"I love you," he whispered.
I froze, in shock.
"I love you," he repeated. My mouth couldn't form any words.
"Never mind," he said, picking up where we left off as he buried his face in my chest.
A week later, I told my therapist about it. "And then he said it again!" I shouted, believing as she grinned that I was entertaining her with my sassy wit about this very awkward story. "I was, like, you couldn't possibly love me, you don't even know me!" I reasoned. As she asked me what happened next, I worked out the timeline in my brain. "Nothing really. I mean, we were in the middle of having sex, and you can't trust what a guy says to you while you're having sex. He probably didn't even mean what he was saying."
I had read that somewhere. "You can't trust what a guy says to you while you're having sex. Wait until he doesn't have you in his arms, and trust what he says then." Who made up these rules, anyway? In my head, when Brandon told me he loved me, I thought, "I can't trust that's true. What should I do?" My brain recalled my sister telling me when I was younger, "It takes at least a year to know if you love someone or not." My heart went down a list of questions. Does he really mean it? What happens if I say it back? Would I mean it if I said it? What if he doesn't mean it, and he's just saying it for some unknown reason? What if I end up miserable if I say it back?
In the time it took Brandon to repeat what he had said to me, my brain went into overload trying to process everything those words might mean for us while my heart, terrified to be in yet another relationship where I was just a sex object, sounded every alarm I had. "Stop what you're doing right now, and get out. Get out now, while you can. Don't want to end up trapped."
We didn't last long after that.
As a kid, my only frame of reference for "love" was everything that love shouldn't be. A committed relationship, to me, meant imprisonment, an imbalance of power, blatant disrespect, and abuse. My father had shown me that men are dangerous and my mother had shown me that women are helpless. I felt in my bones all the sadness that enveloped my family, and I swore that when I grew up, I would not make the same mistake my mother had.
But I never understood how to be or what to do instead, except stay single. How could I create the kind of relationship I wanted when I had no idea if it even existed outside my head? Despite the doubt, a fantasy brewed inside my mind. I developed a picture of what I wanted my life to look like when I was older, a picture of what kind of husband I wanted and what kind of family I wanted us to make.
In my fantasies, I saw a man who would respect me and love my mind. I envisioned someone whose intellect would stimulate me mentally and whose heart would hold space for me to heal my hurts. I saw us traveling together, balancing our fulfilling careers with caring for the babies I wanted us to make. When I pictured myself dancing with my loving husband in our living room with the lights dimmed, I imagined he would hold me close as I sang along to the record. I wanted to romance him as much as I wanted him to romance me. I pictured a life full of adventure and laughter. As I grew older, I also made room to include disagreements about the dishes and playful banter about how annoyed I was with him on road trips.
In my fantasy life, I was happy with the man of my dreams and the family we worked hard to nourish. But in reality, I was cynical and heartbroken, sure that the life I so desperately wanted was one I would never have. Inevitably, I figured I would fuck it up somehow, like I did everything else.
I was attracted to Spencer from the minute I laid eyes on him. There was something about him I found so alluring. In an uncharacteristic move, I got up from my table after almost an entire meal of working up the courage to approach him and said, "Hi." I introduced myself and told him, "Here's my number if you want to hang out sometime." He shot back with, "What are you doing right now?" A little embarrassed at how flattered I was, I said I had other obligations, but that he should call me later. After about a week, I'd given up hope. Then he left a message on my voicemail.
I went to his house, which happened to be one street over from my sister's, and we just talked all night. I held a throw pillow in my lap as I sat cross-legged on his sofa while he relaxed in a recliner across the room. He was easy to talk to, had a mellow disposition, and I liked how comfortable I felt in his presence.
When we had our first official date, he asked me where we should go, and I said, "I like IHOP, let's go there." When he found out I was a fresh-faced nineteen to his internationally traveled twenty-four, his eyes bugged out of his face. "Really?! You don't act nineteen." I tried to play it off, but I was worried. "Yeah, a lot of people think I'm a lot older," is what I said. What I thought was, "I really, really like him. What if he doesn't like me?"
He told me a few weeks later that he wasn't looking for anything serious, since he was stationed in the military and could be uprooted any minute. I pretended I was okay with that. I just wanted to be near him as much as I could. "Oh, okay. I get that. That's fine." But I was lying, and I knew it. I had already been thinking about my fantasy life where I got to travel with someone I loved who loved me back, where I felt comfortable and safe, and Spencer represented that possibility for me. He was a giving lover, seemed sensitive at his core, and I was so immensely attracted to him that I told him once, "Even when you're washing dishes, you're sexy."
"I feel like such a kid around you," I told him, near the end. "You are," he replied, "You're a teenager." When he broke up with me, all I said was, "Oh, now I feel sad." He had tried to let me down easy, which was the wrong thing to do. "I didn't mean to make you feel sad. We can still be friends." Never mind that when he broke up with me, he'd moved on to someone else who was pregnant with his baby and he'd married her.
When I met Josh shortly after Spencer dumped me, I knew he was the opposite of what I wanted, and I deliberately chose him for that reason. I can't remember whose idea it was to go to my apartment. To defuse my nervousness, I started hanging the curtains in my new place. As I stood on a chair reaching up to position the curtain rod and he offered me "help," I was fully aware of this dance I had now accepted with Josh. He was flirting with me and not doing that well, but in my vulnerable position, I made a conscious decision to not let what happened to me with Spencer happen again. Never again, I had said to myself. So it was that Josh lay on top of me twenty minutes later while I wrapped my legs around him and welcomed him inside my body. When he said to me, "This makes you my girl, right?" I half-heartedly agreed. "Yeah."
I recognized his abusive behavior because I grew up with it, and as I called it out, I truly thought I was different from my mother in the way I stood up for myself where she didn't. But I stayed with Josh, partly because I was afraid to truly fall in love again. After all, I saw how well that worked out for me before. A few months later, I began to realize how much of a mess I had made. When I saw how many lies Josh told me in the course of a week and how much he needed to sort himself out, I broke up with him. He kept coming back, as so many men in my life seemed to do, but the lies never stopped. He didn't stop pursuing me until I moved in with someone else.
My fantasy became a blur.
There were so many men, I lost track. I forgot their names. I even forgot sleeping with some of them. I didn't particularly enjoy this game. It seemed like I was failing at it, and every level, I just fought a different version of the same boss. All I wanted in the end was to be loved, to be seen, to be a full human, but what always ended up happening was that, inevitably, I was a disposable body. Sure, the men would tell me sweet things, try to sell me on the idea of love or security, but the promises they made were never fulfilled. Most of the time, those promises didn't interest me. "I have two jobs, I make so much money, you'll have everything you could want." I didn't want to be bought. I wanted to be loved. "I'm great in bed, you'll be satisfied." I didn't want a relationship based solely on sex, I wanted someone to love. "I'm really smart and you'll never be bored." But the intelligence was accompanied with haughtiness, and I really wanted someone who was humble, who would love and respect me even if I wasn't as smart as he was. "I love you. But only if you're exactly the way I want you to be and not your own person." I could never be happy being a Stepford version of myself. Not at all.
While I bristled at the mention of marriage and romance, my deepest desire was to have my fantasy life with my dream guy and my beautiful family. And one day, I thought I had the chance to create it. Nate and I had a convoluted history. It was more complicated than a daytime soap, but when he finally met our baby, the precious, precious baby I had carried in my womb and cared for on my own until she was fourteen months old, I fooled myself into thinking, "Maybe this is our second chance. We're so lucky."
One night, we got a babysitter and went to a concert. High off the rush of the date and influenced by the alcohol we'd both had, we happily climbed into bed together. He said to me, "We should have another baby." In my body, I felt a resounding, "Yes!" and eagerly shook my head. "Yes. Happy family," I thought. Two months later, as I lay in bed so sick I couldn't move while he yelled at me, angry that I wasn't cleaning the space we shared, I knew I had made the same mistake twice and the regret made me almost as sick as the acid swirling around my empty stomach.
"How could I have done this?" I asked myself. "Why do I keep doing it?" It wasn't that I didn't want my baby. I loved my baby. It was that I knew I was trapped, and it was too late to get out. Now, I was truly stuck, exactly like my mother had been my whole childhood. How could I ever forgive myself for what I'd done to my babies?
Three years later, I found myself struggling to break free of Nate's hold on me, texting a 35-year-old man named Justin who lived halfway across the country from me and told me all the right things. And once again, I felt conflicted. "I feel like I might be falling in love with this guy, but something doesn't add up here." As encouraging and supportive as Justin was to me, I couldn't help but feel the familiar doubt I always had when I really liked someone. "What if he thinks I'm just too much? What if he's completely turned off by me? What if he doesn't feel the same about me as I do about him?" Then, the all-important question: Who the hell is this guy, anyway?
"Justin" had told me he was 35, but didn't seem like he was my age. I figured he had to be at least ten years older, from the music he talked to me about and the fact he didn't seem to connect to any of my generational pop culture references. He said he lived in New Jersey, but he didn't have any detail to tell me about his neighborhood or where he worked. I suspected he was lying to me. But why? What possible reason could he have for lying to me about who he was? He seemed so amazing otherwise that I had a hard time reconciling my idea of this incredibly kind, supportive man with my idea of what a liar was: a shady bastard.
"Who are you?" I pressed, and he disappeared. He'd made me a promise that he would "never break my heart," and said to me that he would "stick it out" with me for as long as it took to gain my trust. But then he vanished, breaking both his promises to me, and I was left to pick up the pieces.
When we'd talked, I had revealed to him my fantasy while simultaneously writing him about my painful relationship history, confessing how hard it was for me to believe that it was possible for me to find the love I was looking for. He'd replied to me with, "Just because doors one through eleven are locked who knows door twelve may be open. It's worth trying I think but I can only prove I am on the level by giving you as much time as you need to trust me." He seemed like so much of what I had always wanted: intelligent, kind, wise, compassionate, understanding, encouraging, and supportive. So why did he lie and why did he just disappear? What had just happened here?
Why had I let myself be carried away, once again, by a fantasy? Why was it so hard to find the real thing? Why did I always feel like I had to hide who I was, to constantly play the part of an emotional contortionist who could mold herself to whatever disposition pleased the man in front of her? Why couldn't I find the love I was looking for, the kind of love that doesn't require masks or have any illusions to maintain?
How could I find that love? Did that love even exist? Or was it, as I had told Justin, "the best possible fantasy?" Should I hold onto a dream I'd nurtured since my childhood of finding a King to my Queen? Or should I accept that this fantasy life was a dream borne of trauma, a coping mechanism developed in the depths of great emotional pain that should now be discarded?