“I like you two together,” one of our friends remarked. “You’re calm.”
And we were. We were both quiet, in sharp contrast to the pack of wild boys we hung out with.
You were handsome and gentle, kind and funny.
Before anything started, we walked together under jagged mountains, their tips newly dusted with snow. “I still have feelings for him,” I warned you. Him was your friend, and he and I had danced around each other for months.
“It’s okay,” you told me. I didn’t believe you. But your words felt sturdy, and I needed something to lean against.
You were patient.
For weeks, we sat on the couch next to one another, watching movies, sipping beer, not touching. The space between us vibrated, like when you press your two palms close to each other long enough that you start to feel the heat and hum.
And then I went back to him. I was possessed, magnetized. You were toast and tea, and I had a taste for whiskey and cinnamon. I’d waited my whole life to fall in love, and though I wish it’d been you, it hadn’t. If there’d been some silver switch I could’ve pressed to turn the gears of my heart, to reverse and shift them, I’d have pressed it. But I was 23, lost and in love, no switch in sight.
One night, you were asleep on his couch. He and I tiptoed past you, to his bedroom.
“Shh,” you said, your eyes glittering in the dark. Ice pushed through my veins. But I kept walking.
He was, of course, as careless with me as I was with you.
Later, in a small bathroom, I said goodbye to you. “I’m so sorry,” I said, like if I said it sweetly and surely enough, it’d be okay. I hadn’t learned yet that words mean little when actions don’t align with them.
But your sturdy words stunned me once again. “You have nothing to be sorry for,” you said.
“But don’t I?” I asked. You just shook your head.
I wanted you to be angry. To show me fire. But instead you stood there, open-faced and tender.
Months later, when I’d moved across the country to escape my spiraling mess, the boys and booze, you sent me a letter. The slanted angles of your writing reminded me of your steadiness. “I’ve fallen in love with you,” you wrote. “I have nothing but fondness for you.”
If only, I told myself. If only I had loved you instead. I could’ve been happy, caring and cared for, loving and well-loved.
But that space in my heart was already occupied, already brimming. It was sloshing over, messy and raw. We were not quite right, but I’ve never forgotten what it felt like to be cared for by you. I’ve never forgotten those nights of side-by-sideness, of almost-touch. Or the letter, which still sits in a sagging box of the past. Not because I want to be my burgundy-tressed 23-year-old again—although maybe, a little—or because I’m unhappy in my life now, but because it is just so damned rare to be loved. How many times do we get to be loved like that in a lifetime? Two? Six? One, if you’re very lucky or very unlucky?
And even more than loving me, you accepted me, whether I thought you had any right to or not. I know how rare that is now. Love is the easy part, the part that arrives without effort, a wind-swept seed. But to accept someone, flaws and all? That takes work, fingernails stained with earth, palms aching work.
If only, I’d once thought. If only I could’ve loved you. I’ve settled instead for being loved by you. For being accepted.
And I will always be grateful for that.
Author: Lynn Shattuck
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Image: Ismael Nieto/Unsplash