Discover more from Parhelia
The Placeholder Girlfriend
It became real when I saw the list. When I saw the rubric.
I had the feeling I was a placeholder girlfriend. That once the winter was over she wouldn’t need me anymore.
I had this feeling because it hadn’t started like my other relationships. I’d kept seeing her at parties with all the Toronto grad students that autumn and thought she was so different from me. Whatever the opposite of basic is. Advanced? I had the feeling she didn’t even own sweatpants, if that makes sense. She’d see me across the party and would watch me but wouldn’t return my waves. Somehow she found out I had a crush on her and it didn’t change anything. Just the stare, maybe a polite nod, then she’d go back to half-listening to whoever was trying to impress her. She was beautiful like an ice sculpture is beautiful.
I knew her thesis was on Italian autonomist feminism of the 1970s. I had no idea what that meant so I never risked talking to her and embarrassing myself. My thesis was on the history of memes. I wanted to change it but didn’t know what else I could talk about.
Then one night she called me. The wind of the first real snowstorm whistled through my window and made me cover my other ear while I listened to her talk to me for the first time. She told me she found me really pretty. That she’d always admired me from a distance. And would I come over?
We didn’t talk much that night or any night after. But on the subway back to my apartment in North York the next morning, in between games of Candy Crush, I realized we were going out. I had a nagging feeling I couldn’t explain though. Before she’d kissed me she’d told me that she’d been in a long distance relationship and they’d broken up that day. It flattered me that I was who she called but it wasn’t exactly romantic.
I only worried I was a placeholder girlfriend in the back of my mind though, like when I woke up or when videos were loading. It became real when I saw the list. When I saw the rubric.
She had been at the university and needed files off her computer. I was lazing around in her living room. I had four roommates and she had none. I should have been working on my thesis, but I enjoyed being in an apartment without roommates so much that I was just laying around listening to my Harry Potter podcasts. I didn’t know if she had rent control or was just rich but she did have an office. She was like what I imagined a grad student should be. She had me go into her office and she walked me through transferring the files. But she had left a spreadsheet open.
I tried not to look but I think that’s actually impossible. Because I saw my name at the top. And I saw numbers and a whole column of red cells. And then it clicked.
If you saw a sheet rating you in bed out of 10, with a hundred other ratings too, you would look. You would peek.
“Hey?” she said over the phone. “Did it go through?”
“Oh,” I said. I clicked through the remaining buttons. “Yeah. Yeah. There should be an email.” I swallowed dryly. “You should have everything.”
“Awesome. Okay, got it. Gotta run, bye!”
Then I was left with the sheet.
I tried not to keep reading. I tried to tell myself it was private. But it wasn’t. It was about me, so it wasn’t private. And then when I started to read it, started understanding what the numbers meant, I tried to tell myself I’d seen enough, I didn’t need to keep reading. But I did. I couldn’t stop.
Movie Taste 5.0
I scrolled and scrolled. There were a hundred cells and almost every one was red. Almost every mark was shitty. The only green was:
The fact that that was the only one where I passed made the whole thing even worse. Everything cut me. Gift-giving. Punctuality. Memory. The notes beside them only hurt more (“only funny unintentionally”, “un-self-aware Harry Potter nostalgia”, “Pillow princess”). I was mortified but I couldn’t stop reading. It even seemed like there were categories specifically invented to hurt me (Freckles: 2). And there were others with entirely no explanation, just there to haunt (Friends: 4.5).
The worst part was that it all seemed true. It became clear as soon as I read it. I wasn’t smart enough (5.0) to create a narrative where I was actually a really good listener, I had just always hidden from myself the fact that I was a bad listener (3.0). My entire personality was getting pulled back like a hangnail.
My mind raced through thoughts until it settled on three it repeated over and over and over:
Your girlfriend should think of you as a ten in everything.
No. You aren’t even supposed to think these things.
Why doesn’t she just break up with me?
It burned through me until, finally, I reached the bottom. Then I truly broke down, staring at the big, bold, red cell:
If I had any Imagination (another 2.0) I’d say something like: it made me feel like the sun laying down its judgment upon one of the barren and useless planets near it. But all I could really say is: it made me want to die. It made me cry huge gobby tears all over her desk and I should have realized that would happen because I was too Emotional (4.0). It made me wail like a child on the floor of her stupid, parent-paid office.
After minutes of this, it made me want revenge.
For one horrible second I contemplated killing her but that was wildly out of proportion and then I tried to pretend that I had only wished she was dead and then I just tried to forget about it.
My mom says that the best revenge is a life well lived. When I met my dad I asked him about that and he laughed oddly loudly and said once you’re thinking about getting revenge it’s too late to have a good life. Then he took pictures with me and the zoo pandas behind us and I never saw him again.
When I tried imagining a good life I couldn’t. I couldn’t imagine going to work thinking about my Work ethic (2.5) or Problem-solving (5.5) or Punctuality (4.0). I couldn’t imagine going to a party ever again with my lack of Fashion (6.0) and Wit (2.0). I’d always imagined that if I was on the run for a crime I’d hide away as a nun, but even that wouldn’t work because I had no Patience (3.0).
But then I realized that I hadn’t understood what a good life could be. I hadn’t been thinking about just how good life could be.
It’s all just numbers. It’s all just 1 to 10 (besides the 0 I got for math). If I changed, if I got everything to a 10, wouldn’t that mean that her wisdom was low? What I mean is, wouldn’t that show what an idiot she was? Right now if I told anybody about the list they’d think she was a monster. But they’d also know she was right and would reflect on how pathetic I was. But if I revealed the list after becoming a 10 in everything they’d think about how pathetic she was. An idiot and a monster. They’d say to me: who’s that girl you’re with? Is she your placeholder girlfriend? They’d say that to me.
I got up off the floor. I went to the computer. I scrolled back to ambition, way at the beginning of her hundred row sheet. Its 2.5 stared at me. I changed it to a 10.
The first thing I decided to learn was how to learn. I had to learn a lot of things so I had to do it fast and right. It was the beginning of winter and I wanted to emerge in spring like a cherry blossom or whatever kind of blossoms happen in spring. I wanted her to melt in embarrassment like the snow.
The problem was that I knew my mind just didn’t work like that. It liked going slowly. And detours. But I knew it was possible to change how your mind works, like melting an old ring into a pretty one. I went to some of the grad students and bought up the hallucinogens they were researching. Then I put all of them as far back on my tongue as I could, swallowed two big glasses of water, sat in my lightless room with my headphones on, and willed myself to become a good learner. I imagined squeezing my brain like play-doh until I could be like those robots that learn things faster than any human and it makes them powerful beyond belief.
Over the next 12 hours my mind split apart. When it reformed, it reformed softer. More ready. More malleable.
When I went back to the grad students the next day to swear them in as my practice partners, they joked they were worried about me but I could tell they were intrigued. Internally I changed my Interesting score from 1.0 to 10.
Then began the work.
If you like, imagine a training montage. I really like the one in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix when they’re all getting good at spells together. I knew I needed my own team but it had to be a secret. I had to take her by surprise. I’d meet my partners in hidden classrooms, prayer rooms, their apartments.
The grad students were all so curious and I knew I could use it. I swore each of them individually into secrecy. They all hated working on their theses. They were all bundled up in little apartments around the university waiting for spring like hibernating bears. It was like I could give them one little dream they didn’t understand but would always remember.
One guy was my Humor partner. I admitted to him that I didn’t really get jokes. I would just watch for other peoples’ reactions and nobody ever noticed me laughing a little late. He explained that it’s mostly about timing and the unexpected and being animated. “Like this?” I said, a little loudly and suddenly. He laughed, which I thought was good, but he said “No, you need energy. People aren’t entertained by a rock.”
So we drilled it. “Ayyyy babe,” I’d say as I walked in to a session, or “Yo!” Then I’d tease him, or myself, or our crazy mayor. I had a running joke with him about the snow (“What if we put all the global warming in Toronto?”). Very soon, he was chortling and sometimes outright laughing. 10.
One girl was my Culture partner. I explained that I needed to become “cultured”. She asked what I meant and I admitted I didn’t know. Well, I had just come from a joke session, so what I said was “I was hoping you could tell me!” She laughed. But then she assigned me reading.
I had become very good at reading. Before my dark night of the soul I had only been seeing words. After that I saw ideas. I could rotate them and connect them like Lego. Reading the words was now as easy as grabbing a big handful of Lego.
I read through poetry and fiction and commentary and letters from this century and many others. The letters were my favourite because the writers didn’t take them as seriously as the books. I was big into not taking things too seriously now. Before it had bothered me that I was low on both Ambition and Chill (6.0). But now I was at 10 for both. I was going to humiliate my evil girlfriend. But I was chill about it because I knew it would happen.
My favourite writers were not chill. They were fucked up. I remembered that my girlfriend’s favourite writer was Sylvia Plath so I got really into her husband and the people Plath admired and considered better than her.
This didn’t take long at all. When my writing conspirator asked about my thesis on memes, I explained memetic contagion instead, including an aside on Burroughs’s assertion that language is a virus from outer space. When she asked which Beatle was best, I proved that Yoko Ono was superior. She was delighted. “I don’t know what’s going on with you. But would you review my novel when it’s ready?” I said yes, of course. Culture: 10. And a bonus to Selflessness as well.
Both of those were hours in the morning. I wasn’t working on my thesis anymore. It could wait until spring. Instead I was doing eight sessions a day. When I solved a trait another one came in. At the bottom of winter, when the sun only peeks out at noon and then retreats, I added Lovemaking. I found a guy I had hooked up with in first year and told him I wanted to make love every weekday at 3PM. I wanted to become the best lover he could ever imagine. Because my thoughtfulness score was going up I asked him: How did that make him feel? Did any reservations come to mind? Would he like to take a few days to think about it?
He replied "Nah I'm down." So we began. I will spare you details about our progress. I will say that at first he didn’t understand the feedback phase but he came to appreciate it. I will say that he became a 10 lover as well.
Throughout all of this I saw my girlfriend less but not so little she’d dump me. I hid all my new powers besides the lovemaking from her. I knew that that would draw her in because she was shallow. Only shallow people make a sheet. Only shallow people rate their girlfriend’s tenderness out of 10.
Or at least that’s how I thought at first. Each time I hit a 10 I’d think about what number she’d have. She didn’t have much Humor either, maybe a 5. She wasn’t that Chill — if you have a home office and desk and two monitors you aren’t Chill. She was only a 10 lover when I was a 10 lover with her.
Those were the hardest moments. We’d lay there gasping and I’d always tell her I’d need to clean up. But in the washroom I’d just shake and open the window and let the Toronto winter dive into my lungs and I’d wonder if I was doing the right thing. I was becoming a more thoughtful person and I knew revenge was wrong. I knew I didn’t wish my pain on anybody so why was I making an exception for her?
But I had to keep going. I had become a 10 in so many things that I couldn’t stop now. Thoughtfulness could be the last thing. I could even finish it a little after my big reveal. Not yet. Part of my thoughtfulness was realizing that nobody is perfect.
But I was getting there. I was closing in, more relentless than the blizzards that year, which came down like snow dumped from buckets.
I knew I was still emotional. My partner for that was an econ student. We met in her apartment on St. George Street just north of the university. I’d originally chosen her because I’d assumed an econ student would be more emotionally stable than all the humanities grads I knew. Honestly, I thought she’d be boring. I didn’t know how passionate she was.
She showed me pictures of dying animals and the horrible stories of how they’d become separated from their mothers. It made me weep.
She explained that people mostly donate to their universities and churches but for a little money you could save a child from a horrible death. It made me rage at people’s ignorance.
Finally, I made her tell me a story about a woman named Alice who rated her girlfriend Roberta and rated her badly. I wanted to be so emotionally strong that I could handle the greatest embarrassment of my life. But I couldn’t. It made me leave the session and wander the Annex pretending I was somebody else.
For a few days I tried becoming emotionless about these. I tried turning all my emotions off like taps. She realized what was going on. “Look. I can tell you’re still emotional even if you’re trying not to show it”. I was impressed by her wisdom. “You can have emotional responses,” she continued. “It’s healthy. These are horrible things. You just need to not let it ruin you. You need to have a plan for how to deal with it.”
The next day, when she showed me a dying bird, a single tear ran down my eye. I said: “We humans should disrupt the natural environment less.”
Then she showed me a child dying of malaria. I shook my head and said “Humans should try to be as effective with their charitable giving as they are with their big purchases. We have so much potential to do good in the world.”
Then she told me the story of the cruel girlfriend Alice again like I'd asked. She didn’t know it was my story, of course, but she was a good storyteller and some of the details were correct. She had Roberta (me) sobbing and everything.
When she finished I was proud. I had lasted through the whole thing. I had cried but not loudly, just little hiccup-y gasps. I looked up at her and said: "Roberta should get revenge."
“Revenge?” She looked surprised. “I get something like… I don’t know, but revenge is a leap.”
“Why not?” I asked. “Alice hurt her more than should even be possible.” The sky in the apartment windows was blue, a March-bright blue, and the glare made it hard for me to focus on her eyes, which were brighter than anybody’s I’d stared into all winter.
“Yeah but like. This says way more about her than about her girlfriend.”
“Alice is crazy. If you make a sheet ranking a hundred attributes of your lover, you’re crazy, right?”
“So why would Roberta trust or care what Alice says about her? Why would Alice have a clue about any of this? I don’t think Alice knows the first thing about anything.”
I stopped myself from telling her I knew it was all true. I stopped myself from explaining that my girlfriend had known me better than I’d known myself. I was open mouthed and had nothing to say.
“Honestly, I feel sad for Alice, she’s so confused,” she continued. “I’d feel even worse for her if Roberta humiliated her. Would it be at a party or something? That would just suck.”
I stopped myself from telling her the contents of my revenge. But she was right. I had imagined it culminating in a party. I had imagined becoming the life of the party. In my first year I didn’t know anything about alcohol and when we played beer pong I was drinking pure vodka and I became drunker than anything and I suppose technically I was the life of the party because I got crazy nicknames that night. But this wouldn’t be like that at all. I’d actually be the life of the party. I’d be so interesting that people would tell each other they were going to the washroom but instead they’d come see me. If anybody got too drunk I’d lend them my spare room and appoint two trustworthy watchers. When, I’d return I’d turn it into a dance party complete with the playlist I’d been making for months. I would grab men and women and bring them to dance with me and I’d dance so well they wouldn’t be afraid to dance well too. I would make sure everybody would leave the party feeling not just that they were lucky to be there, but that I felt lucky to have them. Then I would retire with my girlfriend. I would make love to her perfectly. Then, a little while later, I would tell her she was a monster, that I was done with her, and I would call her a cab and I would never see her again.
I looked up at my friend now. She was waiting patiently, smiling slightly. She hadn’t judged me when I cried about the bird. She had held my hand when she told me about effective charity. Right now her long black hair was falling into her eyes the way it did when it leaned forward. I did not know if the shape of her body was beautiful under her layers but I knew the way she moved was beautiful. I began to get a curious feeling.
Then something horrible came over me. Numbers began floating into my mind. Thoughtfulness: 10. Interestingness: 8.0. Beauty: 8.0.
I stood in terror and she looked surprised.
“Would you be around tonight?” I asked suddenly. “There’s something I have to finish. To end. Right now.”
Of course, she said. She’d be around tonight.
Winter was ending early. I ran through the campus and overheated and had to fold more and more layers to carry under my arms. I almost slipped on the melting and glistening sidewalks but I made it to my girlfriend’s house out of breath and red in the face.
It was not how I had imagined it. Her eyebrows rose and she looked me up and down as I panted on her porch.
“I need you to be honest,” I said. A screen separated us and I knew the same way I was constructing her image separated by the little squares of mesh, she was constructing her judgment of me out of all her tiny stupid spreadsheet cells.
Before she could reply, I said it: “I’m just your placeholder girlfriend.”
Her lips pursed and she couldn’t look at me anymore. I hadn’t asked her a question. She looked at the sidewalk and at the porch. She looked anywhere else. Then she slowly came back to me.
“I guess so. I guess you were.”
I couldn't reply. I registered that she hadn’t apologized.
“You found my sheet, didn’t you? I saw the ambition edit.”
Then I remembered way back at the beginning when I’d changed the Ambition rating to 10. It had been a mistake, one I wouldn’t make now. I nodded.
She shrugged. “I like being real with myself about where I’m at. So I do those sheets. I’m sorry you saw it. But I can tell you’ve been working on things. I’ve admired it. The sex is great. I don’t think you’re a placeholder anymore.”
I felt several paths in front of me. I almost told her I needed a better apology. I almost told her I had hidden how much I had changed, I was basically a 10 in everything now. I almost told her she had hurt me more than she ever could have imagined.
This is what I did instead: I told her I was sorry she needed that. Then I kissed her cheek like the moon kisses the sun at the end of an eclipse. Then I left. Then I was gone.
It was not sweet. It was not the crowning achievement of my winter. It was just done.
That night I got coffee with my new friend. When her hair fell in front of her eyes, I moved it back. When she asked if everything was okay and I told her it was good now, I could feel the warmth of her happiness radiate across the table. When the date ended, I asked to see her again the next day. We could go to the ceramics museum down the street and I’d buy her blue china from the gift store where the old ladies slowly wrap and tie in layers and layers of bubble wrap. We could walk through the Annex and pick whichever restaurant was newest. We could go through High Park, through the zoo and meet the reindeer, who make me think of Christmas, and the peacocks, who make me think of the sun.
We decided to do it all. We were happy. I never thought about revenge again.
Thanks for reading Parhelia! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.