I decided to give up Nick for Lent.
Who, pray tell, is Nick? Nick is a man I met a few weeks ago when dining with family.
I haven’t enjoyed a meal so much since I went out with Jeff for the first time, before I learned he was gay. The dinner Jeff and i shared was leisurely, with good food and even better conversation. At the time, I was a single parent, struggling financially with a low-paying job and attempting to realize my dream of becoming a practicing artist. Still, that dinner filled me with an unexpected longing — not the kind of longing which can be satisfied by an intimate romp, but rather a longing to know and be known. I wanted to see him again and again until we knew one another as well as we knew ourselves.
My understanding of relationship has always been somewhat skewed, in part because my mother provided incredibly poor guidance in this area. When I was 12, I was sexually molested as I walked home from a school event one night. I’d taken the path between the grain bins dozens of times, and wasn’t afraid of the shadowed darkness. I wasn’t afraid of the young man who stepped out of the darkness, either. I lived in a small town. I knew the name of every student in my school, including his. However, I was upset when he began to kiss and touch me; I twisted and tried to pull away, but didn’t succeed.
I did not like the young man; I did not want him to touch me. Increasing my anxiety was my faith; I had learned in religious education that we were not to allow ourselves to be touched, and so I knew what was happening was sinful. When I got home, I went immediately to tell Mom. She was sitting at her sewing machine. She lifted a cigarette from the ashtray as she turned to me, and took a deep drag as words burst from my mouth, as my experience of being violated spilled from my lips. She was smiling by the time she exhaled. “That’s how boys show they like you,” she said, and brushed aside my concerns about sin. I hadn’t done anything wrong and didn’t need to worry about confessing it.
I learned nothing about the beauty of human sexuality from that experience or her lesson. It took me years, and work with a therapist, to truly understand that healthy relationships don’t begin with sex, that no man has the right to touch me unless I want him to touch me, and that my religious scruples are not to be discounted. For years, in a misguided attempt to find a man with whom I could build a life, I allowed boys and then men to touch me, and in doing so, came to loathe myself. I discovered firsthand the wide chasm between genuine relationship and all of the self-gratifying ways men and women come together.
I didn’t know how to bridge the chasm between what I’d lived and what I wanted, so I chose to be celibate. By the time Jeff came along five or six years later, I’d stopped looking for love. I was focused on raising my girls to be healthy, well-adjusted young women, and I had discovered a passion for art which was consuming me. Then suddenly, quite unexpectedly, with that dinner, the desire for relationship was resurrected. I began to fantasize about ways to merge our lives, and began to make decisions which would lay a foundation for this. By the time I learned my dream could never become a reality, our friendship had taught me a great deal about relationship, about trust and faithfulness, about comfort and kindness, about love.
But it also made me vulnerable. Having so much only made me want more; I wanted it all — the kind of friendship I enjoyed with Jeff, physical intimacy and commitment. I began to date again in a misguided attempt to have it all. It didn’t work. I was battered and bruised — emotionally, not physically — when I again chose celibacy. That was 15 years ago — 15 years during which my precious daughters grew into women; 15 years during which my passion for art waxed and waned, only to wax again like the moon in the night sky; 15 years during which I’ve moved six times in an effort to find a place where I can put down roots, a place I can call home.
St. Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they can find rest in you.” I’ve come to see the restlessness as my calling and my life as a pilgrimage, as a journey of faith which teaches me so I can be a sensitive companion to others in need. I reflect on my life in prayer and in journals, and then when I sense another could benefit from what I’ve learned, I share relevant experiences. My love for Jeff still lies so close to my heart that I rarely share those stories; they are too precious.
Why now and what does any of this have to do with Nick? Dinner with him evoked the same longing I experienced more than 20 years ago when I dined with Jeff, the longing to know and be known, the longing to see him again. I laughed at myself at the time. “I’m too old for this,” I thought. But I discovered longing acts a bit like a red sock in a washer load of whites. Agitator action pulls it down, out of sight, and then it resurfaces unexpectedly only to be pulled down again.
Although my friendship with Jeff is a gift and grace in my life, I have decided to act this time on the “He’s Just Not That Into You” principle — “if a guy wants to be with a girl, he will make it happen.” When the red sock surfaces, I say, “Oh! There’s the red sock again,” and I turn my mind to other things. It’s an odd Lenten fast, I know, but since it is leading me to act differently than I have acted in the past, it feels like the right one.
Only God knows why.