Patience may be a virtue, but there’s a special kind of humiliation that comes from waiting for someone to care about you — an effect amplified by the amount of effort you put into being worthy. Last year, I whittled myself down, desperate to fit into the pocket of someone I nearly fell in love with. I will never do that again.
On our first date, you showed up just past six, already a little drunk. I downed my wine quickly and rose to your level within the hour. Chatter came easy as our fingers traced the stems of the glasses. As I left, I wanted to kiss you but held off. Don’t put all your cards on the table, an uncharacteristically timid voice shuffled through my head. He seems like someone who likes the chase. And then, a most damning thought: Be fun enough to keep chasing.
For our second, I made myself taller, inched my frame toward your 6’3” eye level, tried to be convenient enough to kiss. We walked from Night of Joy to my apartment; you didn’t notice me tripping as I tried to keep up, strappy wedges tearing blisters into my heels. How fitting, I think today, but that night I didn’t reflect, just quickened my pace to match yours. You stayed over, we slept in. Within two months, I knew you were what I wanted.
To fall in love is beautiful. To watch someone debate falling in love with you, as though you’re a Netflix show they have not yet committed to binge-watching, is exhausting. I took it upon myself to become as desirable as possible; I shifted to align with your romantic tastes.
I have spent a decade and a half chasing desirability, both in looks and in personality, an actor trying to be beautiful on the television and the radio. The inside of my esophagus is eroded by a decade-plus pursuit of conventional appeal — one of the many aftereffects of bulimia all too often glossed over. My battle with it has subsided over time, but the repercussions remain, haunting and acidic.
And my pursuit pushed me further than the mirror. There’s my gender — my mismatched, dear gender. I spent years convincing myself I would grow out of it, or at least watch it unravel back into the previous version of me, the one that didn’t question my pronouns or which box to check on paperwork, the one that didn’t agonize over who would stop loving me if they knew. I have wasted a long time, far too much of it, trying to hammer myself into the shapes I think others wish me to be. You saw this.
While I am now unapologetic about my weight and my gender and my laugh and desires and morals, I still found myself catering to your emotional movements. You accepted my hairy legs and acid reflux — pieces I anticipated rejection for, and felt inexplicably grateful for being accepted — I assumed accepting your instability was somehow the same, so I molded myself around it, let it shape my reactions. I couldn’t stifle the belief, so deep and so genuine, that if I pushed myself to be more of what you needed and wanted, you would, in turn, become what I needed and wanted.
This went on for months, each visit feeling like a breath — or maybe a gasp — and increasingly, a polluted one. I fantasized about not picking up the phone, not answering the door, meeting someone new — but starting over is so exhausting. So we make the pieces fit as best we can, even if the pieces are unwilling. Indeed, it is more trouble to buy a new book than to simply cope with a beloved copy, full of earmarked and highlights and notes in the margins. As long as it’s legible, it is worth keeping, we tell ourselves. And I kept you, or tried, as I watched you wonder whether you should hang onto me.
To play a true romantic lead in someone else’s script seemed unreachable, so I settled for a recurring role, a chorus dancer hoping a lead would someday open up. It didn’t, of course, and by Christmas Eve, I saw us for what we were. I recognized how aware of our tipped scales you were, like you always carried pocket aces in any space we shared. My insides came to a rolling boil the night I realized you had seen all my attempts over those months, all without acknowledging them. Each moment we spent together, you watched me twist into your ideal, held me tight like a trophy, then quietly snickered at my efforts. The night I realized, I slept alone, stretching my limbs across the mattress like a lion reclaiming its den.
The weekend before it ended, I asked you to pose for a Polaroid, eager to stick your image to my living room wall. Shifting your weight to the side, a little anxious, you looked away. You didn’t want to be on my wall, you didn’t want to be my co-star — you were content to remain a cameo. It was a beautiful photo, so small and muted. A beautiful photo of an ugly moment. It did not need to be mounted and framed. On Christmas morning, I let the picture fall to the floor, then swept it up the next morning to toss out with the rest of the dust.
I have given up on pretending cliches don’t apply to me. Every once in awhile, I will undoubtedly sense I am falling for someone and they will not always reciprocate. I’ll feel my stomach leap when they stroke my face, I will start to write words about them on the subway before work. They will run their hands down my legs without flinching or judging and my laugh will feel full and free in their presence. I will sleep over and not be afraid to sleep in.
But if I feel their hand twitch as I pick it up in public, if I hear them hesitate when I ask for support, if I again start to tell myself that love is a compromise, that I need to compromise, that my emotions are unworthy and I need to carve them into something more aesthetically appealing to the object of my affections because that is the only way, I will leave. Constant vigilance and the commitment to walking away in the morning, even if I am warm and comfortable, will trump any romantic night. Alone, whole and unscathed, is invariably better than together and torn apart.
Sam Escobar is the Beauty Editor for Good Housekeeping. Follow them on Twitter here.