She had always asked me the hard questions. Always. Didn't matter where we were; playing cards at home on a Friday night, out for coffee and a breakfast sandwich on a Sunday, on the subway going to meet my mother. She would ask.
Not in a therapist-asks-patient kind of way. It's difficult to explain exactly how she did it. Her approach was definitely more philosophical, but certainly no less direct. The wheels were always turning something over in her mind, and I guess in her heart, too, and she asked out of curiosity, and ultimately, love.
You'd think that my being in the social sciences professionally would set me up to be a pretty curious person. I learned, though, that this was the problem; I could be curious all day at work, where I set up the environment and its controls, and accounted for all the variables. There was previous research to base outcomes and hypotheses on, and even if a project came out completely different than had been anticipated, nothing catastrophic usually happened. Not to me anyway.
Not so with her questions. She wanted answers and dialogue and discussion about things I had never considered-about myself, about our relationship, about her, about love and relating to myself and other humans. I had zero practice with any of it, and to say I was unprepared for the questions that came and demanded my attention would be a severe understatement.
I had been just fine before she came along. Well, that's not exactly true; I had reached a state of disconnect from myself that I had begun to call 'comfortably numb'. Things in my life had shattered, and I wasn't handling the change well at all. Not if the definition of 'well' includes confronting feelings and emotions, allowing them to come up and out, and being able to let the past go with any kind of grace.
I wouldn't say I was stuck in the past; I was more stuck in what the past had created out of me, the shabby identity I had built of myself, mostly based on someone else's words and feelings.
So, me being 'just fine' looked a lot like a guy who hadn't felt anything in a big way for several years, and didn't really have any intention to do so anytime soon. Didn't really have any intentions at all, actually.
As much as I hated to admit it to myself, I was stuck. Stuck between an old life that had been reduced to ash, and between a new one that would push me to grow and confront and feel. And that is where I sat when she met me.
She came with her own set of struggles, most of which she let me in on, but didn't let me see. We were both pretty good at practicing keeping the darker parts of ourselves hidden from the other in the beginning. That seemed like a pretty normal thing to do. But she, unlike me, was always curious, always wanting to engage. She had a big heart and an intelligent mind, and now I know that she was creating a pathway between the two as we came closer together.
But what the hell was I doing? Not much. It's probably easier to list off what I was not doing. I wasn't setting myself up for long term commitment, I wasn't considering anyone's feelings-mine included, I wasn't being open or transparent or willing. I was just sitting where I was and sitting some more, with no plans to be heading anywhere different anytime soon.
Not the most fertile ground to grow a relationship from. It was like being near water, maybe a huge lake, so close it can be heard and even felt with a little stillness, and all I had to do was walk towards it and go for a swim. But I stayed onshore, a distance away, because what if the water was cold? What if the bottom was slimy? What if there was something in that water that I did not want to come face to face with?
I was afraid. And the list of fears and 'don't wants' were endless. So, instead of seeing a lake that could wash me clean and give me refreshment, I just saw an abyss. And I sat on the shore for all of our relationship. Wouldn't even get my feet wet. Didn't need to. She would splash me, sometimes smiling, sometimes laughing, sometimes out of frustration, from where she had waded in, waist deep. And those are the times I felt things. Not in a big way, but droplet sized.
When all I could see from where I sat was her head, I knew she was lost to me. No matter how much I wanted her to, or how much she wanted to, she couldn't send any more water my way. All she needed to do was put her head under, and she would be gone, immersed, washed clean, fully submerged in her life's path. I couldn't meet her where she was. So I let her go. I turned away, and when I finally had the courage to look back, she was gone.
So where were all the questions? They were there, like a strong motif in the relationship, they would come up. Not always in the same phrasing or about the same topic, but they all shared a common denominator: if I wanted to answer them, I had to get curious about myself.
She never said this to me, she was loving and encouraging and respectful almost always. She would nudge me though, and some nudges were more abrupt or stronger than others. She was curious and wanted answers, and answers required my own curiosity, and then a follow up conversation, which I dreaded more than anything. It was one thing for her to ask me something and lead the dialogue while we were in it together. It was quite another thing for me to step away, step inside, and then come back with some clarity. I couldn't do it. I would leave the conversation when we were ready to have it conclude, and instead of taking it forward with myself, I would stuff it somewhere where the rest of my unresolved shit was and keep it there indefinitely.
She never dragged me to the water. Never tried to pull me in with her. In her heart, I know she wanted someone, me, to join her there willingly. Free will was the only way. And she gave me that. No ultimatums, no tantrums. Either I would meet her there or not. And she gave me plenty of time and chances to do that. And I never did.
When she met me, I had been deep in the woods; in the darkest, thickest part where blackness reigns supreme. I honestly have no idea how she found me there. She came in with this light that practically blinded me. We walked together, very slowly, and eventually, she led me out of where I had been for so long. There, along this path, it was daytime, I could see the sky through the canopy of leaves, the sun felt warm, there was life around us.
Continuing in a slow cadence, we walked on, and now we were holding hands, joining life forces. She was giving me more than I had ever given myself.
I could feel what was happening, I felt something lighten inside, there were micro shifts and micro releases taking place, a few of my beliefs about myself and about love started to change. I let myself fall in love with her in the best way I knew how. And she held me the whole time. She was so strong.
But when we reached the edge of the woods and the lake came into sight, that's when I knew I had to make the choice. She was leaving the familiar. She was going to make a great leap and the final question she would ask me would be if I would join her there.
I could choose for myself. I could turn towards or turn away. I could get my feet wet and end up waist deep before I knew it, or I could play it safe and small and stay severed from myself. And it was clear that she had turned towards this new life, this great adventure, this joy and light that would take her into the future. She wanted me there with her, but I couldn't go.
There would be no more questions, no more nudges, no more encouragement, and the love that I knew and that had lit my path for the last years would leave my life. It would go somewhere I told myself I couldn't be, and she would go with it. By now she had showed me all of her, knew her heart and her mind deeply, and was unafraid to be all of who she was. No matter how much I wanted to be brave like her, the sense of overwhelm I got every time I looked at the abyss before me squashed any bravery that may have been there for me, either my own, or borrowed.
So I asked myself the hardest question I had ever heard: could I let her go?
And, this time, for the first time, I forced myself to answer. And the answer was 'yes'.
I turned away from that great lake of questions and answers, all floating, swimming side by side. And somewhere, she was diving in deep, and would return to the surface, buoyant and beautiful and filled with light. But I would not see it.
I turned, and walked away down a different path.