{Prehistoric Amber} Tether

Riding my bike down the long slope-y road, I tilted my head to the sun and closed my eyes for just a moment. I know I should wear a helmet, but sometimes I just need to feel the wind blow through my hair, rush past my ears. I haven’t felt this in a long time, I found myself thinking. There’s a particular sense of lack, a type of longing…I’ve written about it before, but the best way I can describe it is that it’s a warm breeze out of nowhere. For just a moment, the clouds will break and the sun will shine, and I’ll close my eyes and remember everything good about it, about him. And then it’s gone again, like it was never there at all.

We had a summer and I ruined it. That is what I would catch myself thinking, sometimes. We had a summer and I ruined it. And I know I wasn’t ready, that he probably wasn’t either, and I know it wasn’t just all me (if you would have asked me in September, I probably would have told you that it wasn’t me at all) but. Sometimes I really wanted to try again. I wanted it back, I wanted to see if it could be different. And then…I didn’t want to try at all. I’ve read all the books that Greg Behrendt has written…no matter what we might have said before, I’m old enough to know now, and by heart, that a break is really a break-up. And that you can’t actually break up if you weren’t actually ever officially together. We weren’t on hold, and I didn’t want to be, when we talked about it. I wanted to take my year and write, learn how to love myself more, take care of my own goddamn heart. I wanted him to take his year and finish school, do whatever it was that he felt he needed to do.

But as the season drew near, I found myself wondering about it. Another summer. If I’ve learned anything in my life, it’s that there’s never any point in waiting for a new one with an old flame. But then I would think about it, and I would think about him, and even just telling myself that…it made me feel a little like crying. Let down. Like standing ready at the door for your prom date, only to have your mom finally break it to you that they weren’t coming.

***

“What, to you, is the best possible outcome of seeing him again?” Meg asked.

It had been planned for months. Looking at the calendar back in January, Meg and I had decided that it would be one of the events we would make a point to cover this year. When, a couple months later, someone mentioned that he would be back for it, I was careful to keep my expression placid, my reaction neutral.

“Part of me is hoping that he got totally fat and ugly so I don’t have to think about him anymore,” I joked.

Meg laughed.

“And, I really kind of hope that he doesn’t have a girlfriend,” I admitted, growing serious again. “I know it’s totally not fair of me to want that, because when we ended things, I wanted him to go back to school and date a bunch of girls, experience things, learn stuff. Have a full year and all of that. But now, when I think about it…the thought of him coming back with a girlfriend…it really bothers me.”

“If he didn’t have a girlfriend, would you want to start things up again?”

I looked out the window and sighed, mostly to myself. “I don’t know.”

Only a half a year ago, I had been riding my bike down that same slope-y road on a September morning after closing the book for the first time on him, on us. The sense of lack, then, was different…it was more persistent, more troubling. That hallow space inside, that I kept expecting someone else – him – to fill. Until I realized that it hadn’t really been about him, it had been about me. About figuring out what it was that I felt was lacking inside, and what I could do, on my own, to fill it. It was the reason why I was happy when no one else was around and so scattered when they were…because they magnified it. I didn’t have to think about it when I was just concentrating on myself, but then he blew in “with his hot face and awesome body and smart words and fucked it all up for me,” I had joked in an email to a friend, at one point.

And I wanted to believe that I was getting better at this..that even though I don’t always perceive my own best interests, I knew enough to know when it’s time to call it quits. I really liked him – really, really liked him – and was grateful for the time we spent together and what I learned from him, but it just didn’t feel like it was the right time for us. I still had a hard battle to do with my own heart, and I liked him enough where I knew I had to do it on my own, instead of making him endure those particular brands of bullshit. And I had already started to see that I was sending it over to him – naggy, dumb texts over stupid things that bewildered him and embarrassed me. So when fall came around, we said goodbye, wished each other well. Thanks for the all the memories, have a good year at school, maybe I’ll see you next summer. 

And it was good for me, to be alone this year. I worked really hard to fill that void, to figure out how to love myself more than anyone could, more than I could expect anyone else to. It’s odd to me, how this comes so easily for other people. It feels like such a revelation, to me.

But it also felt fragile, when confronted with the idea of putting it all into practice… and it had gotten harder, the more opportunity there had been for him to come back into my life. I had to make a decision, a few months ago, of whether or not I wanted to open that door again. In the end I did the right thing, the professional thing, the hey-my-heart-is-elastic-and-I’m-cool thing (That should go on my next resume: “Is able to move past the faults of failed romantic relationships for the sake of mutual professional advancement and community gain.”), but it bothered me, how much it made me think about him.

“I’d like to see if there was at least potential. For maybe starting over, trying something new.” I told Meg, as I stirred my drink with my straw. “Do things differently this time.” Sighing, I stared out the window. “But what if he totally doesn’t even want to see me again? What if he just blows me off?”

“He’s not going to do that,” Meg reassured me. “I bet he’ll be just as excited to see you as you are to see him.”

“Yeah, maybe,” I replied, stirring my drink with my straw. “But maybe not.”

***

Don’t think about it too much. I took a step back and glanced over to the other side of the partition of the bar, which divided the bar area from the ice cream/restaurant area. I was standing on one side, he was sitting on the other. Just go up to him and say hi. Be an adult.

I had spotted him as soon as I had arrived at Treelands that morning, with my little nanny charge in tow. He was working, though, so there was no chance to have a casual, “Oh hey, you’re here!” faux-surprised conversation. Which was totally okay, I reminded myself. My worst fear, for myself, was that I hadn’t wanted to get excited about seeing him again and let myself think about what could happen and what I wanted to happen, which would then put me back into that phase where it’s really important that those things happened, and exactly the way I wanted them to. That old middle school dramatics phase where, if I don’t get asked to slow dance by Chris Carlson to “More Than Words” at this dance tonight, my life is going to feel empty and meaningless for the rest of my life! So I tried really hard not to romanticize it, telling myself that I had to let go of my dumb fantasies of how I wanted the run-in to happen – the sun is shining. I’m looking amazing: Confident and blowy and nonchalant about it all at once. He sees me, but I don’t see him. Slowly, he makes his way towards me. When his hot face draws near, I look up, surprised, and then slowly, I smile at him. “Boy, are you a sight for sore eyes,” he would say, and then pull me tightly to him. “I missed you. I don’t care what happened before. I’m so glad you came to the Challenge. Let’s try this again.” And then we kiss and bluebirds fly out of the trees while a symphony orchestra starts playing in the distance somewhere  –  and just concentrate on having it happen, of biting the bullet, getting it out of the way, even if I had to orchestrate the entire thing.

So the kid (that I was nannying for) and I spent the morning on the playground, waiting for Meg to arrive. Then the kid decided she wanted to watch the casting contest, which he was judging. Picking a spot just a few feet away from him, she had implored me to sit on the grass with her so we could watch the kids cast their lure towards the hula hoop in the water. He and I both had sunglasses on, so when he looked our way, I couldn’t quite tell if he was looking at me or just in our general direction, and it didn’t really matter, anyway. It wasn’t like he’s going to interrupt his judging to come over and say hi, I told myself.

Later, after Meg had arrived and we finished our coverage of the event, we decided to go inside to get out the sun. My heart jumped into my chest as I walked into the bar area to find him sitting on the other side of the partition that divided that bar from the restaurant. I tried to play it cool, act like I hadn’t seen him. Which always works out so well, right? Guys love it when they know you’ve seen them but you act like you haven’t.

You’ll hate yourself if you let the opportunity slip away and you didn’t do anything. I took a deep breath and grabbed my drink from the bar. “I’ll be right back,” I told Meg.

Here was the inner dialogue during the span of maybe a 20 second conversation:

Whoa. I totally did forget just how hot he is, especially up close. 

Hmm. He doesn’t really seem that happy to see me. Better make this quick. 

He can’t seem to look at me head on. What’s up with the side-eye? Is he nervous? Or is he just feeling awkward because he’s wishing he wasn’t talking to me?

Why is he asking what I’m drinking? 

This is awkward. 

I should go now. Say goodbye, put him out of his misery. 

“Will I be around later?” What does that mean? He could barely look at me and now he wants to know if I’ll be around later? Is that good? 

“I mean, I rarely ever ask someone if they’re going to be around later if I *don’t* want to see them,” I pointed out to my friend Larkin over Twitter DM later that afternoon. Larkin is of those one guy friends who will always give it to me straight – the cold hard truth, whether I want it or not, every single time. So naturally, he was the first person I went to with my, “What does a guy mean when he asks, “Will you be around later?”…?” Does that mean that he’s hoping to talk to me later, or that he just wants to know when and where to avoid me?

“I would go with your gut,” he replied.

“Yeah, but my gut sucks,” I whined back.

Later that night Lacy and I showed up at Treelands, ready for our Girls Night. This had also been planned for weeks: A babysitter had been arranged to take over nanny duties, and Meg was going to meet us out there later. So we sat outside with our drinks until it grew cold, then settled in at the bar. We hadn’t been in our bar stools for more than ten minutes before he came in. And sat down next to me at the bar. I could feel my hopes actually lift in my chest. We would get to talk now. We would get to catch up, I could figure out what might still be here, and what might not be.

***

“Twas a bust,” I typed.

Sitting cross-legged on the bed, the room dark except for the glow of my laptop screen, I clicked SEND on the Twitter DM.

His reply came back a moment later. “Did you two talk at all?”

“Yeah. It was kind of a heartbreaking night.” I took Larkin through the timeline of the evening’s events, which basically could be summed up in one particular moment of the night, when I had turned to Lacy and mouthed, “Why would you sit next to me if you didn’t actually want to talk to me? Like, at all?”

I kept trying, too – that’s the thing that would kill me later. Determined to shake the weird awkward thing that we always used to have when we were around other people – when we were alone, we could talk for hours about everything, but around other people, we always seemed to clam up out of the sense that we were performing for a live studio audience – I continued to forge ahead, asking him questions about his year, inquiring about the things I knew he had been interested in when we were dating. But it was like pulling teeth. It was so painful…I would sit there, ask him a question, he would give me a short answer, and then there would just be silence. I had forgotten about this, I found myself thinking. That silent, small, stomach-dropping moment when you’re sitting next to someone and you can just feel your heart slowly breaking with hurt, with embarrassment.

It did get better as the night wore on. He started to talk to me more, and every once in a while, a bit of that old spark would come sputtering back: I’d remember how easy it was to talk to him about things like writing or future plans or even just books that we had read and loved. At the end of the night, I found myself wondering what it was that I was waiting for…what did I want to happen?

I knew what it was, and I also knew that I probably wasn’t going to get it.

So, fingering my car keys, I turned to him. “Well, I better go.”

“Gotta get back to nannying, eh?”

“Ha. Yeah.”

Silence.

“So…It was nice to see you.”

“Yeah!” He replied, smiling. “It was nice to see you, too!”

I stared at him for a beat longer, waiting.

“Okay,” I finally said, mostly to myself. “Bye.”

And then I turned and walked back into the dark.

“So,” I typed in another Twitter DM to Larkin. “I think it’s time to close the book on that one.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. It’s so hard to tell these days, isn’t it? Everything is timing, everyone is mercurial. Aiming at a moving target all day and all night.”

“Maybe he’ll come around tomorrow,” he continued. “Maybe next week. Then again, maybe you’ll move on to someone else.”

“Yeah,” I replied. “I really don’t know what to say that’s not going to sound like a miserly pity party, so. Yay summer?”

“It’s okay if it stings, Amber,” he wrote. “I’m not going to judge you.”

“I know you won’t. I think I just need to go to bed and…you know. Sleep it off.”

I closed my laptop, went into the bathroom to wash my face, and tried not to catch my own eyes in the mirror. It had surprised me, how sad I had felt on the way home. Once the night was finally over and I could close the book on it, my dumb fragile heart just couldn’t hold it in anymore, and I realized that, deep down inside, I really had been hoping quite a lot for a different end to the night. A different end to us. Even though, like I had mentioned before, I knew better than anyone that a break really means a break up, it finally occurred to me that it had actually only felt like a dot dot dot. I hadn’t wanted to close the book, when he left for school. I kind of always hope – want – for a second chance. That maybe this isn’t the end, that maybe this will be one of those brilliant, blindingly beautiful “And then…” stories. We’ll see what happens when you come back… Maybe next summer…  Things could change, we could both be different…

But I hadn’t actually wanted him to be different, I realized. At least, not in the way that he was. I had remembered him as being so sweet and engaging, warm, kind. Instead he had been dismissive, and cold, and…weird. It was so confusing, and then it wasn’t confusing at all.

“You ok?” Meg texted as I crawled into bed. “It’s kind of lame that he wasn’t saying much to you.”

“Yeah,” I texted back. It’s pretty brutal, when even your friends note that you made an effort to make conversation and the guy did pretty much everything he could to not talk to you. “It was lame. I’m okay, though.”

“Good. Date on Tuesday, right?”

“Yep.” On Tuesday I have a blind date from someone I met on Tinder. Right? I tried telling myself. You have a date on Tuesday. Other guys are asking you out on dates, so it shouldn’t be a big deal if this one wasn’t. 

But it was, I heard a small voice inside my head say. Because why is it always the one that you want more than anyone else who isn’t?

***

Two weeks passed. I rose early in the sunny early summer mornings and wrote, baked bacon on the heavier days because I love myself, and took my coffee out to the deck to sit in the sun and read and think. Because you’ve got to take care of your own goddamn heart, you know? And sometimes, working to Feel Good should be your only fucking job.

(Occasionally I like my feel-good mantras with a side of swears)

Yet I do this thing every once in a while where I pull out of myself and reach out because I just need to see myself to the end of something. Even if it sets me up for pain, rejection, disappointment, whatever, I just feel like I need to see it through. Be the bigger person, do The Adult Thing. So a few days after seeing him for the first time, I sent him a text asking if he would be up for us getting together, just the two of us, after he got back from the small two-week interlude at school he had to complete before his full-blown summer began. Just to talk, catch up. Every little point of the communication felt like one of those mazes you’d use in psychology experiments:

Maybe he will or he won’t text back. (Success/Fail)

Maybe he will or won’t want to get together. (Success/Fail)

Maybe he will or won’t text when he’s finally back. (Success/Fail)

Success rounded each corner, and we decided to get together in the middle of the week. The night before, I texted him to see what time he wanted to hang out. The next morning he told me that he was having a party at his new digs that night, around eight.

“Cool,” I texted back. “Hope it’s a blast.”

“There was an invitation implied there.”

“I know. But kind of the whole reason why I wanted to hang out with you tonight was so we could catch up one-on-one.”

“Oh, sorry. Kind of misread that.”

How? How could you have possibly misread a text whose whole entire point was us hanging out, just the two of us?

But I went to the party, because he invited me, and because I still had some small, dim hope that something about it would be different, this time.

(Success/Fail)

At some point, I’ve got to learn to take a fucking hint, I found myself thinking as I watched him from across the room. He had barely talked to me all night – really, again, only when I screwed up enough courage to ask him a question – and now, as an extra special bonus, I had a front row seat to the view of him sitting next to his friend Tom while they checked out girls on Tom’s Tinder.

“Gary,” I asked, turning to my pal, “If you invited a girl to your party, would you spend all night not talking to her?”

Gary stared at me for a minute. “Ah, no…if I invited a girl to a party and she came, I would probably spend all my time trying to talk to her.”

“Exactly,” I replied.

“Ready to go?” Lacy asked me.

“You bet.”

We left at 11:30. At 1:32, I got a text from him asking why we had left so soon.

(Success/Fail)

***

Standing at the door, waiting for your prom date to show up. 

Lying in bed in the morning, staring at the ceiling, I realized how much the whole thing felt like tacky fly paper stuck to the tips of my fingers – I wanted to just shake it off, but I knew it was the kind of thing I would have to carefully peel off, if I wanted to be rid of it. So I threw back the duvet, slipped out of bed, made my espresso, and then padded out to the deck. Sitting in the sun, I tilted my head up, took a big breath in, closed my eyes, and thought about how I had just wanted to practice. I had worked so hard all year, and I didn’t work so hard for him, but still. I wanted to apply the lessons I had learned. The good ones, the fun ones – flex and serve and twist to volley the emotional pacing, the staying true to myself through the excitement, the tempering of expectations when it came to intimacy, commitment. Instead, I guess, I got to keep building the frequency of mastering the lame and boring drills of still loving myself through rejection and disappointment. A huge sigh rolled out of my mouth, deflating my body from the inside out. I’m so fucking tired of that lesson. 

But I’ve definitely learned it.

It’s frustrating to be frustrated. To know you’re ready, but your goddamn prom date is being a dink…and last year that would have made me feel like there was something wrong with me, instead of something wrong with him. This year, though…it’s nice to finally realize that we had a summer, but I didn’t ruin it. That one of the things I had somehow forgotten in the freeze of winter was that, no matter how clueless or rude or cold or just plain dumb things were, I somehow always ended up being made to feel like it was my fault, that was the one who had done something wrong. And a year ago I might have tried to figure that out, make it better…but now I know that’s just bullshit.

Now I know that I can trust my heart, the first time. It might be kind of dumb and it might be kind of fragile, but it does always seem to know when it’s time to give up the ghost, even if my brain doesn’t want to agree. I knew enough the first time to let go…I just wasn’t capable, then and yet, of seeing the end. Now, though, I know that the dot dot dot is this…we had a really fun summer last year. I’m so grateful to him for the wonderful things that he is – smart, full of great character, generously accepting of others, gentle and strong and beautiful and inspiring all at the same time – and for the things that he taught me, that I learned just by being with him. But like this one song says, this is just not the time for us. He is not ready for the things that I’ve grown to expect, and I’m no longer willing to wait for someone to catch up. And all of that is okay.

In the afternoon I grabbed my bike and set off. I felt the wind rush past my ears as I thought about how I’m getting better at this: Perceiving my own best interests, liking myself enough to not endure other people’s particular brands of bullshit, and cutting the tether when it’s time. It feels better, now, to choose to ride down a different road this summer, this time around.

Written and published July 28, 2014

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About Amber L.

Hi! I'm Amber. I've been telling stories with books and blogs since 2004. I also spent 10 years working as a behavior therapist, which I now put to proper use by publishing thought pieces and dissertations on '80s pop music and the defining TV shows of our current times ('The Bachelor', 'Vanderpump Rules', etc). I can also be credited with single-handedly ruining the city of Portland, OR just by moving here.

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