The conversation with my mother started innocently enough. I was flipping through a women’s magazine and saw one of those articles about successful women and their routines. The routines all started at dawn and involved kettlebells and lemon water and a level of discipline I couldn’t fathom.
“I’ve figured out what’s wrong with my life,” I announced. “I don’t have a routine.”
“Yes, you do,” she said.
“I do?” I asked, feeling hopeful.
“Yeah, your routine is dating the same asshole over and over again.”
I was horrified. My mom was right. That’s sort of her brand: mean but right. Successful women had meditation practices. They had macrobiotic-eating regimens. I was on an All-Dave Diet and it was whatever the opposite of “cleansing” is.
Who’s Dave? Well, I’m glad you asked, because even though we broke up years ago and he barely remembers me, I love talking about him. Love may be the wrong word. Does Jennifer Aniston LOVE getting up every morning and doing burpees? No, she’s compelled by a darkness within. This is how rituals work — especially the bad kind. I don’t love checking Trump’s tweets every morning; I just can’t stop myself. (Now that I think about it, that’s probably how he feels about writing them.)
I used to date Nice Guys. Guys who were more or less my equals. Then I met Dave. He was older, smarter, more successful. He was brilliant, and everyone knew it. He was at the top of his field. And it wasn’t something boring like accounting or curing cancer. It was comedy, the business I was dying to break into. Successful comedians were like rock stars to me. I saw them as powerful and glamorous. I had no idea they were actually needy and sad.
My youthful naivety combined with his lack of facial expressions created a sense of longing I promptly mistook for love. This was no ordinary love. No ordinary lo-ove. I’m serious. Because Dave was fucking weird. His house looked like it belonged to a thousand-year-old vampire who was also, for some reason, on the show Hoarders. Picture Gothic architecture accented with a bunch of old surfboards and discarded bags from Wingstop. He bought six of the same T-shirt so he could wear it every day. Sunday was Naked Day.
OK, I’m exaggerating, but not much. The point is that I was so busy worshipping his talent that I ignored the warning signs. Like his hot and cold behavior. And the fact that he thought Bill O’Reilly had “some pretty good ideas.” Oh, and all of his previous relationships. Once I asked him why there were scorch marks on his bedroom wall. He sighed and said, “Kyla.” I proceeded to ask zero follow-up questions.
Red flags look like intriguing quirks if you’re thirsty enough. And though that word had yet to be appropriated from rap culture, I was thirsty. Wherefore this thirst? This sense of insecurity so profound I thought the guy selling mixtapes on the subway was avoiding me?
The short answer was: my career. My generation was raised on a combination of feminism and capitalism. We were supposed to “git it.” Telling your daughter she can be president one day is great, but it’s also a lot of pressure. And in the face of pressure, I chose to do what women of previous generations were forced to do: define myself through a man.
I wanted to be in comedy but was failing miserably. I dreamed of writing for SNL. Instead, I was doing stand-up in laundromats, and not even that often, because that was a booked show, and I wasn’t very good. Standing in contrast to me and my cobbled-together life was Dave. He was charismatic, an operator (which is a weird thing to say about someone who owned hundreds of Star Wars toys). He had it. I had two part-time jobs: one working as a typist for a writer who wouldn’t touch his computer because he thought the radiation would hurt his balls, and another as a P.A. on an Asian dating show that aired only on the International Channel.
But, hey, opposites attract right?
Not for long. I got dumped. It was awful because I wasn’t just mourning the relationship, I was mourning the loss of Dave’s status, which wasn’t even mine to begin with. I became obsessed. Not so much with Dave as with Dave’s career. I did all the stuff you’re supposed to do, like yoga and customizing a Chrome extension that redirected me to ISIS videos whenever I tried to check Deadline for mentions of his name. None of it worked. Dave continued to be insanely successful and talented. He was just living his life, but in my mind he was beating me.
Then, a few weeks after I was fired from my first real writing job for “giving off a weird vibe,” Dave got married. The fact that his new wife was also incredibly successful didn’t help, but it did give me an idea. I decided the only way to get over Dave was to get under Dave. Or, rather, a series of Daves. Short Dave. Tall Dave. Vegan Dave.
A ritual is defined as “a religious ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.” I wasn’t religious, but I worshipped at the altar of neoliberal meritocracy. (I hid this fact from Marxist Dave.) Soon, I had it down: Meet a successful man. Become obsessed with him. Totally creep him out. Break up. Repeat.
My ritual to ward off failure was a failure. I was resentful. I didn’t have a body of work. I didn’t even have love. I had a boyfriend collection. I was like Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs, except the pit in my basement was filled with guys who could do improv.
My mom’s joke was a wake-up call. I went cold turkey on the Daves. (Although I did lapse once with a novelist.) Instead I learned to focus on my own work. And it sucked, because your own career — as opposed to your boyfriend’s — is something that you can actually fail at. Which I did, multiple times. I made mistakes and learned from them. Gradually, I came to see that my Dave ritual, though exhausting, was actually a form of laziness. Having a successful mate meant that I didn’t have to work as hard. More important, it meant that I didn’t have to take risks. It was the emotional equivalent of making your boyfriend kill bugs for you.
I wish I could tell you that my one-person show Dave! got me a deal at Netflix that led to a career as an Emmy-winning multi-hyphenate and that I fell in love with an amazing man who makes artisanal bread and supports my dreams. But I would be lying. And the only kind of lying I was ever good at was lying to Dave about how much I liked his one shirt. The truth is, I’m just an ordinary writer who feels lucky to work. That’s it. But that’s a hard thing to be, and I’m doing it myself.
Daley Haggar is a writer who lives in Los Angeles.