Years after the last time we set eyes on each other and just months away from his wedding to someone else, he said to me “I will never be able to purge my feelings for you.” I felt like a hypocrite, suffocated by layers and layers of shame.
Four years ago, I started regularly bumping into a guy we’ll call Jackson – by the way, that wasn’t a euphemism, at least not at this point of the story. I’d known Jackson for several years. If I had to estimate I would put the number at somewhere between 17 and 15 years; only the last five of which have been more than a cursory acquaintance. But as anyone might guess, that much time spent with someone on the periphery can lead to all manner of musings…
Tonight, I found a conversation from the summer of 2008, where Jackson very explicitly let me know he wanted to spend time with me. I was mildly intrigued, but rebuffed the advance because I had it on good authority that he had a girlfriend with whom he lived. And by good authority, I mean that I remember being introduced to her once several years before.
Me: “I doh really deal up in dem kinna ting.”
Him: “Most no nonsense females don’t”
Me: “So what? You figured you’d try anyway?”
Him: “That wasn’t a try.”
We barely spoke in the months after that conversation. Fast forward one year later and he wouldn’t necessarily have to try. In June of 2009, I saw him at a party. We hadn’t laid eyes on each other in years. We danced. There was something that passed between us. It is hard to put into any words but in short – weapons systems were locked. And so began my dance with death.
After that day, we started exchanging messages more often. Messages filled with plenty of profligate phrasings that would undoubtedly pose problems if his girlfriend ever knew about them. I thought I had all of these ideas about cheating and karma and so on, but onward I went.
One day in August of that year, I visited him. He was preparing to go somewhere and I had some folks to meet up with a few hours later. It was the first time we were ever alone. He was visibly blushing, and I very likely was too. There were some very charged moments but I managed to come away without having completely succumbed to temptation. I realized that I put my resolve in flux by even being there. At one point, Jackson brought his hands up to either side of my face, gently cupped it and kissed me. If Star Trek technology were real, I imagine that kiss was like what getting hit by a particle blast set to “stun.” My knees buckled, and to this day I have never again experienced anything like it. I knew immediately that it was going to be that much more difficult to stop.
Our communication ebbed a bit as a result of my last-ditch effort at self-preservation. I don’t know if it was sexual curiosity, budding feelings, a deep-seated sadomasochistic desire to upend my life but I couldn’t completely stop.
In November, there was more. It involved a couch, me standing over him on it, and more buckling knees.
One snowy December night, we met up for drinks. Interestingly, it took the entire night for things to escalate. I was on my way home and I realized that the five or six purple motherfuckers I had were about to cause my bladder to burst into smithereens. His house was closer to where we were on the train than mine was, so we got off. I went to the bathroom, but then things spiraled and the next thing I knew I was standing with my back pressed against a wall and one leg on his shoulder.
The following month, we spent a night together moving around New York from place to place. We danced, laughed and talked. The only time we touched each other that night was when he kissed me good bye before I left him to foolishly visit my ex. In hindsight, I may have been trying to pull myself out from his undertow. I was considerably less self-aware than I am now, so of course, that move backfired terribly.
Months later, he claimed my leaving that night “crushed” him. In some ways, my silly subconscious ploy created a new healthier distance between us since he was in a relationship with someone else. I’ve never considered that before those words made it to this page. I apologized but I’m not sure that I ever totally bridged that gap again.
Even despite that, we became great friends. He was the first person with whom I wanted to share all my news. We would spend the occasional night together in DC, usually after whatever party I hosted. I stopped thinking about his girlfriend. I generally stopped seeing other people. Oddly, I didn’t think about him on the few occasions when I did – all of which crashed and burned relatively quickly for one reason or another. As I write this, I realize there was so much fragmentation and disunity to my thoughts and feelings at that time. I was compartmentalizing at a level I never even knew was possible. I’m still struggling to even understand how I rationalized it all then. Impact.
In June of that year, I found out that my father was very ill. Seven months earlier, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. By the time I found out about my father, my mother was in recovery and rehabilitation. Within a few weeks my father’s mysterious illness, he was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. The doctors thought he would have until the end of the year with palliative care measures in place.
I kept working 12-hour shifts, traveling for a contractor position I had on the weekends and doing it all over again the next week. Jackson knew about all of it, and supported me from afar. Unfortunately, the doctors’ estimation of how much time my father had left was wrong. There were masses everywhere in his body, many of which were visible to the naked eye as he became increasingly emaciated.
In early August, my father and I sat in a room at New York Methodist Hospital with our fingers interlinked. I felt my father’s his spirit leave his body.
Moments like those put your life in perspective. At that time, everything grinded to a halt in my mind; it became crystal clear that life was entirely too short to, firstly, not be satisfied with as much of life as possible and, secondly, to do so with as little stress as possible. My father’s death and the events that took place immediately afterward put my understanding of things on another level. Within a two-week span, so many of the other relationships in my life were irrevocably changed. Jackson was nowhere near me, physically or spiritually. In fact, he was away with his girlfriend.
I didn’t see him until September a full month later. There were so many things that I needed to say while we never had the time or space to say them. I saw him again a few weeks later in DC. I still didn’t speak on the thoughts and feelings. I knew I didn’t have him but somehow not having him at the moment, when it felt like parts of my life were coming apart at the seams, made the conditions seem a whole lot less livable. For months I had been keeping the situation from friends. There was so much shame. I knew I couldn’t carry that weight around.
I kept asking for time to be made have a conversation. He kept saying that I had to wait. Eventually, I got tired of waiting. I didn’t think about how much weight this peculiar situation may have put on him and how it may or may not have been affecting him. I was mostly concerned that the pseudo-relationship no longer seemed to be fulfilling any purpose in my life. One day in November 2010 I walked away.
Or so I thought.
I never wanted to ask him to leave – I wanted him to do it on his own. In either scenario, in our popular understanding and constructions of the dynamics of relationships, the logic is “he did it with you, so he will do it to you” – even if there were all these feelings that mitigated that supposed truth.
I have hundreds of messages from the following two years where issues were talked around but never resolved. He made mention of seriously considering moving to DC (where I lived at that time). I made mention of the fact that I had no knowledge of any of that because he never speaks in plain English. He said there was bad timing. I said we are responsible for making good use of time. He said he felt like I had given up on him.
There were deflections upon deflections, declarations of feelings but nothing about the mechanics of the situation changed thus making all of what was said phantasmic. Some time last year, Jackson asked his girlfriend of many years to marry him.
She said yes.
For a split second, the ghost howled its way back into my heart but I banished it and I congratulated him.
A few months later, in our first time speaking to each other in more than a year, Jackson said “I loved you and I still do. I don’t know how this is going to play out.” When he said it, something in the pit of my stomach tightened. I told him how unfair all of it is to his now-fiancé (who I suspect can’t possibly be totally oblivious to all this but it seems she has chosen to pretend she is). In all of this, I have learned that honesty, the whole truth, is the single most important aspect of a strong partnership. It is the only antidote I know of to distrust, dysfunction and shame. I hope that one day he will trust himself and her enough to be that honest, but right now, I really have to worry about myself.
I am no longer ashamed of my complicated relationship with him. The relationship was/is, and I’m not sure there is anything I can do to change that. Today, I am still struck by the level of selfishness and convenient ignorance that both of us displayed for such a long period of time. But still, I learned.
I learned to express love – whether for yourself or another – means sometimes, letting go. I understand that my loving Jackson isn’t contingent on being with him or feeling like I have to stake a claim on him. I understand that he, and our relationship, are not property.
I know that so many people have a very dichotomous view of most things in this world – things are constructed in our minds as either “it is” or “it isn’t” – regardless of what “it” is – love, sex, wealth and so many other supposedly objective concepts are included in that. The older I get, the more I realize there are so many grey areas in places where we insist they should be black and/or white. There is no space for plurality, for acceptance of both shame and honesty. We see there mingling as impractical, requiring a little more stretching of the mind and heart than most of us are willing to do. But I finally know that an acceptance of our plurality is really our only chance at health. Without it, there can really be no healthy love of ourselves or anyone else. Without it, there can be no meaningful impact. I learned this late, but I’m thankful I learned it all.
Niama Sandy is a London-based Brooklyn-transplant of Caribbean heritage. She is a force to be reckoned with in any creative arena she sets foot – whether writing, music, fashion or photography. A graduate of Howard University’s illustrious School of Communications and current Masters student at the School of Oriental & African Studies, Niama is lifelong creator, lover, patron of the art of life.