The summer of 2011 was one of the most simultaneously difficult and fun summers of my life. It was one of the first times that I ever fully grasped how resilient true friendships can be. It was the first time that I ever did something difficult just because it was good for me even though it hurt. It was the first time I saw myself falling into love and realizing that “falling” is the absolute perfect word.
I was a few months out of a not-a-real-break-up* with someone that I wasn’t-dating** for the past four and a half years of my life. I was tender but I was recovering.
*sure did wreck me like a real break up.
**Fell into that tragically, typical millennial thing where we decided we “didn’t need or want labels” as if that keeps you from really feeling anything. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t. It just makes you feel like you’re not allowed to be as gutted as you are when it ends. Which is a really unhealthy place to land.
Meanwhile, my neighbor started coming upstairs with a six-pack of beer a few times a week. I’d sit across my living room from him and we’d talk about every single thing that we could think of. One night, I told him a secret that I’d never told anyone and he told me something, too. His friendship was safe. I knew he’d never betray me or use my secrets against me. This was new to me.
Ryan is someone who is really fun to be friends with because he never has anything to hide and he never pretends to be cooler than he really is—not like I do. I asked him questions that I never would have asked a boy that I wanted to date. I didn’t pretend to be anyone that I wasn’t because the stakes were so low. At one point, very early in our friendship, he let me borrow a movie from him and I hated it. But I pretended that I really liked it because I didn’t want to insult his taste but mostly it was because I was used to defaulting to the preferences of the other person. I was still working on learning what I even liked in the world. Once I caught myself pretending to like this movie that I hated, I promised myself that I would keep a tight leash on this behavior in the future. And he made this very easy for me. He liked who I was.
So, when Ryan came over and said I should listen to Over The Rhine—he’d even burned a bunch of CD’s for me and wrote down his favorite songs from each album, I found myself instinctively trying not to like it but I couldn’t keep it up. I fell so deep into the Ohio album. I listened to it all day every day. Sometimes I’d sing “Suitcase” (the most real breakup song I’ve ever heard) in the shower and sit on the floor and cry from all the complicated feelings I was having. I was still sore from my break up and I was finding myself more and more craving the times when Ryan would come over and we’d talk. I knew that there was nothing more than friendship in the cards for us—I couldn’t handle more than that. I wanted to build the most open, honest, no-bullshit friendship with him. A friendship that was built on a solid foundation and meant to last a lifetime.
After one particularly difficult day at work, I was getting ready to go to bed hungry because I was broke but also because I didn’t have the energy to make anything for dinner. Ryan came upstairs with a skillet and all the ingredients to replicate my favorite grilled sandwich from the deli down the block. Months later, I’d learn that night was the first time that Ryan realized he might have a crush on me. He told me that it happened when he was standing at the stove, flipping our sandwiches and I had to walk past him. My kitchen was so small and we had to squeeze to get through. That was the moment for him, I guess. You’d think this would be the same moment for me—a man in my kitchen making me dinner? But no. I remember that he was wearing his pajamas and I liked knowing how comfortable he felt around me. I remember still feeling grateful for this friendship—thinking that everyone should be so lucky to have such a friend like I did.
We stopped sitting across the room from one another and started sitting on the same couch, though. At some point, my heart was softening and turning towards him in a different way. I loved him. And I felt such comfort that this love was built on complete transparency.
And a few weeks later, I don’t remember what prompted it, we were kissing. I wish I could remember more about how it happened but all I remember is that at a certain point I thought, “well, now you’ve gone and tanked this friendship.” But he kept coming back. And we kept kissing. We’d make out for hours—hours! I can’t even fathom it, now. And the feelings. I sparkled and shined all over this town. I felt like I could fly. I remember feeling like such a walking cliché.
I talked to him once about whether or not he was my boyfriend and I still remember the white-hot horror that filled me when he said, “do we really have to label it?”
I did. I needed to. I closed off quickly without much discussion—like I tend to do.
I set about drawing boundaries. I wasn’t going to try to force anything from anyone else, anymore. I was going to take what was given to me, see how it fit with what I was able to offer and leave the rest. I had learned that lesson and besides, I was just too tired. I needed to tend to my wounds again. I wanted to heal as quickly as possible because I could lose him as a make-out buddy but I couldn’t lose him as a dear friend. I started locking my door and forgetting to charge my phone. It was the most impossible thing that I’ve ever done—stepping back from him.
I read The Maytrees. It obliterated me. I kept listening to Over The Rhine. Like when you sometimes press a wound just to feel the pain surge. I sang “Suitcase” in the shower feeling amazingly similar, completely different feelings. “Why’d you love me in the first place? You were always closer than a brother.”
I feel like I’m making him sound like the bad guy. Every person who knows him knows that’s not the case at all. There are no good guys and there are no bad guys. There really was no right way or wrong way to deal with this. Though, I felt like the bad guy at the time. He did, too. We were both finding a way to live our lives in our best way. We were both fumbling and getting it wrong and sometimes getting it right. We were both speaking up about what we needed. But we needed completely different things. Things happen when they’re supposed to.
There’s a limited value in hearing this story only from my perspective. There’s an entirely different vision of every story out there. Everything that ever happens in your life or in my life—there’s a mirror image of my journey out there being lived by the other person who was going through this, too. So you’re only hearing such a limited view of it all. I’m only living such a limited view of it all. I hope we keep that in mind as we go along for the rest of our lives.
A few times I came out of my cave and tested the waters. Said, “hi” in the driveway. It didn’t kill me. We went on a walk or two. I thought I would need to start acting like his friend again at some point so I agreed to host his surprise birthday party at my house. There was a piñata, new friends, cake, and too much liquor for me. I was coming around but it was too much, too soon. I wanted to take care of myself.
I took a few days off work to tend to my depression. I barely dressed—hardly showered. Did not eat at all. At around 11:00 am on August 25, he texted me, “are you at home? Can I come over on my lunch break?”
My spirit rose up inside of me. It used my own voice to speak to me. I said to myself (literally), “this is going to change everything. For God’s sake, take a shower.” So I did. And it did.
I put on some music to appear like this was a normal, casual day that I was just hanging out. Being normal and casual. Normal and casual and completely fake. Like it wasn’t weird that he drove all the way here on his lunch break to see me. Like, yeah, this happens all the time (it didn’t).
We sat on the couch: Me, guarded. Him, clearly going through something. We sat next to each other and didn’t say anything for a good half hour. I knew what he was saying. He was saying that he loved me. He was saying that he changed his mind and he wanted to be with me, forever. And I knew that but I needed him to actually say it. So I sat there with him, my heart breaking for the hurt he was clearly feeling, my hand on top of his, until he said it all.
He finally said so many things. It was everything that I needed to hear. I was awash with complete relief because, try as I might, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to live much longer apart from him.
And so, we made out for a few hours, again. Completely forgetting that he had to go back to work. It was wonderful. I made dinner for us that night. A few weeks later we went on our first date to the Kansas State Fair. He held my hand in public that night. No man had ever held my hand in front of people, before. I remember that electricity back when it was all so new. Now it’s so familiar that we forget, sometimes, that it could have easily just not happened. Any earlier or later and we might not have had worked out but here we are, five years later, cutting our ruts together.
It’s a true miracle that there’s any love in our lives at all. Friends, lovers, family, babies… all miracles.
There was a lot of pain in our coming together but pain doesn’t mean it’s always wrong. So many times we jerk back when something starts to hurt but what happens when you follow all the way through? We learn what we’re capable of—in a way that we never could have possibly known any other way. I would love to live in a world where deep connection came from easy things but you can’t leave a mark on your heart that way. You don’t meet yourself or anyone else in an honest way by running—whatever form that might take.
I used to think that it was silly to celebrate the anniversary of when you started dating—especially once you got married. But the truth is that, look, we wouldn’t even be married if he didn’t come to my house and sit on my couch that day. That’s the day I want to celebrate. That’s the day that split my life into Before Us and After Us. That’s why I’m where I am, today.
Ryan David, I’ve used 2,030 words here and I still feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface. There aren’t words for the way I love you and the way you blow my mind. Thank you for being a part of my story, my soft place to land, my partner.
Five years. A hundred more won’t be enough.