I spent most of my adult years with the same guy, yet when I think back to what I could’ve done differently, in love, that guy isn’t the first to cross my mind. He isn’t even the second. Although it was years ago, I still sometimes look back, because I know in my naïveté I made some bad choices that defined my adulthood.
The first guy on my mind was a fellow freshman boy I had met my first few weeks of college. As soon as we saw each other, we knew each other. It was just an understanding of both what we saw in the world and what we were hiding from it. We both caught each other playing a game to fit in with the other college freshmen, making us realize we weren’t so alone. Thus began a quasi relationship of spilled secrets and sleepovers. I confided in him thoughts I had never told anyone. He told me his family history of drug money and trying to fit in while living in wealthy suburbs. It was a relationship like I had never had before: passionate and honest.
But, we never had sex. We never defined what we were. Yet, I spent the night in his dorm every night for a month. He told me he thought we would get married one day, after college. I didn’t like hearing that or thinking about marriage. Suddenly, everything about us started to look too real and feel too close. Having someone know me that well felt more like being exposed, than companionship. I thought if I had met him weeks into moving out on my own there must be plenty of people like him, and I would have a thousand similar experiences.
Of course that wasn’t true, but I didn’t know that. I stopped spending the night, I stopped having the deep conversations and I started dating another guy without a word to him. New guy, of course, didn’t last or see an inch of my soul. I didn’t want him to. I think of what my life would have been like if I were willing to expose myself to someone. I was too afraid of having to face whether or not I deserved love. He asked me years later if I thought, had we tried, would we have stood a chance. I said yes.
The second guy on my mind was a nice, compassionate person who treated me wonderfully. We had an obvious flirtation going on at every party and in our classes that grew to an obvious mutual adoration. He always made me feel beautiful, heard, worthwhile; all those things I had never even recognized feeling. Every time I entered a party I would look for him, and his eyes would light up when he saw me. I frequently told him he was the nicest guy I knew, and he was definitely the sweetest to me. I had never dated a guy like him and didn’t know if I could. I felt unworthy, because perhaps if we pursued things further I would hurt him. I was too afraid and I declined his advances to date guy number three.
Number three would be the ex-boyfriend that took up most of my adult life. He was demeaning, controlling and verbally abusive. Three months into dating him I broke up with him, because I “wanted to date a Christian.” This wasn’t really true, it was just my get out of a relationship free card and typical fear-of-commitment escape plan. Except, due to the way he treated me, my reasons for wanting out were completely valid. He told me that not being a Christian was a bullshit reason to break up with someone and called me prejudiced. I stayed with him out of guilt and tried breaking up with him several more times, and he would always convince me to stay. It was always my fault, my reasons for not wanting to be with him weren’t ever good enough. I was never good enough.
The sad part is that nobody in my life had given a shit about me, until him. Not enough to pay attention to me and certainly not enough to fight for me. I was an afterthought to my parents, at best. My siblings and I were all on our own and struggling to make it. My friends didn’t know the first thing about my life, because I kept it all hidden. Then there was the angry, manipulative boyfriend who at least cared enough to “fight for me.” He invalidated all my experiences and killed my self esteem, but I was “loved.” I was “wanted.” As much as I struggled to get out of that relationship, the minimal support and faux-love he provided kept me in. It was all I had.
That cycle of control and abuse went on for three years. Months after it finally ended guy number two died of cancer. He had a loving girlfriend by his side until the last day. She was as sweet and nice as he was. I wished to God that it could have been me by his side, but I knew it could never have been.