My friend’s candid admission hung in the air between us like an anchor. I hadn’t spoken with my friend, Ann, in almost two years. We worked together for two different employers, and had developed the kind of friendship that sometimes happens when you’ve spent hours and days together over years, dealing with so many of the same people and situations on a daily basis.
We had come to share truths about ourselves and our lives with each other in a very organic way. She watched me blossom and transform from the woman who was completely independent and always ready to jump in to a problem, to somebody’s girlfriend and fiancée in the early days of my relationship with Dave. She watched me grapple with the brand new role of stepmother and all of the messiness that came with it. She shared some personal things with me that I know she didn’t share with anyone else we worked with, and I always felt honored by that. We have similar senses of humor, and are especially adept at the kind of gallows humor that not everyone understands or appreciates in the darkest or scariest of times.
We hadn’t spoken with each other since she’d left the company I work for now rather abruptly over a year ago. I’d reached out to her when she left, with no response.
Ann sent a text to me out of the blue last week, ironically just as I was sitting in the doctor’s office for my annual mammogram, bloodwork, and all the rest. You know, one of those times when no matter how healthy you think you are, you’re feeling ever so slightly scared and vulnerable. At this age, I know way too many people for whom no doctor visit or bloodwork or mammogram is routine anymore. “I just wanted to let you know I was thinking of you,” she said, “and would love to connect if you have some time.”
So, we connected by phone on Friday. She hasn’t worked and has been living a semi-retired version of her best life since I last spoke with her. She’d moved from Chicago to Miami, and was enjoying life on the water and making new friends. She was looking for a sounding board as she pondered some next steps. Did she want to go back to work? She worried she was romanticizing the working world I am still in. Maybe she could find something to augment the volunteer projects she’s involved with, something that could also perhaps augment her income.
And then, I suppose the real topic she wanted to discuss with me, even if she didn’t consciously know it, entered stage right. She’s been seeing someone for a while. He checks all the boxes for Ann. Healthy, fit, adventurous, successful, likes to boat, likes to live “the good life” and is looking for someone to share it with. “But I don’t know,” she said, “my heart just can’t get there with him.”
My first instinct was to ask, “what roadblocks are you putting up to keep yourself closed off and protected?” I could ask the question because that’s been an issue for both of us in the past, and we’ve talked about it a lot over the years. She thought for a while, and though she never said anything bad or mean about him, she told me some of the things he’d said and done and he didn’t sound terrible, he just sounded like a narcissist who was a little passive-aggressive. My reaction was, “well, it doesn’t sound like this is someone who is ever going to be the answer for you. He’s just a placeholder, taking up room while someone else is out there looking for you. But there’s no room for that guy to come into your world, as long as this one is taking up space.” I said, “look, I haven’t seen you in almost two years. I might be wrong. That’s just my gut opinion after a half-hour conversation.”
“You’re not wrong,” she said. “Sometimes when he comes home at night I pretend I’m asleep.”
The words hung there while we both took a sharp breath in. “There. I’ve said it. That’s pretty terrible, isn’t it?”
No, it’s not terrible. Facing up to the stark reality that trading in a “placeholder” for an empty space that may or may not ever get filled is HARD. Especially as we get older. Putting yourself out there is exhausting, and frustrating, and sometimes soul and ego-crushing. But from where I sit now, there shouldn’t be any other choice. We are enough for ourselves, until we find someone who brings more to our party than they take away. (Thanks for that mantra to Susan, my first therapist from 25 years ago. It only took me about 15 years to believe it!)
My track record in my dating life was far from perfect in this regard. But ever since my conversation with Ann on Friday, I’ve been reminded yet again how grateful I am that I finally did find someone who is truly the other side of my coin, the yin to my yang, the light to my dark and vice versa. And that’s what Ann said, as we were about to hang up. “I just needed to talk to someone who could help me feel like what I’m looking for and what you have isn’t a pipe dream. Thank you.”
No, Ann, thank YOU for reminding me how trusting and happy I’ve become in my time with Dave. I am so grateful that I still can’t wait to see him, and hear about his day, and tell him about mine, and feel like we really do care about what each other think whether we’ve been apart for a week, a few days, a few hours, or even a few minutes. There are times we’re asleep when the other comes home, make no mistake. But we aren’t pretending, and I’m so thankful for that.