By Megan Stielstra.
Welcome to Dear Life: An Unconventional Advice Column. Your questions get sent to various authors from around the world to answer (and please keep sending because I have like 567 writers that want to answer your burning questions. Click here to submit a letter.) Different writers offer their input when it comes to navigating through life’s messiness. We are “making messy okay.” Today’s letter is answered by one of my heroes (I guess I should call her a She-ro?) Megan Stielstra. She’s also happened to have written one of my favorite books, um, EVER: Once I Was Cool. Not just from last year but, ever. So this is cool. Once I was cool, indeed. She has also been interviewed by my dear friend (and her dear friend) Elizabeth Crane on this very site. It’s just delicious. But anyway, this Dear Life is so good. Read and share and comment and get her book and send us your questions because there loads of crazy authors waiting to answer ’em. Just kidding, they aren’t crazy.
Well okay, maybe a little. Aren’t we all? xo, Jen Pastiloff, Crazy Beauty Hunter.
I have fallen in love. It’s such a gorgeously distracting feeling. All I have to do is picture him, with the ocean in his eyes and wilderness his face, to run all hot and sweaty. He is the most beautiful man I have ever seen, and he feels the same way about me. No one has ever given me the kind of compliments he does; ones that make me feel real, feel beautiful. I hold my head higher these days.
The problem is (because of course there has to be one), I already have someone. I live with my boyfriend, and it’s fine. It’s just fine, and it’s been for quite some time. He is a good man, he treats me right, tries to make me happy. For some reason though, it’s a long time since I felt truly happy in his company. Our conversations have grown shallow, we never sleep together anymore (lately, I don’t even feel like being touched by him), I don’t feel that we connect. I have known this for well over a year, but since there’s never been any actual disagreements or conflicts between us, I have let it slide. I have accepted the situation and carried the longing for something more hidden deep inside of me. But over the last couple of weeks, it has broken free, it has spilled out and overflowed. All is filled with longing now.
I am so discontent, feeling so utterly alone at times, but he seems to be fine. He seems to have no problem with the lack of intimacy or excitement. And he is such a nice person; I don’t know how to let him down. I have never said any of this to him out loud, so if I do, it will probably come as lightning from a clear sky. And it will crush him. How do you go about crushing someone who loves you? I don’t want to do it, the mere thought makes me sick to my stomach, but still… If I cannot be with this man I have met, if I cannot touch his face and hold his hand and soak up his warmth, I think I might die.
I don’t want to believe that I am a bad person, cause I spend all this time consciously doing good, but now it seems I am losing my way; doing things I never thought myself capable of. It feels awful, but at the same time, I don’t know what else I could have done. He was impossible to ignore. I had to be with him, and it will forever be my most beautiful memory.
Right now I am having a beer in bed and crying. Please help.
I usually shy away from giving advice. I mean, what the hell do I know? I’m shooting’ in the dark, one foot in front of the other, trying to live the holy hell out of this beautiful mess of a life and usually it’s like WHAT THE FUCK AM I THINKING? but sometimes—we’re talking a once in a blue moon sort of scenario here, a scenario not unlike the one you describe, when I fell in love so hard and fast I made the ground vibrate with my very own heartbeat and that day, lucky for me, was the day I got it right. Or maybe I didn’t have jack to do with it. Maybe it was coincidence. Maybe right place/right time. Maybe the universe or the stars or some great explosion of fate—who gives a shit how love happened? Love happened. Love happens. Sometimes the seemingly biggest risk is the truest, most absolutely right thing in the world.
First things first: I try to be mindful of how my experiences and privileges influence my understanding of someone else’s story, especially someone brave enough to ask impossible questions in a world set up for easy answers. Example: a college student of mine recently asked how to tell her parents that she wanted to be a writer, not a doctor. It’s your life! I wanted to yell, from the rooftops and across the sky. You get to live it any fucking way you please! And I believe that, I do, but my student is First Generation American, full of stories of the sacrifices her parents made to bring their family to this country, and respect of that part her story is as necessary as breathing. Example: a friend of mine wants to leave his partner, but all of his money—all of it—is sunk into his newly started business, the dream he’s been carrying for years, finally beginning to grow. How will he move out, pay rent, pay off his loans, eat, stay afloat? Does he live in the lie for a year until the business starts earning? Move out now and (gulp) in with his parents? This is your life! I want to tell him, shaking him by the shoulders as if he doesn’t already know. We only get one shot at living it! And I believe that, I do, but our financial responsibilities are so huge and real, banks and mortgages and inventory and paperwork and fear.
I’m saying all of this, C., because there’s a lot to your story that I don’t know, and I want to be respectful to the complexities you’re dealing with, like… say… how long have you and the boyfriend been together? Are there children involved? Are you financially independent? Is he financially independent? What will it take to untangle your lives? Does this new man, this love, come with the promise of Forever or is it a Just For The Immediate Albeit Super-Hot Moment sort of a thing and which one do you want, C.? The Forever or The Hot Now or both and does any of that matter in the grand scheme of what makes your heart pound? And is your romantic history relevant to this discussion, like is this love the first time you’ve felt love, its vines winding round your body from feet to shoulders, tangling you up in the joy and the heat and the sweetness and the crazy? And is this about the experience of love, like generally-speaking or is it about beginning a relationship with This Specific Man You’re In Love With or is it about ending a relationship with This Specific Man You’re Not In Love With Anymore And Maybe Never Were In The First Place and What The Fuck Is Love, Anyway? FUCKING LOVE.
If you and I were sitting across from each other with a glass of wine or two or five we could dig a little deeper into these questions, but for now, with all due respect to the specific details that make relationships so profoundly unique and frustrating and exciting and delicious and worth it, I’ll leave it at this:
You get to have love.
Repeat this, again and again: You get to have love.
You get to have it. You deserve it. Those compliments that make you feel real, feel beautiful?—You get them. You get to feel beautiful—you are beautiful—and you should be with the person who makes you feel that way, who makes you feel safe, who makes you hold your head higher, who makes you feel sexy—you are sexy—who you want to touch and be touched by, who you can talk to about how and when you touch each other, who you can talk to about anything, who you connect with, who you long for. These are all things you get to have, and I’m so excited that you’ve found them, although I must admit that the grammar nerd in me may be reading too much into your verb tenses ‘cause at times I thought you had yet to begin this relationship with your love (“if I cannot touch his face… I might die”) and at other times I thought it had begun but was now over (“I had to be with him, and it will forever be my most beautiful memory”) and at others, y’all were right in the thick of it (“it has broken free, it has spilled out and overflowed”). Whatever the case, C., all that matters to me is that you’re happy and joyful and living this life so fucking hard you can barely breath but of course, this isn’t about me. It isn’t about you and the man you love—you two have all the time in the world to figure out those beautiful, messy details. Who this is about is you and your boyfriend; the boyfriend who, in your words and in your heart, you’ve already left.
If you and I were sitting across from each other with a glass of wine or two or five, I’d tell you how fiercely I identify with the ache of hurting someone you care about. The guilt is muscle-memory. There’s nothing you can say to him that will make it easier and there’s nothing I can say to you that will make it bearable, so for now I’ll leave it at this:
He gets to have the truth.
He gets to have it. He deserves it.
Repeat this, again and again: He deserves the truth.
Now get out of bed, C. Covers to the side, feet over the edge, on the floor and up. Standing is the first hardest part but you can do it because you get to have love and he deserves the truth.
Take your beer with you. In fact, go into the kitchen and grab another one. Hell, grab the six-pack. You’ll both need one or two or five because quite probably this discussion will suck.
Or maybe it won’t. Maybe he’s feeling it, as well. He knows you two haven’t been working, clicking, connecting. He’s knows it’s time to move on. He wants to lift his head higher, too. Maybe he’ll be happy for you. Maybe he’s met someone else, and hasn’t known how to tell you but he’s telling you now because you deserve the truth and he deserves love and both of you deserve these things now, no more waiting, no more fighting imaginary fights, no more rehearsing imaginary scripts.
But maybe you’re right, and your words will be like lightning from a clear sky. You still have to say them. Practice them, C. as you walk down the hall: You deserve the truth. You deserve the truth. You deserve the truth until they’re part of your pulse because I guarantee you, when you sit down to have The Conversation, you won’t have any idea what to do or say or think or feel. You’ll be holding his heart in your hands, your mind a blank, your face telling the whole story, and when you reach into the clear blue sky for the perfect words, all you need to come back with is the truth.
You’re out of bed now, right? You’ve left the kitchen, beer in hand. Down the hall and—there. You’re standing in the doorway, watching him watch television, or type on his laptop, or read a book, or any of the hundred things he does that you know so well because you care about him, even if you don’t love him anymore.
Sit down next to him (this is the next hardest part).
Hand him a beer.
Your face will tell the whole story.
You still have to say it.
I’m going to tell you the truth, C., because you deserve it: in a year or two or five, you’ll still feel the ache of this moment, the muscle-memory of guilt. It’s part of living, of getting out from underneath the covers and walking through this beautiful mess of a life. It’s what makes us open to love, to right place/right time and the universe and the stars, all of it so unique and frustrating and exciting and delicious and worth it.
Please send your own question in to be answered here.
Megan Stielstra is the author of the essay collection Once I Was Cool. Her work is included in The Best American Essays 2013, Poets & Writers, The Rumpus, PANK, and elsewhere, and her story collection, Everyone Remain Calm, was a Chicago Tribune Favorite of 2011. She’s the Literary Director of the critically-acclaimed 2nd Story storytelling series and has told stories for all sorts of theaters, festivals, and bars (many, many bars) including the Goodman, Steppenwolf, Museum of Contemporary Art, Neo-Futurarium, and The Paper Machete live news magazine at The Green Mill, as well as Chicago Public Radio, NPR, and Radio National Australia. She teaches writing and performance at Columbia College Chicago and serves as the Associate Director of The Center For Innovation in Teaching Excellence. Follow her on twitter at @meganstielstra.
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