We are seated closely on a old, rickety school bus while large, gregarious and intoxicated men line the aisle next to me, shouting to each other and blocking my view of the door. We are new to each other, so I frantically contemplate in my mind if I should open myself up to you right now, in this moment, and let you know I’m not okay. It’s nearly Christmas, and we are on our way to a football game on a Sunday morning. This is supposed to be fun, lighthearted. I’m supposed to be showing you how cool and simple I am, not yet exposing you to the truth. You notice my uneasiness and ask if I’m okay.
“No.” I say as I turn to look at you with terror and desperation in my eyes. Please don’t judge me. But also, please help me.
“I’m claustrophobic, and I feel trapped right now. I think I’m about to have a panic attack.”
There it is, the first dark truth has been exposed. I am convinced he is thinking, ‘Eesh…I don’t want to get messed up with this. Why can’t I just find a normal girl without the B.S. and baggage?‘.
That is what he deserves, I think to myself. He’ll figure it out soon enough. I will be too much for him.
But this is not what you are thinking. You are not judging me. You are drawn in and you are concerned. You see me breathing quickly and shallowly, terrified of what is about to happen, and you want to help me. You calmly place your hand – your strong, steady, comforting hand – on my leg and look straight into my eyes, and for the first time in a long time, I feel safe. Protected. The look in your eyes is one of calmness, sturdiness and complete certainty, and the rest of the world tunes out around me.
“It’s okay. You’re going to be okay.” you tell me matter of factly. Everything is this simple for you, I will come to understand.
I stare back at you, stunned, as I notice my breath somehow slowing and deepening. It takes some time but it passes over me in a way that I have never experienced. I look up at you with relief and gratitude, because I believe you. You made it okay. No one has ever been able to do that. No one has been able to talk me off the ledge. I lay my head on your shoulder, and you put your arm around me and kiss the top of my head as if to say, Thank you for showing me that piece of you. I feel a little closer to you now, and I’m still here. And in this moment, I know that I will love you.
Little by little, layer by layer, I reveal myself to you over the next year and a half, one dark truth at a time. Not strategically – but naturally, as they arise, while we slowly and cautiously get to know each other more deeply. Each time I am about to reveal another dark piece of me to you, I am certain it’s going to be the one that pushes you away. That makes you run to some young, perfect attorney at your firm with pearls and a pretty pink cardigan. Each time I’m sure you’re going to say “That’s it – it’s all too much to take. I don’t need this baggage. I’m a simple man and I want a simple life.” But each time you react with compassion and empathy and then draw me closer to you. “Come here”, you tell me sweetly and gently, motioning for me come and lay my head on your chest. You don’t run. You listen and you empathize and support me steadily and unconditionally, and thank me for opening myself up to you once again. I realize that maybe you are not a such simple man, and perhaps you crave and admire the depth and color of my life. Maybe you have some dark truths of your own. Maybe we are matched this way for a reason.
Our relationship continues to grow stronger and deeper, but at pace far too slow for my comfort. I openly admit that my history of navigating relationships is troubling, so we both agree that I will follow your lead. We keep moving forward, smiling and enjoying each other as if we are riding in the car with the music so loud that we needn’t attempt to hold a conversation. Yet I can feel that you are cautious, and your foot is secretly pressed lightly on the brakes at all times. Still, I don’t ask questions. I trust that you know what you’re doing, so I let you drive.
At some point I begin to realize that we are having trouble breaking through, we are not making progress. I try to turn down the music to check in with you, but you just turn to me and smile and place your hand on my leg reassuringly, then turn it right back up. You remain silent. You keep your foot on the brake and you maintain your strong, slow, steady pace regardless of my antics to push you along faster. I tell you I love you. I tell you I’m ready. Your adoration, gentleness and deep feelings for me pour out of you in all of your actions each and every day, and I feel it with every inch of my being. But you cannot yet call it love. The trauma of your past haunts us, and I am its unknowing victim.
But I am safe inside this car, this I know. Though the pace is agonizing and I have no idea where we are going, I know I am safe with you. My heart is confused and lost and terrified and perhaps the most vulnerable it has ever been, but at least, for the first time in my life, it is safe.