“Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”
Those are the words of Bob Dylan, and I’ve pondered them in the years since the windswept, moonlit night in September I first listened to that song while walking across the Redstone campus at UVM. At first I thought it was the embittered indictment of a spurned lover, sold on a relationship that felt safe and warm, only to find an impenetrable wall between the two and himself back out in the cold. But as time has passed, I find myself with a slightly different point of view. I still believe it’s about love lost but less about bitterness and venom and more about the exhaustion one feels when another attempt at love goes belly up, and the longing one feels as they go back into the world hoping to find it again. That is something I can relate to very well. I’ve led a somewhat checkered dating life, abbreviated with a few successes and colored in with more false starts than the New York Jets offensive line. Hardly surprising, I am rather unique and a bit of an acquired taste. For example, in an attempt to break the ice on a first date I once used a faux Yellow Submarine accent for forty five minutes… come to think of it perhaps she wasn’t laughing with me after all. I’ve been reflecting on the relationships I’ve had in my life a lot recently, with one in particular occupying my thoughts. Only once have I been truly in love, and both the woman I fell for and the subsequent choices I made ended up changing the course of my life. Very few people have ever heard the whole story, mainly because this was a time in my life where my instincts were to hide how I really felt about things, even from those closest to me.
(For the sake of privacy, I will not use her real name)
The story begins in early August of 2012. I was twenty five years old and finally felt that my adult life was getting started. I had just signed a publishing contract for my first novel and was convinced that I was on my way to authoring a best seller. My lifelong dream of writing a book was within grasp and, for the first time since college I had genuine optimism for the future. I also happened to have a promising date lined up. I met a girl online, let’s call her Audrey. She had just graduated college and was home for the summer before taking the next step in her life. I met her at Vermont Pub & Brewery on a warm night in the middle of the week. A lot of the time pictures don’t do people justice, and I have to say that when I first met Audrey she certainly bucked my expectations. She was wearing a sharp black top with her long brown hair gently resting on her shoulders and these big, brownish-green eyes that immediately warmed you when you looked at them. As we sat down in the darkened bar I could not believe my luck, now I just had to find a way not to blow it. When it comes to first dates I usually spend the first fifteen minutes struggling to keep my jangled nerves under wraps and trying to find the right questions that are somehow both incisive but not too much for a first date. Yet with Audrey I didn’t feel the need to do any of that.
Instead I simply asked about her plans and spent an inordinate amount of time talking about Paul Simon and the magic of a well-made playlist. One of the behaviors associated with Asperger’s Syndrome is when an individual engages in a one-sided, long winded speech about a favorite topic. When doing so the individual tends to either misunderstand or simply not recognize a listener’s feelings or reactions, such as a desire to change the subject. Anybody who knows me well enough has probably been on the receiving end of at least one of these talks (I hope at least they weren’t boring!). For example, there are certain things I have been forbidden to talk about at my parent’s dinner table, such as game one of my eighth grade world series. All you need to know is that the umpire screwed us and my dad, who was also the manager, used one of the great on the spot one-liners I’ve ever heard in my life against the opposing manager. The point is I am particularly prone to these tangents, the result of which is that I can sometimes come off as either an obsessive or self-absorbed person who is disinterested in the feelings and viewpoints of others. This, combined with my introverted tendencies and almost desperate need to avoid awkward silence can be very off putting for first dates. I don’t get a lot of second dates.
Audrey didn’t seem phased by any of this though, instead she joined me in my critical analysis of Paul Simon’s lyrics, was impressed by my road trip playlist (with a few suggestions of her own) and seemed to sense when I was heading for an awkward silence and asked me questions about myself. She was also keenly interested in my writing and we spent at least an hour talking about my book (in subsequent experience, it has held true that if the woman I’m meeting is asking a lot of questions about my writing it’s the biggest sign that the date is going well). Audrey smiled almost the entire time, and her consistent laughter told me that our senses of humor meshed. One of life’s greatest joys is to be on a date with somebody you are attracted to and realize that they’re interested in you as well. All the signs were there, the focused eye contact, the thrilling but inadvertent touches, the loss of all sense of time outside your conversation. I also find that time is a good indication of how a date is going. Anything under one hour is an absolute dumpster fire. Two hours is OK but likely nothing special. Once you cross that three hour threshold however, you may be onto something. Audrey and I clocked in somewhere around three and a half hours… on a weeknight.
We walked out of the restaurant together into the humid August night. Pausing at the bottom of the stairs we both said we had a really good time and bid each other good night. And that was it, I walked away while she waited for somebody to pick her up. Honestly I am no good at the end of the night on a first date. As I’ve discussed before, reading non-verbal cues is hard for me, so even if I got “the signal” I probably wouldn’t know it. In that same vein I’m also afraid that if I lean in for a kiss and she wasn’t giving the signal, your goose is cooked. My strategy has always been to either say my good nights and shuffle off to Buffalo or linger awkwardly for a few seconds (so that maybe she sees that I want to kiss her but I am being respectful) and then walk away. Better to play it safe then blow the whole deal in one go. I’ve also gotten into the habit of asking for permission before a first kiss. Perhaps that makes me dorky and supremely uncool but I take consent very seriously. That probably means I’ll never be a Casanova and sweep women off their feet but it also means I won’t be a scumbag, and I can live with that.
I met Audrey for a second date a few days later. She met me on Church Street in downtown Burlington wearing a lovely green dress and it was all I could do to hide my excitement. As we walked around the waterfront on that summer evening she told me that she had accepted a position in Washington DC and would be leaving in a month’s time. My heart sank, I finally find a girl I really like and who seems somewhat interested in me and now she’s shipping off. Damnit! I put on a smile and kept talking, anything to hide my somberness at the news. I spent even more time talking about my book, detailing most of the plot and giving her the backstory behind the real life events that inspired it. She showed a genuine interest and asked incisive questions, which certainly boosted my confidence. At the end of the evening, as I was about to leave her at the bus stop I surprised her with a birthday present (I’d found out on the first date that she had a birthday coming up). I made her two different CD’s, one with an array of upbeat pop tunes from the 1960’s and 70’s, the other spanning the career of the brilliant but troubled Harry Nilsson. I handed her the CD’s and wished her a belated happy birthday. I was about to take my leave when Audrey took my arm and kissed me. It was wonderful, one of those moments where everything else in the universe stopped as we connected. I wished Audrey a goodnight and walked away, hands in my pockets and grinning like a fool.
I was floating for the rest of the night but awoke to the sobering reality the next morning that this relationship had an expiration date. I knew I had strong feelings for Audrey, but did it make sense to get emotionally invested in somebody who wasn’t going to be around for long? I had a decision to make and fast, because we were getting together the next night and, if that first kiss was any indication, things were going to romantically progress quickly. I thought about it a great deal at work that day (I found I had lots of time for deep thinking at the front desk of a car dealership, after all there are only so many times you can clean up the guest lounge and freshen up the coffee). In the end, I decided it was still worth it. I knew it would only be for a brief time and it would be hard when Audrey had to go but people like her don’t walk into your life everyday so I rolled the dice.
The days and nights I spent with Audrey through August of 2012 were some of the happiest times of my life. It took me by surprise how quickly we built chemistry with each other. Within weeks we had the kind of rapport that usually takes months, if not years to build. On a Saturday not long before Audrey was leaving for Washington, she and I had arranged to meet that afternoon for a road trip with no particular destination in mind. It was a clear and warm late summer day so we decided to ride up through Smuggler’s Notch. We wove our way up the mountain pass, through hardy mountain bikers, gaggles of tourists and a sea of leafy green trees. Just down the other side of the notch we pulled off the road and went hiking around the woods to find a quiet spot to sit. We found this gloriously lumpy and uncomfortable fallen tree to sit on, positioned at the top of a hill looking out into a clearing below.
I did a lot of thinking as we held each other close under the shade of those quiet trees. I had known since the first night I met her that I had strong feelings for Audrey, and those feelings had only grown in the subsequent weeks. By that time I had no doubts about it, I had fallen in love with her, and for once the cliché of being hopelessly in love applied. Audrey would be leaving in a matter of days so what sense did it make to tell her that I was in love with her? The pragmatist in me couldn’t see any good coming of it, the most likely scenario being that she would be upset I was dumping all this on her so soon before she moved away. Perhaps that was presumptuous but it was the calculation I made at the time, to not spoil things and enjoy what time was left with her. Perhaps she sensed the inner conflict because Audrey pulled me in with a reassuring smile and a soft kiss, which made me forget all about those troubles.
The day before Audrey was to move to Washington I went and picked her up in the early afternoon and we spent the day together in my room. We talked a while, we laughed a while, and we made love to the sound of Charlie Parker’s saxophone. Once that was finished we walked across the bridge in Richmond and had dinner at a cozy cafe next to the park. As we sat outside among the grapevine she told me about some of the things she would be doing in our nation’s capitol. I wanted to be excited for her and for the great adventure she had worked so hard for, but all I could do was feign smiles and nod. I grew quiet and I think she sensed how I was feeling because she stopped talking and we sat there a while just holding hands. We walked back across the bridge as the last light faded from the sky and straight up to my room. Audrey humored me while I showed her the joys of playing the expansion game “Nazi Zombies.” It was good for a few laughs and she dispatched a surprising number of zombies for a novice. Then we made love again and held each other as the hours of the night slipped away. Finally she gave my arm a gentle squeeze and told me it was time for her to go. In the wee small hours of the morning, when the world was fast asleep I drove Audrey home. When she got out of the car she leaned back in and gave me one last kiss, I wished her luck and she promised to keep in touch. That was it, I put some Paul Simon on and took the scenic route home because I wasn’t ready to sleep.
Most of the time, when somebody you date says that you can still be friends or keep in touch, it’s a relatively hollow promise neither party expects to keep. But, to my surprise, I got an e-mail from Audrey on Labor Day, telling me a bit about her new life in Washington and asking how I was doing. More intriguing still, she said that she missed me quite a bit. I mean if this were merely a perfunctory e-mail she would’t have said that, perhaps indicating that she still had feelings for me. With that last line I chose to believe that Audrey might be leaving the door open for me, at least a little bit anyway. Before she left we had both agreed that a long distance relationship was not sustainable and that when she moved we were both free to see other people. But that was the problem, I didn’t want to see anybody else, I wanted to be with Audrey. I decided that I was going to write to her, every day, and hope that somehow we could find a way to be together. And so it went, we corresponded with one another for hours, day after day, sharing everything from our deepest fears and hopes to what was on TV or what happened at work that day. It was beautiful, Audrey is one of the few people I’ve met in my life who, instead of waiting for her turn to talk, genuinely acknowledged what I was saying and gave my words validation. It meant the world to me, and I loved her all the more for it.
Time went on, we kept writing each other all through September. Audrey told me that she’d be flying back to Vermont before Thanksgiving and asked if I would like to get together? Why yes, yes I would. Things continued to develop, the plans for what we wanted to do when she came back became more elaborate and sensual in nature. Eventually we reached the conclusion that, despite having mutually agreed to not try long distance, that’s essentially what had developed anyway, so why not just put a name to it? Persistence had won, and as we continued to plan the intimate details of her trip back home it was all I could do to function at work and not stare at a calendar, counting the days until her return. Even the anxiety of running another Tough Mudder with my brother couldn’t diminish the mixture of optimism and elation I felt. Even as I was getting shocked, dunked in ice water and having mud fuse itself to my skin I spent the interludes between obstacles thinking about getting to call Audrey from the finish line.
It was a cold and starry night in early November when I left my house shortly before eleven to pick Audrey up at the airport. At first I contented myself to a corner of the arrival gate, trying to keep calm but the anxiety was building up inside of me like the crescendo of the 1812 overture. Somehow this wasn’t going to live up to expectations, fantasy wasn’t going to line up with reality and two months of longing and desire would turn to disappointment and awkwardness. I was about to pop when I saw Audrey walk into the terminal. She was wearing a light blue sweater, dark gray pencil skirt, black tights and black knee high boots. It couldn’t be real, here was this beautiful woman smiling and walking towards me. Moments like this don’t happen for guys like me but here we are, and here she was. Well, seeing as planets had already collided to provide this opportunity I didn’t waste any time. Audrey and I drove straight back to my house and shared what I can only describe as the most sensational night of my life.
I can’t remember a time where I was more content than November of 2012. Sure I had a dead end job, was almost flat broke and still living with my parents at 25 but I truly felt like things were going my way. Soon I would begin editing the novel I was sure would put me on the map and rescue me from the world of day jobs. More importantly, I was in love with a beautiful woman who cared about me in return. We continued to correspond by e-mail every day, providing one another with emotional support, undying encouragement and somebody to share our deepest, innermost thoughts with. Audrey came back for an extended weekend over Thanksgiving and it was wonderful again. In one glorious night we watched the Notre Dame football team clinch a spot in the national championship game, made love and fell asleep listening to Broadway show tunes. Sometimes I would catch myself looking at Audrey as she slept peacefully next to me, and wonder what I had done in my life to deserve somebody like her. And yet, even during those happy days I couldn’t help but feel that eventually the other shoe was going to drop.
The internship that Audrey had taken in Washington D.C. was only temporary and, with every ounce of me I was secretly hoping that when the internship was up she would take a job back in Vermont. But I also knew that she was looking in New York City as well and had a promising lead with a secular non-profit that was dedicated to bridging religious differences and combating prejudice in schools and work places. I knew that this was the field she wanted to work in and this job sounded perfect. I was torn, I wanted desperately for her to come back to Vermont but more and more it seemed that her star was guiding her to New York. Not wanting to be a self-centered jerk I offered her full support wherever she decided to go. In retrospect I should’ve still offered that support but also told her how I felt, not to manipulate her into giving up on what she truly wanted to do but to be honest and let her know where I stood. She took the job in New York City and before I knew it she was signing a year long lease on an apartment in South Orange New Jersey. I felt sick when I read that, and it dawned on me that she wouldn’t be coming back and now the decision would be on me.
The debates I had with myself that December were terrible, fueled in no small part by excessive amounts of alcohol. To put this in perspective, I was going through a handle of 70 proof Captain Morgan a week during that period. A lifetime’s worth of self-doubt came crashing down upon me as I spent endless hours pacing back and forth across my room late at night, trying to decide what to do. On one hand Audrey was living not 20 minutes from the town I grew up in. South Orange was the town where my pediatrician had his office so I knew it pretty well. At the time my brother was still living in Clifton, New Jersey so I’d actually get a chance to spend real time with him again. It wasn’t like I was experiencing tremendous career success in Vermont either, having kicked from one dead end job to another. There was nothing financially keeping me here. But, on the other side, in the several years since I had moved to Vermont it had become my home. I felt much more comfortable with the space and pace up here as opposed to the crowded suburban sprawl and snarled traffic of northern New Jersey. More importantly I had my father and step-mother up here. I loved them both so much, and if I moved to New Jersey then both of their children would live three hundred miles away, and I didn’t know how to leave them like that.
You may ask why I felt that I had to make a decision right then, and believe me I’ve been asking myself that question for years. At the time I felt that, eventually, it would come down to either me moving to New Jersey to be with Audrey or ending the relationship. The way I saw it, if I was not going to move back south, the longer I waited to break it off the more it would hurt. I’m not saying that was terribly rational but that’s where I was at the time. Audrey came back up to Vermont for Christmas and even as I embraced her once more I was still torn apart by this decision that loomed over me. It was wonderful to see her again, but I was slightly more reserved than before and a couple of down-trodden e-mails prior to her arrival nearly gave me away. I know she sensed that something wasn’t quite right with me, but I smiled and tried to be cheerful so she didn’t press it too much. One night Audrey gave me a Christmas card where she paraphrased a passage from the Nick Hornby novel High Fidelity. “The narrator makes the distinction between falling for someone because of what they like (taste in books, movies, and music) and falling for someone because of what they are like (who they are as a person). I got pretty lucky, because you fit both categories.”
For me this was both a joyous affirmation and a heartbreaking moment. Audrey was brave enough to put down on paper that she had fallen in love with me, and it was more than I had ever dared to dream. But by this time the pendulum was swinging away from moving to New Jersey. In my heart I was beginning to understand that I didn’t want to go back, that Vermont was my home now and I wasn’t prepared to leave. Goddammit Audrey was all I could ever ask for in a partner, the love of my life but a poisonous combination of indecision and fear of the unknown prevented me from throwing everything to the wind and casting my lot with her. We’d made plans for me to drive down to stay with her in South Orange for a weekend in January, when she would take me into New York City for an adventure. I felt that I couldn’t wait until then, that it would be cruel to prolong the inevitable now that my mind was seemingly made up.
I will never forget the moment I made my final decision. Audrey and I were having dinner at the Bridge Street Cafe in Richmond. It had begun to snow and despite the fact that her grandmother had given her tickets to a UVM men’s hockey game I didn’t want to chance it on slick roads. It was her last night in town before she went back to New Jersey, and I knew I had to do it that night because this had to be done in person. I was in the middle of trying to eat a spinach, apple and chicken salad when the thought of what I was about to do made me so ill that I thought I was going to pass out. A concerned Audrey immediately asked me if I was alright, I had grown so pale so fast that she was afraid I was having some sort of attack. I dismissed it and said I was fine. I have never been that full of shit in my life.
When we got home that night I said I wanted to write for a bit and excused myself to the guest room upstairs. In reality I was sitting there trying to figure out how in the hell I was going to tell the woman I loved that I was choosing not to be with her anymore. I was afraid to tell her the truth, that if I confessed my feelings she would try to talk me out of it or be even more hurt than she was about to be. I determined to manufacture a story that would end things and hopefully hurt her less in the end. What happened next are two things that I will regret until my dying day.
Firstly, before I said anything I slept with Audrey. I wanted to feel connected to her one last time, to be in that warmth, safety and completeness for just a little longer. Some will say that my motivations were more primal, base and selfish than that, and I would not reproach them for it. It’s perfectly logical, and as I’ve already copped to dishonesty that night I couldn’t fault people for drawing that conclusion. Secondly, the explanation I gave Audrey for my desire to break off the relationship was a fabrication. I can’t remember all of what I said but the summation was that my feelings just weren’t strong enough to maintain a long distance relationship and that it was time for it to end. From the second I left Audrey on the couch in my lounge and closed the door to my room, to the very moment that I am writing these words I have regretted it. I was manipulative and dishonest, two things that I have striven not to be in this life. It was also a moment of inexcusable misogyny, where instead of telling Audrey exactly how I felt, laying it all out there and allowing her to make her own decision, I did what I felt was best for her. I will never forgive myself for what happened that night, and there is nothing in this world that I wouldn’t give to go back and change it. But that’s not how life works.
The next morning I drove Audrey back to her mother’s house. The last thing she said to me before she went inside was that she liked the perspective title of my next book, “Burlington Days.” Even though I had just broken her heart, Audrey was still being supportive of me. I drove around her neighborhood for the next several minutes, debating whether I should just leave or drive like hell back to Audrey’s house, bang on her door, fall to my knees and beg her to forgive me. I never did go back. Instead I went out, got myself a large frappaccino from Starbucks and the new Madden football game to try and distract myself. This was the beginning of my final phase of dishonesty, hiding from those closest to me just how devastated I was. I texted my brother some nonsense about being relieved to be a free man once more. When I told my parents I simply told them that the distance was just getting too hard and it wasn’t going to work. At least that explanation had some truth to it.
I was absolutely crushed, and became sullen and withdrawn from everybody. Apathy was another component, especially when it came to my job. I just couldn’t give a shit about being at the front desk of a car dealership anymore. A couple of months later I was unceremoniously fired from my job. I had gone from feeling complete to feeling like I had lost everything. I felt like getting fired was God’s judgement against my deception of Audrey. I was so low that, for the only time in my life I considered cutting it short, but a combination of wanting to see my book through to publication and a fear of causing my family shame prevented any serious consideration.
I did what I could to carry on, taking to running along Cochran Road in Richmond most every day, reading more than I ever had in my life and throwing myself completely into the editing process. Audrey and I still kept in touch after the break up, still sharing what was happening in one another’s lives. For the next two years she even remembered my birthday and sent very thoughtful e-mails. We talked for the last time in July of 2014. I was preparing to move out of my parent’s house and into my first apartment in downtown Burlington. I felt that I was beginning a new chapter in my life, and if I was going to move on I needed to leave the past behind. At first I just put off writing her back, wanting to take in my new environment for a bit before telling her about it, but as the weeks went on it snowballed and eventually I just got too embarrassed to write back. I figured leave the past in the past and let go. Foolish me, I had forgotten my Faulkner. “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.”
It took me the better part of two years to try dating seriously again, and while I would have some meaningful relationships, none of them lasted. Each had their own reasons for failing but, a part of it was that I never felt the same as I did with Audrey. Then in the summer of 2016 I saw a Facebook post (I never had the heart to delete her as a friend) that Audrey was engaged to be married. Faulkner’s wisdom had come back to haunt me, because the moment I read that I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. My feelings for Audrey, while they had never really gone away, had been somewhat dormant during the intervening years. Now they all came flooding back. Despondent, I got in my car and drove through the darkness to Richmond, along the very same road I had driven to pick Audrey up so many times. I went down to the river, found a secluded spot and cried. I cursed fate and wondered aloud why it was my lot in life to lose those closest to me, why I always seemed to end up alone. I was drowning in self-pity and anger, wanting so badly to go back to that night and change things that it physically hurt.
The emotion flowed through me so openly that after a while I was completely drained. It was then that I remembered something one of my best friends had said. After reading my novel she laid a critique on the protagonist and it really hit home in that moment. In regards to my character’s troubles with the opposite sex she couldn’t stand that “he goes and blames it on the world instead of taking responsibility and owning up to his own actions. One of my pet peeves is when people cannot take responsibility for their own attitude.” Here I was, sitting on the river’s edge and feeling sorry for myself when I had been the author of this heartache. I was the one who had broken it off with Audrey, the one who had been emotionally dishonest and not revealed how I truly felt. This was entirely my fault, so what right did I have to feel so sorry for myself? The answer was none.
It had taken all that to make me realize that the only real way for me to try and move forward was to finally open up. Not long after that night I published my first essay on this blog, sharing personal stories and feelings that I had never expressed publicly. I didn’t want to go my whole life without people knowing who I really was, and with each piece I wrote I felt a bit better about myself. Audrey ended up getting married the day after my brother this past August, and I was pretty low for a while. But I wasn’t going to allow the pity party to continue, instead I decided that it was time I put all this to words and share the story in an attempt to finally exercise the demons that have haunted me these past five years. I don’t know what the people who read this piece will make of it, lord knows I still don’t, and truth be told I am more than a bit afraid that the real Audrey will somehow read this and be hurt or angered by it. If she does end up finding this I hope she knows that this isn’t some vain, desperate attempt to win her back. It may well turn out that Audrey was my love story, but I am not hers. She’s found the love of her life, a man who was smart enough to open himself to her and give her all the love and support she so richly deserves. I really hope she is happy, and if I could give her any message it would be to apologize for how things ended, and to thank her for making that time of my life so special. I can never repay her for it.
As for me my friends, I honestly don’t know where to go from here. It feels less that I’ve come to a fork in the road and more that I’m adrift and aimless. I’ve begun to begrudgingly accept that my writing career will likely never amount to much in the way of financial success. For the past decade it has been how I have defined myself, and I’ve never given any serious thought to a career path as a result. But now that I’m past thirty and still living paycheck to paycheck perhaps it’s time to do something different with my life. I haven’t completely given up on trying to find love again though. Every time I go on a first date I get that same mixture of nervousness and excitement that something special may be underway. Still, I wonder if a day in the not too distant future will come, when I give up the notion of true love, and decide that it’s better to settle and seek shelter from the storm.