I found another girl’s earrings on his night stand. He was in the bathroom when I made this discovery. I wish I could say that I burst through the bathroom door and presented him with those earrings and a smart, sarcastic line, but I didn’t. Instead, I stayed in bed frozen, staring at the evidence that another girl had been in my place not more than twenty four hours before. I couldn’t get the image of what might have happened out of my head. Did he lead her to the bedroom, kissing her, and before they got into bed, she paused to take off her earrings? Or, were they laying in bed, the backs of her earrings rubbing against his cheeks, the way we rubbed our cheeks against one another? Did they laugh as she took them off and leaned over to place them on the night stand? All the possible scenarios ran though my mind like a nightmare.
A year before the earring incident, we were just coworkers who ran into each other in the hallway or saw each other at after work happy hours on a Friday. But he started to come around my classroom more often. We started to spend more time together in school. Suddenly, my interest was piqued in what this could mean. I asked him out for drinks one Wednesday night. When we went to the bar after work, he talked about how he had fallen in love with his ex-girlfriend’s roommate, and how she had fallen in love with his best friend. What transpired was a dissolution of all the relationships that defined who he was. He admitted that he bought a plane ticket to Germany for the upcoming summer in the hopes of running away from his sadness.
His admission made me feel safe. I knew where he stood. I felt as though I had misread all of his lingering looks and all of his concentrated attention. He couldn’t possibly like me if he was heartbroken over someone else. I asked if we could walk around the neighborhood where the bar was since I was buzzed on three beers and didn’t feel right to drive home yet. He asked if I wanted to come to his apartment. I figured there was no harm in this considering he was in love with someone else and, therefore, had no room for me.
At his apartment, we laughed and listened to music and shared a bottle of wine. And then he kissed me. When he pulled away I told him, “I can’t do this with you. I know me. And if this happens I will end up having real feelings for you. But for you, I will be just an escape from your sadness. I don’t want to be that. I am more than someone’s escape.” I left his apartment that night under the impression that we had shared one great night and a really great kiss, but that was it.
He found me in my classroom the next day and asked if we could go out for drinks to talk. It was during that talk that he confessed he wasn’t ready for a relationship, but that he wanted to be with me. I was confused, but I figured that at some point he’d realize how great and fun I was, and he’d come around.
So, for almost a year, I was a little more than his friend but a little less than his girlfriend. Both of us were free to date whoever we wanted. At first, it didn’t matter to me that he capitalized on this aspect of our situation much more than I did because he kept choosing me. We spent entire nights sitting on his couch laughing about some stupid joke we had made. We’d lay in bed all day on the weekends and tell each other stories about our childhoods. We ran errands together and went on trips together. He’d take care of me on those nights when I drank a little too much. He’d make me dinner and tell me that I was the only good part of his life. I was the one thing in a sea of unhappy situations that could make him happy.
Sometimes, I’d get upset and ask him why we couldn’t just make this official. Every time he’d tell me he just wasn’t ready. I couldn’t understand if you spend as much time together as we did, and if you say all the nice things to someone that he said to me, then why wouldn’t you want to be with that person in a real way? I thought that maybe it was me. I started believing that maybe I wasn’t pretty enough or funny enough or smart enough. I wasn’t enough to make him want to stop seeing other girls.
I had gone on a few dates during this time, but I always stayed cold, aloof. So the dates ended in nothing more than a warm hug and a promise that “Maybe we should do this again sometime.” I was always happy to go back to him. And eventually it was evident that he stopped seeing other girls. I thought we were getting somewhere. But there was always a fear in the back of my mind that one day he would start sleeping around again, and I would have to deal with however that felt. So I set one boundary in the hopes of keeping my heart safe. He could sleep with whoever he wanted, just as I could, but I didn’t want it in my face.
No condom wrappers left nonchalantly around his apartment. No hair ties, no shirts left behind. Keep all evidence of your indiscretions away from me. It was my one way of feeling like I had some control over the situation. It was a test. I had tricked myself into believing that if he really liked me, respected me, cared about me the way he said he did, he would do everything in his power to make sure I never found out about the other girls. I didn’t realize that I had reduced myself to being okay with crumbs.
Which is why, when I found those earrings, I was livid. I was beyond livid. I had compromised everything, and in return had only asked for one thing. It seemed he didn’t care enough about me to honor my one request. But I couldn’t be mad. I didn’t really have the right to be mad. When I said okay to doing whatever it was that we were doing, I also ran the risk of finding a pair of earrings on his night stand. I had signed up for this and had signed away my right to have any sort of feelings about it.
He walked into the room with the toilet paper holder in one hand and a wrench in the other. His pants were unbuttoned and so was his shirt. I sat in his bed, holding the earrings. His face went pale. His eyes widened. He had been caught, and he knew it. I never want another person to make that face at me again.
“I knew you were lazy. But to not hide the evidence when you knew I was coming over? That’s a new level of lazy, even for you.” I stared at him. My eyes that once sparkled when he walked into a room were dead.
“If you want to yell at me and leave and never see me again, I’d totally understand.”
“No. I want to talk about this.” I didn’t want him to get away that easy. I cried, and I yelled. I spit venomous words at him, telling him how selfish and stupid he was. He said that he didn’t want to lose me, and that he was sorry for making me hurt so much. Eventually there was nothing left to say or feel. So we turned off the light, and I stared at the ceiling.
In less than a year, I had made him everything in my world, a position he never asked to hold. In fact, he had actively insisted that I not place my bets on him. But I did it anyway. Hoping every step of the way that things would change. I laid in the dark, and when I wasn’t playing the different scenes of how the earrings got on the nightstand, I wondered where the girl from a year ago had gone. The one who stood in his apartment and told him that this couldn’t happen because she knew it would end badly. If he was a test, I failed miserably. I gave into temptation and was paying with the pieces of my shattered heart.
I laid in the dark and realized that for a year I had clung to the hope that he would see how good I was, how kind I was, how fun I was. He would see these things in me and that would make him love me, make him want to be with me for real. If he loved me, it meant I was all these things. I hadn’t realized until that moment that maybe I could be all of these things independent of his feelings for me. I didn’t need his love to prove that I was worth loving.