I'm in my 40s; that's about in the middle of life if I'm so lucky. As I look back through time, I sense the 20-year-old version of me back there in the past, judging me. I was cocky then. It's easy to imagine oneself as the winner before the contest has even started. Before any life challenges have occurred, you surely knew that in a decade's time you would have it all. Love. Money. Adopted babies.
Then the years start to flow. Unexpectedly, some years are like fists driven right into your life's gut. Possibly a divorce. Depression with a pill addiction. Maybe you fall in love with a young, flirty bartender and your friends don't tell you that they're silently judging you. These things happen. (Hypothetically, of course.) Time passes and you start to look less like the fantastic version of yourself that you envisioned in your youth and more like a human being navigating through the battlefield of life.
Do you believe in love at first sight? I didn't think I did until it happened to me. I heard his laugh before I saw him. When I turned and laid my eyes upon this otherworldly creature, I was finished. Jarod* had just turned 30, completed a long military career, and come out of the closet. Never in his life had he been who he really was. There was a moment when I thought, "Red flag?" But I was blinded by his physique. He was a mountain of muscle, had the most endearing smile -- and that laugh. Jarod was so immediately likable. Everyone thought so. His gentle-giant demeanor made complete strangers want to bear hug him.
Despite that, I've never met a man who hated himself so much. I once tried to point out all this to him. What was there to hate? But he just stared at me with no concept of what I was attempting to convey. In the beginning, Jarod kept his best foot forward as long as he could -- even managing to hide his terrifying alcohol problem for quite some time.
Eventually, every day was the same. I would leave for work. Jarod would begin drinking. I never knew what tragedy I would come home to, but one thing was certain: There would be tragedy. I remember one night toward then end of the relationship when I came home late. He had broken a glass, and blood was everywhere. He was propped up by the record player; Carol King was playing. He was weeping and holding a towel to his foot. Jarod cried hysterically until 4 a.m. before I finally got him to pass out in bed. But it wasn't over. This happened like clockwork. In an hour he would spring up out of bed, and if I didn't catch him, he would pee on the floor. I would get him to the bathroom, and when he passed out the second time, that's when the night was over.
We were bound in this torturous cycle for months, but it was finally broken when I discovered that through all of this, he was also cheating on me. Strangely, I was more relieved than angry. His infidelity gave me enough reason to finally leave.
I was free.
As I drove away on the evening I moved out, I looked up into my rearview mirror. Jarod stopped and watched me drive until I was out of sight. As his image faded away, something in me changed. I had given that man all of the idealized love of my youth that had remained. As I watched in the mirror, that too faded.
That experience informed my next couple of relationships. If my texts weren't responded to quickly enough, I became suspicious. If the box of wine on the counter emptied too quickly, I got anxious. A mysterious wet spot on the carpet became a pee flashback. A fine line is drawn when dealing with our negative past experiences. On one side of the line is the jaded man you said you would never become. On the other side is love. (Cue magical chimes.) You decide on which side of the line you exist. As for me, I now decide to err on the side of love. It's often scary as hell, but that's what I choose.
What if it never works? What if love always eludes me? One day I'll be an old man. I'll look back on this time in my life at a person who no longer carried heavy expectation and fear, a man who chose love against all odds and at all costs. Because the alternative isn't so pretty. And that, my friends, is how to not be a bitter old queen.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.