He was in the middle of a coup in Thailand, and I had just completed a Twitter rant about Hot Man Pinterest Boards the first time our paths crossed. He was an unusual man. I’ll call him J.
When he showed up in my life, I was accustomed to men who wanted to take from me.
There were always a few good men like my dad and brother — maybe one or two friends — but most of the guys I knew came around for what I’d give them. If it wasn’t my body, it was to borrow a skill lifted off a bullet point on my resume.
The abusive marriage I’d recently left made sure I knew that if I wasn’t pleasing, there were a whole host of subtle ways I could expect the world to fall apart on me. My friendship with J was different. He didn’t seem to want anything. I could not understand that.
I assumed he was interested in me romantically because the concept of someone showing up just because they cared was completely foreign. But that’s what he did. He kept showing up, over and over again without expectation. He never took from me. He never asked for anything.
It messed me up.
I didn’t know how to interact with someone who wasn’t looking for me to perform in some way for them. I didn’t know what to give to a person who wasn’t asking for anything. I didn’t know why he was still around.
Several months into our friendship, I went on a cross-country road trip. At the end of it, I landed in the city where he lived. I was a mess. I was exhausted. I had a cold and was finishing up two months of travel and had only slept three hours the previous night.
“Maybe this is the worst time to meet up,” I told him, “Maybe I have a man voice because of this cold I can’t shake. Maybe my body is threatening to shut down.” I was chaos. The thought of being imperfect in the presence of someone I cared for and I wanted to care for me was terrifying.
“You come as you are. That’s real. And that’s fine,” he said.
Have you ever been in the company of someone with whom you were safe and utterly free to be yourself? I can count on a few fingers the number of people who’ve said, “come just as you are, exhausted, broken, feverish,” and then actually embraced me in that state. It takes a human who knows the depths of their own soul well to stand still in the midst of another’s hurricane, without reaching to rein it in.
This once, I was completely myself. I was too much and not enough and it was all just right; wild and loud and soft and calm. Unyielding and vulnerable. I poked fun at his straitlaced self as I tucked up my legs underneath me there in the midst of that city park. I sang without a thought as I put on red lipstick and curled my uncooperative hair. I inhaled empanadas which burst, dripping their contents down my hands and smudging my cheeks. He’d even planned a surprise for me; an evening at a symphony which I had always wanted to see. I gave a standing ovation for the first musical selection and was so exhausted I fell asleep during the second act and began snoring.
I didn’t quite understand, in that moment, the difference between being loved and falling in love. It wasn’t clear to me yet that someone could give you something just to care for you, and it wasn’t necessary for you to give them anything in return. A gift is not an expectation wrapped in pretend kindness. As I hugged him goodbye, I was crying, and I wasn’t ashamed. I thanked him for caring, for valuing me, for actually seeing me. My soul lay bare, and I was a thing of beauty. Awkward, awkward, awkward beauty.
After he walked out the door, I sent him a text which basically propositioned him. I only knew I wanted to keep feeling seen, and I was still too broken to know how to build healthy relationships which provided this. Being seen is powerful, especially when you’ve been isolated and alone for so long that you’ve forgotten what seen felt like. It was a cringeworthy and slightly confusing overture, which he gently and kindly evaded. Sometimes loving someone well means saying no.
It’s hard to recognize compassion when you’re accustomed to abuse.
The lesson that love doesn’t always equal romance or sexuality can be a difficult one to learn. Sometimes love means caring for the soul standing in front of you, especially when they’re in a state of vulnerability. Sometimes it means having the maturity to overlook the awkward girl hitting on you after you’ve done a kind thing for her because you understand the complexity of humans and their stories.
I wasn’t looking for someone to “like” or get with or to date me. I was looking for someone to love me. Someone did. But not in the way in which I was expecting, and that was exactly what I needed.
J taught me that people were going to show up in my life just to love me. Not some carefully presented front, but my messy, snoring, uncurled hair and ridiculous, foolish insides. Not my body or business savvy or writing skills or even my ability to behave in a way which is socially acceptable, because I think we all can agree that ship has sailed.
I have them now — my people. I have humans who show up just because. I have people in my life who see me, and I see them, and we are real with each other. There are no masks in our conversations and there is no expectation of reciprocity.
I don’t have to perform to be loved or cared for and romance isn’t the answer. Also, J showed me that when you know who you are, you’re better at loving those around you, even when their broken pieces are scary looking. It isn’t pretty, but it’s worth it. Blood and dirt wash off. Your kindness is what sticks around.