When we grew up and we watched Disney movies, it was always the same story. The beautiful princess falls in love with her prince at first sight. There’s never a concern that her love will not be reciprocated. As a little girl growing up surrounded by princesses, fairy tales, and storybooks that all talked of beautiful love affairs, I never even thought that was an option. Was it even possible for one person to actually be “in love” with another person who didn’t feel the same way? As it turns out, yes. And I am that person.
I’ve only ever had one serious boyfriend. We dated for about a year and a half and I distinctly remember the first time he told me he loved me. He had walked me to my car as he always did. I climbed into the driver’s seat and kissed him goodbye. When I pulled away and went to close my door he blurted out, “Byeiloveyou!” And quickly walked back into his house before I had a chance to respond. It was a unique situation; I was able to contemplate what he had said to me without being put on the spot. I didn’t have to respond to him in that moment because he had already gone.
Did I love him back? I think back then, I probably thought I did. I’ve said it to one or two other people since, but I think I meant it more as, “I love you as a person and care about you a lot.” To me, this does not equate to being in love with another person. And I think that I knew that whenever I said it to anyone. It wasn’t until I met (we’ll call him) Eric senior year that I realized I could feel that way about anyone.
College came and went, and Eric and I had not spoken for two years. Shortly after beginning our senior year, Eric began a toxic relationship with a girl named (we’ll call her) Becca. Becca was controlling and did not allow Eric to associate with other girls. A year after we graduated, he finally broke it off with her. Our mutual friend texted him and said that he should reach out to me now that he and Becca were broken up. To my great surprise, he did. Even though we had not spoken or seen each other for years, I still felt unable to calm the squirming feeling in my stomach whenever I thought about him.
When he texted me asking to see me that week, I nearly vomited. I called my best friend who, despite never having met Eric, had heard me talk about him for the two years he was dating Becca. She, understandably, freaked out and was as excited as I was. The day came when we were supposed to hang out down the shore. We’re both from Northern New Jersey, but he had recently moved to Belmar and rented a studio apartment right across from the beach. I was at my beach house a half hour away staring at my phone. I ended up calling a friend and pretending to be nonchalant. “He probably isn’t going to text me anyway. Whatever, it’s not a big deal.” While I was still on the phone, he texted me and asked to meet him at his apartment.
I was a ball of nerves the whole drive to his apartment. When I pulled up in front, he was sitting outside waiting for me. The anxiety and nerves vanished the second we hugged. I was too happy to be with him to remember I was nervous. We walked to a local bar and decided to get drinks. Within a few hours we were talking and laughing like we had just seen each other yesterday. For the rest of that summer Eric and I grew closer.
We spent days together at the beach and nights together drinking wine and watching baseball. Despite the overwhelming amount of time we spent together, he hadn’t made any sort of advance towards me. Our friendship was that of a couple, minus the sexual aspects. We went to dinner together and made a list of the restaurants in the area we wanted to eat at. He met my parents and I met his. His mother and I grew close enough that she would text me regularly. We would spend days at a time together, and when I slept over, we shared a bed. When I invited him to be my date to my brother’s wedding that upcoming fall, he said yes.
One night as summer was ending, we went swimming in the ocean together. It was terrifying and invigorating and I loved being able to do it with him. After we swam in the ocean, we sat in the sand. He sat behind me and I leaned against his chest while we looked at the stars. At that moment he said, “I’m really glad we’re friends again.” That phrase had come out of his mouth on at least three other occasions since we started hanging out together. In the back of my mind a nagging voice began to remind me that he said “friends.” And that maybe that was all he wanted to be.
Months went by. We exchanged Christmas presents. I presented him with tickets to the first Mets series at Citifield expecting him to hand me something stupid like lotion. I had my fake smile prepared when I tore off the wrapping paper of two small, square packages. Inside were two Alex and Ani bracelets. “I got you the seashell because of all the time we spent at the beach. And I got the hummingbird because it looks like a mockingjay. From when we went to go see the movie in theaters.” He had put time and consideration into his choices. For months I had been trying to extinguish the small shred of hope that he would wake up one morning and realize we were perfect together. But moments like this made it increasingly difficult.
We had several months of ups and downs. For a few months in the middle we stopped speaking because I told him how I felt and said that it was too hard to be his friend. Eventually, I realized I didn’t want to live without him in my life. Even if it was only as my friend. I mailed him a package for his birthday in May, and we resumed our friendship as if nothing had happened.
A few weeks later I heard from mutual friends that he had slept with Becca. Evil, conniving, lying, cheating Becca. Bile rose in my throat. The idea of being with me is so bizarre and unappealing to him, but he can sleep with her after everything she did to him? I debated my options and decided to confront him. I texted him at work to come by after his shift. Even though it was through text message, he knew something was wrong. He agreed to come by and said, “Is everything okay?” I gave a vague response and contemplated how I would have this conversation.
One major thing Eric and I have in common is that we struggle to talk about our feelings. When something is awkward, we change the subject. I knew there was only one way to have this conversation. When he walked in I had already raided the liquor cabinet. I explained that we needed to talk. And that we would not get into any details until we were both sufficiently drunk. He agreed and we set to work. As we took shots, we attempted to work on a crossword puzzle my parents had left lying around. Once I was satisfied our inhibitions had been lowered, I explained that I knew about Becca.
We walked up to the top deck of my house. When I looked up at the stars I was reminded of another night in the ocean nearly a year before. I began by saying that as his friend, I was angry and disappointed that he had slept with his ex because of the way she had hurt him. And then I started to cry. I asked him, “How do you think I feel? Knowing that you’ll never give me the chance to be with you, but you’ll be with her after everything that happened.” I said the words that I had never said to anyone. That I was really, truly honest to God in love with him.
I asked, “Do you know how it feels to be in love with somebody who doesn’t love you back?” I was genuinely surprised when he began to cry silent tears too. The rest of the night is fuzzy. But I remember him telling me how much he cared for me. He told me he didn’t want to lose me.
It’s been a year since that night. I’ve accepted that we will never be together. I used to wonder what would happen if my fantasy came true. Eric would wake up next to me and realize he wanted to be with me. And I came to the conclusion that I would hate him if he did that to me. After years and years of wanting to be with him, he would decide to be with me only after I had moved on with my life. It would make him the most selfish person in the world. I wouldn’t be able to accept him after everything he put me through. After the seven years of pain and heartache I have endured at the hands of my past lovers, I have nothing left. Each man chipped away at me. Some more than others. But Eric took whatever was left of me. I am broken. And there is no way to fix it.