It looked like the start of something big. He was a tall, sardonic graduate student and she was a small, expressive undergrad. He admired her clever tongue and her muscular calves, and she was charmed by his grace, his golden curls and lilting eyes.
They spent their first month together gamboling in the snow, talking into the night, and listening to the classical music they both loved. For the first time in two lonely years, she found herself falling in love, certain that he was taken with her too.
Then one moonlit night they took a walk by the lake. He stopped suddenly, turned to her and said, with a serious edge in his voice she’d never heard before: “How vulnerable are you? The more time I spend with you the clearer it becomes that I want to share my bed with you—but I may take that very pleasant situation more lightly than you. I’m not sure how much I can give. I didn’t love the woman I lived with last summer. You may be more involved than me.” Then he put his arms around her for the very first time and said, in a far more insinuating tone, “But I do think we should be lovers.”
I know exactly what happened, because the shell-shocked young woman he was addressing was my nineteen-year-old self, and I wrote it all down verbatim afterwards. Re-reading his speech decades later, I was struck by that opening rhetorical question and by those multiple conditional phrases—“not sure”, “may take”, “may be”—that served, by softening the blow, to get what he wanted, which was a no-strings affair with someone he knew very well was incapable as well as undesirous of having one. His monologue—to which I was unable to reply in my turbulent state of mind—was a brilliant example of pre-emptive guilt management disguised as frankness and openness. At the time, of course, I took it all at face value; he was only expressing his true feelings, his desires and his doubts, to me. Full disclosure, I thought, was the honorable thing to do. I admired his forthrightness.
What he said and how he said it disquieted me and seemed odd even at the time, but that didn’t stop me from complying. He’s leveling with me—how could I fault that? I was a budding psychologist who had not yet learned the myriad uses, for good and for ill, to which confessing the “truth” can be put. My beloved seemed to be in an emotional crisis. He feels he must warn me of his conflicts in order to protect me, I argued to myself. Surely I could assuage all his doubts.
But of course he proved true to his word, if not to me. Rejection was not a possibility; it was a guarantee, and my naïve belief in the power of confession, the unassailable virtue of honesty, blinded me to that fact. The deep emotional damage our subsequent relationship caused me was only healed years later, when I found a man who prized me rather than used me, who resolved his own moral dilemmas instead of cruelly and carelessly foisting them onto me.
Here is what my reply should been, had I been wise and bold enough: “What a strange way to court me. Is this a disclaimer? Do you think you’re washing your hands of any responsibility by warning me? In the name of honesty you’re already hurting me and pushing me away. I can’t get involved with a man who tells me in advance that he’s not going to let himself care. It wouldn’t be worth it, as much as I want you.”
One act of honesty deserves another.