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Marc was beautiful. He had a lean swimmer’s physique and a tiny gap between his front teeth that made me smile anytime he did. He had kissable freckles and ice blue eyes that warmed me. He was funny and smart and easy to be with. We were barely twenty-one, kids living off campus and away from home for the first time. I liked him. In hindsight, I think I could have loved him.
Have you ever experienced a relationship haunting? It’s that foggy mass of memory that rolls in from the dark and clouds your perspective of real love. It jacks with your sense of self-worth and happiness. You don’t always know where they begin—because hauntings have deceptively soft edges—but you one thing you can be certain of is that you’ve been caught in one when you find your shoulders pinned against the wall of an old scene replaying the way you behaved badly or missed what you thought was your last shot at love. Scenes like those always close with you in an emotional heap as you watch your partner walk, drive or otherwise fade away from your life. If you’ve ever been haunted, then you know I’m not exaggerating the drama.
Marc and I met through a friend in common, and only saw each other by chance around campus at first. Once we realized we liked each other, we began to make our plans to meet on purpose. I told myself it was a casual thing mostly, undefined; we didn’t call it dating.
By my early twenties the only instruction I’d gotten about the opposite sex was to keep my legs closed and my head in my books and my eyes on Jesus because real men didn’t bother with fast girls and men were boys anyway and boys only wanted to get inside girls’ pants. Add to that my own insecurities about my attractiveness at the time—I’d suffered through believing my black coffee colored skin, outspoken nature and eclectic interests made me invisible to men—I was completely upside down and sunk at the prospect of relationship. In a word, my dating life or lack thereof, was a cluster.
Marc and I went to a play on campus one night. It was a tiny black box theatre and I’ve long forgotten what the play was, but what I’ll never forget is the moment I realized how much I was beginning to care about him. There was a random reference made by one of the characters that made us both laugh. As I recall, he and I were the only ones in the theatre—and possibly, in the world—who found it funny. In a single peal of laughter, Marc had unwittingly begun to challenge my notions of connection, compatibility and love.
It also happened that two of my male friends sat behind us in the theater. We’d run into them in the ticket line. When Marc got up to go to the restroom, they leaned in to grill me about my ‘unfortunate’ choice in men. They didn’t like that he was white and wasted no time in telling me so. Granted, I might not have known what to do with the feelings I had toward Marc, but what I was clear about was that no man was going to tell me who I could or couldn’t see. That’s one area I’d been trained well in: telling men no.
I shared my mixed feelings with my closest girlfriend at the time, and she listened with rapt attention as I told her how nice Marc was, and how confused I was about the old stories that had convinced me I wasn’t worthy of love. I also puzzled over whether I had some kind of allegiance to the race over my own happiness, which had also been a prevailing message I’d internalized.
I’ve heard stories about him, Kriste, my girlfriend said. She placed her hand on mine, as though trying to calm a hysterical patient. She faced me gravely and said she’d heard that her friend so-and-so was roommates with Marc’s old girlfriend, who was also black, and how they’d had loud banshee sex in their dorm room at all hours of the night. You’re just his latest fetish, she said. Don’t let him make a fool of you. Where I’d been so resolute in my response to male friends, I was more than willing to accept what my girlfriend had to say about my budding relationship with Marc. Somehow, I figured, she knew better than I did. Everyone seemed to know better. And, because I wanted so desperately to belong and be accepted, I listened.
It would take awhile before I understood that my friend’s counsel was motivated by envy rather than sincere caring. It was obvious from the track record of broken relationships she’d racked up in the years that followed. A great thinker once said, To jealousy, nothing is more frightful than laughter, and I realized my happiness wasn’t among the concerns she’d expressed that night. Perhaps somewhere along the line, she’d been fed similar stories about staying put, not venturing out or risking her heart for love. The only difference was, she believed a lot more deeply in those limits than I did. I ended our friendship a few years out of college.
After a few short months together, I made my excuses to Marc about not wanting to continue our relationship. For various reasons—none of which reflected the truth of my being too afraid. We lost touch almost immediately. That’s not to say I don’t think of him occasionally. Sometimes I wonder about the man he became and whether he ever thinks about me. I’d like him to know I cared more than I was able to express at the time. I’d also like him to know that I made it, that today I’m the woman I wished I’d been all those years ago.
We can only act on the information we have in any given moment and, as the saying goes, it’s only when we know better that we can do better. In the meantime, it’s important that when we look back, we do so with the soft eyes of forgiveness and compassion for who we were at the time.
As for those male friends who chastised me in the theater that night, one has since revealed he’s gay and the other moved to Switzerland where he now lives happily with his white Scandinavian wife and biracial family.
Learning to dismantle the old messages of unworthiness that bombarded me as a child and a young woman has taken a long time, attention and intention, which is why I’m so passionate about helping people understand the voice and power of their own inner guidance. Rampant attempts by media and misinformed people no matter how well-intentioned seek to train us away from what we already intrinsically know—that love doesn’t discriminate, that beauty is as diverse and abundant in people as it is in nature, that we are more alike in our deepest desires than not.
I finally know what I wish I’d known then: that love is a risk, that happiness is in our hands and that it’s up to us to protect and nurture it.
Ghosts of relationships past will come to haunt us, not because they want to demoralize us; they come to show us that whatever’s unresolved in us wants the same thing we do in present time: love. Whether it’s in the form of letting go, saying that final goodbye, forgiving yourself for the things you did or didn’t do, or energetically cutting the ties that bind you, what I know now is that love is big enough and bold enough to encompass it all.
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