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I matched with her on one of those swipe-right apps.
She mentioned searching out the best slice of pie, and backpacking through Madagascar. I wrote that my favorite pie, so far, was to be found in San Francisco, and I had also spent three months hopping around with lemurs.
We talked for about a week. She worked at one of the local cafes I frequent, which I mentioned to her (I didn’t want to show up there, as if I were doing it solely to bug her at work). We talked about going on a date, but hadn’t made any concrete plans just yet.
Eventually, the day came when I did happen upon this cafe.
She was working. I was having beers with two other friends.
I said hello. She looked up at me, nonplussed.
“Do I know you?” She asked.
“I’m Zeri.” I replied, my heart pounding.
“Oh!” She said something about my day-drinking, and quickly went on working.
Later that night, I wrote to her something jokingly about how that first interaction didn’t go exactly how I imagined it in my mind, but to reach out if she still wanted to meet. She responded she did still want to meet; she had been taken off guard, was busy, and didn’t know how to react earlier. We made plans to have dinner later that week. I joked that we should have enough time to grab happy hour, catch a flight to Africa, and still be home by around 8 p.m.
After dinner, we went for drinks. I told her a little about this past year for me. Cancer. Taking a year off from grad school. At some point, when I was about to ask if I could kiss her, I froze up.
“I got nervous just then,” I told her, as well as what I was about to ask. She doubled over, laughing.
“We can kiss, but just for a moment. I’m not a fan of PDA.” She kissed almost aggressively. I tried to slow her down.
She invited me to a dinner and hot tub party with some of her friends the next day. Some of my old fears came up at the thought of this prospect. Would she still be attracted to me after she saw me in my swim trunks? I went, nonetheless. It snowed as we sat in the hot water. We ran back to her apartment, ahead of her friends, and kissed once we got our feet out of the slush.
Once everyone else had left, I asked if she’d like me to leave as well.
“You can spend the night…” she said, lighting candles in her room. She thought she was coming down with a sinus infection and, as we continued kissing on her bed, kept apologizing for not being able to breathe through her nose. She also had a stitch in one of her shoulders. “It makes carrying the trays at work so painful,” she sighed. I rubbed her back, kissing it occasionally. She reached back with her free hand to hold mine.
“Are you clean?” She asked me.
“I am,” I smiled back in the candlelight.
The sex was short. I came quickly.
I speedily rambled, “That’s the first time I’ve had sex since the surgery and chemo…” as she got me a T-shirt to clean myself with.
“Oh really? How was that?” she asked.
I told her that it had hurt a little. That I worried I came too fast.
“Oh, it was great…” she said quickly. “I’m really tired.”
She told me I could leave if I wanted to. Or read, if I wasn’t tired. I said I could go to sleep as well. We kissed once more. She placed her hand on mine as she turned and tucked herself in.
I wanted to cuddle, but found myself wondering if it was something she wanted. I didn’t ask or initiate.
In the morning, I found myself again feeling quiet, shy, and something was keeping me from initiating much communication at all. We got ready for the day in silence. Before leaving, we lay on her couch for a bit. She wasn’t looking forward to working; I rubbed in-between her eyes. I felt insecure about whether she still liked me. I had, in a way, lost myself in that fear.
I asked her soon after if she would like to have dinner again, to which she said yes. I also bought her some oregano oil for her cold, which I planned to give her if I ran into her (which I did), and I also wrote her a few times to the effect that I had enjoyed our time and wanted to get to know her better. I believe I also may have written that I found her quite lovely.
When the night came for us to meet again, a week later as she had a busy week, she canceled shortly before our date. Her throat was killing her, she said. “So no sushi,” I replied.
“Not tonight.” Was all I heard back. Unlike her past messages to me, this was short and direct—with no apologizing. I could feel her placing a boundary upon us.
Because I know my attachment style, and that I often want to reach out perhaps a touch too much, I asked a few friends, both men and women, for advice. It was all the same. Give her space. Let her contact me.
Instead, I reached out about three days later, asking if she still wanted to continue this new relationship. Of course, I knew I was in sticky waters already, and this wouldn’t help.
She ended things…then, saying that she didn’t know if we wanted the same things. She told me I was a nice guy, but that she wasn’t ready to date just now.
I pestered her in an attempt to continue the conversation. I acted from a place of reactivity, from a place of feeling rejected, rather than from one of feeling strong and confident in myself. “Would you like to tell me why you don’t feel ready to date?” I asked, almost as if to prove that I was not always so nice.
“I don’t think I owe you that,” she said, now to the point where she was becoming frustrated, “I wish you would simply respect the boundary I just set.” This would be our last exchange.
My intention was simply to show her that I cared for her, and that I did not plan on disappearing just as soon as I got laid. And yet this was not what this woman, who I have attempted to describe as the beautifully, lovely being that she was, wanted or needed. So she pushed me away. Rightly so.
Now, I happen to know exactly where my over-reaching in relationships comes from. I had an abusive father. I reached out for his love, and he pulled away. Eventually, he would take his life, in effect abandoning his children. So I learned a couple of things when I was very little, which I realize I now bring in to my intimate relationships.
I learned that I could not trust another to love me, or if they did love me, they would surely abandon me.
I also learned that I almost exclusively gravitate toward women whose own attachment style reflects that of my father’s—the sort who would interpret my behavior as too clingy.
I carry a great deal of grief from this childhood experience. Rejection, for me, is the adult embodiment of this parental abandonment. It still amazes me, in fact, how I can watch myself flow through all stages of the grieving process when a relationship ends. Sometimes I cycle through these stages in a day or two. Sometimes it takes months.
And when rejection comes—as it does—it is oh so easy to fall into an all-or-nothing mentality, or the belief that things will never change. “I am depressed, and I will always be depressed. It has never been different, and it never will be.” But this is a grand fallacy of our time. For there is actually nothing wrong with me, or you, or any of us.
You see, hiding from the ways I learned to relate to those partners of mine—ways I had no choice in—is not the way to change how I show up in relationships.
These are aspects of myself, pieces that have helped shape the man I am today. This man is one who is able to care greatly. To love greatly. And to feel greatly. It is only truly when I forget myself—when I fall back into that helpless child I once was, and lose touch with the rather tall, strong, confident, and independent man that this child became—that I find that old grief to be crippling.
And that is when my inner child shows up; lest I forget that this child will always be there, in some fashion. He wants to be loved, and so he will look for that love in partners. But when I have not lost myself in another, I am able to give the love that I need to my little self, as well as show up as the man I am in relationships.
I want my intimate partners to be just that: partners. Partners in crime and play and vulnerability and love. This sort of behavior can easily be construed as, let’s call it “the nice-guy trope” which, for reasons unknown, has never been seen as a particularly attractive trait for our common man. Indeed, like it or not, the f*ck boys of the world seem to get more of what they want.
But I choose to lean in to my discomforts in relationship. I choose the possibility of being hurt, time and again, to crumble and to fall apart, because I choose not to hide my whole self.
And slowly, slowly, I find I am changed by such relationships. I am hurt in relationships, just as I once was, while I am also, today, healed in relationships.