The grand finale of “us” was realizing that I was wrong about everything. Maybe not about the big things, or even many of the little things. But I was wrong about the most fundamental thing, the basest of assumptions: that you loved me.
It is so automatic for someone in love to think the other person must love them too. That the other person burns for them too. That the love they feel exploding in their chest must be felt in equal force in the lover opposite them. To assume comes as naturally as breathing; and yet to assume is the first and fatal flaw. The assumption of reciprocal love was the axis upon which our universe turned.
After four tumultuous years of having my heart tied to you, it is only now that I realize I was only being dragged behind you all along. I was never on equal footing, never balanced, never secure. I was tethered to the changing tides of your attention, admiration, and affection. I was ready to be anyone or anything you needed; I was a giver devoid of any pesky needs of my own—always there to please you, whether as a mistress or a friend, a lover or a confidant, a wife or a whore.
Yet you always left me behind. No matter who I was for you, what need I was fulfilling, or what I was willing to give. You left so many times. It never bothered me that you would go, because I always knew you would come back. What tore me apart wasn’t the leaving so much as how you did it — you left like you were stepping out to get a carton of milk or a letter from the mail, like it was routine, habitual, nothing. You always made me feel like nothing. In your eyes, I saw the universe unfold; in mine, you saw insignificance.
Then you left for the last time. How did I know it was the last time? Well, because I gave you the option. I said, You can follow me into my new life and love me as you promised you would. I said, If you want me, I am yours. You said you needed time to think it through; if it were me, no minute committed to you would have been too soon. But I knew that what you really needed was for me to cut ties, since you never would. So long as I left a crack in the door, window, or wall, you would climb back into my mind whenever you needed to. But what if I ever needed you? Silence ensues.
In came the pain, rushing like a river held back by a dam. I recognized it at once; it was that hollow and harrowing ache I had been running away from since the day I met you, incidentally the same day I knew that this very ending—and the subsequent pain—was inevitable.
Let me explain the pain, because it’s not really the pain of a scraped knee or a broken arm. No, not quite. It’s a pain that you can’t even properly put into language while it’s happening. A pain that reverberates through the remotest parts of your psyche, crashing over you like overpowering ocean waves—and all you can do is stay submerged, gasping for air. It is a pain that suffocates your soul, as if it is sucking the very life out of the subtlest cellular structure of your being, a pain that infiltrates every atom of your entity—yes, that kind of pain. I’m not even sure pain is the right word; it’s more like destruction, annihilation, death. To me, our final goodbye felt like death. To you, it must have felt like closing the kitchen door.
And silly me, even after all this time, even after all these false endings, these leave-me-but-do-come-back circumstances, I never thought the pain of the final goodbye was genuine. That may sound odd, given the intensity of the experience. You have to understand, I knew our love wasn’t the kind that romance movies peddle to pollyanna preteens.
I knew our love was counterfeit, toxic, malignant like a tumour lodged in one’s frontal lobe. And so I imagined the pain of losing you would be equally vile and pathetic. I thought at the bottom of it was some familiar, trivial, egotistic pain of abandonment. I imagined it was some kind of phony pain, the kind that the masochist within me ached to relive; or perhaps it was the pain of humiliation, of futility, of vague cosmic insignificance. But I never thought it was the pain of love lost.
Yet when I looked at the very last layer, when I took a microscope to the very last bit, the remnants that lay atop the crux of losing you, there it was: the love that tied me to you.
All this time, I thought I was engaged in a game between me and my ego, a battle between myself and I. I thought I was a prima donna in the drama of us. I thought I lived for the torture of wanting you and wanting you to want me too; for the rigamarole of contorting every crevice of my body to get you to ravish me; or for the ephemeral ecstasy of being seen by you, being noticed by you. I thought that petty game was everything to me.
From my limited vantage point, all I could see was how badly I wanted him to adore me. To love me. To want to be with me as badly as I needed to be with him. I thought all of this infantile yearning was wrapped up in ego; in the need to be needed, to be validated, to win the proverbial unwinnable man.
But it surprised me more than it would have surprised the very best of shrinks, and it took no psychoanalysis whatsoever, just a sober look into the face of the pain of losing you.
In the end, it wasn’t ego that tied me to him. It was love. The fact of the matter was that I had been in love with him all of my adult life, that I spent the better part of my twenties loving a man who didn’t love me.