BY LAURA MARTIN
This piece is part of the Relationship Issue. Read more here.
At 17, I gave away my virginity to my ex-Mormon, pre-crackhead boyfriend with the words, “if you’re going to do this you should use a condom.” I grew tired of saying no. His desires were stronger than my boundaries. I chose to love through sacrifice.
For one partner after another I’ve proved my love by taking it. I’ve moved, given up friendships, cooked, cleaned broken glass and vomit, left jobs, mastered the application of gender-transforming makeup, lied to FBI agents, and thrown away panties found in our bed.
I’ve never let it break me. Each time, when it falls apart I recover quickly, find someone new, and try again.
I’ve learned to keep a schedule—go to work; go to the gym; cook healthy meals; call my best friend every Sunday—no matter what. At times I smoked a pack of cigarettes every day. Once or twice I got drunk and cried in a bar. Occasionally I stopped eating when my life was so sad and stupid that it made me nauseous. But mostly I’ve held it together.
I can handle betrayal, drama, rejection. I thrive on it.
But I didn’t know what to do when I made it into graduate school. I’m still surprised I was selfish enough to apply—I even chose programs out of state, away from New York where my boyfriend at the time was trying to make it as an actor. Maybe I allowed myself to try because it seemed impossible.
But I was accepted, and funded, and given three years write and teach. I took the offer. It was the first time I made a big, life-altering choice for me, not to support the person I was with.
As I planned for my new life it became harder and harder to give energy to my relationship. I wanted to focus on my work, my needs, my ideas. I felt horribly guilty for thinking this way, but it didn’t stop me. In fact, my selfish thoughts increased in both frequency and intensity as I searched for apartments and made moving arrangements, until I finally listened to them.
One night, in bed, I found myself telling him I couldn’t do it anymore, that I felt lost, that my needs were always being sacrificed to his.
I learned to be okay on my own, to sleep alone and think about my own needs. I even stopped smoking. I stopped feeling scared.
I got out.
Not just out of one shitty relationship, but out of the whole fucked up pattern, out of the abuse, out of thinking I had to be with someone, and out of accepting all the crazy shit I’d put up with. I’d always acted as a sort of magician’s assistant, smiling steadily while I was sawed in half, and trapped underwater, and attacked with sharp objects. I’d been in four destructive relationships each lasting three years or more. Each of those relationships had its own unique intensity, but all of them went from first encounter to complete entanglement within a matter of months. All of them involved lying, excessive drinking, explosive anger.
None of them involved good night kisses, flirty text messages, long evening walks where we held hands and learned about each other’s interests.
None of them prepared me for dating.
Now I’m dating a man who is six years younger than I am. He is a writer and a photographer and a filmmaker and feels comfortable calling himself these things although he hasn’t figured out how to make a living doing any of them. He is talented and confident that he will succeed, which I find just as impressive as the long list of things he’s good at.
He also seems to believe that I will succeed even though I’m thirty-three and the only way I’ve ever been able to make a living is cutting hair.
He takes me seriously as a writer and is genuinely interested in my work. He enjoys spending time with me but gives me plenty of space for my own friends, work, and interests.
He’s never yelled at me, or been mean to the people I care about, or called me selfish. When we have disagreements or one of us is upset we spend some time apart, then sit down and talk it through.
He’s great, really great, but in a way that makes me feel self-conscious and sort of broken.
I don’t know how to do this. I know this can’t last. I can’t imagine it will take very long for me to ruin it, which only makes it feel even more intense and special.
I didn’t even mean for this to happen.
I noticed him right away, but both of us seemed reluctant to date anyone, and he’s younger, and really cute, and this town is full of single women. For a while I just tried not to think about it as anything but a series of beautiful moments: a dinner, a kiss, a compliment.
When the moments started adding up I did the thing I usually do: I expressed excessive enthusiasm and affection because it’s easier to keep people at a distance if you can convince them that you feel more than they do. But with him, it was different. I’d tell him that he was smart, or sexy, or interesting and I’d realize that what I was saying was true.
Unlike the other people I’ve been with, my hope is not that I’ll be able to fix him, but that he won’t notice all the things that are wrong with me, that he’ll like me too. Wanting his approval makes me feel naked and afraid, like that terrible TV show where they put unequipped people on deserted islands and film them trying to survive.
I’m used to hollow compliments, to being told I’m amazing and perfect, and “the one.” I took comfort in these words even though the people who said them also called me codependent, disgusting, and useless.
My new boyfriend hasn’t told me he loves me, but he touches my face a lot. He cooks with me even though knives scare him. He buys the books I recommend. He tells me he misses me.
We are often silent. Even music is rare. Conversations between us are careful. Our silence can stretch for hours. His stillness and patience amaze me. I still have a hard time staying in one place, relaxing, feeling at ease.
I’m always doing the wrong thing.
I drink too much, laugh too loudly, cry without any logical cause. I need to talk about everything: past relationships, my childhood, dreams. He listens.
I don’t know how to explain to him that I have no idea how this works. When I try, he thinks he’s done something wrong and apologizes. I’m usually the only one who says I’m sorry.
Since we’ve started sleeping together I’ve bought tons of new underwear, trying to impress him. But when we’re in bed he lingers over my skin, not my panties. He strokes my breasts—which I’m sure are not firm enough—and my stomach—which I’m sure is not flat enough—and my hair—which is going gray—and touches my face. No one else has done these things and I don’t know how to react.
So I say thank you. Too much. I know I say it too much. It’s weird.
I do other weird things. I stare at him for too long until he gets uncomfortable and starts laughing. I press myself against him in a dozen positions over the course of a night, shifting with his every move like a shadow.
But then, it can’t be that weird because he does it too, holding me as close as he can, wrapping his arms around me when I roll onto my side facing away from him, pulling me close when I come back from the bathroom at 3:00 am.
I don’t understand. If you don’t want to fuck me, I think, then what do you want? What else could you possibly want from me?
He makes me happy, which terrifies me.
I’m sensitive to the telltale signs that something is wrong and I over-read, constantly, aware of every wrong move. But nothing I do seems to bother him. When I say, “I’m such a mess!” he smiles and says, “No you’re not.”
I’ve spent so much time being the perfect lover instead of choosing the right person. Now there is nothing to fight and I’m not sure how to prove myself. I’m learning how to love when I’m not trying to save someone.
One night, we take a bath together. I light candles and make a big cloud of bubbles. In the warm water, I wash off all my makeup, revealing acne scars, surgery scars, sun damage. He tells me he is scared too, of messing this up, of doing it wrong. We stay in the bath, adding hot water a little at a time. I realize that what I’m doing is learning how to be with someone else without losing myself. Having no idea is okay.
Laura Martin delights in surprising connections and relevant garnishes. Her current project is a hybrid memoir-fairy tale that will be her MFA thesis at Georgia College. She also works as a fashion blogger for StyleNoted.com.