When we were single, my friends and I had endless conversations about what we wanted in a mate. Melissa (these names are all made up) wanted a man who was in touch with his feelings. (Last I heard, she was still living solo in her Upper East Side studio.) Mary wanted to meet someone from a "good" family (read: wads and wads of dough). She did, and resides these days in a leafy Connecticut suburb. Peter wanted a woman who was thin and shared his love of physical fitness. (He suffered two fractured ribs once in a kickboxing class, at the foot of a woman he had a crush on.)
I just wanted to marry someone who wouldn't embarrass me in front of waiters.
Sounds trivial, right? Not really. I kissed a few toads before I met my Prince Charming, and discovered along the way that ? more than anything else ? I wanted to spend my life with a man who had heart, compassion, and good manners. I found all that and more, eventually, but that's another story.
This one is about How Not to Marry a Sociopath. One of the easiest ways to tell is how he treats other people. If you find yourself making excuses for him, smoothing things over, or explaining that he "just has a quirky sense of humor," my advice is run, don't walk, away from him.
What he does to others, he will eventually do to you.
I learned this ? not from real life ? but from Caroline Hughes, the main character in A Dark Love.
"I hate her," said my friend Rubin after reading an early draft. "I liked the characters in your early books." (I've written and published two chick-lit romantic comedies.) "They were fun and sexy and cute. Like you. Not Caroline. She's a victim. I don't like her."
I was crushed. Rubin Carson is a successful writer in Los Angeles, besides being one of my favorite people on the planet. But to tell the truth, I wasn't sure I could relate to Caroline either.
Or could I?
Like me, she is a student at a private East Coast university. She is quiet and shy (okay, maybe not so much there) and tends toward introspection. She is intrigued and flattered at being on the receiving end of attention from a sophisticated older man. Who wouldn't be?
Things get off to a bumpy start when she arrives late at the restaurant (not her fault) for their very first date. Porter is peeved and lets her know it. Okay, not a bang-up fun start to a first date, but we all know how doctors are: If they're running late, it's because they have a darned good reason. If you're late to meet them, you pay anyway because their time is so valuable. Right?
Things get weird when the waiter comes to take their order. Porter is rude. The waiter is annoyed. Caroline squirms in her seat.
She has arrived at a turning point and doesn't know it.
She could laugh it off. She could give a wink and a nod to the waiter, even slip him her number. (He is young and handsome and French, after all.) Another girl (one with more nerve) would do that. Caroline could confront Porter on the spot, maybe ask him point-blank what his problem is. A reserved young ingénue who isn't even sure which fork to use in a fancy restaurant is going to assert herself with an older man?
Caroline Hughes doesn't do any of these things.
Instead, she tries to smooth things over. She smiles at the waiter (not too much, for she already has caught a whiff of Porter's jealous streak). She orders quickly to make him go away and then focuses all her attention on her date, trying to make him feel better.
Porter sulks a bit and then, when he senses Caroline is fed up, he yields. He admits to having a hard time relating to people ? not Caroline ? but other people, the shallow people, the dumb people, the mean, hard, small-minded people who lack the sensitivity and deep emotions required to understand him.
The implication is that she, Caroline, is worthy.
Being young and naïve (and, yes, softhearted), Caroline is flattered by this line of reasoning. She falls for it. Before long, she carves out a role for herself to become Porter's bridge to the outside world.
And the die is cast.
What Caroline lacks is what a cop once told me he called his Spidey sense: that gut feeling that tells you something is wrong. Some people are confident enough to trust their gut from birth. Some learn it later, the hard way.
Caroline fits the latter category. There are a million times she could just throw up her hands and walk away, saying, "This just isn't any fun." Starting with that first night in the French restaurant! People who trust their Spidey sense know something doesn't feel right. To varying degrees, the rest of us hang in there and try to work it out.
Some give up sooner and some give up later.
And there are those tragic people who just won't give up no matter what.
It's all varying degrees of the same thing, in my opinion. Everybody needs to trust their own private Spidey.
In order to write A Dark Love, I had to stop being smug and judging Caroline Hughes, had to stop thinking about the ways we were different.
I needed to start thinking about the ways we were alike.