The Great Love Ambush
by Vanessa Blakeslee
By thirty-five I had figured out two things about myself for sure—that I am the type of person, bluntly honest and eccentric, who requires getting to know slowly, over months, before a romance has any chance of succeeding, and secondly, that I needed to stop chasing, stop obsessing, stop pining after the clever, charismatic men with whom I’d always felt instant sparks. The latest had been an impressionable debut novelist I’d met at a book fair, who pursued me doggedly for six weeks until he abruptly pulled back. Rather than accept this turn, I persisted—surely if I could just illuminate the exact advice he was seeking in another email, he’d be won over by my sincerity and wisdom. If I could just come up with the right witty, flirty text, he’d seen what a grave mistake he’d made. If I could just post the most flattering picture, he’d seen how happy and self-possessed I really was.
“Cut it off,” my behavioral specialist said, after the novelist had made clear his intentions that he’d be up for being “friends with benefits,” but nothing more. “Think of yourself as the prize. Let the man come to you.”
“But I don’t see myself as a prize—I don’t want to,” I replied, grimacing. I was a person, and furthermore a feminist. My doctor’s statement sounded irritatingly old-fashioned. What was he even talking about, let the man come to me?
“You talk as if there’s a line of gentleman callers pacing on my sidewalk,” I grumbled.
“I promise you, when love is real, you won’t be able to stop it.” My doctor sat back and smiled. “You won’t even know what hit you.”
I live alone, as I have since I was twenty-two. I had only just started working a couple of shifts a week for a friend who’d recently opened an independent bookstore. The rest of my time I spent alone, under deadline, frantically finalizing changes to my first novel, due to be published in the fall. Most nights, the stark fact of finding myself in my mid-thirties with no one to share my days with left me bereft with a loneliness so painful, I would exhaust myself, tossing and turning, until by three or four a.m., I would finally sit up, sobbing and rocking out of sheer exhaustion and grief.
Where was my best friend and great love? For that was who I wanted to meet and build a life with. I was finished with the serial monogamy I’d settled for in my twenties, the passionate but drawn-out, and ultimately murky, flings.
The insomnia-fueled meltdowns continued for weeks, until one night, barefoot in the hallway, weeping, I couldn’t bear the pain any more. Along with the resignation to change my approach, I had another epiphany: was this what my best friend would want for me? To beat my head against the crown molding in despair, replaying all the steps of where I’d gone wrong? Hardly. I had to stop the critical self-talk that had plagued me since childhood; I had to be kind to myself, if I ever expected someone else to treat me well. And I needed to start now.
I forced myself back to bed, and crushed thoughts of how silly this was—to picture someone who didn’t even exist beside me, a phantom love, embracing and soothing me, assuring me of my worth. But only then did my breathing quiet and could I catch a few precious hours of sleep.
My bookstore shifts became my salvation—I found I loved selling books to customers, and during slow stretches, could edit my novel. I also enjoyed the smart set who frequently dropped by for a chat, fulfilling my introvert’s need for low-key but stimulating socializing. One in particular, a tall, older man who wore a beret, I’d met a few months prior when I’d grabbed an impromptu and pleasant bite with friends after a literary event. Except for a salad arriving with bleu cheese and the man having to send it back because he was allergic, the evening was otherwise unremarkable.
This older man and the bookstore owner had dated years prior, and now—having married other people and now finding themselves recently divorced—took solace in their steadfast friendship. When our mutual friend, the owner, wasn’t there, the beret-clad fellow and I talked. He was a jazz musician and classical composer, with a piece for symphony orchestra about to debut in the fall. We chatted about the common ground of composing music and literary prose, and found we shared similar aesthetics in art and, most delightfully, a sense of humor.
Talking in that sunny, cozy bookshop, I felt very much myself, something I hadn’t felt in a long time. I was still reeling emotionally from the casting off of the rising-star novelist—and still pining over why things hadn’t worked out differently. “I’m so glad we’re friends,” I told my kindred bookstore spirit, time and again. How good it felt to share company with someone who understood why I wasn’t in any shape for romance, because he wasn’t either. Less than a year before, his wife had embarked on an affair and left him. He was still in shock and heartbroken, scrambling to create new life for himself in our city.
That spring, I traveled: first to a writers’ conference in Minneapolis, then to spend several weeks on my relatives’ idyllic free-range cattle farm in Minnesota. I returned, and my friendship with the composer intensified. We attended the ballet; we showed up to readings together. We lunched. By now people were talking, and more than one acquaintance told me how much my new confidante liked me. “No, no, we’re just friends,” I insisted. “It’s entirely platonic.” Which it was; in between the dinners we’d begun to cook for one another, taking turns several nights a week, we’d exchanged nothing physical beyond a hug.
I took another long trip, to D.C. and Vermont. This time when I returned, my composer friend was more forthright about his affections. Summer nights, after dinner, the hours we spent talking on my couch grew later and later. We shared so many worldviews and preferences, from our hatred of mushrooms to love of sci-fi films. I felt safe with him; by now he knew all my quirks, and wasn’t going to hurt me. One day I woke up and caught myself thinking about him during the day, wondering what he was doing. After all this time, nine months, was I feeling something more?
That same week his soon-to-be ex-wife came to town. He went to see her for the first time in almost a year. He stopped by my place right after, excited. “We held each other and cried,” he said. “But it’s over. And I’m so sorry I’ve been dumping all my emotional baggage on you. It’s not fair. In fact, I’m feeling so relieved, I’m going on some dates this week, starting tonight.”
“That’s wonderful,” I said. “Wow, good for you. That’s really great.”
He left, and over the next few hours, I slipped into a restless malaise. Why did I feel as if I’d just been broken up with? We were good friends, no more—at my insistence. I went for a walk in an attempt to lift my spirits, and in the middle I stopped, my eyes wet and a lump tightening my throat. I hadn’t cried in months.
I went home and called him, rambling apologetically about how I didn’t know what was going on, that I thought I was confused. He was just about to go off on his date. “I know I shouldn’t be feeling this way,” I said, and swallowed a sob. “But I feel weirdly jealous, and—I don’t want you seeing other women! I’m so sorry, I just don’t understand what’s happening.”
“What’s happening,” he said, “is that this is real, my dear. You’re not confused. Don’t panic, I’ll be right there.”
We’ve been together ever since, my composer and I. As slowly as our friendship unfolded, so did our romance, both of our psyches still fragile and skittish. Once, in those early weeks when I was still hesitant and nervous, he assured me, “Let me come to you.” I was stunned, his words echoing my doctor’s verbatim. Nights, I recognize his firm embrace is the same one I had imagined all those sad and lonely months ago, only now made real. We share the kind of great love that is remarkably rare, not built on chemistry (although we do have that), but on respect, kindness, compassion.
What I find even more remarkable is that this wonderful person was very much there all along. For the reading and quiet dinner where we met took place a few days before my departure for that fateful book fair, and my subsequent contretemps with the mesmerizing young novelist whom I felt so sure was my future mate. But without that agonizing trial, I doubt I would have ever stopped chasing for long enough to allow the right person to pull up a chair and get to know my vulnerabilities along with my strengths. How once it surrounds you, real love refuses to leave.
Vanessa Blakeslee is the author of Perfect Conditions: stories, forthcoming July, 2018 from Curbside Splendor. Her writing has appeared in The Southern Review, Green Mountains Review, The Paris Review Daily, Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere. Her novel Juventud won the 2015 IPPY Bronze Medal in Literary Fiction, was a finalist for Foreword Review’s Book of the Year, and a runner-up for the Eric Hoffer Award. Her story collection Train Shots won the 2014 IPPY Gold Medal in Short Fiction. Find her online at www.vanessablakeslee.com.