Thank you for hurting me

It’s 3:30am in London. My body’s clock is jet-lagged by a few hours, but my head seems to be jet-lagged by 7 months. Stuck on March. Stuck on the day you shattered my favorite illusion, my safety net of self-worth that shouldn’t have been in your hands to begin with.

Before the trip I would happily, eagerly tell people I was traveling to visit you. I would show them your picture. After the trip, I would tell people I had traveled to fulfill a childhood dream of mine, which was to backpack through Europe alone. It made me sound so independent, so adventurous, so sophisticated, so worldly. The truth was that I had foolishly flown across the Atlantic for a dude that just wasn’t that into me. Posthumously it was easy to erase you from the story, because we didn’t take any pictures together anyway.

You have a very special skill, and I’m not sure if you know: You are very good at making people believe they are important to you. You are very good at making me feel special. You were very good at convincing me that you wanted me — me of all people- to visit you, as if it were an exclusive offer, one that you didn’t extend to just anyone.

I burn with embarrassment to this day, imagining what your roommates must have been saying and thinking about me, the second girl within a month to fly from North America to visit you. This idiot girl who had no idea that less than 30 days earlier, you had different girl in your home, in your bed, in your life. Did you ask them to hide this information from me? When I arrived the first night, did they exchange knowing glances of “here’s another one”? Was I not the second, but maybe the third, fifth, tenth girl in a long parade of girls who spent time and money to come see you? Maybe they didn’t say anything because they already had the drill down. Maybe were already acutely aware of what I was not, and that is why they had been so kind to me in my obliviousness. Pity kindness.

Our reunion did not go how I imagined. I imagined you meeting me at the airport, flowers in hand, which you would then eagerly toss aside to pick me up a twirl me around. We would kiss passionately. You would whisper something raunchy about how you can’t wait to get me back to your apartment. In hindsight this was obviously a ridiculous fantasy. But before my arrival… you had been very good at convincing me that that was your level of enthusiasm.

Instead, I arrived at the airport exhausted after 22 hours of flying coach, two layovers, four airports from start to finish, and bussed into downtown Barcelona by myself. You were 15 minutes late meeting me. You arrived, we hugged, and the first thing you said was that you had a cold so we would be sleeping in different rooms. Your cold was real, but the metaphorical irony is not lost on me now. It was a very convenient way for you to hold me — literally — at arms length for the duration of the trip without “arousing suspicion”. Your cold was very good at convincing me that your distance when I had arrived, your unexpected, unexplainable frigidness, was simply a matter of congestion.

You gave me crumbs of attention here and there, and I desperately vacuumed them up. I tried to convince myself that your standoffish behavior was in my head. It was (my) paranoia. It was (my) insecurity. It was (my) anxiety. It was your cold.

After five days of agonizing, unspoken rejection — every interaction we had was soaked in a subtext of rejection — I flew to Nice. I checked into my hotel room for one. Staying in Nice alone was almost exactly the same as staying in Barcelona with you. It was, in some ways better, because I wasn’t constantly, timidly putting out feelers for affection or attention, only to be shot down over and over by someone who had previously convinced me that I was wanted. Eating dinner alone was a relief. Going to bed alone, without the specter of you on the other side of the door was preferable.

In Rome I met a rowdy bunch of Scottish & Irish tourists who were in my Colosseum tour group. I struggle to meet people. I do not walk up to people — much less groups of people — and introduce myself. I do not strike up conversations with strangers with the ease that you do. I do not make friends wherever I go, like you do. After the tour, we all descended at the same time upon a restaurant the guide had recommended to us. They must have noticed I was alone. They made some vague, good-natured comments about us all sitting together, and I thought they were joking. When the host led them to their table, they turned around and said “Come on then, you’re with us”.

I was genuinely surprised. I awkwardly sat with them while my mind raced as I tried to figure out why on earth they had invited me to lunch with them. We were halfway into the meal before I mustered up the courage to introduce myself and ask everyone’s names. “Why did they want me here?” I wondered.

Figuring out whether or not I am actually wanted has always been an issue for me. I usually assume that I am not really, genuinely wanted in social situations. That I am there because others are obligated to put up with me, whether through unspoken social norms or because I wrongly imposed myself, misinterpreting others’ politeness for the genuine desire for my company.

Before I arrived in Barcelona, I had been very convinced that you wanted me there. When I arrived, you did not. I had been wrong again, and imposed myself in the most intrusive way possible. It was one of my biggest fears, my biggest shame triggers, come to life in the worst way possible. Mistakenly believing you wanted me, I had flown to a different continent, only to find out I was, once again, the girl that nobody actually wanted at the party, but were too polite to say so.

I imposed myself upon your home, and your roommates were too kind — or I was too pitiful — to tell me that there was someone else. I imposed myself upon your bed, which you abandoned in favor of sleeping in the living room, or sleeping in when I was out during the daytime. I imposed myself upon your cock, and you obliged for reasons I still cannot understand. To this day, I still think I am a rapist.

On the plane ride back from Rome to Barcelona, from Rome back to you again, I silently cried while trying to figure out why the friendly tourists had invited me to eat lunch with them. I was crying because I realized how pathetic it was, how pathetic I was, that I couldn’t even figure out why a nice group of strangers would want my company, as if my company was nothing more than a burden on others. This is what I truly believed. The middle-aged man sitting next to me on the plane furtively shot me sympathetic looks, but didn’t say anything.

Did you know that I used to describe you to my friends as “the one that got away”? I used to think that there was something electric between us in Montreal, but we never had the chance to explore it. I used to believe that you said the same thing about me. I used to believe that had timing been different — timing is a bitch — that we would have dated, and we would have been great. Before I left on the trip, all my friends knew about you. Did your friends know about me?

Maybe you didn’t realize how deeply your rejection had gutted me, because you didn’t realize I had taken off my armor for you. You didn’t realize that I was already naked. You didn’t realize how much I trusted you — more than any other guy in my life (do you really think I would send those kinds of pictures to anyone else?) — or how highly I thought of you. You didn’t realize that the words you had sent me over the years since college were the building blocks of my naive fantasy. I refuse to take full responsibility for creating a narrative in my head where you desired me as much as I desired you, and it was only time and space that kept us from having something more, because your slick words were the foundation I built this fantasy on.

Did you know that the idea of you, the idea that you wanted me, was my own personal safety net? I understand this wasn’t necessarily fair to you. Before the trip, I had been single for 3 years. Every time I put myself out there, trying to hit it off with online dates or friends-of-friends, holding on to guys who only wanted to fuck me every other week with the vague hope that if I stayed “chill” enough, they would want me back the way I wanted them, every time “it just didn’t work out” or “I’m just really busy” (subtext: I’m just really busy with other things since you spread your legs and I got what I wanted and I have other priorities now that I’ve gotten my rocks off and those priorities don’t involve you) — every time I experienced rejection, I consoled myself with the thought of you. I reminded myself that halfway around the world there was a stunningly intelligent, handsome, charming man who thought the world of me, who thought I was beautiful and sexy, who desired me, and who — if we were in closer proximity — would be happy to be in a relationship with me. It was easy to get over rejection by some small-dicked OkCupid date when you think you have a “Barcelona Lover”.

I would think to myself “That guy wasn’t interested in me? That’s ok, there’s a man much smarter, hotter, and all-around better than you who is interested in me (he’s just on the other side of an ocean).” It wasn’t fair that you were my fallback self-esteem. But it was my coping mechanism. Now, when I experience rejection, I have to reconcile with the fact that nobody else wants me either. The emotional safety net of you is gone.

Back in Seattle, after a week of agonizing and analyzing, I finally asked you what was up. I asked you why would you invite me to visit you, encourage me to believe that I was desired, only to blow me off when I got there. I had begun making up stories in my head: I had gained weight since college and you no longer found me attractive. I had been too open with you in admitting how much I struggled with binge-drinking, and finding out I was a borderline alcoholic turned you off. My obvious desperation and neediness for your attention was off-putting, and so you would reject me, and in return I would become more desperate and needy.

Instead, you told me that in-between the time you encouraged me to buy a plane ticket and my arrival date, you had fallen in love with someone else. I realized you must have been thinking of her when you were having sex with me. I left work early. I sobbed into my best friend’s lap for half an hour. Afterwards, she thought it was a good time to let me know that her rocky relationship with her boyfriend was in a really good place, and they were really happy. I hid my annoyance, waited until she left, and drank a bottle of wine.

This story makes it sound like my trip was awful. The truth is, you were the worst part about it. The rest of my trip was life-changing in all the right ways. I left Seattle thinking that I was going to visit you. I came back and realized I had unwittingly, even slightly involuntarily, fulfilled my childhood dream of traversing Europe alone. The history, the architecture, the culture, the arts — they reignited a part of my soul that had become damp and dreary from 3 years of 50-hour workweeks in an office.

The ladies in the office had a book club, and we had just read Rising Strong, by Brene Brown. It was her follow-up to her previous work about “The Power of Vulnerability”. According to her, there was power in taking the risk to expose your heart, to put yourself out there, to open yourself in painful ways, even when (especially when) the possibility of rejection or failure is omnipresent. Rising Strong was the next segment of her research: What happens after you make yourself vulnerable, after you take a risk, and it doesn’t work out? When you drop your shield for someone you trust (or want to trust), and you get punched in the face instead, and you find yourself face-down in the arena while the crowd jeers? How do you get back up again? How do you find the strength and courage to keep on getting up every single time you’ve been knocked down, and continue taking risks even after you’ve been deeply hurt?

The coincidence in timing was not lost on me. For the past six years my guard had been up. Living on the East Coast for three years had hardened me in irreversible ways. You were the first person I trusted to be vulnerable with, you were the first person I took a risk on. You left me face-down in the arena.

I rose stronger than I expected. I began crafting my ideal life, creating my own happiness instead of depending on a faraway fantasy for self-worth. After years of working 10-hour days, weekends and evenings, then drinking a bottle of wine for dinner alone in front of the TV and passing out on the couch, I snapped out of it.

I began attending local ArtWalks, and exhibit openings. I went to panels and conferences, and dared myself to quash my fear of public speaking, to raise my hand when they opened the floor for questions, and offer my thoughts, because maybe, just maybe, my thoughts were valuable. I began letting my friends know how important they were to me, dropping the cool veneer of “strong independent women” and admitting that sometimes, I really needed their help and support (I just sucked at asking for it). I began hosting game nights, and dinner parties. For my birthday, I put aside my fear that “no-one will show up because no-one cares” and arranged a birthday get-together for the first time in years (for the first time since my 22nd birthday, when I tried to have a party and literally no-one showed up). I made a conscious effort to improve my relationship with my parents. I stopped drinking so much. I slowly started to believe that my presence was not an imposition to those around me, but (possibly) a delightful contribution.

I know that I have already said much of this to you. I had said it to you back in March, when you admitted you had fallen in love with someone else, and I was reeling and word-vomiting onto Facebook Messenger at you. Back then, I knew I would eventually write about this experience, but I didn’t know if it was something I would share with you, or anyone else. I am not sure why I am telling you all of this now. I am not sure why I am telling you any of this at all. On one hand, I want to un-follow you on social media so I am not reminded daily of the shame I now associate with you and the trip, and vengefully (pettily) make you feel guilty. On the other hand, I want to thank you for waking me up and forcing me to start living a life full of risk and vulnerability and genuine connection and value and self-worth.

I think this letter does both.