First, a mandatory call out: For a few years between the messy, painful entry into young adulthood and my eventual grounding after I’d crested the hump of my mid-20s, I turned into a snob. Smug. Dismissive. Kind of a jerk.
The height of this ultra-charming personality development coincided with working toward my Master’s degree, which was evidently all the license I needed for absolute certainty that I knew ALL of the things. (Oh, and was I the type of obnoxious person inserting the phrase my Master’s degree into as many conversations as possible? Guilty.)
Instead of thinking critically about nuance and context, I based brash opinions on a handful of crappy value-judgments and my own egocentrism. My black-and-white absolutism was practically a Dubya-inspired with-us-or-against-us wet dream.
It was an especially blunt taunt from the universe, then, to find myself heading out one afternoon for an impromptu first-date-ish beer with a guy who was the most not my type. As in, antithetical-to-basically-every-man-or-woman-who-has-ever-sparked-in-me-a-flicker-of-interest-since-my-earliest-middle-school-crush not my type: no college degree, a lettered high school athlete who’d hardly read a single book since graduation, political values that bent Republican. That last one seemed insurmountable for sure, no matter how much he supported marriage equality. Plus, he was too cocky, his glibness an easy tell for probable insincerity.
But as I drove, there was no denying the wing-beat of anticipation warming behind my sternum as if an hour earlier I’d been in the bathroom throwing back vodka shots instead of sweating at the mirror while I bothered to blowdry my hair, filled my quota for once-monthly lipstick application, and fumbled to figure out which shade of eye-shadow gets used along the crease of the lid (thanks Google: It’s the darkest one).
And why, exactly? Mostly: He was funny as hell. Our near-constant banter over text was starting to keep me up at night, cheeks mantled with that telltale flame-flush as I smiled into my pillow like I was cuing the TOTAL INFATUATION MONTAGE in my own RomCom. No matter how much it riled me, there was no denying that I couldn’t stop thinking about him. Dude had game.
I was supposed to be on a dating hiatus. Recently split from my husband, I was waiting out the f-o-r-e-v-e-r-long state-mandated separation before we could legally divorce, and it seemed healthy, a no-brainer, to go it alone for a while, to practice creating clearer boundaries and paying better attention to the warning signs a younger, greener me had shrugged off in disbelief or denial.
But hiatus be damned, whatever, it was just one date. No harm in a little fun. Except what I’d labeled in my mind as a couple of no-pressure beers at one of my favorite restaurants turned into three-and-a-half hours of easy, intimate conversation with a person who had shown up ready to lay it all on the table, who was playing to win.
I tore myself away only because I had an evening class to teach. We walked the block to my car buzzing whole-body with awkward anticipation. At the weighted moment of goodbye we’d been warming up for since first ordering our drinks, I looked into eyes the color of a storm-cleared sky that I had no idea yet how to read, bit my lip before giving flight to nervous laughter, and then asked with a confidence I hardly recognized, “Are you going to kiss me or what?”
The truth: I would have liked to set that tension at a slow burn, but what I needed right then was an anchor sand-dug in how happy and at ease I felt, something tangible to stop and consider so that I couldn’t go home and, unmoored by my uncertainty, brush off the afternoon as nothing but a good time with someone I’d never date seriously.
Our chemistry was immediate. Effortless. Magnetic. That kiss was delicious. But it was the ease with which he teased connections between us -- his attentiveness and care in making sure I felt heard -- that left me eager for the next date and the next and the next. The surprise itself was heady – I’d misjudged this person, and significantly. What else had I been missing out there in the world?
Our early time together was marked with the lightness of shared laughter, a type of whittled exposure. In the brief lulls of quiet, usually very late at night, he was willing with unabashed grace to make himself vulnerable to me, an urgency in his tenderness I could read only as truth. He confessed that on more than one occasion, in the weeks since we’d started regularly spending time together, he’d found himself crying without knowing why.
So much for a summer fling. Still, I held back. Hadn’t my relationship instincts put me on a direct path to devastation in my marriage, where a person who’d seemed like my perfect match on paper revealed himself in practice to be calculating and cruel, someone who’d made a game out of his ability to diminish and control me, a man I didn’t know at all? How much could I trust my own judgments on worthiness or rightness, really?
But here was a person who kept showing up. Who practiced equal partnership at every turn. Who made it clear he was as critical a thinker, as feminist, and as empathetic an advocate as any one of my progressive, graduate-degree-educated peers (and in some ways, if I’m being honest, even more so).
I’d let myself believe that dating someone so far outside of my type was self-protection, an assurance that I’d be forced to keep it casual, that I’d be insulated against falling in love and would therefore risk nothing, could walk away at any time. Instead, by not checking all of those ridiculous little boxes I thought I needed, I discovered a wholly different type of safety: a genuine opportunity to be with a person who was ready to participate in the kind of relationship I finally understood I deserved. An opportunity I almost missed.
Barely two months later, at the first lull into something close to comfort, I stood at the bathroom sink in open-mouthed surprise and watched as two hazy pink lines swam into view and darkened behind a thin plastic window.
Too shocked to consider that this moment might become part of our history, I sent a text (A TEXT -- who does that?) with a picture of the test result and, in case somehow that wasn’t delivering the message loud and clear, added my astute shoutycaps observation: TWO MOTHERFUCKING PINK LINES!
For days, I put on my bravest face and deflected the gravity of our looming decisions, making jokes and sending the boyfriend someecards with captions like: I hope having an unborn fetus in my womb doesn’t turn you off. I braced myself for the freak out, for the honeymoon phase of can’t-keep-my-hands-off-you sex and nightly you-hang-up, no-you-hang-up phone calls to unravel as the charade it was, as the harm in a little fun.
But the boyfriend wasn’t deterred. Sitting in his car one night outside of my house, he told me earnestly that he’d respect and support whatever choice I made. And then, letting his voice soften to compensate for the weight of his own desire, he admitted that if I was up for this, he was all in.
“I won’t fail you,” he said, and I thought of how determined he sounded in that moment, and also suddenly how young, of how easy it was to make that promise to someone, how easy to break it.
In the months after, though, as we learned to navigate the partnership of parenthood despite still being some degree of stranger to the other, the boyfriend dug in. Evidence of his love in unwavering practice: Even when commitment is more challenge than triumph, even when making it work means waking up for a string of hard mornings and consciously deciding to stay, to choose each other every time, even in our worst or weakest moments, even then, this is a safe space, something we’re building together -- slowly and with care so that we’ll be sure to get it right, so that it will last -- for us and for our daughter.
Three years after we chanced a few hours together spent clinking glasses in cheers for fresh starts, the boyfriend walked with me on a coffee date through the same vibrant, eclectic strip of our city where we’d spent those early months. A block from that favorite restaurant, on the street corner where we’d shared our first kiss, he stopped to tell me there was no one else he’d rather be doing any of this with, and then asked me to marry him.
Weeks later, I came across Emily Esfahani Smith’s Atlantic article, “Masters of Love,”which details psychologists John and Julie Gottman’s study of what creates the bedrock of happy, lasting relationships. Their conclusion: kindness, generosity, and connection, how often partners respond positively to bids for engagement. Smith’s example is of an enthusiast who spies a goldfinch in the yard and says to his wife, “Look at that beautiful bird,” hopeful she’ll join him at the window. I emailed the link to the boyfriend, adding: There’s so much of you in here. Thanks for being so good at us and for modeling kindness and care to me so often. I'm the luckiest.
That night, sitting on the front porch together after putting our daughter to bed, the boyfriend turned toward me in the warm summer dark, his voice low with a now-familiar comfort, and said, “Hey, I’ll always care about all of your birds.” I’m not afraid anymore to believe him.