Love and Sex and Hope and Dreams is Brooklyn Magazine’s bi-monthly sex column. Names have been changed to protect privacy.
To call Ryan “the one who got away” would be to misstate how much I absolutely loathe Ryan. Things could have been different between us, but, like, only if his entire upbringing and personality and method for interacting with women had also been different. He did get away, though, and that’s for the best.
Nevertheless, I pined for Ryan for over three years after a whirlwind first date that spanned three Greenpoint bars and six hours on a rainy Tuesday night. After that, I wasted plenty of time traveling to see him on the F train when he would occasionally deign to acknowledge my existence, and although I always had fun, I also always felt like shit when I left in the morning because I knew I wouldn’t hear from him again for a month. His timing was impeccable, though, because he always waited just long enough for me to forget about that nasty feeling before he’d text me again and tell me he had been thinking about me. In some people, that kind of timing is innate.
When he decided to come around again in October after a semi-serious relationship of his had kept him out of my hair (but not out of my Twitter mentions) for nine months, he said all the things you’d hope to hear from someone whose torch you’d been carrying for years. It’d be different, he promised. He’d thought about me throughout his relationship and wanted to go on real dates and see where it took us. I felt exultant, victorious, triumphant.
Except, of course, Ryan hadn’t come to this decision independently; he hadn’t ended his relationship in order to pursue one with me. In reality, he had been dumped by a woman who wised up quicker than I had and whose ways I would like to learn. She had humbled him, and I was a good bet to play New Girlfriend and nurse his hurt feelings, even if his intentions were more of an emotional flail than a premeditated manipulation. In the moment, he probably thought he felt very deeply for me, in the same way that a drowning man loves a life raft.
I wish I could say I had this epiphany immediately, but I let Ryan buy me $13 cocktails in the backyard at Weather Up on several crisp fall evenings before it struck me that I just didn’t like this guy. The feelings I had when he came crawling back weren’t of optimism for our future or joy that someone I genuinely cared for was admitting his feelings for me; they were the feelings of someone who had successfully beaten a romantic target into emotional submission after years of interpersonal battle. We had agreed to see each other for a little while without having sex, but I found myself wondering if I should just give in and fuck him so he would go away. After all, it had always worked before.
In the rush of pursuit, approval and affection can feel almost exactly the same, and when gratification is delayed for years, the line between wanting someone’s love and looking for their approval disappears entirely. That distinction is a luxury allowed only to people granted the intimacy necessary to feel confident in a partner’s interest, and in a dating environment where it’s easy to feel isolated and anxious, it seems like relatively few people get the opportunity to know the difference.
Once I finally realized the disparity between Ryan’s approval and his affection, though, I felt like I had a way out. I don’t think I ever really gained either one, but realizing that it was the pursuit of the former that kept me punishing myself for years made the latter seem so much less interesting. I didn’t want him to love me anymore; as it turned out, all I had ever wanted in the first place was for him to acknowledge that I was worth loving. That I was a human being, and that he knew he was interacting with another human being.
Understanding a situation’s dynamics is not the same as solving its problems, though, and putting the final nail in a coffin of a romantic endeavor for which you once had high hopes is always arduous. After Ryan’s initial burst of interest, he wavered in and out of my life for weeks (old habits die hard for both of us, apparently), but eventually, I worked up the nerve to bring it all to a hard stop. As soon as he told me, via text message, that he understood, I burst into tears in my empty office. Not out of sadness, but out of relief; finally, I didn’t need anything from him at all.