I met Sam on an online dating site, and we clicked immediately over a love of literature and a shared dream of someday owning property cut into the side of a mountain. I messaged him a real estate listing I’d found of a mansion (complete with a grand piano), tucked away in some Utah cave, and he replied with a photo of an isolated Italian mountaintop villa. His profile said he was 5’7” and on our first date I found out he was closer to 5’4” (my height), but instead of resenting his lie, I silently scolded myself for being superficial: I’d almost exclusively dated tall men, and what had that gotten me? More broken hearts than boyfriends.
Besides my obsession with tall guys, I also had a habit of dating drifters: the underemployed, the couch-crashers, the lazy charmers. Sam was the opposite of all of these things. He was ambitious and talented and accomplished. He was the guy my mom was always encouraging me to find, as I rolled my eyes, knowing that she couldn’t see me on her end of the phone call.
On our second date, we had some of the best pizza in Brooklyn, and too much red wine.
“I showed everyone at work your picture today,” he said.
“They all said you have such big eyes. One guy told me we’re attracted to women with big eyes because they’re child-like, and we want to protect them.”
I felt the wine flush my cheeks and couldn’t think of anything to say in return. He paid the check and we went to see a dance show in a church basement. At one point, I put a hand on his knee and left it there. On the walk home afterwards, Sam stopped us along a dark, tree-lined street, pulled out a candle he’d stolen from the church, lit it, and asked me for a kiss.
Things moved quickly after that.
I had to fly home to visit my family for the weekend, but Sam stayed persistently, sweetly in touch. He emailed me a mix of songs to listen to on the flight. He called to say not to make plans for a date a couple weeks in the future because he’d bought us tickets to a sold-out show at Carnegie Hall.
“No way,” I said.
“Yes way,” he said.
“No, I mean I already have tickets to that show…my friend Lily and I bought them the day they went on sale.”
I told him not to worry; it was such a thoughtful gesture, and I would work it out somehow with Lily, even if it meant hurting her feelings over saving his. It sounds crazy now, but I was falling in love, and imagined her forgiving me someday in the future, like when she was a bridesmaid in our wedding. (I know. Crazy.)
When I came back to New York, Sam and I started to see each other every night. He was working insane hours trying to prep for the launch of his new social media company, but we managed to meet up every evening, for a party, or a drink, or dinner, or just to crash at my apartment.
Let me be clear: We weren’t sleeping together.
I mean, we were sleeping together, but we weren’t having sex. Sam said he wanted to wait, because I was so special, and he’d rushed into sex before with unfortunate results. He asked me to be his girlfriend almost immediately, though, and this made me feel even more secure in waiting. I thought we had all the time in the world.
Reader, I thought he might be The One.
In retrospect, I’ve tried to look for signs of the revelation that was to come. Was he romantically attracted to me? Definitely. Was he sexually attracted to me? I thought so. When he said he wanted to wait to have sex, should I have been more suspicious? I still don’t know.
Thanksgiving was approaching and Sam said he was thinking about inviting me to celebrate it with his family. I would be meeting his brother and his dad, but not his mom; she had died of cancer a few years before. After dinner, we could go to another party, to meet all his friends. He had already met my friends, and I’d gotten the green light from my girlfriends -- they could tell he adored me, and were relieved that I’d finally found a guy worthy of me.
One Sunday morning, we stayed in bed late, cuddling under the covers, relishing the autumn sunlight streaming through the curtains. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy in my whole life,” Sam said. I told him I was in love with him and he said it back, without hesitation.
Then we started to fool around and I said I wanted to have sex. It felt like the right moment, and he went along. I say went along because I can’t help but wonder if things would have turned out differently had I waited for him to initiate, but I’ll never know.
I was on top and he came inside me. Immediately.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said, and I meant it.
“I’m so sorry,” he said.
I reiterated that it was no big deal; we would practice and it would get better.
The next night, he didn’t sleep over. Work was busy, he said. The night after that was the concert at Carnegie Hall and he was distant; he didn’t touch me, or even make eye contact. We took a cab back to Brooklyn after the show, but he just dropped me off at my apartment, asked me to bring down his cell phone charger, and went home to his own place.
“Is everything okay?” I asked.
He insisted he was just tired.
The day before Thanksgiving, he texted and asked me to meet him at my favorite bar. I asked again if everything was okay and Sam said he’d just been thinking about a lot of things. I felt my stomach drop. “Are we breaking up?” I finally asked. He said no.
At the bar, I felt nervous, cold, stand-offish. I’d been dumped before of course, but never at my favorite bar, so part of me remained optimistic; maybe I was overreacting. Sam ordered a glass of wine for me, sipped his whiskey and, without much ado, said he had something to tell me: He was asexual.
“What do you mean, asexual? You like men and women?”
“I’m not sexually attracted to either…women. Or men.”
My mind spun. I had never heard of asexuality before. “What does your therapist say?” I asked, trying to be cool, understanding, scientific. Trying not to cry.
Sam sighed. “It’s definitely something we’re working on, but after we had sex on Sunday, I just don’t think it’s fair if we keep seeing each other.”
“But that was just the first time…if we tried again, maybe --“
He cut me off. “I didn’t want to have sex with you. I made myself do it,” Sam said.
I burst into tears. I felt deceived, mistreated. What about that line he’d given me on our second date, about wanting to protect me? Even worse than his miscalculation about having this conversation in public, he’d never thought to tell me he was so deeply questioning his sexuality.
“But I was supposed to meet your family tomorrow! It’s Thanksgiving!” As I continued to cry, he finally got the hint and signaled the bartender for the check. I wondered how I could ever show my face there again. Sam walked me home and we spent the night talking. I asked about his last girlfriend, Tal, and if he’d had sex with her.
“Only a couple times and then we stopped. That’s eventually why we broke up.”
And before her?
“When I was 23, I dated a 16-year-old for almost two years because I knew I couldn’t have sex with her. She wanted to, but I…”
“Oh my God,” I said. “You never told me that.”
“You’re the first person I’ve told about my asexuality.”
“Why did you even go on OkCupid then!”
“I’m sorry, Leigh. I just thought if I found the right person, then maybe…”
It’s me, I’m still the right person, I thought. I took a deep breath. Trying another angle, I told him that I was still in love with him, and would stay with him while he continued to work on this in therapy, but he shook his head.
“You’re beautiful and when I’m next to you, I should have a hard-on, but I can’t…sexualize you in my mind.”
“We don’t even have to have sex,” I said. It was something I was willing to give up in return for what I thought I’d found in Sam: an equal, a partner, someone devoted and adoring I could imagine spending the rest of my life with.
“We can’t have a relationship without sex,” he said. It was non-negotiable. “We can only be friends.”
“I don’t know if I can be your friend right now,” I said.
Eventually, it got too late for him to go home. I don’t think he wanted to stay, but I felt he owed me at least that. I’d never slept so well next to anyone until Sam. When he put his arm around me in bed, it was like a drug, and I wanted at least one more hit.
Next to my bed, I had a Styrofoam stand for the red wig I’d worn as Mad Men’s Joan Harris for Halloween. “Every time I slept over here, I stared at that wig,” Sam said, as we lay there for the last time. “I used to think it was because I wanted to try it on, but I just remembered that my mom had a wig stand like that, when she had cancer.”
“I miss my mom,” Sam said. “You’re the first person I’ve ever said that to.”
I didn’t know what to say. It was becoming more and more clear that whatever he was going through had nothing to do with me. My feelings, my commitment, and my sympathies were irrelevant. There was nothing I could sacrifice that would convince him to stay with me. Sam put his arm around me when I finally asked him to, but I couldn’t fall asleep. My thoughts raced all night, looking for a way out.
On Thanksgiving morning, he left, and I took anti-anxiety medication and spent the holiday in a fog. I met some distant relatives for dinner at a French brasserie and ate my profiteroles, but on the subway home I started crying again so hard that a teenage boy came over and offered me a fistful of deli napkins, which only made me cry harder. It seemed to take ages to get over Sam -- I was actually embarrassed at the disproportionate amount of time I spent grieving over this relationship, compared to its actual duration. Sifting through our old emails, I found the songs he’d emailed me while I was out of town. They were riddled with clues that should have spelled DANGER to me on first listen, but I hadn’t been looking for warning signs. Cheer up honey, said one of the songs. There is something wrong with me.
Home alone one night recently, I stumbled upon a documentary on Netflix called (A)sexual, which follows David Jay, an asexual himself and the founder of the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN). In an early scene he says, “This isn’t a choice that I made. It doesn’t indicate something traumatic about my history. This is just the way that I am.” Hearing him say this gave me chills. After Thanksgiving, many of my friends rallied to be there for me in my heartbreak, but they were all skeptical of his reason for the breakup: He must be gay, they thought, or he’s lying, or he has hormonal problems, or he was molested as a child. No matter how much I replayed the scene of our breakup for them, presenting my evidence, they weren’t sold.
Even Dan Savage, interviewed in (A)sexual, says, “As somebody who’s pro-sexuality, it feels weird to be challenged to embrace a lack of any sexual urge, or impulse, or desire as a kind of sexuality all by itself. And it just looks like such a dodge, from the outside.”
But I was deeply moved to hear the stories of David Jay and other asexuals interviewed, and persuaded by the argument they make for their sexuality as just another orientation along the hetero-, homo-, bi-sexual spectrum. I watched an asexual woman marry a sexual man, who had decided to give up sex to be her partner (he says he never really liked having sex anyway). He kissed his bride and then she nuzzled her head into his shoulder. I thought of Sam, the clean soap smell of his skin, the feeling of his arm around me in bed. I thought of what I was willing to give up in order to make him stay. Not all asexuals desire romantic relationships, but what they do share in common is a desire for recognition, validation, and acceptance.
I still think of Sam as the one who got away. What wounds me to this day is that I believed him, and I was willing to accept him for who he was, but he was unable to let me in.
For more information on asexuality, check out:
The Huffington Post on Asexuality
"Letters to an Asexual” series by Swank Ivy, asexuality educator and awareness activist