Years after that first look across a crowded room, things look different but feel very much the same. The Queen has been banished, the other men in my life pushed aside, and still we aren’t together in any meaningful sense. Our families have not met; we do not share our friends. Our lives continue on, parallel but still deliberately separate, somehow both easier and more difficult than before.
We share a whiskey on my porch, and he asks me something that I didn’t see coming.
“What would you do if I said I loved you?” he asks, which is such a roundabout way of admitting something you’d rather not. I wonder what it says about him that he phrases it this way; what it says about me that I’m not surprised.
“Run,” I reply shamelessly, determined to be unaffected by the question. I think we both know I’m lying. I can’t tell him I’ve thought about this moment a thousand times, a thousand versions of something that should feel like a fairy tale but never actually does.
I can’t tell him I’ve loved him since before I was ever allowed to do such a thing.
I don’t know who it would scare more.
I finish my drink and decide, once again, to keep my personal disasters to myself. I do that far more often than anyone should; I worry a lot about what that particular impulse means. My instinct is to protect him from me, when it probably should be to protect myself from him.
We’ve developed a lot of habits like that one, spent years building up walls to guard our hearts from one another. Now we’re suddenly trying to be the people we’ve always been, but with honesty and emotion this time. That’s a recipe for ruin if I’ve ever heard one. We’ve spent so much time hiding our lives and feelings from each other that now we don’t know how to share them, and it’s awkward when we try.
We keep discovering, over and over, how little we know one another. It’s disconcerting that I can love someone this powerfully without knowing much about him at all.
“You act like you don’t need me,” he says another day, which is supposed to sting, but doesn’t. He wants me to contradict him, wants me to detail all the ways in which he saves me. He wants to hear my need; hear that he is necessary to me, that I need him. I decide not to tell him how hard I’ve worked to ensure that I don’t. In recent years I’ve arranged my life around making sure I don’t need him, and I’m mostly just relieved that he noticed.
It takes him months to get up the courage to try again, and once again I don’t see it coming. I never learn.
“I love you,” he says, and there’s a long pause as I try not to panic. Why he thought it would be safe to love me, I don’t understand. I am emotionally unstable, certainly damaged, and a verified flight risk. I am the least advisable investment he could deign to make. I am the physical embodiment of an unreliable narrator.
I feel something inside me rise up in protest, but I don’t give it a voice.
I think I love him because he indulges my self-destruction without actively participating in it.
I don’t know how to exist in a world where this man loves me. I don’t know how to exist in a world where I believe he actually does. I’ve spent such a long time convincing myself that he never would, and now this strange and unexpected moment has arrived, and my mind shuts down like it needs to protect itself from harm.
Maybe it does.
This is Part Seven of a ten-part series. Missed the others? Start with Part One, and please consider leaving a tip!