Jake was the first person I met online who I went on more than two dates with. Before him had been a string of shallow conversations and quick exits. My rule was that there would be no third date unless I saw adequate relationship potential between us. Conveniently forgetting to text someone back was okay before three encounters, but after three it warranted at least a message or a phone call. And that was the kind of awkward conversation that I never wanted to have.
For our first date Jake picked a dingy 1930s themed bar. One that made my Lyft driver feel concerned about dropping me off. There was an instant attraction. I liked his tattered sneakers, his smug grins and the way he didn’t seem to be scared of anything. He understood my jokes and laughed at the punchlines, even the subtle ones.
On our fourth or fifth date I went to his place and saw women’s hair in the bathroom that was not mine. Feeling disrespected, I attempted to have the kind of conversation that I had always tried hard to avoid. As was the case with many of these types of situations, I gave it an attempt, eventually gave up and left.
Eight months later I went to Ghana to help do research for the non-profit I am a part of. Ghana made me see life differently. There is dignity in getting up every day and living no matter how disadvantaged and impoverished you are. If people without electricity and running water could walk for miles every day just for a chance at a better life, what excuses did the rest of us have to not live to our fullest potential? So with my new found perspective on life, I thought about the unfinished business between Jake and me and texted him, “Hey”. From there ensued the second take of our love story.
This time it was different. We had both changed slightly, his grins were less smug and more genuine, my conversations less shallow and more open. We went on many dates past three and entered into a relationship. The honeymoon phase was amazing as I thought it would be. We couldn’t get enough of each other. He liked the way my nose wrinkled when I laughed. Even my makeshift Trader Joe’s dinners were big hits. We were like two silly little kids living in our own inside joke.
I was in love and I also relished the validation of being right. I saw a picture-perfect future between us on that first date and that picture was unfolding beautifully in front of my eyes.
But I started to notice that something was missing. The gentleness that wouldn’t come at the end of an embrace. The verbal affirmations that did not accompany the intimate dinners. The questions that stopped at the first layer of who I am. Steadily, I discovered the reason for Jake’s fearlessness. A wall that protected his innermost self from everything else in the world, including me. It later clicked in me that what would anyone be scared of if they always protected themselves inside of a wall?
The distance was confusing. It made me insecure about our relationship but also made me feel strangely safe. With my previous boyfriend, I was always the one who needed to express more, who didn’t communicate enough and who didn’t care enough. Part of me was glad that in this dynamic the pressure was off of me.
We ticked off the relationship milestones with me feeling a combination of outward contentment and emotional insecurity. The moments he picked me up and swung me around entwined with moments he froze up with rage over family issues. The surprise birthdays and anniversaries mixed with fights that were shut down before they even began. All the things he did for me, bidding aggressively at the silent auction of my non-profit fundraiser, taking care of me when I had food poisoning, coyly giving me a key to his apartment, interwoven with all the things he did not do, not calling me first, not talking about the future, not considering me in any important decision-making.
I was happy but anxious. Satisfied, but also lonely. We were in sync but not connected. Months passed with my apprehension coming and going. I decided whether or not to say something. On the surface everything was fine. Digging deeper meant taking on the risk to discover that the surface was all that there was. I felt like a peasant woman about to ask a medieval knight to take off his armor. What if there was no one inside? One day the feeling overwhelmed me and I told Jake, “I feel like if we were to break up tomorrow you would be just fine.”
The look of hurt on his face made me think that I was not the first one who has said those words to him. He responded with affirming his feelings for me. His words were reactionary and mechanical. They didn’t convince me. But for a second I saw a glimpse of the small and fragile child trapped inside the wall. It made me feel helpless too. Seeing him like that I didn’t want to press further or bring it up again.
I will wait, I thought. He can’t stay in his wall forever. When he’s ready to leave his lonely confinement, he’ll realize that I’ve been here this whole time, patiently waiting outside. With time he’ll see. I would mend his broken heart. I would take away all the hurt. I would protect him. I would show him the love that his mother never did. After all, in the broken-guy, gentle-girl trope, the girl doesn’t lead the broken hero to redemption and wholeness overnight.
So I circled the wall, determined to shrink myself to fit within his narrow range of love and connection. I convinced myself that this was a happiness worth earning. If this was a test of my commitment and perseverance I was going to win. I started to walk on eggshells around him. I kept everything interesting and light so that it was not emotionally involving to interact with me. I avoided any topic that was too touchy feely. I dropped arguments if it seemed like they made him uncomfortable. Everything I emoted needed to be taken down a peg to be more neutral so that I didn’t scare him or come off as too strong. An innocent expression such as “I love you so much, I’m so happy to be with you!” became “I really like spending time together.” I didn’t dare initiate any conversations about the future even though I was amidst preparing for business school and considering applying to new jobs.
My relationship started to impact the rest of my life. I put off priorities so that I can withhold the status quo. I didn’t pursue an overseas job because I was afraid to lose him. I stopped studying as much. Clothes piled on in my room. I texted my friends that I was constantly agitated. I began to get regular anxiety attacks.
Before I had time to seriously reflect on what was happening, it all came to an end. On a Friday afternoon, Jake told me, in his way, that he didn’t love me very deeply, that he’s not sure what love looks like. My subconscious mind had always known that.
Just like that I was forcibly awoken from the dream that was our relationship. And just like a dream, no matter how strongly I felt, once I woke up and realized that it wasn’t real, I couldn’t go back.
Initially I was heartbroken, devastated. But then I had the urge to do something I never had before in situations like these, I wanted to talk. A week after our breakup I requested to meet up. I told Jake, for the first time, my honest thoughts. The wall, the child, all of it. I had a lot to say. I told him that I would have traded all the things he did for me for more of his heart. It’s all I ever wanted. He responded, “Honestly, I don’t think I know how to give that”. I saw that sad and fragile child again but I continued on. The words came out firmly and squarely. That was perhaps the first time we had a truly honest conversation while acknowledging the existence of the wall. I wondered if things would have ended differently if we had both been more honest with ourselves and each other.
I was finally learning how to talk instead of run. I thought back to myself now almost two years ago, the frustration and embarrassment of trying to communicate, unsuccessfully, why I felt disrespected. As I reflected on my own progression, I looked at Jake and realized that people don’t save other people. They save themselves.
The eggshells finally broke, but I was walking on solid ground again.