Written by Lindsay Maher
Sometimes — more than I would like to admit — I think about “us.” And I think about how that word, to me, needs quotations; even when I talk about it out loud, it necessitates curling my index and middle fingers in a downward motion. It’s as if a you plus a me, regardless of the labels we didn’t hang onto, couldn’t exist outside those marks.
And maybe that’s true, in the technical sense. Whatever we had ended in the middle of the what are we? conversation, our opinions muddled and messy. Before, we talked and laughed and kissed and magnetised and let be, be.
In the sense that counts, though, there was a shackles-free us. We weren’t something with a capital S, but we weren’t nothing, either. I’m amazed that, between the fleeks and whacks and trills (which is apparently the new thing, and a word looked up specifically to put here, which you’d probably know), there isn’t a word for two people caught in the cracks of almost.
The evolution of our relationship is fascinating to study. To a student of literature and writing, who weaves words and worlds through one another to create order in the mess of her imagination, human interaction is inspiring and beautiful and strange and sad and educational. I’ve written many words about love, none of which I could claim as my reality, because I didn’t know how it felt. I still don’t know how it feels, because you aren’t my first love; you are my first like. Still, a real like, the kind that is reciprocated and fun. It is the limbo of wanting and being wanted in return; of releasing the butterflies in your stomach by giggling like an eight-year-old when you tease or say daringly intimate things. I at least have had a taste of what that giddy, weightless bliss feels like.
As a woman in her early twenties, I have never had a boyfriend. I didn’t have a first kiss until you, three weeks before I turned 22. I panicked when you asked me over text one night how many guys I had kissed before you, more because I had to own up to my barren landscape of romance than whether you enjoyed kissing me. The technological barrier was a friend to me then, the one time I was happy we weren’t talking face to face, so I could admit my embarrassment. But you said it was nothing to be embarrassed about, and I liked you more for that.
Before you, I believed I was afraid of commitment. I tried online dating for a while, swiping into frustration and deleting my profiles after three days of connecting with guys and only occasionally talking. I went on dates that ended nowhere, which made me wonder if there was something wrong with me; if I had been so long without a meaningful connection with someone that I had very little capacity for it now. And as a self-saboteur for the ages, I usually take to admiring from afar. Safety has always been found in playing it safe. One-sidedness for a party of two, though, can’t be possible. You and I reconnected through friends after a year of being acquaintances and almost instantly I was cracked open, forced to be vulnerable, baring the etchings of my soul first tentatively and then with great vigour. We talked daily, hourly, and you became a constant in my life. I could count on a good morning, goodnight, and the random in-betweens. Four hours separated us, but it was an obstacle we seemed to hurdle over fluidly. It didn’t feel like a factor.
Did you know that when we started talking, I was in flight mode? In most areas of my life, I put in every last effort. In manoeuvring my romantic inexperience, I give away pieces of myself that I don’t mind relinquishing. Common knowledge. Surface-level truths. In the event that things don’t work out, I can at least walk away without damage. But time is a funny construct, and the progression of our conversations, where they waded into the deep end, is blurred. I do remember staying guarded for a while in some places, and soft in others. And I do know it wasn’t long before I was soft around every edge, wanting you to trace all of my curves and relishing in yours. It wasn’t commitment that terrified me, but exposure of my inner self. Offering up too much of myself that could turn against me. Eventually I stopped worrying completely, because we understood each other well.
Talking to you gave me a happiness high. When we were together, I didn’t want to leave your embrace. It was natural, my head nestled into your neck, our fingers entwined, your free hand against my cheek. I was always nervous to first see you, but when we fit together that way those anxieties were diminished.
On our second date, two months into our little thing, we went snowboarding and I borrowed an old pair of your snow pants because I didn’t have any. I’d never been on the slopes, and put my trust in you to get me down the mountain safely. When you said I just needed to get down the mountain, I laughed and waited for more. But there was no more to say: just go down the mountain. So I did. You took my hand and helped me as I pushed off one foot to the ski lift. I offered you my trust, and loved the thrill that came with speeding down the mountain. I breathed relief, feeling like a semblance of someone’s, yours, when I caught you sitting on the snow, always waiting for me.
In the middle of February, you called me your beautiful valentine. It was somewhere around there that I began back-peddling on my perception of the two of us. Conversation was stilted, and I was nervous again to make any moves. We repeated talks we’d had before, now stale, and only once in a while did a message of yours elicit an audible laugh. You chocked it up to being busy, and I understood. The middle of the semester is fuelled by a surprise-attack method.
We may have been doomed by the fact that we didn’t speak much on the phone, and had clashing schedules that made visits hard to manage. It wasn’t perfect, our situation, but people make it work. If they want it to, it will. I wanted it badly enough that I ignored the light switch turning you off.
I am a writer, an observer, an empath, all of which make it hard not to notice changes. When you stopped calling me beautiful, I vainly narrowed my eyes but brushed it off. When you went long periods of time without speaking to me, or offered bare responses to conversation, I refused to message you first in the morning anymore because I always do it and if he wants to talk to me, he will. Then I would stew until you finally messaged, and I wiped the sweat from my forehead because I still mattered. When you asked me the night before I left to visit you in March when I was coming up, I went to bed wishing I wasn’t going anymore. Or that I didn’t have to see you.
In absurdly cold temperatures that weekend, we kept one another warm. I forced myself to bring us up to you, because either way I would get an answer. Even if it wasn’t what I wanted to hear, I wanted to know.
I could have brought it up on Saturday afternoon. Lying together on your bed, wrapped in your arms, we “watched” Alien between kisses and light dozing. But it was too sweet a moment, a memory I didn’t want tainted by the taste of unrequited feelings. I was so happy to finally feel wanted and held so tightly to my last bits of a good sense about us that it didn’t matter what happened, even with the sense of foreboding I had squeezed into my duffel bag.
Instead I waited until Sunday night, the last time I would see you for a while, when we had a moment alone. My heart raced while I spoke, pushing blindly off the ground and letting the slope of my feelings carry me down to the point. I still thought, despite our recent lack of alignment, we had the same goal. After I skidded to a stop, I noticed you weren’t there waiting. The next morning, I was on a Greyhound bus that ducked between bare trees and mountains, the target of the sun, ignoring your texts for hours at a time and laughing through tears about how it was far from the way I’d assumed I would be leaving.
It stung to know that a few hours wasn’t enough to keep my hold on you. I questioned everything I’d said to you, the heart I’d worn on my sleeve for you, the quiet moments I’d held you, and wondered where I went wrong. For weeks afterwards I’d crawl into bed at night, my phone silent beside me, and be plagued by my if only’s: if only I weren’t so nervous, if only I were smarter, if only I were prettier, if only I’d said yes, you might still be around.
A tough pill to swallow was the acceptance that it was you. That there was nothing I could have said or done differently to change the ending. I couldn’t force you into anything you didn’t want, and I couldn’t pretend I wanted friendship, like you suggested. We were in far too deep for the line of an “us” that we balanced to tip into the friend zone. It was hard to quit you cold turkey, but I managed. Humans are malleable, and with time and healing we will be restored.
It isn’t you that I miss, I’ve realised, but the relationship we fostered and the bond I discovered I could forge. There are times I think I’m still hung up on you, but I’m not. I shouldn’t be, because you most likely aren’t hung up on me anymore. And why am I, is anyone, deserving of someone who doesn’t want them? I once heard a comedian say that unrequited love should be a turnoff for the poor soul on the delivering end; and while what we had was reciprocated, I need to remind myself when I creep back into that place of longing and self-badgering that we are a snapshot from the past.
I’m happy you were my first us. It’s a complicated word, hefty, signalling a release of the self, yet comforting. But heartbreak is exhausting, a carousel of doubt and anger and pain, and I am done remaining tethered to it, and you. I’m ready to tuck mine away in pursuit of myself, and the next us to come my way.