Yesterday as I was leaving work I saw a massive fire about two miles away. I stopped into the gas station on the corner, and as I pumped, I could see flames—from two miles away. “There’s no way that’s a one-house fire,” I thought, and it also occurred to me then that the fire was remarkably close to Ex-Boyfriend #6’s parents’ house.
So I called him.
I knew that he was probably at work; I knew that he very likely had moved out and gotten his own apartment; I also knew that for the last nine months he has refused to answer my phone calls. After our breakup he cut me out of his life, telling me that he “needed some time” and that possibly we could be friends again in a few months. I tried to call him a few months later and had no response. The only time I ever heard from him after that was once involving a party with mutual friends, coordinating our plans so that we could avoid each other. The only time I ever saw him was once, on campus, driving in his car with another girl (which was, it must be admitted, likely the least awful way that knowledge could be imparted to me).
Considering we spent three years as the best of friends, and that our relationship ended as a result of a mutual agreement, all this was fairly confusing and painful for me.
But I thought, “I know it’s probably not his house that’s burning down, and that even if it was he’s probably not in it, but what if it was?” I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself for not trying, one more time.
So I called him.
And he answered.
He hung up right away again in order to go call his parents when I explained why I had called, but he called me back an hour later, to tell me that his house was fine and the fire was actually up the street a bit, and so we could ask each other the absolutely tender and quite serious, “How are you doing?” that I think all exes want to ask each other.
We talked about jobs, and his graduation, and the things you first say to that question, and then I asked, "How else are you doing?"
“Ah, “ he said, “I went through a pretty rough emotional time recently.”
He hesitated. “Yeah, it was pretty nasty. I’ve still got all this latent anger hanging around, I don’t even know why or where it’s coming from.” (By the way, isn’t it great that you can pick up a relationship at almost the same intimacy level where you left off, even with a nine-month hiatus? I’m quite serious. Isn’t it fantastic that he’s still inclined to tell me things he probably doesn’t talk to about to a number of people? Isn’t it great that no matter what we do, or how long we decide not to talk to each other, we are still good friends?)
“Yeah,” I said, “I was pretty pissed at you for a few months”—
“Yeah, I probably shouldn’t be talking to you about this." He laughed uncomfortably.
“No, it’s okay. I would tell you if I were uncomfortable talking about something.” I paused for a moment, because I realized that was absolutely true, an exhilarating discovery. I didn’t want to know her name, and I didn’t want to hear an in-depth discussion of their relationship, but I was perfectly happy talking about his feelings about it. This was astonishing to me, because what is okay for me and what is not is something I would not have been capable of saying, or realizing, just a year ago. “Anyway,” I continued, “the reason I told you that was just to say that it does go away.”
“All right,” he said.
We talked a little longer about it, and about his job, and my job, and then I said, “Well, it’s great talking to you again.”
“Yeah," he said, "I've been thinking about you, and I wanted to call you up. I shouldn't have cut you out of my life like that. I had it done to me, and it's not cool."
"It's okay," I said, again surprised by the truth coming out of my mouth. "It was actually really good for me at the time."
"Well, I did need the space, but I could have called you way before this, and I'm sorry."
Most apologies come after you don't even really need them anymore. But then I guess most apologies come because of where the apologizer is, and not wholly because of the needs of the apologizee.
Somewhere at the end of all of that he said, "We should go get a beer sometime."
"Sure," I said, "But if you don't mind, I think I'm going to let you call me."
My first reaction to all of this, I have to admit, was to think about what it would be like to get back together, and to imagine scenarios leading to said reconnection. But I managed to keep them under control. Now I know a little better just where they come from: a little bit from my tendency towards idealization, a little bit from my hyperactive imagination, and a lot from the part of me that feels more comfortable when a decision has already been made. I like to decide what I want in advance, because otherwise I get overwhelmed by the pressure to make a decision in a short amount of time. The future has always been as real to me as the present; sometimes more so. But now I am beginning to recognize that this is just how I deal with the possibilities presented by new information, and that I should not let it control my reactions.
I've been thinking a lot lately about my relationships (I can hear the chorus of "Duh" echoing from everyone who knows me). I dated a guy recently for two months, and even in that short period of time a lot of the same problems I've always had with men cropped up.
There is a Buddhist idea (Nalin, feel free to jump in if I'm explaining this wrong) that the point at which suffering can be eliminated is in the space between desire and grasping; i.e., the moment after you feel a desire but before you actually reach out to act on the desire. It's the moment between hunger and eating, anger and lashing out, loneliness and latching on to anything that moves in the hopes that even baggage-filled angry interaction will be better than not alone.
I never thought I had a problem with grasping. Grasping seemed to me to be the territory of materialism, of consumerist needs for big-screen televisions and expensive sports cars, or even the right job and career and baby. I thought love was beyond grasping. I thought I was safe because I had rejected the material life and searched for meaning in my relationships and my work. And love is beyond grasping, but only if it's real love. Real love requires a wellspring of strength and respect and devotion from inside of you, that is created only when you can forgive yourself, know your limitations and your endless capabilities, and when you draw your own boundaries of respect for yourself from that same place. Real love is when you do things simply for the sake of doing them.
Everything that is not real love is grasping.
Everything that is done in expectation of a particular response, or even any response, from another person is grasping. Saying "I love you," and hoping to hear it back is grasping; saying angry things in hopes of hearing an apology is grasping; getting into a relationship because you want a relationship rather than because you want to devote yourself to that person is grasping. Going to college to get a degree is grasping, and so is writing in order to get published. And when you are grasping, nothing will ever, ever, ever be enough. Even if you get what you want, which you usually won't, you will just find something else to grasp towards.
I say all of these things not because I know better, or speak from a position of superiority, but because I have done all of these things, and I still have trouble separating out what is real love and what is grasping. I have started to practice, but I'm still working on mastering the basic scales of real love. One of the things that helps me sort it all out is to write about it, and get feedback from the people who love me enough to criticize me.
I think that phone call was made with real love. I think we both had only affection and respect towards each other. But now I must be careful, and stick to the boundaries I have made for myself out of that place of real love, and watch out for the tendency toward grasping. It is easy to fill my holes with things that other people have, but they never fit quite as well as the things that I fashion for myself*. And lastly, I must forgive myself for failing, because I will fail, but also there will be successes. Everything is all right.
*In an attempt to circumvent EVERYONE who will make this joke...that's what she said. Now shut up and read the post.