David would accept the invitation to his girlfriend’s brother’s birthday party in Long Island if he knew, for a fact, that her Aunt Shirley wasn’t going to be there, but since he can’t be certain, he has no choice but to decline. Jenny will be upset, he is sure of it, but he knows that her sadness will subside, eventually, and after a few attempts by him to make up, she will remember her undying love for him and hold him in her arms once more.
This is what happens, David tells himself, when you act selflessly. He remembers like it was yesterday the evening when Jenny nervously brought it up for the first time while they were lying in bed. “Will you come to my brother’s graduation party?” she asked, almost three years ago, a year and six months after she made their relationship Facebook Official. “Will you please come?” she pleaded until he had no choice but to say yes.
David asked for none of this. He didn’t want to go to the graduation party then, but he knew that he had to make an appearance if he wanted to keep Jenny in his life. And he did want to keep her around. He probably didn’t love her (no one could ever know such things, he always told people, as if he understood that the secret to a happy relationship was a healthy dose of ignorance), but he appreciated her willingness to experiment sexually and enjoyed talking to her about movies and music and believed at age 23 that exciting sex and stimulating conversation was enough to sustain a long-term relationship.
Jenny’s brother Chris is cool and her mother Cheryl is always welcoming, but Aunt Shirley is dreadful and should be avoided at all costs. Retired, unmarried and childless, Aunt Shirley is the type of post-menopausal woman who talks endlessly about conspiracy theories on Christmas Eve (the landing on the moon never happened, she once insisted) and makes inappropriate sex jokes in front of little children (David will be forever scarred by her candid talk of pubic hair on the 4th of July picnic last year), an insecure narcissist who spends thousands of dollars on plastic surgery that no one notices but her (apparently Dr. Bergenstein gave her an eye lift), an obnoxious troll who talks louder than necessary in one-on-one conversations at restaurants just to make sure that everyone else in the room can hear what she has to say (her voice especially carried after two glasses of White Zinfandel). Not this time, David declares. After two Christmases, a Thanksgiving, and countless summer barbecues, David could not subject himself to another one of Aunt Shirley’s ambushes.
The thought of it disgusts David. Aunt Shirley always found a way to corner him for an hour and talk his ear off about how terrible the Republican Party was (can you believe the lies they tell themselves?), how happy she was to be retired at 56 (can you believe it’s been five years now?), how living alone wasn’t so bad (can you believe these women who take orders from their husbands?), and when he thinks about how she stood about three inches too close to his face during conversation, how she put her hand on his shoulder the way Jenny sometimes does after he tells a funny joke, he almost vomits. No, he will not go to the birthday party, and there’s nothing Jenny can say to change his mind.
He will never tell Jenny this, of course. Jenny loves Aunt Shirley and considers her to be the second parent that she never really had. After Jenny’s dad died in a car accident, Aunt Shirley came to Jenny’s rescue in the way that only single aunts with no real responsibilities of their own can. She comforted Jenny and was always there through those tricky teenage years, doling out relationship advice and providing tips for a successful career. And although an outsider might appreciate Aunt Shirley’s efforts, David felt nothing but resentment because he saw that the worst parts about Jenny, the characteristics that made him like her less, came from Aunt Shirley. And when he wrestled with and ultimately accepted the fact that he would never be able to reveal the truth about Aunt Shirley, that he could never let Jenny know that Aunt Shirley was a toxic woman who gave her the wrong advice about everything, that she shattered the spirits of everyone in sight, that she was, quite possibly, the worst person he had ever met in his life and the person he dreaded seeing the most, he only hated Aunt Shirley more for having such an influence. Because of Aunt Shirley’s important role in Jenny’s life, David made the decision long ago to spare Jenny’s feelings and withhold his true sentiments, so it was only fair that he could skip the party this one time.
David had a few hours to prepare. He decided earlier in the day to disappoint Jenny in a public place, so he asked her to meet him for a few drinks at Skinny Dennis, their favorite bar in Williamsburg. He figured the presence of others would limit her anger to a bearable degree (she was always self-conscious and hated when couples made a scene, a quality he took advantage of whenever he could), and although he admitted that it would be difficult, he suspected that he could still get her to stay over and have sex with him if he strategically told her the bad news immediately after he ordered the second round of drinks. He knows her well, and if there’s one thing she hates more than him letting her down, it’s wasted alcohol, and if there’s one thing she can’t control, it’s her desire to sleep with him after the alcohol hits her system, and if there’s one thing she always displays, it’s her ability to get rip-roaring drunk after approximately two alcoholic drinks.
Yes, Jenny will be upset upon hearing the news and try to convince David to come to her brother’s birthday party, but as she slowly sips her second gin and tonic, the alcohol will take over and she will stop arguing. When she regains her senses the morning after and realizes that David isn’t going to budge about the party (and he won’t this time), she will go back to being upset for a little while, but David is willing to deal with this, so long as he can have sex with her tonight because, well, it’s been exactly one week and three days since he last saw Jenny and a week without sex in your twenties is just too damn long.
As David picks out his outfit, the usual jeans and t-shirt, he thinks about all the times he bit his tongue and went to Jenny’s family events without a fuss, and suddenly he feels less guilty about not wanting to go to this one. He adds up all his good deeds and compromises, all his sacrifices to spare her feelings and shield her from the cold truth about Aunt Shirley, and he concludes that he is a great boyfriend, and that her inevitable expression of disappointment over his decision, while expected, could never be considered reasonable to any sane person who studies their relationship. He knows that he will be the asshole in her eyes (which boyfriend isn’t?), but he can live with this because he is not the asshole, not in any moral universe that measures goodness.