The Women Before Me

His first girlfriend was a pretty girl. The kind of girl whom you look at, you would notice straight away she’s pretty. Not just ‘kind of’, not just ‘almost’, not just ‘maybe at some angle’ or ‘in a certain light’. Her prettiness would jump out even in the most blurry, out of frame picture, like the curve along her slim waist or the shape of her voluminous hair, screaming femininity and fertility. It’s so effortlessly obvious. It’s a thing. She knew it, he knew it, everyone knew it. It’s like having a VIP membership to an exclusive club, an automatic invitation to every inner circle, an upgraded reality of smiles and compliments and free drinks and open doors everywhere you go and all you have to do is to show up. Plus, you get the guy. She did.

Then he dated a smart girl. The smart girl was pretty but not as much as she was smart. The kind of smart that would charm you as soon as she engages you in a conversation — even just a passing one in a busy bar. Her confidence and certainty would immediately give you the most convincing impression that this girl knew her shit and she knew how to do it well. The smart girl was polished, cultured, responsive to social cues. She had the kind of ‘smart’ that wasn’t just shining through qualifications and certificates but also in decisions and actions — sharp. The kind of smart that promises success and abundance, that gives off a sense of independence and security. Men, over time, realise pretty is important but isn’t enough. Smart men want more. They want smart. He did.

Then he dated a fun girl. The fun girl was smart and pretty but not as much as she was fun. The kind of fun that would turn your ordinary evenings into magical rides full of pleasant surprises and happy twists, that would make you feel so high you don’t ever want to come down again. You could count on her for laughter, for good times, for chill, for low maintenance, for pizza and sex in random bathtubs, for road trips, for forgetting the pain. Her energy was unbelievably magnetic. She could blow you away with her full lips and playful tongue. She could make your eyes wide and your jaw drop with her restless hand and wild suggestions. And he would quickly forget about Smart and Pretty because Fun was filling him up. His mind was no longer elsewhere but finally here, anchored down to the moment, every moment.

Then he dated me. I was pretty and smart and fun but not as much as I was nice to him. Out of them all, I was the nice girl, the girl he claimed to have come to him at the right time of his life, the girl who cared about him and loved him enough to put up with his shit, the girl who appreciated him for what he was in his tamed, realised decade after being done with Pretty and Smart and Fun. For the first time he didn’t mind admitting he wanted nice. He wanted stability and security and loyalty and he could tell I was able to offer him just that. I was the perfect girl, the wife material, the one who would happily look pretty and listen and stay in on a Friday night and not complain when he was out with his bros three nights a week. The one who would make sense standing next to him holding his arm as he introduced me to his friends and family. The one who fitted right in. Unlike all the women before me.

See, Pretty was a dream come true but as that dream played on, it was soon clear to him that she was too young, too immature, too easily carried away and he had no time or interest to hand-hold a girl into her womanhood. He didn’t think she could ever understand him, or appreciate the long life she hadn’t seen half but he had already walked through. Smart could certainly keep up with the running cogs of his brain and the breadth of his past but as a companion, she was too rigid, too uptight, too self-sufficient and being with her, he didn’t feel he was needed. He didn’t feel like the man he wanted to be. Fun was, oh wow, his wildest memory, his guilty pleasure, his daylight fantasy, still to this day, but he quickly realised, after nights and nights of addictive highs, she wasn’t more, she didn’t want to be more, she wouldn’t slow down while he was ready to.

So, there he was, with me, settled and satisfied. As it turned out, I got the guy and I didn’t even have to play any card except the part of a nice girl at the right time and right place. While Pretty and Smart and Fun tortured themselves over what they did wrong to lose the guy, dissecting every little detail of their expired relationship to find a cause, a definite point where things were switched, a part of their body that needed fixing, a part of themselves that wasn’t enough, which would soon be internalised as being unworthy and undeserving of love, they didn’t realise the ending wasn’t about them, or their inherent worthiness; it was all about him. Men win the game because they know what they want and they choose it. Women lose because we settle for what we think we deserve and we never think we deserve the best. I was chosen but I didn’t win. I was no better than all the women before me. I was no more lucky.

As a nice girl who was less pretty than Pretty, less smart than Smart, less fun than Fun, but nicer than them all, I was constantly reminded of my position just simply because he couldn’t help it. In the text messages that would always come but never straight away, in the nonchalant way he drew his eyes to me always followed by a request but never just because, in the hurried kisses, in the dinner dates that weren’t planned to impress, in the subtle lack of effort, in the impatience, in the mindlessness, in the sex that was done as soon as he was done and in the absence of his tongue playing between my legs. I knew it but I didn’t care because what I got was him. His body. His DNA. Well, his sperm. Like him, I had a reason and it was only fair. I knew a big, resourceful man like him would give me the perfect baby and it was all what I wanted. We were the perfect match.

“Is that what you think of me?”, His sudden raise of voice startled me as I turned around and saw him walking into the room with a journal held open in one hand. That journal was mine, with all the detailed descriptions of Pretty and Smart and Fun and him and his sperm. I was horrified. My blood pressure shot up, I couldn’t breathe properly.

“Where did you get that?? Give it back to me!” I demanded nervously. I had forgotten to hide it.

“And tell me, how the fuck did you know about my exes? Pretty? Smart? Fun? And you, Nice?”, he was perplexed, turning the pages vigorously.

My face was burning red. I could even feel the physical pain of embarrassment. I couldn’t admit that I’d stalked Pretty on Instagram, spoken to Smart on the phone and met Fun in person — that was how I knew they were pretty, smart and fun and that they all shared a similar facial shape like mine.

“What is wrong with you?”, he exclaimed, looking lost for words, “I mean… Wow, this shit is impressive, I must say. Is this how you think of people? Of me? First of all, these women, they all have a name, okay? I didn’t break up with any of them for these reasons you made up in your head here. And I didn’t choose you because you were nice. For fuck sake. Nice? Do you really think a nice person would write all this shit?”

I couldn’t defend myself. I was… nice, wasn’t I? Anyway, he really needed to tone his voice down.

“Oh my god”, he continued, “I thought you loved me. I thought you saw me. I really do. But you are… you’re really something. What have I ever done wrong to you? Is this house, this car, all these fucking stuff not enough for you?”

My eyes started watering. He was so angry and aggressive. I was scared he might hurt me. And it looked like he was about to.

“Or you think I’m a fool?”, He was losing it, “I’m the nice guy you fuck because you run out of your fucking time? That’s what you want, right? My sperm?”

As he spat those words on my face, he pushed me down onto the bed and violently pulled down my panties to show dominance. I could hear the sound of the lace being torn apart. I was panicking. I’d never seen him so out of control and in so much control before.

I thought I was smart but this was fucking stupid. I thought I got what I wanted but as it turned out, my match made in heaven was an insecure, angry asshole. But at least I was well-defended. I grabbed the apple knife on the bedside table and pointed fiercely towards him. 

“Stop”, I commanded, “Stay away from me.”

He instantly backed off as his eyes widened in shock. I could see him shaking a little and his head boiling up.

“You crazy bitch!”, he blurted and stormed out.

I was relieved it was over quickly. Well, that was fun. Who was a piece of work again?

Okay. Fair enough. Maybe I wasn’t the nice girl after all. Come on. Nice girls don’t get the guy, the house, the car, and definitely not the sperm, at least not just for being nice anyway.

I was being me, in the best survival mode. Complicated and sometimes, yes, crazy.  Nice, in fact, might at times be part of my identity but it would never define me. Neither would pretty or smart or fun or even psycho bitch — no offence taken. Because I knew I was never limited to any of those adjectives or labels, to anyone’s perception of me, or even my own perception of myself at any given point in time. Because I was constantly evolving, and learning to accept myself for all my colours was my own journey, not anyone else’s. When look fades and failure knocks on doors, when money burns and lovers walk away, I would still be me, complicated and sometimes crazy. I would still be me, whatever I was, not less, not more, but full and enough.

Right — just like Pretty was so much more than pretty. Smart was so much more than smart. And Fun was so much more than fun. I’d chosen to look at the world and people as though they were all two-dimensional pictures, mute and flat, tightly in their place, because then I would have a self-fulfilling story, a straightforward explanation pleasing my fragile ego. I’d made a big misjudgement on those women and even myself while refusing to see reality for how uncontrollable and crude it was. We’re real people. We’re beyond definitions. We’re all so much more than those patronising, little boxes into which society and friends and partners and literature or even our own mind try to put us. And before being a woman, we’re a living human. We’re whole. We’re worthy of love and happiness.

Ultimately, that guy and I parted way. I didn’t want an angry asshole and he didn’t want a crazy bitch — understandable. A few weeks later, I ran into Smart — her name was Naomi — and we ended up becoming friends. I found out, first, she was even more gorgeous than Pretty — Alicia — and secondly, the real reason the guy and she had broken up wasn’t because she was rigid or uptight. But because, guess what, he couldn’t keep up with her uninhibited sexual lifestyle. Fun fact, Naomi once invited him to an orgy and it was where he met Fun — Kathryn. They bonded over the fact that they ain’t about that life.

Short StoriesEllen Nguyen