He was actually a good guy. We’d been friends for years. We had dated in high school but it turned out a bit like a reverse Jane Austen’s Persuasion, where he was the one who rejected me at the advice of his mother who thought he could do better.
He regretted it later, after I’d moved on, but we renewed a friendship that in many ways meant more to me than our high school romance ever could. In college, he was there for me, albeit long distance, when my first serious relationship fell apart after three years.
We talked on the phone for hours, and he could make me laugh even when I was down. He wrote me letters (real letters!) and he thought my dreams of becoming a writer were something to celebrate and encourage.
We went together my final year of college to a dance that was sort of the college equivalent to prom. That night, on the porch of my parents’ house, he whispered the question I’d longed to hear in high school and thought I never would:
Can I kiss you?
This second romance seemed so much deeper and more mature than our first try as high schoolers, and I suppose in many ways it was. We were heading into our careers, we were looking seriously at whether or not we might have a future together.
He was my Gilbert Blythe, come to life–the childhood friend I grew to love. That friendship meant so much to me. He was really the first, and only, close male friend I’d had growing up. His return into my life had been an unexpected gift, and I cherished it.
But he made it very clear that if we messed up this second chance, I would lose him forever this time. He didn’t think our friendship could survive another break-up. I agreed–because it all seemed so romantic at the moment, and anyway, I wasn’t brave enough to tell him “I don’t like that.”
So I became careful. Very sensitive to everything he said. And it wasn’t until later that I realized I started losing pieces of myself, trying to make sure I became what I thought he wanted, so I would never lose him.
He didn’t like me calling him too much, so I tried not to bother him. I didn’t talk to him too much about the things I was thinking about and interested in because he was always rushed for time and I didn’t want him to think I was clingy.
He studied hard and was in college to become a physician’s assistant. His classes and even his other friends were off limits to me because he needed his “space,” and I always accommodated that without telling him that it made me feel second-rate and unimportant.
Despite that first kiss, he didn’t seem to like too much affection. When I tried to cuddle, he asked if I was “starved for affection.” So I pulled away, even though my nature is to touch and hold.
I worried about my weight, even though I didn’t need to, because he had made offhand comments about never wanting a fat wife. Since we had agreed we were no longer dating “just for fun” but with marriage in mind, I feared becoming what he scorned.
I never told him I thought some of his jokes about other people were rude. Or that I needed to know he loved me. I hid a lot of what I really thought and didn’t say what I wanted because I didn’t trust that my truest self would be safe with him.
I avoided any kind of conflict because I wasn’t convinced we could make it through a fight. He carried grudges, and I knew forgiveness was not his strength. I had heard his biting disdain for other people who had disappointed or disagreed with him. I always feared he would leave. Or worse, that he would stay, but never really forget.
In a burst of poetic justice, I was the one who left. I went away for a summer, and found a man who loved me the way I was, who would go without sleep just to stay up all night talking to me, who couldn’t keep his hands and lips off me, and who didn’t mind if the whole world knew how he felt about me. He let me into his world, expanding and adjusting it so that I fit, instead of expecting me to change.
A man who, when it was time to part, said he’d rather I be happy even if it meant saying goodbye to me forever.
I didn’t know I’d lost myself until that summer. This summer fling, which is never supposed to work out, showed me that it is possible to fall deeply in love, but still keep my own identity. It’s possible to be friends and lovers without fearing conflict. I don’t have to change when I’m with someone who accepts me and loves me the way I am.
Over those brief, heated weeks, I put myself back together piece by piece, rediscovering who I am and realizing what I had given up. When I came home, back to the one I’d thought was my Gilbert, I finally saw in full how colorless and shallow our relationship really was because there was no lasting trust or unconditional love.
How deep is a friendship really if it’s built on a mutual understanding that there will be no more second chances? How can a love survive if it revolves only around one person’s schedules and whims and desires?
I left him. He was angry, of course. Truth is, I was not the only one damaged by our relationship. I hurt him, even though I never intended to. I had hurt him, even before I had fallen in love with someone else, by pretending to be someone I wasn’t. He thought he was getting the woman he’d always wanted, and when she turned out not to be real, he felt betrayed. Love and deception cannot co-exist. Psyche and Cupid taught us that thousands of years ago.
He was not a bad man. He had many moments of kindness, and we did have a lot of good times. But he needed to grow up in many ways, and so did I. No matter how I sentimentalized our childhood friendship, he wasn’t my Gilbert after all. And I could never be his Anne.
I should never have tried–everyone, including me, is much happier when I am simply myself.
How do you date someone without losing your own identity? This article from EcoSalon.com offers some good starting points: He Loves Me, I Love Me Not: How to Date Without Losing Yourself : EcoSalon | Conscious Culture and Fashion.