*Names have been changed.
We were immersed in the quiet world of hard walls and soft blankets that only lovers can understand. With our fingers entangled together in warmth, she suddenly asked a question no one ever asked me before:
“Have you ever had someone you could trust to be there for you if you couldn’t be there for yourself?”
It was then that I was yet to experience the tumultuous wrath of lady love. I had recently come out as bisexual before I met *Emily. It was my first time seriously dating a woman, and for the several short months we spent together, my time with her was more passionate than with the many men I’ve been with. We found each other online right before she had an emotional breakdown. Holed up at her grandmother’s for some peace and quiet, she’d later tell me I was the only one she confided in then.
Unlike the relationships I’ve had with people before, Emily let me confide in her too, while fully listening without judgement. We wrote each other every day for a month before finally meeting face-to-face or even hearing each other’s voice – but that didn’t stop me from imaging what it would be like to kiss her. The way she made me feel at ease and let me open up to her was nothing I’d experienced before. It had always felt like everyone else was just waiting to talk or that they had an agenda, but she encouraged me to be myself and let my walls down for the first time. Because of this, just holding her hand was more intimate than most of the sexual experiences I’ve had in the past.
But to trust someone to be there for me? I laughed in disbelief. She might as well have asked me if I was purple.
Sure I’ve had people in my life – family members and partners – who’ve been there for me to an extent through both lukewarm and rough times. But I’ve never let anyone in my head long enough to save me from the black depths of hell that is mental illness. I didn’t grow up with an affectionate family that outwardly supported this fight, so when I was diagnosed and tried to fulfil my emotional needs from the men I dated, the reality fell short of my expectations when they weren’t reliable or empathetic enough when I needed them. Because I couldn’t fully open up to them, I never felt fully connected to them unless we were making love – and sometimes not even then. I started to build a wall that stood in front of my vulnerability, and the only way for someone to start to break it down was by having sex with me.
But when I met Emily, I was in a much better place emotionally. I had spent a lot of time working on myself because I knew I couldn’t get into a relationship if I wasn’t more mentally stable than before. My empathy and understanding from my personal experiences made me a good fit to be there for Emily’s breakdown, and it felt wonderful that I could support her rather than needing someone to support me. The fact that I didn’t ask her to be there for me and that she still made an effort was what made me fall for her even harder. As a writer who was chastised in the past for telling stories about who I was dating, she was the first person to tell me to do whatever the hell I wanted with my art. She was accepting about my past struggle with using sex as a coping mechanism for stress, and she even researched things that affected me so that she could better understand them.
But if you’ve ever had a whirlwind romance, you’ll know that Emily and I had a short period of bliss before things started going awry. She seemed invested in our relationship emotionally and talked to me often, but she would physically withdraw while we were out drinking. One night when we were at a gay bar, I found her huddled in a doorway outside having a panic attack. Shortly after we came back inside she disappeared again, and a half hour or so passed as I texted and searched for her frantically before I found her outside talking to another woman. It was clear she was terrified of letting me in and trying her best to push me away, and I let her know that I wasn’t going to put up with her unintended games; she either wanted to be with me or she didn’t.
Emily and I were lying on her bed one day when she told me she couldn’t commit to a relationship right now and she wanted me to see other people. So when an old flame contacted me shortly after, I asked her if she’d be upset if I went to his house. She said she wouldn’t, and we ended up sleeping together. It didn’t mean I didn’t love her or want to be with her – but part of me needed to distance myself from my feelings for her. When I told Emily about it the next day, I understood the saying that women don’t always say what they mean.
After an emotional discussion the next day, Emily told me that she’d be okay trying polyamory and that she wanted to come to a party I was going to that night. We agreed that while we were out together we wouldn’t hit on anyone else for the respect of each other. Little did I know that there was no going back from what I had done. I spent the night constantly trying to find Emily, watching her flirt with guys even though she identified as a lesbian and hearing that she ended up making out with one. I was pissed, but I understood that I hurt her.
We were waiting for the bus at the end of the night, both resentful of the other, when she yelled out, “I fucking love you!” I didn’t think a dimly lit bus stop was the opportune moment for two angry, intoxicated lovers to say it for the first time, but my silence didn’t calm her down any. As we quarrelled on the ride home, the man who sat beside me didn’t help the situation any by hitting on me when Emily left to sit at the other end of the bus. When I finally got her to come back to my place to talk, I told her that I loved her too. We went to sleep in each other’s arms and I thought that things were going to work out.
But Emily had put up a wall that I couldn’t tear down. Every moment we spent together felt completely different than what we had built in the beginning. She finally decided that we should just be friends, that she wanted to work on herself and that she didn’t know how long it would take her to let herself become vulnerable again. Until she changed her mind – and then changed it again. I said I didn’t think I could be around her without wanting to kiss her, but she insisted that being friends with me was important to her and that she’d always be there to talk to.
As time went on, our emotional connection never went back to the way it was. Quick, detailed responses through text turned into slow, short ones that, more than often, never came. It wasn’t losing her as a lover that killed me as much as losing her as the first person who I felt I could be myself around. She let me start to believe that I could trust someone to be there for me if I couldn’t be there for myself, and when she wasn’t emotionally invested anymore it was too painful to keep reaching out. After a few months of waiting for our friendship to return, I told her that I couldn’t be friends with her anymore because it hurt too much. She couldn’t validate me with a response.
I know that relationships aren’t black and white, and that people say things they don’t mean all the time. I’m not going to say that men are less complicated than women, but I got so used to men being upfront in relationships that I forgot how women often think in shades of grey. I once told a boyfriend to go out and have fun at a strip club and ended up crying myself to sleep after he told me he got a lap dance. I had wanted him to have fun, but it didn’t occur to me how much it would tear me inside thinking about another woman’s naked body on him until it happened. I understand Emily’s confusion while trying to navigate rationality around emotions, but I also understand my guy friends’ frustrations about loving the ladies.
I hear Emily’s seeing someone else now who she talks to often and confides in. It used to destroy me that it wasn’t me – but I’m happy that we’re in different places in our lives now. I’ve learned that I can open up and be myself around someone, and that if it doesn’t work out I can still survive without them. I’ve learned that I deserve someone who’s emotionally available enough to know what they want and stick to it. And I’ve learned that if you love someone you need to think a little harder before making the actions that you do. I’ll never forget my first experience loving a woman and what it taught me about true intimacy. Recently I started dating a man who makes me feel just as if not more intimate, and it’s good to know that I can open up to someone now regardless of gender.