368 · 14 February 02
She will say that I am backing out of this barely-begun relationship because I am scared of getting exactly what I claim to want, and of course she may be right. Against what can you calibrate self-knowledge? We would have to split the universe in half to run the experiment correctly. In one half, we stipulate that I don't know. I give her -- us -- a chance, and we find out, in three months or a year or a lifetime, whether it works. In the other half, we trust my instincts, and it ends here. In the first test, Valentine's Day is our sixth or seventh date, and perhaps the one where we stop counting. In the second test, there are five dates, and then pain. If this were science, and universes were ours, we would try two thousand of them. In test 342 I develop horrible allergies to her cats; in test 605 we marry, and then divorce, and neither of us ever falls in love again; in test 996 we give it five years and finally concede that we can't go any farther. In test 1011 we both meet other people by April; in test 1400 I try to get her back next winter but by then she's moved away; in test 1885 Juliana Hatfield finally writes back. And at the heat-deaths of two thousand universes, we run all the numbers, and see which decision would have given us, separately or together, the best chance at happiness.
But I don't have two thousand universes. I have one universe, and dreams. I have been in love. I know what it feels like, and I want to feel it again, and this is not it. I know what it feels like to be gripped by the conviction that I understand somebody's identity and soul in a way nobody else ever will, and to believe that helping them be themselves would be as great an endeavor as any project I could ever devise on my own. Even if I had two thousand universes to try, I would never make my decision by adding up the numbers. I don't care if what I want is unlikely, it is that or nothing. More precisely, I guess, it is wild magic or loneliness, and I'm not afraid enough of loneliness to settle for any compromised kind of magic. We were comfortable, it's true. We were very comfortable. But I've been comfortable before, too, and it wasn't enough.
And yes, maybe I am underestimating her, or myself. After five dates, I feel like I know that she is not the girl I'm looking for, but five dates isn't a lot of time. Maybe after ten I would have discovered another side of her she's been concealing, or doesn't even know about. Maybe after twenty I would have discovered something new in myself. I'm willing to believe that it would have been possible to make it work, and that making it work could have improved me in ways I'm not considering. But now we are confusing ends. I'm not trying to be a different person, I'm trying to be this person more effectively. I like the dreams I have. Maybe they sound impossibly romantic, but I know for a fact that they are not, because I have had the feelings I'm holding out for, and I will not give up until I have them again. The only real option, therefore, is to trust my own judgment. I weigh these decisions as carefully as I know how, but eventually I just have to make them. I've made this one. After five dates, I am giving up. I have reached the point of internal certainty, and although this hurts her, I believe letting it go on any further would hurt her more.
In retrospect, naturally, I wish I could have known sooner. Stopping after five dates hurt her. Stopping after two (or one, or none) would have hurt her less. But I didn't know after two. I had doubts, but you always start with doubts. Would it have helped to proceed with declared skepticism? "Yes, I'll go on a second date with you, but I want to be clear that I have not made up my mind, so please keep in mind that you are constantly being judged." "Yes, I will sleep with you, but please keep in mind that I am doing it to assess my emotional state, not to express it." No, I can't imagine that would have been better. The only way to find out if you're going to have feelings is to throw yourself into their path. You can't stand back coldly evaluating and hope to learn any of the things you need to know. You have to try to make it work, and then see if it does. You have to allow yourself to fall towards love, and then see where you land.
So in the end, I think we went about this the right way: Set up by friends; a few emails and pictures, to check for obvious systemic incompatibilities; a casual first lunch date; a second date for dinner; the third date I cooked; the fourth we watched the Super Bowl at her house; the fifth we went out and then stayed in. There were phone calls and emails in between. We tried to fall towards love. And I suspect I would have let us fall a little longer, if it weren't for the timing, but Valentine's Day loomed, and I'm in favor of making symbolism matter. So that's when I paused, in between dates five and what would have been six, and looked for the big feelings I should have been starting to have: not just the relief of not being lonely, or the comfort of embraces, or the pleasure of exchanging stories, but the senses of resonance and magic and terrifying potential. They were not there. She is not my dream. And once I admitted this to myself, it was pointless to try to continue. "When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody," Harry says at the end of When Harry Met Sally, "you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible". It's the same the other way around.
But when I told her, she cried, and I hate hurting people. I'm not sure there is anything in my life I hate worse than hurting people. I would much rather be hurt myself, emotionally or physically, than find myself in a position where I feel obliged to hurt somebody else. On the way home from date four, never mind how, I redislocated my left shoulder and had to reset it myself. That is a very unpleasant sensation, for which I encourage you to take my word. Hearing a woman start to cry when you tell her you don't want to see her any more is far, far worse. This is the fifth time I've had this experience in my life, and the one where we appear to have reached that level of intensity the most quickly, and it always sucks. It sucks from the other side, too, but the truth is, I don't think she did anything wrong, either. We both tried, and in trying you accept the possibility of pain. You know, when you decide to fall towards love, that it will hurt if you miss, and that it will hurt worse if you hit but there's nobody waiting to catch you. Right now, she hurts. How long will the pain last? I couldn't guess. Maybe she'll get over me in a week, maybe I've scarred her forever. The girl I lived with for four years before noticing that the feelings weren't there is now married and just had her first child, but maybe she was lucky. Short of resignation, though, there is no other way. And maybe, after the pain subsides, it will turn out that I have given her a reference. Maybe I will become one of her great lost loves, like I have mine, one of the experiences she measures new ones against, one of the ways she knows what is possible.
This is the only valentine I can think to wish for, for the women I have hurt by failing to fall in love with, and the ones who have hurt me and in doing so set my standards, and the ones I haven't met yet or dreamed of, and all of you, single or together, ecstatic or desperate: we will not fear each other. I'm teetering on the brink of quoting Nietzsche as a Valentine's Day sentiment, which can't be right, but whatever does not complete us, composes us. The wildest magic, on the day we finally find it, will turn out to have been built out of the shards of everything we broke in the search.