I have wanted to write you for a long time, but there were too many things to say and you caused me too many heartaches and I didn’t have the time. But now I am so angry at you, and now I have so many questions. I can’t expect myself to write a clear letter. I don’t even know what I am going to say. But I am going to start.
My experience of you has not been salutary. It has been shit. The problem with you, as far as I can tell, is that you are not much but a tricked-out catch-22: you let people love each other only if they don’t really know each other, and then you throw in the fact that loving requires knowing. Or you say that they can trust each other as long as they remain attractive to each other, but make sure that the things people say when they are trying to trust people are the exact things that make them unattractive. In short, you make it so that when people need things the most they can expect the least. All they can do is go home and breathe in and out and make a plan for how they will ease the hurt, day after day, until it is a small, burning coal in the hidden reaches of their chests. You destroy us and we let you destroy us. It is not our fault. You make us gamblers, hoping that we can beat the house, hoping that one time, for us, it will work. Because if it could work it would be so much better than being alone. And that math is appealing if you are seeing good possibilities exponentially. But it’s a very bad thing if you are doing statistics, which is, in the end, what all of us are doing: realizing that by necessity we will lose every time but once, and that most likely we will lose all of the time.
Just today you did terrible things to me. Just this week you took all my work and made it into soup.
I had been alone for seven months. Deliberately, tooth-achingly alone. I did this because, after years of trusting and trying again I had a breakdown. I reached a maximum of endurance, of pain. I could not feel certain things one more time, and one less than crazy is a very dangerous place to be. I got pregnant and the father left, because people always leave and men are especially capable.
So I swore you off. I said I would learn to love myself. At least that way I was always in some measure of control. At least that way I was counting on myself, and if I let myself down I could always stop and stand up. Depending on another person is not so easy. They can do whatever they want. Specifically, they can build up your hopes and then, just when you settle in, they will leave you with all of that hope and it will have nothing to do but turn into pain. So I said: I can’t feel like that again. I am one short of crazy, after all.
So I did other things instead.
I went swimming three times a week. I would float in the water and picture my heart as a wax thing with warm hands holding it; I would do the breaststroke until my arms were heavy in the blue.
I made a goal: meet three new friends a week. I did this. We would meet up for lunch, because that’s what lonely adults do, and clutch coffee mugs and pretend we were filling each others’ losses. Sometimes those losses were mentioned and sometimes they were simply there in the steam of coffee swirling upward, in the atmosphere. Everything was controlled and we would speak in measured ways of our lives. And then we would make a date for next time.
I learned to say “whenever” a lot: whenever you have time, whenever you want, whenever works for you.
I accepted marriages of friends. I learned to call before ten pm and to wait while they checked with their wives. I learned to not stop by unannounced and to accept when they gave up on their old beliefs, their old silly souls. I learned to talk with some semblance of interest about Dancing with the Stars.
I learned you can’t get what you need from one person, and I created a constellation of people who, if they winds were right and it was a sunny day, could add up to some comfort.
I learned to cry by myself, and sleep by myself. I learned that you do not ask your coffee friends to sleep in your bed. That’s weird. I learned that it helps to have a heating pack to make an empty bed feel warm.
I wrote every day. I wrote all the things I could not say to my heating pack or my married friends or my sleeping sister or my old lovers. I ranted and raved. I wrote my fears and then disproved every one of them, point by point. I waited for that to make me feel better. I put a lock on my journal and I wrote my real thoughts, just to try them out. I made lists of goals and steps to achieve those goals. I took a writing class; it was called “Crisis Memoir.” Sounded about right.
I learned to ask for things I needed. I learned to say, “I feel,” instead of “you are.” I learned that you can’t blame anyone, and I learned that this felt terrible to learn. And I learned that sometimes, for your own sanity, you have to blame someone, and so I wrote letters to old lovers that I never sent, letters that were filled with “you ares.”
I learned to be very careful about my closest group of friends, and to make safety my first priority. I had heard a story about a man with terrible anxiety who put his hat and coat on as soon as a fight started or a baby began crying–put them on and walked out the door. I learned that this man had the right idea, to a point. I learned that there were certain words, certain people, certain news and certain disappointments I was not willing to endure, and so I pared things down.
I learned to be a better friend to the people who were left. I called them regularly. I listened to them. I made them birthday gifts that were only a few weeks late. I kept my appointments. I overcame phone phobia.
I started to refuse speaking in all or nothing terms. If something went wrong in a way it had gone wrong before, I would not say “I always fail” or “things never work out for me.” I was very careful to say: “I am very disappointed right now. I wish this had been different and I wish that this had gone differently but next time I will do better.” I learned to not scoff at these lines.
I read books with titles like “Feeling Good” or “The Happiness Project.”
I started a group for people who wanted to work through their fears together, with experiments to make us happier and braver.
I cleaned my room and organized all my letters and bills and files.
I learned to make healthy smoothies and eggs benedict for breakfast.
I started lying in bed and saying “I forgive so-and-so” into the dark. Or I had a tape recorder on the night stand and I would speak into it whenever I realized what I had done wrong in my relationships.
I started asking questions instead of assuming. This one was a bitch. I started to say, “I feel like I am burden to you right now. Is that true or not?” and then allow the scary silence before they answered.
I learned to say no more: as in, “No, I won’t be able to make it tonight,” or “No, I don’t want to have my baby in a hospital,” or “No, I don’t want to go on the long hike,” or “No, I don’t trust you yet.”
I spent a lot of time alone. I spent that time looking at the sky. I spent it thinking. I spent it accepting, slowly, that I didn’t always have to doing something. I spent it trying to believe that other people did not think this made me stupid.
I talked to my parents. I started asking them real questions and I started telling them my real opinions. I learned to breathe in and out while I did this so I wouldn’t stop, so I wouldn’t stop for fear of hurting them with our differences.
I stopped using the Internet as much. I didn’t chat. I cancelled Facebook. I wrote more letters.
I promised myself I would accept every offer to get more involved in my community. I promised I would trust these small beginnings and let them grow into bigger ones. I decided to have faith in small steps and continuing action instead of trying to do everything I was scared of all at once without any help. It worked. I spoke at two conferences and got invited to more. After I spoke, I formed discussion groups around the topics. I tried out for a play. I got involved in a neighborhood revitalization project. I started teaching classes at the free school. I made giant puppets for a climate change parade.
I met with a life coach. We talked about communication problems. I wrote a list of things I would try not to say in my next relationship.
I sang to my baby in my womb. I tried to stay calm and collected when stressful things happened. I got some massages.
I burned an effigy at New Years. It was a man stuffed with firecrackers and things I wanted to leave behind, forever locked in 2010. I wrote “distance.” I wrote “uncommunicative men.” I wrote “Saying things I don’t mean because I am hurt.”
Which brings me back to today, when I said things I didn’t mean because I was hurt, when–despite seven months of practice and work and a good measure of prudence–I was nevertheless sitting in Tucson, Arizona across from a blonde boy I loved but could not, apparently, love. He told me this, as we sat on a red bench surrounded by modern art outside the library. We were supposed to be inside the library, working on our busy, busy lives, but we were outside because our busy, busy lives were hurting each others’ feelings and we had started a fight three blocks from the library doors about busyness and all its attendant unfairness. And now we were on this bench, and Ricky was telling me that just because I came down to Arizona when I was seven months pregnant, and just because I had cancelled everything in my life for an entire ten days, and just because he had asked me to, asked me every day for over a week, and just because he had called me and acted so excited about me and delighted in the interesting conversations we had and could have, and just because he had said he liked, liked, liked me, and just because we had held each other night after night when he was home for winter break, and just because I had had a terrible-awful-harrowing hard year and really needed a person I could just love and who could just love me, and even though I had tried and tried and tried to say “I feel” instead of “you are,” had tried to respond to feelings of hurt and fear with honesty and humility, and even though it made sense to spend time with someone you like when you drive ten hours to see them, and even though people don’t control who they like and they certainly have a hard time controlling it when they spend every day with that person and kiss that person and share their bed, and even though I had tried to be smart and clear and cautious and had only conceded when Ricky had shown love day after day–that even so and just because of all those things, I couldn’t need him, because that interfered with his plan. And his plan was non-monogamy. And it was fair to have this plan because he had told me, weeks ago, before I had started to count on him, that this was so. And that contract, that relaying of information, was supposed to have stopped all the feelings that I felt when he proceeded to do all the opposite things–when he proceeded to treat me as his most important person, when he called me from the desert on a satellite phone just to say hi, when he begged me to visit and wrote me letter after letter, when he told me his ideas and his feelings and let me tell him mine. All this was supposed to be a not-big-deal, because he had said he wasn’t monogamous and I had said I understood where he was coming from. And so when I came down to Tucson, I shouldn’t have expected him to change any of his plans for me, or to act too excited, or to go sit at a park or cancel some boring meetings because he was busy, dammit, and how dare I get in the way of that? Hadn’t I heard the part about non-monogamy? Didn’t I accept his philosophy: that he could get what he wanted from me but that I couldn’t expect anything out of him? And wasn’t this supremely reasonable and doable because he had told me? I sat there and felt that old feeling. Yeah, love, that old feeling. The one you’re so good at making: a sudden feeling that I was a solar system of sadness, a body pulled into orbit around a hot core of past, a molten remembrance of all the times I had been hurt before, a dread-hot fear of getting in my car and driving away, willing each hour to calm me down, to make me forget the hurt and prepare me for the empty house I would return to, for the tasks I would try to do to make my life feel like it was enough, again, after feeling absolutely real for a few days. So I sat there, rubbing my knuckle into the bench, not looking at Ricky and wanting to say everything but knowing I could say none of it: that the words that could make it make sense were also the words that would make me a burden, and that being a burden meant I did not deserve love, and that love denied made everything make un-sense, and so what was the point? The old trust/attraction paradox I called you out on earlier. The old trust/knowledge contradiction. And it felt all the more terrible, as I sat there and watched us destroy each other, watched myself and him say things we did not mean because we couldn’t trust each other enough to say the things we meant, damning ourselves before the other could damn us, I wondered how you had made it so impossible for two people who were mad for each other to say the simplest things, why just when they needed to say those things they no longer had the relationship where they could. It all seemed so extravagantly wasteful at that moment, so whole-hog idiotic. Why was I sitting here, trapped in my own body and mind, across from another person trapped in his, saying the opposite of what I meant in order to get him to stop saying the opposite of what he meant and save me from getting in my car and leaving him for the mere recompense of spite? Why couldn’t I tell him exactly what I felt–that I was feeling a hot flush of memory sweep through me, a hot, flushed tsunami carrying all the other times I had felt this way, all the other moments when a person shifted and attacked, when they moved away and left me holding so much. I wanted to tell him, “I can’t be hurt like this again,” or “Please love me,” but I sat there, proud because pride is all you have, really, at the bottom of your spent self, and said things I didn’t mean in response to all the things he didn’t mean. And it felt so heavy and my blood hurt and I wondered if there was a park or swimming pool or joke in the world that was happy enough to save us from our task–our meticulous task of taking our hearts down, piece by piece, and putting them into a box in our stomachs. Stuck. That is the final broken piece of a broken love, the bone in the throat that will not be swallowed. Stuck because you need things you cannot get unless you stop needing them, with things you cannot say until you no longer need to say them, with desire you cannot admit until you no longer desire it.
And so love, I hate you. I hate you because it doesn’t matter how much I do or try. It doesn’t matter if I swim and write and learn to communicate. It doesn’t matter if I am safe or reckless. It doesn’t matter if I am honest or if I lie like a laughing hyena. It doesn’t matter because it all comes down to this red bench and the modern art outside the library. It all comes down to failing again, for the millionth time, no matter what I do, because if I’d tried to protect and predict I would have violated the love/knowledge paradox, and if I try to love and submit I’d violate the trust/attractiveness paradox. Because, you see, I can’t know if I can love someone until I love them enough to know them, and I can’t trust them unless I stay invulnerable enough to be attractive to them. So I can’t be careful without being too serious too soon, and so, dear love, I will ask my questions and ruin everything or enjoy things while they last before everything falls apart. And I will go back through and wonder if there wasn’t anything I could have done, any point at which I could have asked enough questions to be safe without asking too many and getting too serious, and I will that no, I did everything right but everything turned out wrong.
I can’t be done with you, but I am finished starting on your terms. We’re through love. And it’s not me. It’s you.