Maybe she’s just prettier. Perhaps he was just an easy choice, more malleable than the men I’ve chased, more emotionally available. I don’t know the answer, but I bring my imagination to their relationship regardless. He just looks so happy to be here with her that I can’t help but wonder what they discussed on the car ride over, if they went out for brunch first at one of Hoboken’s nearby bars. The man’s smile, fixed across his bearded face, probably made her feel warm when she walked with him side by side, even in the chilly outdoors.
When it occurs to me that no one has looked at me that way in a long time, I feel a sense of sadness that’s difficult to put into words. I’m often the object of people’s lust, but I have felt little in the way of being loved.
I come back to the thought that I’m lacking. I always do. She looks more like a woman compared to me, at least from what I can see at a distance. Her climbing skills are certainly better than mine: she’s ascending the white and blue rock wall at a steady clip, pushing off footholds with her long legs. Whereas she’s graceful and lithe, I’m brute strength in an incongruously small and childlike package. It’s likely not just about the looks, either. I’ve had a hard life. I have baggage.
If jealousy and envy are not the same, then it’s the latter I feel when her companion shouts “to the left.” I’ve asked Sean, who is not my boyfriend, to become belay certified, but that’s too much of a commitment for the man I regularly drive to the rock gym. I watch him now, his black work shirt rolling up his back as he makes his way on one of the bouldering walls. He finds the routes easier to solve than I do, especially since we started climbing together regularly, and completes a V5 that I can’t even start. For such a tall and not particularly graceful man, he actually looks athletic in this moment. When he climbs down and turns to smile at me, I feel my face tremble slightly, my tear ducts warming. I want to cry. As alarming as this is, I find that when I spend too much time with him, I come close to breaking down.
Eventually he will become one half of the couples I desire to be, but I won’t be the woman to close the circle. Friend, fuck buddy, lover – but not his girlfriend, and not his partner.
It will never be you, he’ll eventually tell me. But I know this now. The problem is that I hold onto the lessons of my childhood: the people you love are supposed to cause you pain; the more pain you bear, the more true your feelings. He doesn’t love me, and he may not even care about me. But I accept that, because it’s not the worst way someone’s responded to my love for them.
In a year, I’ll excavate the part of me that considers what I deserve in relation to how I’m treated, but that will be a sad day too, because what I will realize is that I don’t know how to give love to men that are able to love me in return. If I don’t suffer, it’s just not real. What a joke, I’ll think, to come so far in my life and still be so broken.
For now, however, it’s my turn to climb. I push my hands, one after the other, through the opening of my chalk bag, a white plume following each motion. “You were awesome,” I say to Sean. And I walk past him, placing my fingers on the start of a problem I can solve.