Sometimes a person walks into your life and, in a moment, shows you more about yourself than you ever could have imagined.
I woke-up, looked over, and there Marie was, sleeping next to me. The only thing new about waking up next to her this time was that I was, now, her man. So much had happened to get us to that point; so much would occur between us thereafter--a rushing together and falling apart, all in a manner of, seemingly, moments.
Several years went by since I'd last seen Marie (see a prior post, here). One evening, while in Cincinnati, I realized that I was only an hour away from Lexington, Kentucky. I decided to text Marie to see if she was okay with me coming to see a restaurant she designed for a friend of hers, and she was. I invited some friends out for dinner, and to my surprise, Marie decided to show. It was a pleasant evening, despite Marie's avoidance of me much of the night. I could tell she was nervous, like almost every time we had interacted.
About ten o'clock, all of my guests parted ways, with me and Marie left behind to begin the process of, after all those years, sorting-out "us." She apologized for not reaching out sooner when my mother died, noting how awkward and erratic she often felt in interacting with, only, me. I wasn't offended; I understood the basics of us: I loved her. She liked me. But she didn't know how to make the leap to us being together.
Over the next several months, leading up to our relationship and precipitating its demise, two themes emerged. One was that I was the antithesis of everything she had come to understand and find normative about men. Most of her relationships were passing and casual with no deep commitments. Other than that, she had few real relationships--all of which had been defined by chronic infidelity, emotional abuse and distance. None was more poignant than her marriage to a guy who most people I knew described as a sociopath and narcissist.
The other theme was that she was afraid of me. She noted that she repeatedly did and said things to hurt me over the years, hoping I would give up on her and walk away. Ironically, she admitted to never saying such things to the men who were the most abusive to her. As she once articulated, her mind was so filled with fear and doubt that she could never see me for who I was. The more sincere I was, the more I wanted her, the more fearful she became, and the more she ran and put up walls.
Marie wanted a man who was emotionally intelligent and who could love and commit to her. But the thought of reaching for that, stretching beyond what she knew and was accustomed to, frightened her. She finally decided to give it a try, promising never to run from me again. She sent pictures of engagement rings, asked how I wanted our wedding to go, moving to North Carolina or some city we'd mutually decide on, and children. I was surprised that she was trying to get her mind wrapped around, not only being with me for life, but also giving up the life she had grown accustomed to after her divorce.
Finally, I asked Marie if she was ready to be loved the way that I loved her. She smiled and nodded. I think she wanted to be ready, but based on her experience she had no framework for understanding love. During our time together she oscillated from understanding how much I loved her to being confused by it to coming to grips with what true love looked like to believing I couldn't understand her so I couldn't love her.
Marie was used to being defined as the "the baddest b!@$&"--pretty but silent--an ornament on some man's arm, her value defined by her aesthetics and how it made her partners look. She was genuinely surprised the first time she realized that her value to me had little to do with physical beauty and everything to do with her mind and her spirit. When I told her that I wanted her as my partner, my equal, the concept was truly novel to her.
We had something beautiful while it lasted, but it was too much for Marie to handle at that juncture in her life. Ultimately, the past would be prologue. She would say everything she thought needed to hurt me, to cause me to walk away, and if I didn't, she would see to it that I was walled off from her world.
I was too different. In the end, when she left, I realized that I was what a man, certainly a black man, shouldn't admit to being--afraid. I wasn't afraid to lose Marie. It wasn't the right time for us. I was prepared to wait for her but was afraid that there would never be a right time--so afraid that for the first time in my life I was depressed suffered from panic attacks--far from indifferent, what Marie knew a man to be.
I made my mistakes in our relationship. Maybe I loved her too much, and I spent a lot of time trying to understand someone who, in some ways, was quite guarded and didn't want to be fully understood. To her, it probably seemed like prying. To me, I hoped to embody the Buddhist conception of love as understanding, at least seeing Marie from her vantage-point.
Ironically, Marie showed me my own anxieties and fears around commitment and marriage, shedding baggage and losing my own sense of self in an effort to be with someone else. Maybe for the first time, I could fully see the place where women who loved me had once stood in my own life. In many ways, Marie was one of the best things that happened to me, because she helped me see me in meaningful and profound ways.
*Real names have been changed to protect identities.