by Sara Angella
Everyone has that one person. That one person that changed their view, experience or belief in love. It may be a first love, the one that got away, or the only person you have ever loved and you still love, happily ever after as long as you both shall live. But without that person, without the common experience of “The One,” Hollywood would be void of rom–coms and even Shakespeare his sonnets.
One would think the person they married and divorced would dominate that place, but for me that wasn’t the case. My marriage was young and immature, a first relationship that only played at concepts of love and commitment while simultaneously unhealthy from the outset. Once we were divorced, the whole thing was easily shed. I’m aware of how callous that must sound, that a divorce can be less devastating than all consuming devastation. No injury to the reader is intended, but in my personal experience, it wasn’t until after my divorce that I learned what love was.
The first time we “met” was St. Patrick’s Day at an iconic bar in the town we grew up in. We had gone to high school together, though we were never friends. St. Patty’s Night, everything changed. He snatched my number from the air as a few old high school classmates met and promised to hang out again. He called two days later on the dot, asking if I wanted to play pool. When he got to my door he was wearing too much cologne. He was clearly nervous. And I was hooked; I don’t think we spent a day apart until I moved to D.C. seven months later.
When I think back on that time, it’s not so much the sequence of events I remember as it is the emotions. Time and place, geographical locations and markers of day and night blurred against the backdrop of care, tenderness, romance and true friendship. What was infatuation quickly grew to love. We couldn’t have been more opposites. He was the generous blue-collar worker with an infectious smile and blue eyes I could spot the gold flecks in. He was loved by all, the perfect boy next door, and he was mine. Mine. I was the jaded divorcee and a budding academic; I was ready for adventure, to conquer the world. He was picket fence and football Sundays. Together, we were pure love. People used to stop and tell us as much. It was pathetic. And perfect.
But most of that, to be honest, was due to him. See, he taught me how to love; flowers on Fridays, rambling text messages of affection, kindness to a demanding family and grace for my hesitation. He was the constant I had never known I needed. It wasn’t just the romantic gestures, it was something else, something I couldn’t pinpoint. Later I would realize it was his unyielding commitment. I felt safe, sure and unabashedly adored. And it ruined me.
From ring shopping in March, to hearing him tell me he didn’t want to be with me in April, the rug flew out from under me and my neck snapped from the whiplash. The poor bastard had written checks he couldn’t cash and I was the victim of the fraud he didn’t even know he was perpetrating. When it was over, the end – the real end – was brutal. Six months of torture. We would break up only to get back together, spin, repeat, cycle, and the whole time I was snowblind with constant panic. The man who had taught me to love took it away that fast. He would be in the same room and yet miles away and, cliche as it sounds, one of the few clear memories I have of that time is the simple, constant, unbearable sense of not being able to get to him. It was as though he had died and his body was there, but his spirit, the one that had been so intertwined with mine, was gone. Coming from a less then perfect home, he had become the goodness I craved and when it left, it was more than losing him, I lost my mind with him. I couldn’t let go. All dignity and shame vanished as I begged and pleaded for him to try. Eventually, maybe to put a nail to the coffin or just to stop me, he said me he had never loved me the way he said he did. It had all been a lie.
You can imagine the rest.
A few years later, we saw each other again and he corrected that statement, but it had already had years to do the fullest measure of damage possible. Every time after him that I began to love someone, I would remember. “I never loved you the way I said I did. It was all a lie.” Those words had shaped a worldview, an identity, that would be hard to shake, and in some ways, still veils the way I see the world even now – even after he corrected himself.
There was something so unfair about losing him. I had done all the right things, prayed the right prayers, asked the right questions and still, one of the few things that brought me true joy decided to walk away. I had no way of knowing if I would ever feel that way again, and if I’m honest, I haven’t. Each passing year, the fear of never getting back to that place bears down a little more, just a little more, always tightening. I’m 31 now and either I have already exhausted my “one chance at love” in some tragically Southern Gothic way, or I am broken and will never get put back together. I date now. I still meet people, am able to be present with them, enjoy their company and feel things for them. But his ghost still haunts the halls of my love for another, the person in front of me. It makes the future feel impossible at times, especially since I know it was, in the end, not even him. It is the thought of what we had and the way that security so abruptly left, the way that love was exposed as a lie.
I don’t compare anymore, but I don’t trust either. I have no compass for when someone is lying and when they’re being honest. I over commit and under expect and I have a tendency to place landmines in some cockamamie scheme to prove my suspicions that, just like before, it’s a fraud. “It was all a lie.” As I do this, I become the person I swore I would never be: the tragically consistent self-fulfilling prophecy. I don’t like me, so why should you? Broken logic can’t fix it and trust me, I’ve spent hundreds of paychecks in academics and therapy enough to know whether it is possible.
At least that’s partially true. Perhaps for romantic love that hasn’t been the case. In fact, I know there’s a part of me that spent the six years settling for any man that would give me a second glance because I don’t believe I’ll ever have that again. Why bother? That was a once in a lifetime, Brownings, Abigail and John Adam’s sort of love. The love Jane Austen and Hemingway lost in their turns and the kind from which they never recovered. Settling is better than nothing, I guess. The subconscious does strange things to the conscious. At least that’s the $2 pop psychology I give myself.
But back to my point, yes, in romantic love, I haven’t ever been the same again. But that’s not all of life, right? Losing a love like that threw me a bit haphazardly into the traumatic wanderings of the Quarterlife Crisis so popular among the Gen X and Y’ers. I began to ask questions I had never asked and see the world differently, more cynically than anything else. The rose-colored world was gone. I knew what it meant to be the walking dead.
It wasn’t until I found myself sitting in my apartment, two years into my program, surrounded by friendships honed over deadlines and dead languages, that pieces of my heart begin to fall back into place. I found myself laughing. Deep, belly rolling, tears streaming, uncontrollable laughter. A bit of my joy had come back. There was love here, but a different kind; a sweeter kind. It was less threatening, and perhaps more healing. We all fell in love just a little bit with each other and I have the pictures and stories to prove it.
I learned a lot in that time. I learned parts of me existed outside of tragedy. I learned to keep moving forward and to work hard. I eventually earned a Master’s Degree and began working on to earn a second. I moved to New York, stoking the fires of the adventurer that had just began to bud before I met “him” and it feels good now to return to the life of What Could Have Been.
Sometimes, when I’m overwhelmed with my own shit in relationships, I take a moment and look back, and grieve. Not for him, not for the relationship, but for the woman I was when I was with him: hopeful, kind, compassionate, trusting. He brought all of that out in me and I relished being someone I was proud of. She was the victim of his fraud. It was pure identity theft and I grieve her disappearance. I resolve to become her again on my own, self-assured and independent, but the truth is, I can’t find a catalyst as powerful as he was in giving me the space to flourish. Love will do that to you… at least good love. And it should. It satisfies something deep in each person that we need. Whether you believe that is caused by the biological imperative to reproduce, or intelligent design creating just enough missing puzzle pieces that can only be filled by love… it doesn’t matter. It’s there. It has a good purpose and even though I lost it, I’m glad I had it. I’m glad I was loved like that, even if it was fraudulent – one may never truly know – if only because it’s an incredible experience.
So I grieve for a moment, give myself just a touch of compassion to be fucked up and figure it out. I don’t know if that sort of love is available to me again. To be honest, I’m not even sure I could experience it again like that and to be sure, if I did, I wouldn’t trust it. My therapist calls it, “A new normal,” finding what works for me now. I call it, “desperate and shameless.” So much for $125 an hour of wisdom I could have found on a fortune cookie for $12.50 kung pow.