One of the saddest experiences I’ve had dating was Stricken. I noticed him at a party. It was hard to miss him beneath the colored streamers. He was stick thin and wearing a wig. His glasses seemed to fill out his shrunken face. I wondered what the matter was. People seemed to know him from school and he joined in the conversations easily. He ambled over and started making small talk. After a few moments, he had put me at ease and I could put aside what he looked like. Then the unexpected happened.
“Would you like to go out?” he asked. Zoom. Suddenly his skeletal appearance and his wig boomeranged right back into view. No one had ever met me at a party and asked me out on the spot. I was flattered, but caught unawares. I couldn’t think straight and said “Yes.”
I could not sleep that night. As I tossed and turned and fought with my blanket, I had more time to think. Was I a shallow person who did not want to be seen in public with Stricken? Would I be thrilled to date him if he were not sick? Would Stricken give me a chance, or be remotely interested in me if he were not ill and other girls did not turn him down? Would he be fairer to me than other men had been? The men who judged me by where I lived, what school I had attended, my parents’ lack of degrees and professional credentials or the fact that I was first generation American?
I did not know, but I re-evaluated. He was clearly smart, confident, and probably incredibly cute when he wasn’t ill. God was giving me a chance. In this cut-throat dating scene where men had lists of women waiting for a chance to date them, God had sent a man who didn’t have a list. I was at the top of his list. This was an opportunity. I would look forward to this date.
Stricken picked me up and started driving. I was glad we were both facing the road because he had seemed shockingly weak and gaunt at the door. He had looked at me with hunger in his eyes – the look a man has when he sees a beautiful woman out of his reach. I was not accustomed to being looked at that way. It frightened me.
At the restaurant, he again tried to put me at ease. But this was different from the party where everyone knew him. We were in a public restaurant, where every waiter suddenly appeared incredibly hale, hearty, and handsome in comparison, where the couples at the other tables turned to stare, where I was clearly struggling against the shallowness in my mind. Perhaps I was not mature enough to handle this. He was created in the image of God and he was a good, good person. Why God had afflicted him with this illness was hard to understand. It weighed on me. We hadn’t addressed it at all.
“Um… there’s something I…”
“It’s okay,” he knew where I was going with this, “it’s cancer – but I am a fighter and I plan on beating this thing.” He slapped the table as though it were the “thing.”
He told me about the big rabbi he had gone to for a blessing, who had gifted him a silver Kiddush cup with a blessing for a long and healthy life.
He looked at me, “I’m determined to get married and use this Kiddush cup at my chuppah.”
Oh my, oh my, oh my. My heart raced. Had he set his heart on marrying me? I studied the stain on the tablecloth. I could not meet his eyes. I wanted to go home and cry.
Later at home, I cried to my mother about illness and choices and what-do-I-dos? I prayed to God, “Please help me navigate this. Tell me what to do.” I could barely last through that one dining experience, how could I date or marry him? What if he died, God forbid? I’d be a young widow. I was a mess after one date, what would happen if I continued to date him?
If I rejected him, would it hurt him after one date as much as YeshivaGuy’s semi-rejection after months, had hurt me? Yes, I thought, it would. Should I continue to see him because I felt too sorry to reject him? He would not want that. This was going to be painful one way or another. I could not handle it. I was a complete and utter wreck.
He called and chatted about his plans for our next date. My stomach was lurching, but I had to stop this right away. I did not want to give him false hope for another moment. I interrupted him. “There’s something I need to speak to you about.” He was quiet. He knew what was coming. I felt dreadful.
“Don’t bother,” he spat back, “you think I don’t know what you’re gonna tell me? You think I haven’t heard it before?” His tone shocked me. He had been so amiable and solicitous until now. I had expected hurt, shock, or sadness, but not this poisonous anger.
“People who look like you don’t have to worry about getting married like I do.” People who look like me? Some men considered me attractive while others did not, but Stricken implied more – that I was exceedingly attractive and never experienced rejection. That was entirely untrue. I tried to understand his frustration and anguish. I was not burdened with ill health and my own mortality as he was. I could not say anything right. He hung up on me.
I stared at the receiver in my shaking hand, then placed it on the table. I could not fault him for what he had done, but I still could not hang it up. Then I laid down flat on my back, my eyes open but unseeing. I willed my tears not to dribble down my cheeks. I tried to steady my breathing.
Weeks later, I tried to call him, but he refused to speak with me. Did he not understand that I did not want to hurt him, but that I did not want to mislead him either? That one could not force things?
Months later, I was home alone when someone messaged that Stricken had passed away. I stared at the words on my screen in disbelief. To find out something of this magnitude in such a casual manner had taken me aback. I had not believed he would die. Should I have continued seeing him to gladden his last few months on earth?
I had not personally known anyone as young as Stricken who had died. This time, I could not control the flood of tears. They flowed and flowed. I jumped into the shower trying to wash away my self-loathing, my unforgiven sin, my anger at him, my pain for him, my regrets.
I learned that it is painful to be rejected, but sometimes it’s equally painful to turn down someone else. The relentless storm of tears went on and on. I thought of his silver Kiddush cup cradled in its velvet box, unused. My tears would have overflowed that cup.