeing that I was always cold and it was late November, I had a feeling an uncomfortable night was ahead of me.
“Do you have a comforter?” I asked.
“… or a blanket?” I continued.
“Maybe I have one.” He said as he rummaged through a closet while I stood there, confused as to why a grown man wouldn’t have a full bed set. He looked pleased when he emerged with a Chelsea blanket that was thinner than a hand towel. I tried to hold back a grimace as I accepted it.
I huddled on his bed that night under thin sheets and the thinnest blanket I’d ever encountered. To say I was uncomfortable was an understatement, but I tried my best to make do as I played soothing meditation music to drown out the sound of his fire alarm beeping for attention (he still didn’t get it fixed). Scruff never made it to the bed. He spent the night sleeping on his couch, claiming it reminded him of the barracks on his ship. So we both slept alone on the night we were meant to celebrate his birthday.
Hunched in the fetal position, alone on his bed and trying to stay warm, I wondered what exactly was I doing there. I didn’t deserve this. I was way better than this. Why was I putting myself in this situation? Why didn’t I listen to my gut?
It then occurred to me: this is how he lived. Hunched up and uncomfortable with no regard to anyone’s needs, not even his own. He dismissed his bed for the small cramped couch. He dismissed his fire alarm beeping for chaotic quiet. He didn’t even have a cup for guests. His excuse was he’d just moved in February, but maybe he wasn’t used to comfort. How could I expect him to listen to my needs when he didn’t even listen to his own?
Somehow, I fell asleep, even if I was woken intermittently by the ever-beeping fire alarm. The next morning, I couldn’t wait to get home.
On the way to drop me home Scruff talked optimistically about the future. He wanted to check out a steakhouse and take me to see a light show. I smiled and subtly encouraged him, knowing I never wanted to see him again. I wasn’t sure why I couldn’t just say it. Maybe I didn’t want to ruin his birthday weekend. Or maybe I was just too tired to have the conversation after a restless sleep.
Either way I was grateful to get home. I sank into my bed under the warm comforter and fluffy blankets, thankful that I knew how to take care of myself, if not romantically, then at least physically.