David said that he knew I was interested because of my body language. I had turned to face him on the small wooden bench, tucking my feet under me and resting my arm on the backrest. He was carrying a backpack and talked about Studs Turkel and asked if I wanted to borrow Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.”
He had misread my body language, however. I wasn’t trying to show I was interested. The truth is, benches hurt my body, and turning to the side was the only way to make sitting there tolerable. Because of my illnesses — Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a painful genetic connective tissue disorder, and dysautonomia, which affects my ability to sit, stand, digest and regulate temperature — many positions are either painful or impossible to sustain for more than a minute or two.
Leaning straight back against the wooden slats with David that day had nudged my ribs out of place, and they ached. My bruised pelvis throbbed on the firm surface. Turning to the side allowed me to adjust my weight onto the meatier part of my bottom and to use my arm to prop myself away from the wood.
This was six years ago, in Berkeley, Calif., where I had moved for its temperate climate, which made living with my conditions more tolerable. It was cool out and he was wearing layers — a T-shirt, flannel, sweater, jacket, scarf and hat. I had on a long wool cardigan over a T-shirt.
When he saw my hands turning purple, he took off his scarf and wrapped it around my neck. I launched into a story about a scary incident on BART and interrupted myself to mention that the whole thing may have been my own fault because I sat on an inside seat, leaving the aisle seat open for harassers.
He stopped me there. “Whatever happened,” he said. “You were not to blame.”
I had started the story as a “City life is bananas, huh?” anecdote, but something shifted then. He already cared. He was paying attention.
A few weeks later, as we shared fish tacos in Oakland, I told him about my disability. About the dizziness and nausea and the wheelchair in my trunk. He leaned in, memorizing every detail, and his eyes welled with tears.
A month after that, he dropped me at a music studio where I curled up on a leather sofa with my dear friend Nataly’s dog and “A Room of One’s Own” and listened to her band, Pomplamoose, record an album. I had massaged my temple in the car, and he noticed. I said that I was out of ibuprofen, but it was just a little headache. When he picked me up, a bottle of water and a packet of Motrin waited on my seat.
And so, four months after we met, I broke up with him. He was standing outside a movie theater, wearing his cardigan, backpack and boat shoes, and I couldn’t take it a minute longer. His earnest love had become repulsive. Imagining the way he wanted to care for me — the inevitable loyalty and acceptance and protection — filled my throat with bile.
David is handsome and hilarious. Every new thing I learned about him impressed me more — his adamant humility belied his intellect and confidence. Kissing him felt natural and our conversations were easy.
Nevertheless, I broke it off.
I contrasted the way I felt about David to the way I once had pined for men who had left me waiting, and I found the intensity of my passion for David lacking. The other men avoided talking about my disability. They showed up late. I hadn’t yet figured out that uncertainty is not the same thing as love.
The first day without David, I felt like I could finally take a breath. My friend Ellie and I drove along the windy Marin roads to Stinson Beach.
“Sometimes things just aren’t right,” I said to her.
Day 2, as I rested naked on a redwood platform in the backyard of the secret Berkeley hot tub house, doubt started to creep in.
On the way home, I stopped at a yarn store and picked up some fluffy gray wool that had been harvested from local sheep. I would make a blanket while I worked out what to do. I used up the first spool and realized I would need a few more if the blanket were to be larger than a bandanna. I bought two more, laughing to myself that I was well on my way to making a $90 blanket. I crocheted and thought about David.
I considered texting him to let him know I was having doubts about my decision but decided against it — my uncertainty wasn’t his to manage. And the blanket was still too small. I bought yarn again, again and again.
By the end of the week, I had spent $390 on the blanket. Silly for a jobless person who lived in a married couple’s spare room. I folded it carefully and tied it with a ribbon and emailed David: “Can we talk?”
He agreed to meet me by Lake Merritt.
We sat on a towel by the water a few blocks from his apartment. The handmade blanket rested in my lap, and I fidgeted with the loops, glancing up at David and back down. My breath still catches when I picture his face then, hurt and certain and skeptical. He waited, silently, while I tried to put a sentence together.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I should have had a conversation with you before breaking things off.”
“You’re right,” he said.
“I’m afraid I made a mistake,” I said, looking away.
My words were jumbled as I tried to explain that when faced with the potential for a healthy relationship, my body and mind panicked. That instead of feeling comforted by a loyal partnership, I felt disgusted and afraid. I said I was talking to my therapist about it and that I think it was because what he offered was unfamiliar. Until that point, my closest relationships had been marked by uncertainty and loss, and they felt, perversely, safe.
He nodded, patient. And then explained that it made sense to him. He had listened to my stories of past relationships and, after I broke up with him, got a book by Dr. Robert Firestone called “The Fantasy Bond.” He thought that I might be seeking to recreate the trauma and uncertainty from earlier years.
Dr. Firestone says that instead of questioning their circumstances, children blame themselves for their pain. Not only do they blame themselves, but they also begin to expect loss and loneliness. Faced with a new version of adulthood, my worldview had become threatened.
David read the book to understand why I was breaking his heart, with no expectation that I would change my mind, or that we would even talk again.
Six years have passed since that conversation. The blanket now rests in our window seat, next to the binoculars that we use to watch the animals that wander through our backyard — foxes, ducks, geese, bunnies, and once, a wolf.
In the months after I gave him the blanket and we went to eat garlic fries, I kept wanting to run away. At therapy, I lamented that I wasn’t experiencing an all-consuming obsession. I just felt warm, safe, at home. It wasn’t easy to fall in love with David, but eventually it became easy to stay.
David is kind to me, every day. And I am kind to him. We laugh often. We read one another’s writing and talk late into the night. As the last years brought wildfires, hospitalizations and the pandemic, our commitment to each other has not wavered. We are gentle and generous with each other.
Sometimes, I look back longingly at my roller-coaster romances with men who wouldn’t call me back, men from whom I had to hide myself. Where love was all about longing, not belonging. The biting words and fractured feelings. The elation of coming back together after breaking everything apart.
We grow up believing that the world as we experience it is the most natural. Questioning our immediate experience is maladaptive when we are children because if our life isn’t safe, where can we go?
As an adult, I sought out situations that would bring me back to my early years. Anything else felt too strange to be trusted.
I have apologized to David for not allowing him the whirlwind early romance that he deserved. Because of my angst, he missed out on the magical, hormone-fueled months that often mark the beginning of a relationship.
Sometimes I still get a pang when someone mentions their floating early days of love, the headiness, the thrill, the bubble of invincibility. But there are other kinds of magic.
Jessica Slice is a disability activist and writer in Ontario, Canada. Her books “This Is How We Play” and “This Is How We Talk” are forthcoming in 2023 and 2024.
Modern Love can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To find previous Modern Love essays, Tiny Love Stories and podcast episodes, visit our archive.
Want more from Modern Love? Watch the TV series; sign up for the newsletter; or listen to the podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play. We also have swag at the NYT Store and two books, “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption” and “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.”