Yesterday I heard from an old boyfriend, whom I’ll call Abe here. Abe was my first boyfriend, back in the Spring and Summer of 2011, and remains the only man who’s said he loved me.
It was a strange relationship: It was long distance and cross-border, I was just emerging from the absolute worst season of my life and was still in the process of coming out to friends and family, and while we had similar enough experiences in our past for there to be some common understanding, we were coming from very different places and value systems. And, because his career was by nature unsettled, there weren’t many paths for the relationship to work long-term. When it ended it was one of those situations where it was simultaneously the most obvious outcome and total surprise. Which is sort of how love goes most of the time.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Abe and I met online in the days when long, get-to-know-you emails were still at least as common, if not more so, than ‘chats’. I was quickly smitten. Not just because I was new to the game and easily smitten, but because his letters were charming, playful, open, and a much-needed light at the end of a very dark tunnel. His distance was both frustrating and welcome. I obviously wanted to meet him and see where things might go, but probably needed the space to explore a romantic connection without the pressure of meeting up right away. When we graduated to Skype dates, we had long, genuine conversations about values and what we believed and wanted in relationships. They were really good conversations, and even though I knew we were coming at our relationship from very different directions, it seemed at least that we were headed in the same direction, towards a common middle ground.
Eventually we began visiting each other on weekends and things continued to grow through the Summer. For the first two months, it felt like he was way ahead of me. I was naturally more reserved and things were new for me, so I was happy to move slowly and get to know him. I was in no hurry and while he was patient, he was also pushing the envelope — for which I was grateful. Honestly, after everything, it was also nice to feel wanted and like I was worth chasing. But soon after I caught up to where he was, the shoe was on the other foot, and I found myself wondering how I’d suddenly got so far ahead of him. He started avoiding my calls or returning them when I wasn’t home (like, he’d leave a message on my home phone at 10:00 am on a Tuesday morning and act surprised that I hadn’t been there…). Or we’d share a lovely weekend together, then the moment he got on the ferry home, he’d disappear for a couple days. By August I was getting beyond frustrated at the cat and mouse game, but was grateful that we’d scheduled six full days together towards the end of the month. As it happens, by the end of the fourth day, it was over. (Well, over enough — Like many people who grew up watching too much Friends, he did the whole protracted ‘let’s take a break’ thing to prolong the inevitable.)
Naturally, I spent weeks going over things in my head trying to figure out where things went wrong, how he went so quickly from “I love you so much, it’s going to destroy me if this ends” to “I love you, but I don’t love you enough to want to be with you.”
Much of my confusion stemmed from words and my trust in them. Perhaps surprisingly, this was really the only are in which, looking back, I can consider 2011 me to have been naive. I didn’t just expect it just to work out. I knew the deck was stacked against us and that there weren’t many ways forward. I knew we were coming at the relationship from very different directions and so I tried to establish common ground every step of the way. I knew I was coming out of a pretty traumatic experience and knew that he was still dealing with / not dealing with the fall out from his own traumas. But despite all this, I was naive; I did put too much faith in his words.
During the months when he was pulling away, he claimed not to remember having had those conversations at all. I’m not sure if he was actually gaslighting me or truly didn’t remember them, but I was shocked. It just goes to show how people can be having different conversations: I had been trying to lay down foundations; he had just been shooting the breeze and seemed shocked I’d expected him to be consistent from week to week or month to month.
The thing is, it had always seemed like there were two Abes. There was the public Abe, the Abe who was always ‘on’, a performer, a charmer, bold and confident, ready to take on all challengers. But there was also the private Abe. This Abe was self-aware and super smart, but also deeply hurting, self-protective and didn’t seem to like himself very much. In a lot of ways, I felt like this other Abe was in a constant battle to breathe, caught between Performance Abe — the Abe he thought he had to be to deserve love and acclaim — and the frightened little Fundamentalist boy inside him who was still cowering in the closet and saw every setback, negative consequence, and misfortune as direct punishment from God for his sins.
Ultimately, my best guess is that this division in him is what did us in. There was a constant battle within him between what he thought he should want and what he actually wanted — or perhaps better, between what the two Abes wanted and felt they deserved and needed. I’d tried loving both of them, but Performance Abe received love only as acclaim and praise and Private Abe couldn’t seem to receive it at all. No wonder his words couldn’t be trusted.
I could of course be wrong about all this. Maybe it was simply that I was what he thought he wanted but realized he didn’t. Or, on the other side, maybe he was just a liar, that it was only a game to him and he was only interested in the chase and so lost interest as soon as he caught me.
But once a year, like yesterday, I hear from him, full of kind words and regrets. I don’t put too much stock in those — I have, of course, learned not to take his words too seriously. But yet there’s something there in those conversations that puts my heart at ease, that assures me that despite the slipperiness of his words that he did actually mean it back in the day when he’d said he loved me.
As much as that is a good and healing feeling, it’s also kind of sad. It’s a reminder that as much as love is a feeling, it’s also a calling, a challenge. Love calls us out of our brokenness and bullshit so we can show up for our beloved. Love calls us to get out of our own way so we can follow the path before us. Most of all, love calls us to live fully, to live wholly. And it’s a calling I hope I am mature enough to step into should it ever come my way again.