The third date, he showed up in chaps, cowboy boots, a Sheriff’s star strung on a lariat around his neck, a massive horse belt buckle at his waist, an embroidered Western shirt buttoned all the way up, a cowboy hat on his head.
It was summer and there was a huge rodeo going on. It felt like every person in the city had turned themselves into a pseudo-cowboy or cowgirl, except for me. I wore high-waisted, black linen shorts, a black V-neck tank top, a long, pink-floral wrap. We were meeting for dinner and his spurs clanked when he sat down at the table, which was outside, on a patio.
“You like costumes, huh?” I said.
“It’s Stampede!” he exclaimed. “You have to dress up.”
“You really don’t,” I said.
He adjusted his hat and called me “ma’am.” The hat was all leather and shaped more like the cowboy hats of Australia.
This guy is a huge dork, I thought.
After dinner, we walked to the house he was living in at the time. None of the furniture matched and everything was cast in shades of brown. There was a rubber chicken on the mantelpiece above the fireplace. We were going to watch a movie.
As we walked downstairs to the movie room, I excused myself. In the bathroom, I pulled a pair of grey leggings and an oversized white T-shirt out of my bag and pulled off my shorts and tank top. I put the leggings and T-shirt on.
Years later, almost four I believe, he would tell me that he looked at me, as I came out of the bathroom in my leggings and T-shirt, my date outfit stuffed into my giant, black purse and thought, This girl is awesome.
“Was it weird that I changed?” I asked him, those four years later.
“Not to me,” he said.
It genuinely didn’t occur to me, at the time, that the outfit change was out of the ordinary. I did it because I absolutely loathe wearing a waistband of any kind while watching a movie. I don’t suffer that for anyone.
We settled on a crinkly, broccoli green leather couch and cued up How To Train Your Dragon. I have no idea why that was the first movie we chose to watch together. Somewhere, in that movie, though the details are vanished on me now, there is reference to something being ‘foxy.’ He looked at me and said, “That’s like you.”
“You’re Foxy,” he said, twitching his eyebrows at me.
We barely knew anything about each other, then. I don’t think I even knew his middle name, or how to spell his last name. I looked at him with a hint of side-eye, trying to decide if he was being creepy, but he wasn’t. He was just being goofy. I could see that in the easy smile, the clear gaze. I didn’t respond, but I smiled.
Of all the slant pet names that my beloved had for me, Foxy is the oldest and the most carefully guarded.
It was a term used for especially important occasions, and it carried with it a superlative weight of affection. He only ever called me Foxy when it was just the two of us, never around others. FOXY was often written, in lieu of my given name, on birthday cards, anniversary cards, special-occasion gifts, and love notes slipped into my bag. Though, in the day-to-day, he would most often call me ‘baber,’ Foxy was the fine china.
Every year, he bought me some kind of memorabilia related to foxes—usually small, never referenced, always included alongside something else, an understood shorthand that we both delighted in.
I never explicitly told my beloved how much I loved the term, the endearment that it bestowed upon me. It could have been anything. He could have called me Faucet or Balloon for all I cared. What I particularly relished was the specificity, privacy, and longevity of the term. It was a closed circuit, made only for me and inclusive only of the two of us. It was the first thing he ever made for me that was inspired by me and created for me. There would be other things, of course, but this was the first. The first word in our private lexicon.
After the third date, a few weeks later, I was driving home from a girls’ night with some friends, and I found myself taking a turn I didn’t normally. I ended up parked outside the house he lived in. I didn’t call to see if he was home, or let him know I was there. I just walked up the stairs to his house and rang the doorbell.
As I stood on the porch, waiting to see if he would answer, I wondered why I was there. I was (am) usually so anxious about social engagements, about spending time with people that I don’t know all that well, about doing things that may make me seem clingy or needy. Why was it I hadn’t overthought showing up? Why hadn’t I worried that he would think I was some kind of stalker, or why hadn’t I been concerned he wouldn’t be home, or why hadn’t I been exhausted at the thought of going from girls’ night to his place—social activity on social activity?
I didn’t know. I was just there, I realized, because I’d felt like seeing him and, for perhaps one of the first times in my life, I had just acted upon the feeling, without hesitation.
Even before I was in it, love was making me less afraid.
When he answered the door, a delighted grin cracked along his jawline.
He ate late, when I first met him, and dinner (macaroni and cheese, of course) was in a pot on the stove. I hopped up onto his countertop and talked to him while he stirred butter into the noodles.
He told me that he was going on a cycling trip to Spain in a few weeks and would be gone for almost three. I told him to text me pictures of the beach. I tasted the noodles and told him if he liked pasta al dente, then dinner was served.
There was something about him that was so calming, always, but especially evident to me in those early days. I didn’t feel the old, familiar anticipatory anxiety and worry and insecurity when I was around him, or when I thought about being around him.
Usually, there is a constant ticker-tape of worry running in my mind around new and known people (what if they don’t like me? Or I say the wrong thing? Or I come on too strong? Or I accidentally act like a know-it-all? Or maybe they don’t really want me here? Or what if my clothes look weird? Or? Or? Or?) but with him, the ticker-tape was so quiet, I (almost) couldn’t hear it.
As it turned out, he did text me from Spain. There were the photos of the beach, as asked for, and other photos of thick, white fog and wild ponies. When he returned from the trip, he picked me up in his grey-blue Mazda. I was standing out on the sidewalk and he pulled up, rap music blaring from his car speakers. He rolled the driver’s side window down, his head bopping forward and back like a deranged chicken.
I watched him and thought, again, what a silly weirdo.
I loved it.
When I got into the car, and he turned down the music, he presented me with gifts from Spain. There was a thin, brown leather bracelet, a heavy coffee table art print book about fashion, and some other trinket; I think it was made of brown metal. We had been together only weeks at that point, and though I loved the gifts, and still have them, what I have always treasured most about that moment—even when he was here—was seeing him cheeseball in the car to thudding rap music.
He was so himself, always, but especially in that moment. Even then, I understood what a gift he gave me when he trusted me enough to show up exactly as he was, when he trusted me to see just who he was and to be delighted by him.
And I was so, so delighted by him.
But, it was still him that knew first. In fact, he knew less than four months into our relationship that he loved me.
When he told me that he did, the first time, I wasn’t sure I’d heard right. The second time, when he confirmed that yes, he had said that he loved me, I burst into tears and cried for a few hours—in the grip of a small panic attack. He wasn’t sure what to do, so he went out and got me a sesame bagel with light cream cheese. When he returned, he hovered the bagel just in front of my nose while I sobbed.
Eventually, I reached out and took a bite of the bagel. We were in New York, at the time. That bagel remains one of the most delicious things I’ve eaten.
Shortly after that, I stopped crying and went to brush my hair, only to find my brush was missing. He helped me look throughout the whole hotel room and finally found it, pushed beneath the bed. He held it up like a trophy, and I grasped it with relief.
“You’re my favourite,” I said, in what was the first iteration of a chorus that we would repeat to each other over all of our years together.
“You’re my favourite,” he responded.
What early days those were, those first months piling up until love was their sum total.
I run a reel in my mind, spooling outward:
We’re sitting together in the same chair, me on the soft seat, him perched on the side, and he’s playing his black, electric guitar; we’re fighting about charitable donations and I’m wearing his plaid boxers; we’re in the kitchen and I’m crying because my migraine hurts so much and he’s wrapping the ice pack around my head; he’s telling me he’s going to cut his long hair and I’m finding inspo pictures on Pinterest for him; we’re drinking Pimms Cups in the summer air, outside on a patio that is closed in by fully-fleshed, leafy green trees; we’re showing each other our passport photos; we’re learning the names of each other’s best friends; he’s memorizing my cell phone number and I’ve put him on my Favorites list; we’re brushing our teeth together and debating the exact right ratio of toothpaste to brush; he’s showing me the iPhone note he has where he jots down all the stories I tell him, “just so [he] won’t forget.”
For months, in those weeks that made up our entry into love, I kept asking my therapist, “how do you know if you love somebody?”
I worried that all the calm, all the peace, all the lack of high contrast drama (“he does! he doesn’t!” was entirely absent, I knew he did) was a sign that we were just very good friends and not really good romantic partners. I hadn’t experienced a secure love like his before. There was an ineffable warmth, a softness, in our bond that I didn’t know how to quantify.
Time, of course, proved that this warmth was our deep friendship and our genuine love, braided together with a third strand of intangible alchemy that he called ‘soulmates.’
Time also proved my worrying to just be fear. In those early months, I was so anxious with old pains, carrying so much forward from other, broken relationships. There was a reticence in me, a fear of accepting his acceptance, that interfered with what was, certainly, my love for him.
Still, I came to know what was true. We were always on each other’s team, in all ways, always.
I was just so interested in him—in puzzling him out, in seeing him, in understanding him, in articulating what it was that moved him through the world, in helping him become the version of himself that he wanted, in fostering his own independence and sense of love for himself.
Of course, there were plenty of times he did things I didn’t understand, but then I would ask him about it, and we would talk about him, together, sometimes for hours. I would pepper him with questions and parse his answers, which he gave with his usual mangle of misapplied and made-up words. It was never a question of shouldering the burden of knowing or supporting him. I wanted to.
In turn, the full light of his sun was always turned on me. Me, who has always felt like the consummate outsider. The person that still doesn’t ever quite get the world around her, is always, in someway, feeling opaque to others. He so often made me feel like I was a natural part of the world, at the centre of something, instead of on the outside. He often encouraged me to do things that made me more me. He had no qualms about sending me off for writing residencies that went months at a time. What a thing —loving someone so much you build not just your bond with them, but their independence too.
Sometimes, if he would struggle to see me or misunderstand something I would do, I would worry, but I shouldn’t have. Without me asking, inevitably, he would come to me, his journal in hand, and read it aloud. He would articulate what he had come to understand about me and I would bask in the gift and the glory that it is to have someone on your side who can speak your youness to you, who can do so without you telling them or asking them or obligating them, who does so simply because they love you, because they’re stuck on you, because you are someone they want to think a lot about.
Sometimes, when I think about first meeting him, about those initial months as we wound our way towards realizing we were in love, I picture the two of us coming upon each other in a park, clambering onto a teeter-totter.
I used to love teeter-totters when I was a kid.
I imagine him hopping onto his seat and me on mine. Then, the part I always loved: the board sways a little, and it’s all a little unsure, but then it balances, levelling out. The two of you are left in an almost effortless stasis, staring right at each other, delighted.
Is it strange to think of falling in love like playing on a common playground fixture? Perhaps. Still, that’s how I think about it.
I mean, after all, love, and the teeter-totter, both need two people, who are made of roughly similar stuff internally, that are willing to come together in a weird and sometimes random connection, which requires a little patience, and trust enough that you stay in the seat, hanging in midair, believing that the other person is going to stay there with you too. And when it works, love and the teeter-totter, when that balance is achieved, it feels like such easy magic.
I didn’t always think this, you see. That’s why I am saying it.
I used to think that you had to teach someone how to love you. You had to show them the way. I thought you had to work for that moment of suspension. I thought that was the ‘work’ people talked about when they said, “relationships take work.”
But I was wrong.
The work isn’t the balance, or, at least, it shouldn’t be.
You should not have to teach someone how to be on a teeter-totter; you shouldn’t have to ask someone if they’re going to take care of you, whether you ask for help or not. You shouldn’t have to wonder if they’re going to pay close enough attention to you to keep you on the level.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying love doesn’t take work.
I’m just saying that the work should be maintaining the balance that came so easily for you two once other things begin to pile onto the teeter-totter.
That’s the work. That’s when two people have to start learning how to stay together in a way that allows each person to be themselves, while creating an entity that acts and thinks and cares in tandem.
For my beloved and I, this ‘work’ only worked if we trusted each other to support the other. Our work, when we were doing our best, was a mutual act of partnership—he put me first, while I put him first, and together, we made something that ended up being load-bearing for both of us.
I’m saying, do not be afraid.
You can choose to go towards a person, or the chance of person, with whom what you give is given back to you in equal measure. You do not have to show someone how. He showed me that it’s possible.
There was a moment, between our third date and me showing up on his porch announced, where I was at a bar, dancing with friends. At one point, I texted him and told him where I was. I didn’t ask him to show up. I didn’t even actually think he would. I just gave him the name of the bar.
When he came through the door, and hit the dance floor, he was a blur of energy—knees bent, hands and body jiving. He wore a tan blazer and he caught me by the hand, spun me around while Go Go dancers shimmied on a raised platform above us. We danced one song together and then the bar closed.
“Was it worth it?” I said as we tumbled out of the bar, into the late night summer air. “Showing up for just one dance?”
“Oh,” he said, pushing his dark hair back from his face. “Absolutely.”
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