In tattered jeans and a Bible study T-shirt, I arrived home to a beautiful three-story house nestled in a gated community of the no-man’s-land of Pasco County, Florida. I had just spent two months in Bethlehem, where I sweated out my summer days shoveling gravel to pave a parking lot for a Bible college. I was 14 years old, cute, chubby, and still figuring out how eyeliner was meant to be applied.
I was just adjusting to my life back home when my mother called me downstairs to tell me that James was stopping by because “he was in the area” and “had something he wanted to tell you.” Something felt off — I could sense it. I was just about to tell my mom that I was going to walk to my sister’s house, but something told me to leave without mentioning it to her, so that's what I did.
A few hours later, I arrived back at home, no James in sight. I walked in the door, still feeling the undisclosed tension in the air. My mother looked at me and said, “Don’t you see what you’re doing?” she shakes her head. “James came over here to tell you he’s in love with you.” I immediately broke down in tears.
James was a family friend of ours. My parents met him the previous summer at our church. James had many good qualities; he was smart, kind, calm, many would say handsome. On top of all of these positives, he was willing to come to our family dinners and talk about church shit with my parents, stealing their loud Greek hearts like no one ever had before. James was the perfect bachelor for someone who cared about the opinions of her family the way I did.
There was just one huge problem: James was 24 years old.
Soon after I learned of his feelings, I found out that my whole family had known all summer and no one told me. No one warned me of this tidal wave that was about to crash into my life.
I sat on a barstool in the kitchen, crying over this news, when my father walked by and said “Who could blame him?” His comment, misguided and inappropriate, crushed me. I just felt lost; no one had taught me the skills needed to reject a grown man’s romantic advances. I assumed my parents would do something about this and not just leave me to fend for myself.
Even though I wanted nothing to do with James, my parents demanded he still be a part of our lives over the next few years, forcing me to sit and eat with him whenever he was there. James generally stayed away from me, aside from occasional bursts of contact, one of which was an anonymous message on my Tumblr proclaiming his love for me, the other being a bouquet of roses sent to my door on my 15th birthday.
That year, the walls I put up started to crumble. I tend to want to love and forgive people, and my resentment toward James started to dim. He hadn’t bothered me in a while, so I thought maybe his feelings for me had faded.
James and I started talking again, becoming friends. I tried to understand his attraction to me: I was young, pretty, and curious, but most of all, I was lonely. I was a homeschooled Christian kid who grew up in this gigantic house, 30 minutes away from the closest Walmart. I begged for the approval of my “friends” from church, but few of them ever took a liking to me. I felt like I needed James because I needed someone.
I was 15 when we went on our first date.
At end end of the date, we kissed and he dropped me off at home. I immediately started crying — hard. I was confused. Did I still have feelings for my first boyfriend? Did I hate James? Did I feel bad about the kiss? My only friend at the time, Beca, convinced me to keep dating him — that I was probably just nervous and that James was a great "godly" Christian guy.
James started calling me his girlfriend after our first date, and I didn’t have the heart to correct him. In a lot of ways, we were just normal people who were dating. We’d make out, watch movies, eat Chinese food with his friends. Oh — and fantasize about getting married a lot. I didn’t discourage it. I liked James, he was comforting to me, he wanted me, and everyone had convinced me everything was fine for so long that I stopped asking myself if everything was fine.
After a few months, I had finally given up on those church kids I wanted to befriend. Beca and I had gotten in a fight, in which she informed me that her parents were no longer allowing us to have contact with each other because I had homosexual friends. My brother had gone to college. My cat had died. It was either James or nobody. James and I stayed together for a while longer.
One day, when I was 16, I invited James over to play board games, as we often did. But this time was different — I had decided to end it with him. I still had no close friends in my little world, but I knew I did not love James, or even like him at this point. He represented a prison I had built for myself, or had let others build around me — familiar but suffocating.
James and I start playing our game. No one else was home and the house was quiet. Do it now, I thought.
But before I could find courage, he did. James got down on one knee.
“Melissa, I love you. Will you marry me?”
I froze. Everything stood still. I think that moment was the first time I met myself. All my life I had let people put me together and decide who I was going to be. Denial was my way of coping, and I let everything in my life coast. But I couldn’t coast anymore. I couldn’t say maybe, but I definitely couldn’t say yes. So I said no.
Years later, I still don’t quite know how to feel about it. Why did Beca see my unhappiness and tell me it was normal? Why didn’t my parents protect me? Why did this grown man take the time to wear a teenager down into dating him? Religion can muddy social waters, making loving, decent people do odd things. I got out. A lot of people don’t.
After I firmly planted my feet in the no-go zone, I spent the next four hours consoling a 26-year-old crying man. It was weird and painful for everyone. It felt never-ending. But through the stress of a clean break, I felt relieved, and I slowly rebuilt a whole new life for myself.
I had muted that voice in my heart that told me which way was up, but now it was louder and clearer than ever. That little voice has gone on to lead me to a lot of wonderful things. It told me to go on a second date with the beautiful man that is now my partner. It reminded me how much I love to tell stories. It showed me that I didn’t have to wait in fear for the waves to crash into me, but that I could be my own tidal wave. I’ve never looked back.