I am cursed to love those who do not have the capacity to love me in return; I am cursed to fear those who love me with no expectations to return.
“It’s me, isn’t it?”
Nate didn’t respond to my question immediately. “A little bit,” he finally said, his eyes diverted to the floor of his kitchen.
I felt like I was trapped inside a stove, my body running hot from the excessive amount of alcohol I had consumed earlier. I sipped on the glass of water he provided, but the direction of our conversation supplied me with a secondary source of nausea that could not be calmed by proper hydration. I leaned forward in my chair, bracing my forehead against my hand.
When the day began, I had looked forward to seeing Nate after my work party. We usually saw each other over the weekend and on Mondays for climbing, but he was unavailable due to other unnamed commitments. Like I usually did in social settings, I drank beyond my capacity, to the point that (after telling my co-workers I loved them profusely) I stumbled out onto the streets of Jersey City, fiddling with my phone so that I could get an Uber to bring me to his apartment. When the driver, an aspiring DJ with a unionized day job in sanitation, dropped me off, I handed him ten dollars as a tip, rambling on about how he was a wonderful person with fantastic dreams and that he deserved a shitload of money for getting me to my friend’s apartment.
I wasn’t so inebriated that my judgment of the driver was independent of his actual behavior. He was amiable and talkative, asking me about my job and telling me about his own endeavors. And when I stumbled out of his backseat, clearly drunk, he called my phone to ask if I was certain this was the place. I said, Yes, of course! This is my friend’s apartment! He waited until Nate opened the door and for me to walk inside before driving away.
Oh, Nate. I love you, I thought, my drunken stupor exacerbating the feelings I had for him. I found my fuck buddy inexplicably attractive, and the way he made me laugh about the most ridiculous things provided me with memories to take into my time apart from him.
From the moment Nate and I met, we had amazing rapport. It was difficult for me to not develop feelings so quickly, especially when I had never felt a current of friendship underneath either sex or love prior to meeting him. To me, our connection was undeniable, as visible to the world as Polaris in the night sky. We were both extremely easy going and shared certain commonalities in how we came to be single. As time went on, we spent more and more of the week together, altering our normal routines to accommodate the other. On the nights he’d sleep at my apartment, we’d stay awake for hours after midnight, talking about nothing and everything, interrupting our discussions to fuck.
When I decided to move, and find a more affordable arrangement with a roommate, he helped me secure a room in one of his friend’s apartments. Through our shared activity of rock climbing, I was introduced to some of the people who were in his orbit. And our interior lives tangled more and more from there.
At the same time, he was clear that he didn’t want a relationship – not with me, or anyone. For a time, I also had this nagging feeling that I had been too frank, too honest about the events that led me to my current situation in life. Was it him, or was it me? The idea that it could be the latter was painful. As open as I was with my sexuality, ready to enjoy sex for what it was outside of any emotional attachments, I never wanted to be someone’s placeholder.
Whatever the answer, the fact that he didn’t want our connection to develop into more was hard to accept, especially as my idea of casual never included this level of familiarity. Our undefined relationship confused me, and I reflected on what I thought he was saying in between the lines instead of on his explicitly stated desire to remain single. You know how I know I like you? I was kinda jealous when I saw your profile on Bumble.
My slow and steady ascent to sobriety was accompanied by the feeling that it was me, my actual person and not any specific action executed within our time knowing each other, that ruined any shot I had with him.
“It would’ve been better for me to not to be so open,” I said. “Is that part of it?”
“Maybe,” Nate said. “I think so.”
Realistically, the explanation of his reluctance couldn’t be reduced to a single factor. Most of the time, I was certain that he just didn’t want to think about how he felt. His energy was turned towards being in the moment and staying there; any girl who looked back and forward would be both disappointed and a disappointment.
At the time, however, blaming myself was the most familiar response I had to the letdowns of life.
“I know what it’s like to be on the other side of the conversation,” I said to Nate. We walked around Montclair aimlessly, killing time before he left for a date later in the evening. “I met a guy a couple days ago. He was two years sober, and it’s all we really talked about. I felt like I understood what it was like to meet me.”
“It’s a lot, yeah,” Nate said. “But look at you. It’s commendable. You’re reevaluating your approach to dating.”
Because you made me feel like I was too much, I wanted to say, but I held my tongue. “Yeah, it was a lot.”
This was the first time we had been alone since the morning after my work party. I had texted him later that day, letting him know I couldn’t keep throwing myself against a wall. We could be friends, but I was tired of embarrassing myself. He was kind in response. Amendable, too. In reality, I wanted him to either exit my life or agree to make a commitment. I didn’t expect that he’d embrace the middle road, keeping me within the periphery of his life as a friend.
The silence between us was filled with Christmas music. It’s still November, I thought, irritated by the holidays’ approach.
“At the same time,” I said, pausing to gather my thoughts. “I get it in a way you never will. With this kind of shit, it becomes a part of your identity. It’s hard to not bring up something that guides a lot of your choices, or is just a large part of your past. It feels like you’re lying.”
“You’re right,” Nate said. “I probably don’t understand.”
I shook my head. “I don’t expect you to. But it’s one of those things where I wish people were more empathetic.”
“Dating’s a game,” he said.
“Of omission,” I said. “I’m not sure I like it.”
“I’m in recovery from bulimia,” I said.
After we got back from the movie, Nate and I spent our second date in my bedroom, eventually pursuing a third round. Exhausted, we migrated to the living room after we showered together, where I showed him a video of me squatting 195lbs. I’m only paying attention to your ass, he had said, and laughed. When he asked me for my handle, I paused. And then I said admitted the above.
“And my Instagram mentions that. I don’t want you to feel weird, reading about that kind of shit.”
“Oh,” Nate said. “That doesn’t bother me.”
“After everything else I’ve told you, I would hope not,” I said, smiling broadly. His response provided me with an overwhelming sense of relief, as I was still trying to navigate this particular disclosure. While he seemed to accept that I had been married and that my last serious relationship was sexually abusive, Bulimia Nervosa was a different matter. A mental illness, bigger and scarier than most baggage. Worse than the random facts I had mentioned on our first date, like being something of an orphan, or the rebound that I tried to settle down with immediately after I left my abuser. He took everything in stride, or so it seemed.
“I know I’m a mess,” I said.
“We’re both two people trying to figure ourselves out,” he said. “You’re pretty normal, all things considered. You could be a miserable sack of shit.”
Sometimes I am, I thought. “I just want to live apart from all of that. That’s why I like you,” I said, following my words with an aggressive kiss that he returned in kind.
He accepted me. And in a way, I loved him for that. I needed to know I wasn’t broken more than I needed a friend or a lover.
Thank you, I thought, biting his bottom lip gently.
I don’t want to ever forget what it was like to fall in love, as much as his final judgment of my feelings made me feel something of a fool.
An hour, I wanted to tell him, holds no more value than a minute: time simply measures the distance between the beginning and the end. Moments of joy are not bound by the intervals in which they were born – and they should be assessed through their meaning alone. For that reason, loving you for a day was as significant to me as the love I bore you for months to come. Maybe it makes me simple, to come to this conclusion, to be vulnerable in this way with you. But I can’t count the times I laughed disruptively in public, reading your next response in our goofy banter. The times you bit your lip while concentrating, engaged in some shared activity, and I’d feel like I was seeing you without your armor. However short you feel our time together was, I can’t even count every single time I made you smile, whether we were friends or more, and I felt so glad to know you and to know that I brought some kind of joy into your life.
As the year changed, you maintained that it was silly, the intensity of my affection for you. But does happiness need to exist until the Earth rotates around the sun for you to believe as I do? To not love me, and to not even care, but to not doubt or invalidate my desire to have you in my life? Had we remained loosely connected, would your opinion even change, time nothing more than an excuse to reject me?
But even if he could hear the monologues I think, I know now that our beginning and our end were bound to meet. He had made up his mind before we ever met, and saw love in a very different light. Unlike me, he held onto the damage others inflicted, as if letting go and moving on would be more painful than his near pathological fears to be vulnerable, to love again and to lose. Even without knowing this to be true, there is a part of me that wishes I had heeded his dour prophecies about how I would move on, should anything happen. That even in our friendship, I would find someone to help me forget about him. Not so that I’d cut my losses sooner, no – I would just know that his inability to love me was not exclusively my failure. I would not spend the time I did blaming myself for not being enough even prior to his absence from my life.
While most people protect their needs without empathy, or simply fail to balance the two, I brought him into my world the way I had so many others: I was empathetic to the point of rejecting my own needs. I could see myself repeating the pattern, but I also held onto the thought that this was different. In the past, I simply thought it was my duty to put other people’s needs before my own. My own past made me much like a well, designed to nourish others until my depletion. This time, however, I was actually in love. I accepted that he was broken. I even accepted that he would not love me. I just wanted him to care for me as much as I cared for him, too wrapped up in the great moments we shared to recognize the incongruity of my thoughts. He would give as he had taken, I thought. But he didn’t, not always; eventually, it became more accurate to say “seldom” rather than “often.”
In lacking a balance of my own, I became unraveled. With having not met my own needs to satisfy his own, the confidence I gained in embracing my freedom from a defined relationship turned into anxiety and unhappiness over time. When I was raped before Christmas, following a date with someone I had only agreed to so that I would not feel so alone during the holidays, I wanted to lean on him for support. But my function in his life precluded this level of attachment and need. I couldn’t put this on him, he said, not wrong, even though it hurt to hear. And he turned away, taking a slow departure from my life.
As I move forward, I don’t want to dwell on the idea that I’m a broken person. I’ve spent too much of my life believing that I don’t deserve happiness or love. Instead I want to focus on feeling in love for the first time as an adult, for allowing myself to be vulnerable when I doubted that I would be anything but. And I can still think about the moments we shared, or the warmth he brought into my life, and know that I can have that again – with someone who will not be made uncomfortable by my kindness, and who will appreciate the intensity of my love.
It took 28 years to find the man who made me feel that I’m capable of truly loving someone else. Knowing that, I won’t judge myself for the time it may take to find this again, to have my feelings reciprocated by someone who is ready to love me too. With this experience, I can see that I deserve more, that genuine affection cannot live on the shoulders of one.
With the said, I will not regret that I love him. I will not deny the place in my heart that he’ll stay, a person I will always cherish, even if at a distance. I will not try to forget the nights we stayed up until the sun returned to the horizon, laughing and talking. I will never hate him, even as he begged me to do so. Because whether I knew him for a minute, or an hour, or a day, he provided my life with new meaning. And much to his dismay, he taught me how to love.
For too long, I played the contortionist, bending without breaking until I fit the shape of the scripts you provided. My existence in your life was carefully curated and intentionally finite. Amber, you were fun. You were easy. Even then, my performance was reviewed in the context of your narrative, my character some reduction of fiction designed only to advance the plot.
But no woman wants to live as someone else’s story. When I refused to be reduced, you destroyed the version of me you created. Worse, you were vindictive over my exit from the role; you made me doubt that I could live as more than just a subplot, too desperate in my need to be at the center of the tale and too broken to deserve it.
I never wanted this: to be
just another subplot in your
You’re a phantom of companionship, entering stage right when your loneliness submits to the inconvenience of my love. Congratulations, friend. You made ethereal into an ugly word.
At 28, it feels sad to recognize that I will always be a project partial in its completion – as if I were a child’s unfinished craft left on the classroom’s shelf, or a bridge almost built and then suddenly abandoned. This is the most charitable view I’ve turned towards the problems I’ve struggled with throughout my adulthood: to see myself as incomplete, rather than ruined, is progress.
For a long time, I felt that the world did not change. The people that entered and left me were fragments of my parents, reflecting a reality created in abuse and neglect. As I fell into familiar patterns, I began to think that I wasn’t just broken. No, broken things can be repaired. I was instead a walking gash for toxic men to fill and cleave, a well with walls of flesh made to store their poison.
“Daddy, I sleep to forget you.” I ended a poem I wrote in high school with this line. The teacher didn’t ask me what it meant. When I wore pants that were four sizes too large during my senior presentation, or cried in the parking lot before entering the cafeteria, the non-response of the people around me made me feel like I was invisible.
On the occasions I open up, I’m told I’m strong – but quite frankly, I’m not. The ways in which I cope provide short term relief while destroying the overall quality of my life. And as much as I yearn to not feel like I’m walking through a hell I made, I compulsively throw myself into the role of its architect.
Am I supposed to be grateful that I survived? To be perfectly honest, I’m not. Being a survivor means making peace with the knowledge that you’d be less damaged, less prone to self-destruction, had you been born into a different family. When the only parent that says they love you is the same as the one that beats you, it’s not that you lose your innocence. Being called a dirty cunt by your father doesn’t change that you’re just a child. Instead, you establish a baseline that normalizes your dysfunctional family dynamic; you assume that it’s normal for dads to talk sex with their eleven year old children. And when you finally realize that what you lived with all along was not ok, you can’t untangle your father’s hands and words from the person you’ve become.
Originally I tried to end this on an uplifting note. The foundation of my existence is made up of bones and neural connections. As unfinished as I may be, I can remind myself that I’m not undressed steel beams; my equal is not some pink pipe cleaner pasted in haste to a cardboard tube. That the comparison ends where my ability to change and learn begins. I wrote that I’m unsure if I’ll ever have the ability to see the strength other people see in me, but that I have too much time left in this world to let myself believe I will always be a victim, or that I can’t live a life like the ones I envy.
I can’t commit to those thoughts, though. More often than not, I feel that improvement doesn’t matter. Change is difficult, and I don’t have anyone in my life to keep me accountable. People confuse my ability to take a beating with being strong. The truth is I’m more like a cockroach: I survive the caustic, and will live on even when my body is subject to other people’s boots.
When I wake up, I tell myself it’s a new day. I can do better; I can close the gaps. But eventually I fuck up. I always do.