A Perpetual Invitation to Dinner with My Lover
There was no knowing. For the survivor, there was only life and then no life.
I was my partner’s only lover.
I did not mean that in the antiquated way, that he and I were monogamous, which we were, but in the sense that I was the only person my lover ever loved.
An East Indian man with the build of a Burberry model, he was born of genius immigrant parents, who came to settle across the snowy fields of Ohio. We met in Seattle for Thai food. I was his first date from OKCupid. A year later, after I insisted he date other women, I became my partner’s only lover.
Sartre infamously argued: “Hell is other people.” For a long time, I agreed, having grown up the oldest in a chaotic Mormon home, always feeling squeezed out. So, I demanded my lover date others for my own sake, not from charity or confusion, but to put the loving me part off. Much of the social sciences argued that opposites attracted, like magnetic forces, but that they didn’t last. Somehow, extreme connection was too strong to be sustainable in psychology.
Another theory I picked up from rooming with a Marriage Family Therapist during undergrad was that an avoidant or anxiously attached person could become securely attached to themselves and to the world through relationship—that even just one relationship that bore witness to suffering in a kind, secure, and holistic manner could change my inner world.
I was a scavenger of people roaming the planet, looking to knit from the scraps others left behind. I did not know how to love Sachin Patel. I told him to go into the world and give himself away, so that I might recognize him as something that I might want someday. What a horrible thing to say, in retrospect. He tried to do as I requested, but he remarked about the other women, “I kept thinking, ‘She’s great, but she’s not Michelle.’”
We continued going out every week while he dated other women. He gave me a scarf at Christmas. I told him we could not date, panicked at the thought of some care, and that token of affection triggered me into breaking up with him before we were even dating. He took the rejection with grace, told me to keep the scarf, and then made plans for dinner the next weekend.
I, of course, fell in love with him.
One night on the large leather couches he looked at me as we watched another episode of The Big Bang Theory, fully enveloped in a cuddle. I whimpered, “Are you judging me for biting my nails?”
“No,” he said. “I am just noticing things about you I never noticed before, like how many times you blink your eyes.”
“Stop noticing things about me. It makes me nervous.”
My partner loved me and everyone else in a stoic and ancient way. He loved me like a John Green story where the kids were saving themselves for each other only to die of a mystery disease. I was his only neurotic lover, which is to say he loved nothing like me. Fantasy warred with my actions as I said, “Let's move to Tokyo and Paris.” He declined. We made a promise to one another to take an adventure a year. I teased my lover, “You’re going to have to go to dangerous places if you’re with me.”
He steamed the chicken in the fryer and replied, “You’re going to have to go to safe places with me.”
I begged him, “Don’t you want some good stories?”
He closed his eyes and said, “Dating you is a good story.”
There were things I knew about my lover—the rawer data of him.
1. He was right more often than I am about the rules of domesticity. I spilled red hair dye and kimchi on his carpets.
2. He could, through mere force of character, by believing me to be well already, turn wrong things right. He healed my emotions in effortless, brown-eyed glances, and as my paintings dried in his basement and hung on his walls. The dart game we played in an asylum was played by others, as he evacuated me out of Hong Kong during a medical crisis. Through baked brown sugary treats and the words I love you, he corrected my bullshit.
I said, "Is this the point in our relationship when you leave me for an Indian supermodel who also studied computer science? I'm pretty sure she's out there. She haunts me."
And he bent his head slowly to the left, closed his eyes again and asked, “Would she be as funny as you?”
3. He was excellent at math. As a child, he won a national calculus competition. In adulthood, he built the backend of the Microsoft Surface. He thought he was not good at English, because he’d earned an “A-” once. He’d never earned a “B” in his life.
I said, “That’s too bad you got only an ‘A-’ once. I got all the letters. I got letters you never knew were letters, like ‘UW’ and ‘E.’”
He smiled and replied, “Don’t tell my mother that joke.”
There were things my lover knew about me—the soft data of me.
1. I was sick, and I was sick for a long time. It started with colic then tubes in my ears. Surgery in the Philippines while in preschool in Japan. It progressed from lethargic to irritable. Paranoia as a child. Tantrums. It turned into a flattening emotional affect in high school. Ambition countered the digestive variety show that defined my college years. The pain felt like cancer, so the doctors tested for cancer. "You might have leukemia,” they said. I coughed so hard I broke the cartilage in between my ribcage. The nurse said that was how a heart attack felt. Weight gain. Weight loss. Weight stable. Depression. Major depression. Manic depression? No. Just depression. Dyslexia. ADD. ADHD? No. Depression. My doctor said it must be depression. I said, "I do not have depression. There was something wrong with my body. Figure it out." My doctor wrote a prescription for antidepressants. And I quipped, "I looked it up, and no one farts this much."
2. I was diagnosed: celiac disease. Every part of my body shut down if I ate gluten. My hair fell out. My teeth became brittle, as did the rest of my bones. My stomach distended. I could not wake. A minuscule binding protein found in wheat, rye, and barley registered inside my intestines as poison. My body decomposed from the inside out. My body felt on fire, and not in a sexy way.
3. He told me I was kind and the most beautiful woman he had ever seen in real life. “It really is something to have dated a woman as beautiful as you,” he said. I was an intelligent woman and a gifted artist in his wide and watery eyes.
There were things my lover and I went through.
My lover showed me his EpiPen. Nuts would kill him in seconds. Gluten would have killed me in decades. In three years, we never needed to use the EpiPen. In three years, we needed to take me to the hospital four or five times.
Because I was screaming through the night, doctors said, "Rule out bipolar disorder." Manic depression? No. Schizophrenia? No. Psychotic depression? Yes. Antidepressants. Antipsychotics. Therapy. All three and I woke up. Three decades of illness ended with two pills and a strict diet. Relapses were a given, and hospitalization a part of my recovery, but I was no longer in a permanent state of crisis, no longer in terror.
I discovered through my studies in special education that a scavenger life was common among autistic women, so I took every test I could afford and consulted the head of a psychiatric board. One doctor told me I could have been socially awkward because I had been sick my whole life, that I had never learned to function as a person without crises. I had to “find myself” after depression and celiac disease to know for sure what was still wrong with me.
Another doctor told me I was “most likely autistic.” I was unofficially diagnosed by one Dr. Temple Grandin and counseled not to pay for an “official test” by a therapist, which, on the low end, ran me two grand I did not have.
There were things that almost dying gave me.
The first time I thought I was cured of celiac disease, mistaking that diagnosis as the end of all diagnoses, I wanted to reach out to every corner of Earth, get dirty, and never look at sterilized walls or inspirational photographs again.
And I did. Snow angels with South Africans on the tracks of the Trans-Siberian railway at the South Korean DMZ. Thai brothels and Irish engineers traveling on elephants. Japanese mountains with red wine and golden temples. Emerald Australian islands with wild bats that shit on me.
In the end of things, I had the courage to say to my lover, “Marry me? I love you… Okay, I'll settle. Make dinner with me?” My almost dying made me brave, but my almost dying frightened him. He hedged my endless marriage proposals. He told me he was just “not equipped” for the shitshow that was my health issues, which was the kindest way to say, I love you too much to watch you suffer your whole life, and I do not love you enough to watch you suffer. I yelled from a balcony, “You’re out of my league and I’m into it!” He still said no, but he did not leave me. I did not leave him, either.
I understood the need to hypothesize, not having an overly idealistic idea of love. I embraced the pleasant accident, the happy misstep, because I kept holding onto Sachin, hoping for us to recover our losses. I lived by the scientific method, having grown up at the mercy of scientists. I waited for things to turn, as if we were a social experiment, as if I could logic away my heart. I kept thinking all these mistakes would end in new discoveries, like how penicillin was a total fluke accident. I felt like a fluke.
There was one thing I knew about the brain.
It was plastic, which meant it morphed endlessly. One year. One month. One second strong enough, and we were different people. In the span of writing this essay, my mind changed too. He and I met among the older synapses at the intersection of Thai food, hippocampus, and the chicken and sheep pens of the farm we liked to visit. We met at his sister's house with his five-year-old nephew waging a competition to beat him to bed.
We met at the cabin we huddled inside when it rained so hard we needed to shower to keep warm, at the turns of the new years, and when he kissed me outside the very high and steely gate by my apartment.
We met even when his mother disapproved. We met when his hand reached for mine, out from that puffy coat, brushing nervously, slowly shaking from the cold, and he found me again and again, infinitely.
In an ordinary way, I said on a loop, "I love you more."
And he replied in reverence for this everyday kindness, "I loved you first.”
There were things that I learned from my lover—big things.
For Valentine’s Day I gave him business cards that said: Gorgeous Indian Tech Millionaire with a Giant Penis. These stocky cards boasted bulleted selling points, like great relationship with feminist mom and not into weird stuff. On the back, they triumphed: Not a virgin.
I told him that night, the fan blowing the hundred cards I had printed in bulk, “If you ever break up with me, I’m going to paper Capitol Hill with these.”
I did not leave with those business cards in my hands, though. I left them in the dresser drawer by the bed where he kept them. The darkest part of loving me through those five years was both of us knowing that I was strong enough to stand alone because he propped me up, held me as I fell, and told me, “You are not crazy.”
There was more validation in those four words than in any of our three-worded declarations. It was the first relationship in my life where I took more than I gave, and it felt horrible, awkward, like a new skill one had to master too late in life. It also felt warm, like gluten-free pumpkin pies we baked together, like his arms stretched out in a vertex to fit my torso. His arms asked for more of my body, more love to fill the hole I left. I loved him, but I did not keep him. He loved me, but he did not keep me back.
When I tried to make sense of him, after moving to Saudi Arabia, and to logic the ways he cared so deeply for so long for so little of me, I realized I knew so little of him, seeing how that pain was so singular and demanded so much of my attention. I knew myself through him, but I did not know this perfect man.
Perhaps he was only so perfect because I knew so little. And I gave him up as a gift, breaking up with him a flippant text message, like a maniac, after a serious and definitive fight. He didn’t want me to be a writer, but a kindergarten teacher, which was a fine job and all, but I was a writer. I wasn’t willing to give up on myself for him. But giving him up was the right thing to do. For him. Mostly for me.
I migrated to Thailand and Saudi Arabia. I knew I could not keep risking my life to keep it. I stopped fucking around with my health and therefore my life. I expected more from relationships than men who filled my time with their own wants. I tried not to fear my own vulnerability.
I rewrote Sachin’s OKCupid profile to make room for someone new, someone to fall in love with him through my words, which was maybe the most useful thing I ever did for him. He told me he had more confidence after loving me. He opened that green door of the beige house we shared, mouth agape, arms stretching wider, asking his whole world for more, and he knew that we were only brilliant in communion.
Healing was other people.
Michelle Renee Hoppe has/will be published in The Massachusetts Review, Litro, Cleaver, and Saw Palm, among others.