I’m always falling in love with people. When I fell in love last year, I played my full poker hand and I told him. It was a risk I took and it was a mistake. My candor scared him away and our happy fall together fell apart in the early winter.
I had another falling in love moment while at the Nashville Airport this summer. It was early and the place gently hummed to life as I fumbled for my carry-on Ziploc bag. A little girl and her father walked up behind me in the security line. She asked why she didn’t have to take off her shoes; why everyone else had to. Her father faltered.
He couldn’t fit our world today into words.
He couldn’t bear to tell her of hate, terror, hurt, loss, fear, death. He couldn’t explain Al Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden, religious extremism, jihad, the Cold War, American Democratization, oil, money, power, safety screenings, bomb threats, burning and collapsing buildings, negative space.
Or maybe he just hadn’t had enough coffee yet. Maybe his kid always asked questions that he was too tired or too bored or too stressed to answer.
“Because…. you’re so special,” he said.
It was so fake and stupid.
I looked up at him from my bags. He couldn’t tell the truth to his daughter, and in that moment she wouldn’t know or begin to know the fucked-upness that people live in and make for themselves. It got me thinking of all the times when we don’t say what’s scary and true, what scares the shit out of us to say. I kept thinking of this as I walked past the kiosks selling headphones and neck pillows, and past the aggressively long Starbucks line.
Can anyone really risk it — the truth?
So, I wrote this to the man I had fallen for this summer on an iPhone note at the Southwest gate in the Nashville Airport at 7 in the morning.
I love you. It scares me to write this.
I love your joyful, playful, boyish spirit. I love your smile when you laugh really hard and your eyes crinkle into the miniature canyons of happy that were made by all your happy moments that came before, and the ones that will come again. I love how you live wildly and fully. I love that you are such a whirr that everything spins just to keep up – I think that’s why your room is strewn in chaos.
I love that you fill a room with delight.
I love your smooth spots and your rough ones; I have rough ones, too, but you smooth them. And you cast a light on them that makes me see they are just raw signs of being human.
I’m writing because this is the unfettered story of my past six weeks and I’m trying to hold onto it amid Nashville Airport’s ordinary and human strangeness. It makes me wonder and hope that the man sleeping and falling off his seat across from me feels this way, or has felt this way once. It makes me wonder and hope that the kid to my right, engrossed in his iPad, will someday feel this courage when he looks at the right woman or man or girl or boy.
I don’t want to be puny and safe.
What if this was a gigantic mistake? How was I supposed to know? Who knows these things?
How can anyone know?
And I pressed send — but not to him — to a friend. I re-read the text, saw its typos and glitches, started to edit; I sent it again. She probably wanted to kill me.
“Sorry for bombing your inbox!” I wrote.
“What is the outcome you imagine?” she replied.
I held the screen until my phone went gray. Her voice in that little font rightfully and truthfully punched me in the gut, just what good friend voices should do. I looked up at the airport theater surrounding me.
A black woman licked away Cheetos from her fingers. An Indian woman to her right started to stretch something in her neck; I knew she was stretching because she held the stretching book in her left hand and she was standing very still. A fat, white woman told her teenage son wearing a flat brim hat and one ear-bud that she and his siblings were going to get lunch. He didn’t want to go. Then she yelled at him. Even though he dissented by sitting down in an empty chair, he was embarrassed by his mother and by his humiliation. His lip trembled before he wiped it with teenage apathy. She turned back towards him, this time silently, and he got up to follow. I felt sad for him and my fingertips flicked my phone awake.
What was the outcome I imagined? That he would open it, be floored by it. That he would realize everything was real between us. Realize how he craves to watch me keel over in belly-achingly happy laughter. Realize all my different languages of laughter and that he knows innocent from ornery from surprised from ecstatic from playful from fulfilled from risky from thoughtful from adoring from vindictive from nervous from exquisite. Realize he knows my hair smells like warm laundry, and my neck smells like nectar, and my shoulder smells like milk.
Realize he didn’t like watching Jimmy sing, “You’re my brown-eyed girl!” because Jimmy was wrong: my eyes are green.
I want him to realize that when he said he didn’t want long distance because his last relationship was long distance, and it’s exhausting to be in two places at once, that that was puny and safe.
Or, I imagine this: he might open and read and scroll and close and sit. Fuck, he might think. It was just six weeks. It wasn’t nothing, but it sort of was. Am I an asshole? Or is she crazy? Or both. Or neither. Fuck, he might say out loud and get up. It might be a weird midday time, and he might walk to the refrigerator and grab a PBR. Crack its top open. He might go back to the computer, or phone, or iPad. He might click reply. His fingers hover over the keyboard, as if they don’t want to be complicit in what he might make them say. They haven’t said these things all summer, but they might now.
I imagine him starting to type. Bullets firing. Ricocheting. At least they’re not hitting off a body; yet.
Wow. I don’t know what to say, other than how deeply I appreciate your honesty. What you’ve written is beautiful and I respect that. I think you’re awesome and I had so much fun with you this summer. I feel so grateful for our fun.
But I don’t feel the same way about you.
I reply to my friend, “You’re right; I don’t know what I imagine. I shouldn’t send it. Dumb.”
“Let it simmer a couple days. Maybe it’s like your hippie aunt’s mantra: you’re remembering and thanking him for everything, and letting him go.”
“Maybe I’m living it and I don’t even know I’m living it,” I reply. The Southwest airline employee calls the B group to board over the loudspeaker, and I pack my stuff away. In the flight, all I think of is my note. I go back and read and re-read it. Thank god for airplane mode. Am I in love with his memory? No. Really? I don’t know. Would I die if he died? I don’t know. Stop. Stop it. I love you?
When we landed, I immediately swiped off airplane mode. Will he be in my inbox? A text from Mom popped up in the banner; then Margaret; then Heidi.
“Thank you dear. I must admit I had a small hope I would see your face in the audience, though I knew it would be impossible.”
I waited and the note simmered. A few weeks later, he joined me as my date at a wedding. We canoodled our way through the Louisville Airport security line, and my head was so far up in the clouds that I didn’t take my shoes off. The alarm sounded.
When his boarding zone was called at his gate, I looked up into his eyes — waiting — to hear the words I had already written to him, but had never sent. I waited like the girl who had asked her father for the truth about the shoes. I waited to see if waiting had been right this time around.
“You’ll have wireless in Costa Rica?” he asked. I nodded, but the memory gets fuzzy from there. Those weren’t the words I wanted. He walked onto his flight and I away to mine. Neither of us had taken the risk.
I fell and I failed, first speaking too soon and then staying quiet too long. Maybe there’s some grand design to meeting the great loves of your life, but maybe there isn’t. Maybe you can’t say the truth, and maybe other times you can’t hear it.
Maybe we just need to keep falling and failing to keep on feeling.
Because even though you might wish you could be the girl who kept her shoes on, what you really know, deep in your bones, is that that you wouldn’t be able to feel the world if you did.