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OK, let’s make this fast. I got engaged four times. To the same guy.
Alex and I started dating a year after I finished college. At 23, I wanted to get a job where I wasn’t paid on commission, write a book, fall in love, and, by the time I was 30, have a baby. I told him all of this on our second date.
Or, to be specific, when he asked where I saw myself in five years,I described the vivid image in my mind of sunlight streaming through French doors to a tiny, tiny pair of galoshes. Meaning, you know, I wanted a family. Eventually.
Eleven years older than I was, Alex said he wanted the same thing, sooner rather than later, and I believed him. Within a month, we decided not to see other people and Alex even said that if I lived in London instead of New York he’d ask me to move in with him. Oh, did I forget to mention that we lived in different countries? Yeah, that little detail.
I had an older, grandmother-ly friend (she taught me that the best way to cut cake without a knife is by using a long strand of dental floss) who told me that the only reason ever to have a long-distance relationship is if someone has been drafted in a war. Did I listen to her? Of course not!
At 23, I guess I also thought that love was supposed to be totally bat-shit crazy-making and sort of tortured.
Anyway, Alex had dual citizenship so he could have moved to New York anytime he wanted. After two years of dating from different countries, I gave him an ultimatum. “Either we live in the same country,” I said over the phone, “or we have to break up.”
The first time he proposed, two weeks after that conversation, he freaked out and changed his mind the next morning. The second engagement, the following year, lasted nine months. That time, it felt like the real thing. It wasn’t a secret, we had a legit engagement party, and we got an apartment together in New York.
The only catch was that Alex never moved in, and never moved here from Europe at all. Not because of immigration problems, but because he just … didn’t want to? At the same time, he definitely did not want to move on. So we stayed together. “Together.”
He came and went while I lived there by myself, like Rapunzel, if she'd been put up in a condo instead of a castle. One day, talking about an essay I’d written, when I meant to say, “This is a piece that's about isolation,” I accidentally said, “This is a relationship about loneliness.”
The second engagement ended when it became impossible to ignore the fact that Alex was still terrified of getting married. We went to a weekend-long seminar that was supposed to be life-changing, and Alex proposed for the third time in a massive conference room in front of 300 people. But after the weekend ended, it became clear that nothing had actually changed.
About Alex, my best friend had been telling me for years, “He's dead weight, cut him loose.” That's what she used to say about slow walkers when we would be touring Florence in a group, but it applies so nicely to men that just don't do anything for us.
“Look at yourself in the mirror,” she’d tell me, “and pretend you are talking to Alex and go, ‘What have you done for me late-ly? Ooo-oo-oo-oh-yeah.’”
I found a new apartment and moved out to live with roommates. When I started dating someone else, I remembered that romance wasn’t supposed to suck or make you cry. It was, shockingly, fun.
For years I had lived into an idea of the future that didn’t actually exist because the man I’d loved didn’t want us to live in the same country or to be especially close. I’d strung together a whole long popcorn-string of excuses, about his work, his fear, his needing time, my being too pushy, his parents' relationship and the effect it had on his view of women, etc etc. Oof.
Remember "The Velveteen Rabbit," that children's book? I felt like our shared suffering and sacrifice and even our pretty terrible fights on the telephone were all happening in the name of this epic story, that those were the things that made our love real and that would guarantee our happy ending. Because how could I have gone through all of that heartbreak if I didn’t truly, truly, totally believe we’d somehow end up together, happy?
But at a certain point, it just become impossible for me not to admit that what existed was not really anything more complicated than two people who did not want the same kind of life. After a last-ditch attempt at reconciliation came a fourth proposal. But even as he was asking the question, I think we both knew it was wrong. That night we broke up and we never saw each other again.
It took me a long time to find my way out of it and to understand why I’d unrolled myself, flat, for something that made me feel so bad. It took work to feel like I was worthy of real love, and to understand that it’s not marriage that makes a relationship real; it’s showing up and doing the things you say you’ll do and wanting to come home to each other, when things are tough and when they’re awesome. It’s not that complicated.