How I Fell In Love Without Ever Being in a Traditional Relationship


My parents divorced before I could remember—I only know of the aftermath. I remember the loneliness of diaspora, the accelerated rate of my emotional growth, my distrust of anyone trying to get close to me. My parents were young and forced to marry due to an unplanned pregnancy. I do think they were in love once, but it was the kind that involved falling head over heels, and then putting one foot in front of the other until one day, you are somewhere you don’t want to be with someone you don’t really know. I don’t think I believed in love in a tangible way—of course I understood it in theory, wanted it badly for myself—but I had never seen two people in love the way I wanted to be in love. (A combination of deep, tender love that managed to be light-hearted) I had never felt that kind of love close to me.

I lost my virginity when I was twenty years old, to a friend who lived across the hall from me. A little while later, we were being silly after sex and he said something about “all of our love-making.” My face turned bright red at the mention of love and he added quickly, “or whatever this is.”

A month later, he dumped me (it was awkward—was I even his girlfriend?) and I sort of just assumed, worried, dreaded that that’s how my life would be: devoid of “traditional,” long-term, committed love. I experienced an all-consuming depression/existential crisis and decided to drop everything to follow my bliss.

At twenty, I opted to take time off from school, move to Brooklyn on my own, and live a little. I worked hard (three jobs at a time hard) and played hard—met men in any and every way, accepted every date and set-up offer, and eased my problems with some good old-fashioned sleeping around—a la “looking for love in all the wrong places.” I concluded that the best way to avoid the pain of a broken heart was to never stand still long enough to feel it—so I moved, every chance I had. I thought that if life would only offer me sex instead of love, I would take what I could get and figure the rest out later.

And then, one night, I met a man who seemed to have it all figured out.

We met at a bar in Park Slope—he was a handsome, bearded stranger who bought me a gin and tonic. I admired his toothy smile and bright eyes as we talked about life and love for about two hours before I was drunk enough to say what I was really thinking. “Hey, I’ve had a lot to drink and I’m finding you really hard to read right now… are you flirting with me? Do you have any interest in having sex with me?” I asked loudly and unabashedly over the music. He laughed and said, “Yes, do you want to come over?” I declined because I had work the next day and the G train service was really spotty at that hour, but we exchanged numbers and I made him promise that we would see each other again.

A few days later, we ended up at his house after dinner. He convinced me to have sex with the light on, which I typically avoid, and he would do things like thank me between kisses and whisper compliments in my ear as we cuddled up during episodes of The Office. This confused me. I thought, why does he feel the need to play the seduction game with me? Doesn’t he know that he already has me? Don’t I know that he already has many women besides me? Once he called me “pretty” as he moved the hair out of my face and I pulled away. “Don’t play pretend…you don’t have to sweet talk me. I know what this is.” He looked me in the eye and said, “Who’s pretending?” And when we kissed I felt a smile on his mouth.

After everything, I tried to put my clothes on, but he snaked his limbs through mine and fell asleep. And it was there, in a brownstone in Park Slope, tangled up in a man’s sheets and limbs, that I breathed deeper than I had before. And I fell asleep with him—something I hadn’t done with any man since my first boyfriend. For some reason, this innocuous action felt more intimate than anything else we had done between the sheets.

At that point in my life, my states of being were always fleeting. I was very used to things that didn’t last. I didn’t even have dishes in my apartment. I threw everything out after a single use because I was just that kind of person.

I didn’t think things would be any different with him—but they really were. What ensued was a months-long affair with a self-proclaimed “free-spirited lover” who took orders from no one, had sex with many women, and defined his life by the love he made. I tried often to let him know that if he were willing to give me more than sex, I would take it with open arms. I would ask him on dates to movies, or on days when I felt daring, lunch in a public place. He declined all of my offers, but was always willing to make love to me and hold me all night. I would always accept. I just couldn’t get enough of him.

He gave me the kind of sex that one could only dream of—sweet and fun, yet heavy with tenderness. He affirmed me every chance he had, and gave me true affection at a very lonely period of transition in my life. He was this totally zen, crunchy-vegan sex god who spent hours a day hanging out in Prospect Park. It was so easy to love him. Once, during sex, I came everywhere. When we were done, he wrapped his arms around me and I buried my face into his skin, embarrassed as hell. “I’m so sorry,” I said, “I feel like I might have just peed all over your bed.” He asked, “Did it feel good?” I nodded and he added, “Then what does it even matter?”

As beautiful as I remember it, our relationship wasn’t all sweet and easy—I was often insecure about our relationship’s ambiguous nature. There were times when I didn’t feel satisfied with what he had to offer me—I would mention something I really wanted to do with him, maybe watch a movie or go to an event at work, but he would answer saying things like, “Well, good luck with that.” Or sometimes he would start talking about another girl while we were together and I would be left feeling wounded.

And then there were times when I was so happy that I couldn’t even enjoy it because I kept thinking about how sad I would be when it would end. I thought that I had to search for more—in retrospect, I think it’s true. I believe that I always need to keep reaching, stop worrying about the sustainability of my states of bliss, stop worrying about the potential pain I might experience in my pursuit of happiness. And I think I can live with that. All of my openness that leads to feeling foolish or embarrassed, rejected or discouraged: it’s such a small price to pay. At least I could rest easy knowing that I had told him my truths.

I never really knew if I was doing things right (is sending this text appropriate? do I call him my boyfriend when I talk about him to my coworkers?) but I felt sure that we were doing a pretty good job at being happy together, even if it was only for short bouts of time. When the year was up and it was time for me to return to New England for school, we didn’t make a big show of our goodbye. We held each other tenderly, said, “Thank you,” and walked away. I haven’t seen him since.

In ways that I don’t think I can ever explain, he made me feel… loved.

Somehow, in the murky, clouded world of “friends with benefits,” “hook-ups,” and “dating,” I was able to see very clearly. It is here, with the person that you care about, that you can create your own rules, expectations, and definitions, of love. Navigating the vast expanse of sort-of relationships is terrifying—there are no rules, and infinite chances to screw up. But it’s in that sometimes perfect, sometimes miserable, space that we can learn what our wants, needs, and expectations are through trial and error. We learn what it takes to make us happy.

I didn’t fall in love, I didn’t lose myself in someone else—I rose in love and found myself—I made an active decision to let him in despite my bitter nature. In return, he saved me from my jaded introversion by loving me deeply in the context of a non-traditional relationship. He showed me that the love I crave is possible, and that I must cultivate it myself. I know that I want to enter future relationships with an open heart—prepared for play and intimacy, ready to have fun and put in the work it takes to build this from the ground up. Our relationship. Our love. Or whatever this is.

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