We were sitting across the table from each other in a fake Irish restaurant just outside Nashville when he said three words I never expected to hear from him.
His recent hot and cold behavior had prepped me to face the fact that, after a decade of on-and-off-ness, our affair had finally run its course. It was time to go back into the real world, where relationships were actual work rather than interpersonal vacations.
Yet I was still magnetically drawn to him, despite the many barriers (distance, busy schedules ... his marriage) preventing this from developing into something more. Ignoring the most obvious barrier — that he simply didn't want something more, he was already married — I also tuned out friends who insisted he was the villain and I was the victim, who claimed he was taking advantage of me. Instead, I argued that perhaps I was taking advantage of him. Though I rarely saw him, he lurked in the corners of my mind, and when any of my relationships failed, I could point the finger at him. I was no victim. I had a say in this, too.
So, here we are at dinner, eating sub-par chicken salads, when he dropped that three-word bomb.
"I've met someone," he said.
I tried not to choke on the rubbery chicken in my mouth. Met someone?
Obviously, I'd been foolishly hoping this chemistry between us could evolve, and maybe even change into something stable. Of course I hoped I was the exception to the rule, the favored one among the cadre of backburner backstreet girls he kept scattered around the world.
But I knew better. Whenever I found myself overthinking things that, frankly, necessitated overthinking, he'd say our relationship could continue until I met someone else, a reaction that should've shown me how little my absence would affect him. I hoped to meet someone else, someone who would make me want to let him go, if not forget him ... but I hadn't.
And I hadn't considered the possibility that he'd get to that point before me.
My stomach threatened to return the rubbery chicken to the table, but I somehow managed to ask about this woman while I stared out the "window" on the wall — a cheap painting with pretend curtains and windowpanes displaying a pale imitation of the Irish countryside. I focused on the flowers, the trees, the idyllic house — anything to avoid looking in his eyes — while he talked about another woman the way I wanted him to talk about me.
The knot in my stomach should have been there due to disgust and the shame of my own actions — oh, the irony of The Other Woman being rejected in favor of Another Other Woman! — but it was from the pain of rejection. In this karmic shift, what I had done to his wife had now been done to me. But like a true villain, I felt no sympathy for anyone but myself.
Having nothing to lose at this point, I asked him why. Why her, and not me?
He claimed that he connected with this other woman at the fabled "right time." That he was ready. That he'd changed.
As I drove away from fake Ireland and that pale imitation of a relationship, I caught a glimpse of my tear-streaked face in the mirror, and I didn't want to be that person anymore — the kind of person who needed validation that somebody worth wanting actually wanted me. He never wanted me that much, but just enough. Just enough for him. I'd never really been in the running.
But in the end, none of that matters. It also doesn't matter that, a couple of months later, he casually reappeared — unburdened by this other woman — right when I had nearly stopped feeling like a casualty of this whole affair. It doesn't matter that when he asked if we could see each other again, I actually considered it, governed by the small, stubborn part of me that couldn't let go of this ridiculous dream, this unlikely happy ending. It doesn't matter that I still wanted — and I still want — him to choose me. We can't change what other people want. We can't even change what we want. But we can change how we react.
Love is terrifying, with its many potentially deadly side effects. Maybe that's why some of us fall in love with people we know we can't have. The pain you feel when you almost get something you want is nowhere near as bad as the pain you feel when you lose something you need. I don't ever want to know what that feels like.
Or perhaps I'm just a sore loser who still thinks a lobotomy would be the best way to erase him. But then I think, what would I really have done if I'd "won" him, anyway? Did I really want him ... for real?
Why would I want to be with him? I already know that he cheats on his wife.