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True Love, Now

On the father figure that set me free.

By Catherine DorianPublished 11 months ago Updated 5 months ago 16 min read
True Love, Now
Photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash

I’m ashamed to admit that during each of our first three meetings, I entertained the idea that James could be a creep. When we first met, I wouldn’t tell him what school I taught at, even after he knew where’d I’d gone to undergrad and that I thought that the erosion of public discourse could be remedied—or at least stymied—by teaching the Harkness method in English and social studies classrooms. Or that I felt inadequate as I watched weekly copies of the New Yorker pile up on my desk, their edges curling up like the legs of dead spiders. Even so, I wrote down my number on a little piece of notebook paper, so we could meet up again. Part of me wondered if I was stupid. But James said he worked professionally as an editor for the American Psychological Association, and I want to be a writer.

At our second meeting, I got there an hour early and ordered a decaf latte. When he went up to the bar for a beer, I wouldn’t let him grab me one. When we side-hugged goodbye, the split-end horsehair of the braid that fell all the way to his sternum brushed my forearm; my lower abdomen bumped his belly, and I thought briefly of my dad. According to my mother, when I was a baby, all she had to do to quiet my fussing was lay me on my dad's chest; several of my friends have since become mothers, and they say the same of their babies and their husbands. Still, after our hug, I was grateful that James wanted to stay and listen to the guy playing Paul Simon covers—that way, I could walk out of there alone.

Halfway through our third meeting, one and a half hours turned into two and a half, and I said that I had to get going. James acquiesced. He followed me out to the same area of this parking lot, around the corner from the restaurant where we’d sat outside with dirty martinis.

“Dinner with your parents?” he asked. My usual excuse.


I do have dinner with my mom most Friday nights, and if my dad’s around, he sits with us before retiring to the TV, so that I can dish to my mom all about my writing and my dating life. It’s because I love their company, but also it's because I’m twenty-nine and too poor not to live with them, a fact that James had probably figured by now.

“You know how it is,” I said, as we lingered on the sidewalk. Out my peripheries, I counted the number of vehicles between here and my own and wondered which one was James’s. The coffee shop where we’d first met two months earlier had been closed since three; there were no lights to even illuminate the pastry cooler. “All they know is that I’m meeting with some guy.”

“You just rolled your eyes,” James smirked. “That’s how I can tell a woman’s being secretive.”

He told me a story about a woman that he used to see every day on the T. She told him one day that she had a date with “some guy,” and he could tell that she said it that way because she wanted him to know that she was seeing someone. That she was taken. Why do women do that?

“James—” I cut him off. “I’m sorry, I’m suddenly aware of the time. I really do need to get going.”

After we hugged, he turned and marched ahead to his car, which looked to be a standard beige something, circa mid-2000’s of generic make. I locked my door before closing it, backed out, and rushed to the main road, where I pulled out in front of another car; I needed someone else behind me as a buffer just in case he’d try to follow me home. I wondered, also, if I’d broken his heart.

The next day, I decided to be the one to reach out, this time via email. James says that my emails are a treasure, an embodiment of my powerful, palpable feminism. “I can tell that you’re a writer,” he says. I tell him that I don’t believe him.

James also says that when he first met me, he didn’t know what to make of me. A girl in suburban Massachusetts, sporting a Montana State University hat who’d purposefully left her phone in the car so she could come to a coffee shop and write, who’d let some old guy like him ask her a million questions about Montana and who’d put her afternoon on pause to sit with him and talk about the Atlantic, among other things.

He likes to reminisce about that, and I like to remind him that I’m hardly unique.

“It’s more than that,” he says. “Most of the time, I know exactly how to speak to someone.” He reminds me that he was a counselor for several decades.

“Most people—I know how they’re going to react to anything I say. You, you're..." James squeezed his eyes shut and cupped his hand like he was holding a baseball. "You're continent. With you, I had to immediately adjust.”

I've told my mother that he says that. I tell my mother everything. “He’s right, you know,” she responded. “You don’t believe it when people tell you that you are unique. I’m still trying to figure out how you work. And I birthed you.”

For our fourth meeting, I was more than thirty minutes late. This was after I’d cancelled a Sunday afternoon meeting with him—I’d been stuck at school with too much grading to do and could we reschedule for this Friday? We could meet in Hudson, where he lives. When we texted later that week, I told him to pick the place. He told me that the place was a surprise, that we’d meet in the parking lot by the fire station.

“I’d rather meet you directly at the bar,” I’d texted.

“I was trying to make it easier for you,” he’d replied.

At a speakeasy that I’d been to before, I told him why I was late—I had had an interview for a job I really, really wanted. I’d been interviewing for new jobs all week, actually.

He asked me for specifics, so I told him about the Montessori school outside of Boston. “Could be amazing,” I said.

“You’re Catherine Dorian. You could do a bunch of things, and they would all be amazing.”

“Nah.” I played with the orange peel in my Old Fashioned.

“Hey, now.” He gave me the side eye. I smirked.

“But that’s not the job that you really want?”

“It’s not. The one I really want is the one I interviewed for today. That’s why I was late.”

James asked me to tell him about it, so I told him about the school’s mission, its model, its professionalism. “It’s a place where I feel like I could just teach. It’s a place where I feel like I could stop using teaching as an excuse not to write.”

“And you gotta stop doing that, now.”

I thought of what he'd said at our last meeting, when we had martinis outside—when he held my hand and said I had to be a writer and that he’d do anything he could to help me get there.

“So what school is it?” he asked. “Maybe I’ve heard of it.”

“I’m sure you have. Maybe if I get the job, I’ll tell you.”

James tipped his drink. “That’s a Catherine Dorian answer.”

I only decided to send him some writing when I was desperate. The emerging writer’s contest that I’d intended to submit to for two months was closing in two days, and my other writer friends had jobs and husbands and babies. So, I texted James in a panic. Could I send him three essays?

Of course I could.

He texted less than twenty-four hours later. Could we talk on the phone for a bit? For the first time since meeting him, I felt shaken. It was the nervousness you get when you hope that you’ve pleased someone.

“I want to preface by reminding you that I do this for a living,” he said, while I paced my childhood bedroom, now redecorated in all white and stacked with books that used to fill a living room.

“And I mean it when I say this: you’ve got it.”

“I’ve got it?”

“You’ve got it. You’re a writer.”

James’s critiques were precise. The first piece about my eating disorder—the shorter one—was tortured. It was also insular. It all takes place in one spot. The second piece moved him deeply.

"That boyfriend, he keeps her trapped, and she knows it, but they love each other."

“But the third piece—” the longer one about recovering from my eating disorder. “That was what did it. That narrator—when she admits that she can’t keep living this way because women with her condition are at a higher risk for dementia. That’s the thing, now. It's her mind. She doesn’t want to lose her mind.”

“Yes! Yes, that’s the thing.”

“It is. And I—I'm the reader, right? And there’s something that I want for her more than anything. You know what that is, now?”

I didn’t know.

“I want to set her free.”

We got off the phone nearly two hours later.

“How was your meeting with your therapist?” my mom joked lovingly from the sofa, her copy of Real Simple magazine splayed on her pajama shorts. My dad snored in his recliner.

“I really feel like I should be paying him.”

She shrugged. “He seems to love doing it for you. So long as it feels fair to him.”

As it is with any of my friends, James and I stay in touch via multiple platforms. We go up to seventy-two hours between texts, but we also tend to multiple email threads. He knows I’m slow to reply on both, and I know that he’s usually quick to reply no matter what. Sometimes, via text, he’ll make puns out of little things that I’ve said in person—he calls me the Adirondack Academic Axe because of my reclusive weekends in the mountains, and one time, when I tried to schedule a meeting for June 6, he said he was due to invade Normandy that day, actually. Three months into our friendship, I started calling them dad jokes.

"You surely are a great teacher," he replied. "Because I just got schooled!"

On the morning of what I believe was our fifth meeting, we sat outside the same coffeehouse-brewery that we’d met at for our second meeting. He asked me how I was doing, and I raved about my new job. This time, I told him what school I was hired at.

“Ah,” he leaned back. “I thought maybe it was there.”

Besides the job, what else was going on?

I told James that I had a new phase. I told him that I wrote it all in an email to him that morning—had he read it yet?

No, not yet.

Well, I’d recently finished Edit Your Life by Elisabeth Sharp McKetta, one of my former professors in my grad program. She’d given me the courage to do what I should have been doing all this past year—quit everything that doesn’t nourish my teaching or my writing and build my life around both pursuits.

James smiled, rocked back and forth, and gestured with his pointer finger in the way that he always does when he's excited.

“I could sense a change in you."

“I know.”

“What happened?”

I told him about the other weekend: the insular community in the Adirondacks where I was raised, the women from New Jersey who complimented me that one summer when you could count my ribs through my dress, my anticipated humiliation of attending the annual Memorial Day party after gaining twenty pounds.

“But then I just said, ‘fuck it.’ I’ll never please them, so I may as well please myself. I may as well have some fun.”

“That’s it, now!” Even when James shouts, it’s gentle. “That girl in the stories—I wanted to set her free. That’s what made them powerful.”

“Thank you.”

“But now—you know what you did now?”

“I think so.”

“You set yourself free.”

Two children bounced a soccer ball on the platforms of the cornhole set. A bunch of skinny guys in t-shirts with square glasses and beards entertained five conversations at once at the table next to us. Under a tent, a guy was covering The Beatles and between questions and answers, James would interrupt himself, lean back and sing out half a verse, his left hand mimicking chords on an invisible guitar.

“So, James.”

“So, Catherine.”

“I said this in my email to you this morning—you’ll read it later. Can we talk about you this time?”

“You feel like we always talk about you?”

“Yeah, I do.”

James shrugged.

“And sometimes it feels parasitic.”

“You’re not sure what I get out of this?” James straightened. “I’m, uh. I’m working on that.” He looked around. I hoped he wouldn’t ask me another question.

“You know you can call me anytime, for any reason, now, right?”

“I know I can.”

"You know what that is, now, right? That's true love."

“It is.”

“You know I love you, right?”

“I know.”

We sat there for a while, our hands clasped at the center of the grey plastic picnic table, thumbs rubbing against each other’s knuckles.

We've both expressed that for our second and third meetings, we were nervous because we couldn’t remember each other’s faces. We didn’t want to mistake one another for someone else. This time, he’d even worn a white name tag, scribbled with CATHERINE DORIAN. “Excuse me,” he’d said. “I’m looking for this girl,” he’d pointed to his chest. “It’s me!” I’d said, and he took the name tag off his chest, and I put it on my own.

By now, the foam of my latte had crusted at the bottom of the glass. His beer was down to a quarter inch of amber. He took another sip but didn’t finish it.

“You want another?”

“Nah, I’m good. Actually.” I took out my phone to check the time. 6:54 PM.

“What time you have to get out of here?”

“Like, now.”

“So soon?”

“A few more minutes.”

“Can I show you something?” James reached in his back pocket. He unlocked his phone.

“Now, I’ll bet you’ve never seen anything like this before.”

For a moment, I saw the whole thing objectively. A fifty-something-year-old just told a twenty-nine-year-old that he loved her, and they held hands and for the first time in a long time she felt like she could stay like that forever, holding someone while she let herself be held, with no expectations between them. It had felt safe. But maybe that was the before moment—the cusp of the climax before she saw something she didn’t want to see.

He went to the phone icon and opened his contacts. “See this?” he said. The list was empty. “No contacts saved.”

“I don’t keep a single number saved in my phone.”

“Not even mine?” I joked.

“No one’s.”

First, I laughed. That I had entertained the idea of seeing something vulgar was sardonic, but then, I just felt like an asshole.

“I have seen that before, you know.”


“A phone without saved contacts.”

“You have, now?” James smirked. “Catherine Dorian, you really are extraordinary. You know someone else who does that?”

“My ex-fiancé.”

“Shit, now. Really?”

I told him the synopsis of how we’d met. We were at a bar in Fort Benton, Montana, and when he’d walked me to my car, I’d taken his phone and saved my number in there, and he'd promised to keep it. I hadn't wanted him to forget me.

“Well, damn.” James heard another cover he knew and again busted out into song—this one I didn’t recognize.

“You know why I do that now, right?”

“Not save contacts in your phone?”


“I think so,” I said. “Why save any, if you’re sure that the relationship won’t last?” My ex and I had been thrown together by a town that wanted the same thing for the both of us—a wedding, a home, babies, the mechanisms that ensure the survival of a respected family name. Not too much to ask for, really, but all too much to ask of the two of us. He had a temper, and I’m timid. Plus, he was plenty comfortable alone. You even could say the boldest thing he’d ever done was love me.

“You really have to go so soon?” James asked.

“Yeah, I do.” I had an early bedtime tonight.

I grabbed our empty glasses to take back inside.

“I got it,” he said.

“You sure?”

“Yeah. I’m gonna stay for a bit.”

He had no bag with him tonight—no laptop, no book. He wasn’t really going to stay. I thought of what he’d said that night at the speakeasy. He knows I don’t like being walked to my car.

“You know, Catherine Dorian. Every time I see you, I’m convinced that it’s the last time. That you’ll walk away, and I’ll never see you again.”

When he said my name, I saw everything that I know I can be—dismissive, selfish, distracted.

“You know you’ll see me again, James, right?”

He held me against his chest. He wasn’t sure. I pulled away and stroked the stubble on the part of his cheek that widened around his jaw. By this point, I'd memorized the contours of his face.

The next day, I sent him another piece, a personal essay that I wrote about the time when I took a hiatus from teaching. Within twenty-four hours, he replied with a satirical speech in which he was introducing me to a crowd of intellectuals, writers, academics at a future reading.

James tells me I have the name of a writer. “I mean, you can see it, right?” he says, throwing his arms out in a mock gesture of grandeur. “It’s my honor, everyone, to introduce the writer, teacher, novelist—Catherine Dorian!”

I always laugh. Then, I remind him that he’s too kind, too optimistic. That he has too much faith in me.

“Hey.” He grabs my hand. “Would I bullshit you, now?”

It’s not that I haven’t experienced this before. James often marvels at the serendipity of our meeting, of his being an editor and me being a writer, of a friendship punctuated by little marks of trust, where I finally tell him what town I live in, the name of the nonprofit board I serve on, where I teach. I’ve fallen in love in an elevator, in the library at my undergrad—I surely fell in love the night I met my ex-fiancé. One time, I had dinner at a VFW with a man thirty years my senior—I had only recently broken off my engagement, and I was lonely in a small town, and he’d said nothing when I ordered a sandwich with just lettuce and tomato and sent it back when they’d slathered it with mayonnaise. He’d talked about himself most of the time, and I stopped trying to ask questions and imagined his face twenty years earlier and wished I were his age, just for this one night. When he hugged me goodbye in the gravel parking area, I sensed the longing of a lonely man who’d spent most of his life not feeling that way.

But when James held me, there was no longing, no expectation. There was only fear.

“No, you wouldn’t bullshit me,” I smirk. I grab his hand so that he knows I mean it.

For the last four days, I've been at my family’s home in the Adirondacks. On a walk, I tell my mom about my last meeting with James, about the “No Contacts” in his phone, how Adam was the only person that I’d ever known who was also like that.

“And it makes sense,” I say. “Given everything.” I don’t tell her everything I know about James, and she doesn’t pry.

There are friends of mine that I won’t tell about James because they’ll suspect I’m sleeping with him. If someone’s thirty years your senior and you spend a lot of time with him and he's not your father, well, you must be sleeping with him, right? But I tell my mother everything, and sure, at first she wondered if there was something more going on because, like any mother, she’s concerned about who I see, how I feel. Who I love. But then she saw me on the night James told me that I was a writer, and she trusted me with him and him with me.

James can’t replace my father; in many ways, he is a foil to my father, who cares that I write but doesn’t read much that I’ve written and almost never compliments anyone he loves. I’ve felt my dad was proudest of me when he didn’t say so. But maybe that’s why I need them both.

“And you feel comfortable with him?” my mother asks.

“As comfortable as I feel with anyone I love.”

Back at the cabin, I let him know that I’m coming home on Wednesday. I’d like to see him, if possible. “You’re going to have to try a lot harder to get rid of me,” I write.

We set up another meeting for this Friday, only a week after our last meeting: the shortest we’ve gone without seeing each other. I can’t remember if this is our sixth or seventh meeting. I know now that it’s OK not to count.


About the Creator

Catherine Dorian

Writer and teacher. Sometimes, I write about teaching.

For me, writing is compulsive, but it never feels self-destructive; it’s the safest medium by which I can confront what scares me.

I've been told my Instagram needs a makeover.

Reader insights


Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insights

  1. Easy to read and follow

    Well-structured & engaging content

  2. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  3. Heartfelt and relatable

    The story invoked strong personal emotions

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Comments (7)

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  • Samuel 6 months ago

    Fan of your work! Keep it up- would love if we could support each others writing im Samuel-

  • Novel Allen8 months ago

    Such an interesting view into your thought processes. Reading like the middle of your memoir. Very comfortable feelings of a budding friendship.

  • Jay Kantor11 months ago

    Hi Catherine - Yes, Why DO Women DO That? - Oh, Hi James, I think it was the 6th meeting - but who does that; categorizing meets? Ah, Still @ Home/wit degree pushin' 30ish - I write about that a lot - - Sorry, "I really Gotta Get Going" - Jay Jay Kantor, Chatsworth, California

  • Naveedkk 11 months ago

    Super!!! Excellent story!!!

  • D. ALEXANDRA PORTER11 months ago

    This feels so deeply real.💜 Congratulations! 👏 BTW, are you published?

  • Gerald Holmes11 months ago

    I really love this. You tell this story with such ease that I felt I was listening in on the conversations. Excellent work and James was right, you really are a writer!! You have a new subscriber.

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