After my divorce, my children and I moved into a place of our own where we relished painting the walls moody dark colors, hanging art we found at the dump, and cobbled together free furniture from anyone willing to give it to us.
There was a room in the basement that I set up as an office, but it turned out that I didn’t need a separate room to work, since I was living alone half the time. When my friend Stace, who was also in the middle of ending a marriage, needed a place to stay, I cleared out the unused desk and borrowed a bed from my parents to turn my office into a guest room. I had stayed at my parents’ house on an air mattress for the better part of a year, and understood Stace might need a little time to save up for an apartment of her own while paying off her debts.
We had been spending a lot of time together anyway. We were going out to dinner on our nights without the kids, attending concerts that started too late for my bedtime, calling each other at 3 a.m. after mediocre dates when the pain of our dissolving lives felt too much to bear alone. When she moved in our friendship became quieter. We cooked dinner, watched television, came to know the names of each other’s co-workers and employees. When my son’s pet mouse escaped in his room, Stace and I both jammed ourselves into the cramped space below the bed while my children yelled directions from the doorway.
I was dating regularly, if you could call it that. Mostly I was sabotaging every chance at a relationship I could find. I was nostalgic for a time when you could meet someone in a bookstore, in line for a concert, at the grocery store reaching for the same apple. Texting with strangers through dating apps was fun and flirty, but until our knees brushed under the table I couldn’t decide how I felt.
There was a lady at a pie store who I thought might be the one. An anesthesiologist for dogs who I also thought might be the one. Before we met, they all had the possibility of being the one. Sometimes I felt the zing and rush of attraction, but it wasn’t mutual. So I worked to be the kind of person who wasn’t swayed by feelings. After all, when I was nineteen, I had fallen in love, and swept myself into marriage which ended in ruin. I wanted to be past falling in love as a concept. I needed to tamp down my feelings and think more. I told my therapist I was trying to be a robot. She didn’t approve, but I still tried.
All the while, Stace fixed our windows, bikes, bathroom sink, created a fireplace where there was none, hung shelves, replaced a toilet, a showerhead, a faucet, painted the house, planted three bushes. She giggled every time she caught me taking a picture of her doing these things, which was every time, because I loved watching her work, the way she contorted her lips while she concentrated, the way she looked at me, pleased when she saw me crouched, three feet away, camera in hand.
“You think you’re so funny,” she said.
She made me feel taken care of.
One night before my date with the dog anesthesiologist, I asked Stace to fasten my necklace while we stood together in the bathroom, a task she’d performed dozens of times before. But as her hand brushed against the soft hairs on my neck, I flushed with the intensity of the sensation.
“I worked to be the kind of person who wasn’t swayed by feelings. After all, when I was 19 I had fallen in love and swept myself into marriage, which ended in ruin. I wanted to be past falling in love as a concept. I needed to tamp down my feelings and think more. I told my therapist I was trying to be a robot. She didn’t approve, but I still tried.”
I caught her eye in the mirror, and I knew her so well that I could see what she was thinking, that she didn’t want me to go, that she wanted me to stay there, with her.
“I’m late,” I said, grabbing my coat.
As I drove I found myself pushing away the soft feelings in my belly with a litany of rational thoughts: Dating someone who lives with you is too convenient and easy; dating a friend is cliche; it would get too serious too quickly; my kids didn’t need me involved in something serious; it would destroy our friendship.
That night when I came home Stace and I curled up next to each other on the couch, debriefing my disaster of a date with whiskey and soft pretzels.
“Don’t date anymore,” she said. “Date me.”
“It’s too risky,” I said. “I need you.”
“You’ll have me still,” she said.
“People think they want me but they don’t,” I said.
“We are always together,” she insisted. “I know you by now.”
“My ex knew me for 20 years and I disappointed him,” I said.
“It’s not the same,” she said. “We’d be good together.”
I didn’t want to talk about it. She tried to remind me how we’d promised to always tell each other the truth, but I had been working so hard for the past couple years to stay protected. I wanted to say something mean, something like, “Where will you live when we break up?” But I knew I was just searching for a way to push her away.
“I’m tired,” I said instead. “I need to go to bed.”
Still, the idea churned inside of me. I spent the summer taking care of myself by keeping this secret just for me. I needed something to hold onto and cuddle, and not ask for permission from other people. I needed time to think it through, and enjoy it. I needed privacy, which is something I had never learned to exercise before, never in my whole life. I gave myself permission to lie, and skirt the truth and obfuscate. I gave myself a chance to grow by making a choice that was only about me and what I needed and did not owe anything to anyone else. I didn’t even tell Stace, who was the other half of the equation.
Instead of talking about it, we sat together while she applied for her dream job, we finished hanging up a rope swing in the backyard, she made me soup when I was sick, and then the next week I returned the favor, sitting by her feet, watching old episodes of ”Friday Night Lights.”
A couple months later, at the end of a spectacularly difficult week, Stace insisted we take the day off and go for a road trip. She was swamped at work, but she told me I needed a break, and refused to take no for an answer. She packed the car with coffee and fruit and the little bags of popcorn I usually put in the kids’ lunches. She drove me to the middle of the state to see the Bridge of Flowers, a garden bridge suspended like magic above a river.
Roses and lisianthus and black-eyed Susans. It was all so beautiful and romantic, and for a moment I let down my guard, and was overwhelmed with joy. Stace was standing in the middle of bridge, in the middle of nowhere, for no other reason than that she knew it would make me happy. It felt so safe.
I took her hand. And blushed with embarrassment.
“We can try,” I said. “I want to try.”
She picked me up for our first date by ringing the doorbell to our shared house, standing at the door with flowers. There were butterflies in my stomach while I waited on my couch, in our shared living room, for her to ring the bell.
That date wasn’t the first time we touched, but still I was shaking that night when she looked at me and asked if it’d be alright to kiss me.
Being with her felt so lovely, but we agreed we would take some time, to keep it secret, to guard it from the outside world. It was more my rule than hers, but as someone who processes all of my thoughts out loud, I was the one who had harder a time not telling the people closest to us.
“It’s okay,” she laughed, unafraid. “Talk to your people.”
So I whispered to my sister, my parents, my best friend: “Does this seem right? Does this seem real? Do I seem happy?”
“Is this what you meant by love all those years?”
I needed assurance that what I perceived was true.
I felt I had lost the right to trust myself.
But no one pushed back.
My sister said, “You are so good together.”
Still, I was too nervous to tell other people. The love felt ethereal, airy, uncontainable. In that misty bliss, there was both unlimited possibility and dreamy surreality. For months I insisted that we let our relationship be just ours; I didn’t want anyone else to take away the everythingness of the feelings I was finally willing to have.
When the pandemic struck and we all piled into our houses, it was the perfect excuse not to tell anyone else about us. We could keep it protected. I loved that we were a secret because the way we were protecting it, it felt like the relationship existed on a higher plain than the things I’d created before.
“For months I insisted that we let our relationship be just ours; I didn’t want anyone else to take away the everythingness of the feelings I was finally willing to have.”
But secrets get old. And as the pandemic wore into its eighth month, with no end in sight, I no longer took comfort in loving someone to whom the world could not bear witness. Witness creates truth. Or witness creates proof, which creates fact, and people say that’s as close as you can get. As real as it all felt, there was a way in which without being witnessed, our relationship suddenly crossed from a sweet secret to not really real.
I wanted to tell people outside of my closest circle about the way she hung my shelves, the way she brought me three bouquets of flowers when one would suffice, the time she rang the doorbell of our own house because she was willing to take a risk for me.
I wanted people to see that I was being brave, and trying again, and that my heart was so very full.
Eventually, with no family barbecues or accidental chats in the grocery store lines, we decided we had to call our friends and let them know. It was awkward because what should have been a natural aside needed to be said so very intentionally. It felt like we were calling people to announce big news, which was in fact, just regular life. But one by one we reached out to people, blushing like teenagers. No one was surprised, and the predictability made me sting with embarrassment.
But also, everyone said, “This makes sense. You two make each other so happy.”
I was so afraid of destroying my friendship, but I knew I’d never forgive myself if I let my fear get in the way of what could be real happiness. My mom always said the reason she married my dad was he was the first person who loved her for who she was. I never understood that feeling until now. It doesn’t feel like a risk, it feels safe. It feels like safety to observe another person, gazing at you all starry-eyed, and know that half the joy you feel comes from them really seeing you, and enjoying you so hard, knowing that there is not one part of them wishing you’d change.
Jena Salon’s work has appeared in BOMB, The Collagist, Annalemma, Bookforum and on her website, The Ruffle Compact, where she writes about sex, consent, dating and LGBTQ issues. For many years, she served as the senior editor at TLR. You can follow her on Twitter at @jenasalon.