I’ve changed a lot over the years. I used to think that when you loved someone it meant that their fears took precedence over your own. And that you should do anything to keep from hurting them.
I still have an old journal from my first semester at college (1999). It has a fabric yellow cover, in a grid-like pattern that if I had to guess I’d say originates from somewhere in Central America. I was really into that aesthetic in those days. Bright colors and geometric patterns, but always gender neutral.
There’s one page in it that always makes me sigh, if I flip open to it. One line, really: If we were sisters, I’d be jealous of you.
I wrote that by the light of my dorm room lamp, a hideous monstrosity I’d slapped a can of cheap blue paint on one afternoon. The paint dried in uneven layers because I’d used too much at once, the way a person does when they paint their nails in a hurry and they convince themselves they can get away with two coats instead of three, one coat instead of two.
I was proud of that stupid lamp, most of the time. But as I wrote that line sitting under that janky thing, I thought (and subsequently wrote) that she would have painted it right, the girl I was writing about. Because frankly, her nails were always perfect. She was a friend, sometimes more than friend, sometimes way more than friend. An ex, kinda. But not really. Because we hadn’t really broken up.
For years, I’d been happy to play her sidekick. To make love to her in darkness and then look the other way in public when she’d act like we weren’t together. Closeted. To tiptoe around her insecurities while she raged through mine.
Those were the rules of our relationship. She was allowed to be sensitive. I wasn’t. And for 6 years, I went along with it.
That journal entry about the lamp and being jealous of her was written on one of the last nights that I did. Right before she made a trip from her school to mine to see me.
At the time I wrote that, I thought I’d never get over her. I thought there would never be anyone else, anything else.
I thought that I should get used to suffering. That I needed to find a way to live in her shadow. That I would always love her and that loving her meant that I was at her mercy because the worst thing I could ever do was hurt her by stepping out into the light.
The Night I Finally Stopped Worrying About Hurting Her
But the next time she visited me, something snapped. I most certainly cussed out campus police on that terrible night that she went to bed, yet again, with someone who didn’t care about her, knowing it’d destroy me. But not before I finally let out that same release valve in her direction. When I let her know how much the resentment that had built inside me stung. I’d tried so many times before but had stumbled and gone back when she’d shown any sign whatsoever that my words were hurting her.
Not this time though. I told her what I really thought. And I didn’t stop until she cried. Or even after. Her tears turned to anger. And the fight that took place was terrible. We screamed at one another at a volume that terrified me and made me feel completely out of control. I thought for a moment one of us would kill the other. But instead she stormed off to rage fuck a guy she’d just met.
I drank so much after she left that I collapsed on the wet lawn in front of my dorm, shaking. It gets really fuzzy there, but I’m told that another one of my friends brought me inside (at the request of campus police, who as I mentioned before, I wasn’t exactly nice to), parked me in front of a toilet, and forced me to drink bottled water until I threw up.
“Fuck you,” I said to my friend. “You drink this fucking water, you piece of shit.” (Or something like that, based on what my friend told me later.)
“No fuck you, you cunt, you’re not fucking dying on me,” my friend said back and kept handing me water and holding my hair. They told me later on when I was sober that they didn’t want to call the hospital for what could be alcohol poisoning since they worried I’d run into the real cops somewhere along the way and that they’d arrest me.
I drank so much water and got so sick. But no one called the hospital or the cop-cops. And I didn’t die.
Instead, I passed out in my bed and woke up at the crack of dawn feeling like I’d been hit over the head with something. I’m not sure exactly what I did that morning. I would guess that I ate one of my weird breakfasts from that time (in those days, usually a heaping spoonful of humus or a container of butterscotch Snack Pack pudding) and then turned on daytime TV to sulk on my beanbag, dozing a bit as whatever was on the TV droned on (talk shows, a court show, soap opera, whatever).
In the afternoon, my on-again, off-again girlfriend showed up, returning from wherever she’d spent the night. She was hungover, too. “Hi,” she said. “You wanna talk?”
She was leaving to go back to her school that evening on the late bus. But we had a few hours. We walked around campus, talking in between the spaces of what had happened, without really acknowledging it. We caught up on news from both places, mutual friends. Made pop culture references.
Usually the more talkative of the two of us, she was notably more reserved. And I don’t think it was just the hangover.
Finally, she brought up what had happened between us. And I’ll never forget what she said (and I wrote down a few hours later in that same journal). “You know, last night wasn’t easy,” she said. “But good for you. I could be mad at you, but I’ve done shit, too.”
“I know you hate apologies,” I said.
“I do,” she said. She’d always despised them, on both sides — getting them and giving them.
“So let’s not go there,” I said. “Let’s just call it even.”
She smiled. “Even.”
And we made plans for me to visit her in another month.
There Are Times When Loving Someone Means Challenging Their Fears — And Your Own
Something changed after that visit. We never slept together ever again. But I stopped holding back, pulling punches. I told her what I thought, even when she hated what I said.
It wasn’t a straight line to peace, not quite as neat as all that. There were a few more ups and downs on the way there. Stops and starts. Absences and reunions. We traded stories and scars and secrets as our lives ran in a sometimes astonishing parallel as we continued to live in different states for years. We married and divorced other people at the same time. Opened and closed relationships. In lockstep, like two women whose cycles sync up when they spend too much time together. Except with hundreds of miles between us.
It never worked out for us long term as lovers, but she became a friend. One of the best friends I’ve ever had.
She still is. She’s been so supportive of my writing, even the times I’ve written about her. She’s told me that she’s happy that I can finally say what I need to say. That she knows how hard it was for me to say anything unpleasant in the house I grew up in, that I didn’t have any privacy. That every word I wrote was scrutinized, censored, and occasionally burned.
Okay, we fucked each other up for a bit. But she’s an amazing person who’s gone on to live an amazing life. And I’ll always love her. There are times when loving someone really does mean that their fears take precedence over your own. But not always. I learned from her that it’s not so simple.
I learned from her that there are other times that loving someone means challenging their fears — and your own.