“Love may have to be left off the exam. Most of us will never learn.”
“Do You Really Love Me?”
“Do you really love me?” I ask Justin as we careen down the highway.
“Of course,” he replies.
“But what does love MEAN to you?” I ask.
He rolls his eyes.
“It’s a valid follow-up question,” I say.
I can tell he’s unimpressed with this reasoning. After all, I’m great at inventing problems that aren’t there. But powerless as always to stop it.
“Page,” he says. Sternly. Getting that look he does when his patience dries up. It’s a finite resource. And I’ve been binge drinking it for hours.
“You know,” I say. “Sometimes details help. Like if you can find somewhere to anchor it. Then maybe I’ll understand.”
“Page.” It’s a single word. With claws. It means business. Murderous business. It’ll tear out my throat if I let it. And in an instant, he’s chased it with a pack of its friends: “You need to shut up. I’m trying to drive.”
“Oh okay,” I say. And my center collapses. I’m insta-tears.
A quick flash in my mind: Sinking to the floor of a room I can only half-remember. Blue shades blowing onto my mother’s hope chest. Climbing up there to play with a scuffed one-eyed baby doll. A dog jumping up on my lap. A voice yelling at me for inviting the dog up where she doesn’t belong. “But, but, but… She did it on her own.” I can’t get out the words. It’s baby speak. And no one will listen.
I hear Justin’s voice. “What? What now?”
“Oh,” I say. “Did I say something?”
“You sighed,” he says.
We pull into the driveway. “I’m sorry I got short with you,” he says.
“It’s okay,” I say.
“I just… I feel like you’re testing me when you do that. Keep asking me questions. Like I have to say the exact right thing. Or else you’re going to punish me.” His exes used to do that. Setting up an obstacle course of questions with hidden right answers. And an awful lot of wrong ones.
I relate to this all too well. People setting conversational traps. It’s why I went on a mind-reading diet, an experiment in taking people at their word. Not guessing the meaning behind what they’re saying. Or feeding into passive-aggression. Not giving fished for compliments. Or anticipating unstated needs. Like all diets, I do better some days than others.
“I can see that,” I say. “And I’m sorry. I just don’t know what else to do other than ask for what I want directly.”
We talk into the night. Talking leads to frenzied sex. Desperate sex that feels emotionally dangerous. In short, the best kind.
Wrapped up in blankets, we work out a system where I can ask Justin whatever I want, provided he can write his responses back in text. Taking the sound and the pressure of a quick response time out of the equation.
It’s a compromise on my end because I won’t be able to see his face.
But faces can lie, too. And I’m especially bad at reading his.
Testing Him Makes Us Both Fail
I catch myself doing it again and again. Violating our agreement. Asking him in person instead.
“So what’s something you really like about me? ”
“Do you really like me? How do I know for sure?”
I barely register the words before they’re out of my mouth. It’s all I can do to quickly apologize and retract them.
Sometimes I’m so out of control, I stop just short of arranging actual situational tests. Let’s be silent and frown and see what he does.
It seems like no matter what I do, a part of me is reaching out over and over, imploring him for confirmation.
And the more I reach, the more it backfires.
It’s the House, Not the Address
I am driving home alone in a dirty drizzle, flanked by cars doing rush hour as if they were singing a song and forgot the words halfway through. It’s the kind of rush hour that saunters, drunkenly stumbles through the lanes. I personally hit the rumble strip twice, scooching over to avoid getting clipped.
Everyone’s done, distracted, exhausted.
As I reach our exit, it hits me: It doesn’t matter if he’s telling you the truth. So long as he’s there for you. He’s there for you, isn’t he? You’re asking him for an address. It’s the house that’s important. Who cares if you have the exact address right? You found the house, that’s what’s important.
And when I finally get home and see him in the living room, I’m so relieved that I want to cry.