Part Four: Fall
I spent hours skinning and pitting and processing plums, my hands caked in fruit, my fridge overflowing with Ziplock bags and Tupperware containers. I made plum-laced oatmeal, quinoa, and cake, cobblers, crumbles, and banana-plum smoothies. I ate plums with breakfast and plums for dessert. But while I was on what seemed like a plum-based diet, he only joined in on the weekends or when I’d bake for his roommates.
Since we’d met independent of any community, most of our time was spent one-on-one. We went to Tahoe with his small group and took a weekend to visit my sister, joined a game-night with a girlfriend and showed up together at a party for work, but we lived in different cities and went to different churches. Our deepest connections were literally scattered across the world and the local friends we did have, we didn’t really share. There was something about this that felt out-of-place, not having a community who knew us as “us.”
So I decided to do something I hadn’t done since college—I changed my relationship status on Facebook. Most of my dating relationships have intentionally begun with some level of secrecy, both online and off. It seems right for new things to grow under a layer of protection. But around the time that dating turns into a relationship, protecting turns into withholding and withholding turns into hiding. We hide for a lot of reasons, often out of fear. There are all kinds of paths that you can take from start to finish, but dating relationships go one of two ways—they get serious or they end—and announcing to the world that you’re in a relationship means getting very real with yourself about those two possibilities.
We were respectively uncertain and mutually unsettled. Still, we were in a relationship, and it was no less real due to the fact that we didn’t know where we were going or how long it would take us to get there. In some ways it seemed more real because of this. So I decided to share with my online community that something newish had entered my life, something that brought me joy and frustration and encouragement and distress. It was all of those things and more than all of those things, as most relationships are.
Late in the summer, I flew back to San Francisco after spending a week with my family in Colorado. He traveled to Oakland to pick up my car, then drove back through the city to get me from the airport. I rolled up my suitcase and he got out to greet me with kisses and dahlias, which I had not-so-subtly been mentioning for months.
“I wanted to take it through the car wash,” he said. “But I ran out of time and I didn’t want to miss you.”
Sometimes it really is the thought that counts.
That night we decided to grab food on Divisadero, and as we walked up and down the street, I continued a conversation that I’d started in the car.
“So, I know it’s still early, and I don’t want to make you feel pressured, but I need start looking at tickets for Thanksgiving.”
It’s the one thing I hate about flying and travel in general—needing to plan for a future that could change at any time. I’d been hinting at going to Greece for my birthday, or maybe to Scotland where he’d lived years before, but we had yet to commit to a long trip together. There was a shortage of income on my side and limited time off on his.
The blank look on his face didn’t give me a lot to work with. I could tell he was thinking, maybe about me or his family or a trip to the Midwest, which admittedly wasn’t his favorite idea. Then again, he was always thinking, which was one of the things that I loved about him. He stopped on a corner to respond.
“Yeah,” he said with a great deal more certainty than I expected him to have. “If this is still going, if we’re still in this when the holidays come, then we should definitely spend them together.”
I smiled, looped my arms around his waist, and stood there in the grayness of San Francisco in summer. We’d been back and forth a lot about how far either of us could look into the future, not just with one another, but even for ourselves. Nothing about the present seemed like something we’d still want in five years—living with three roommates, surviving month-to-month, making connections without forming community. But who’s to say? Each of us had thought the same thing before.
Back in Oakland, the plum tree was dropping the last of its fruit, and by the end of August, the branches were empty.
Labor Day weekend we got very San Francisco and ate brunch at Outerlands, where hand-milled bread and pickled green berries are brushed with oil and dressed up with weeds. Then we moved inland and spent most of the day wondering and pondering exhibits at SFMoMa. I was asked more than once to keep my hands off the art, and I clapped when he led me from a study of skylines to a French photo series of a fluffy white rabbit. At the end of our visit we chased each other through a giant wood sculpture that spirals like a maze, and when he caught me I laughed as he tickled my ribs.
Love is not an object to possess, but a subject, a force. Love is what calls the Beloved into being. Love says, “I see who you are and I hear who you still want to be. I can handle the person you are in between. I will call out the you that even you cannot see.”
In the early days of smitten excitement, I believed I was loved and I came into being. I felt joy at full force, and it nearly knocked me over. I am never as kind or as sure or as beautifully confident as I am when I’m securely in Love, when I feel safe being seen. I will sing in the shower and make animal noises under covers, be honest about ineptitude and exceedingly generous with my heart. But when that confidence fails, as often it does, I question myself and I lose my conviction. I hole up and start hustling for my worth, trying on versions of me that I think will be better received, then forgetting who I am underneath. And this is what happened at the beginning of the end.
We did not call each other into being in the way that we needed to call and be called. He saw who I was, but could not see beyond, could not see the me I still need and want to become. And though I loved him—really loved him—just as he was, I did not know who or how to draw him forward. I was willing to wait, to see if we’d change, but if I was not right for him, he could not be for me.
He was tender, so tender, with the way that he told me, second-guessing if this was the right thing to do, asking for my input, and then apologizing for the fact that he wasn’t more certain, which only made me love and appreciate him more. I don’t mean to imply that any part of this process was easy, but if we had to go through it, then this was the way.
It wasn’t what I wanted—not the ending I’d write–but it seemed from all angles to be the best thing. I have been on the other side of wanting to want to be with someone, and it is not a position in which anyone should feel forced to stay.
“I have not been saying, ‘I love you’ for months,” I told him. “And it wasn’t because I didn’t, but because I knew that you couldn’t return it.”
I wasn’t ready for the magic to be over so soon. I wasn’t ready to give up my delight. And when I shared all of this, I think it was harder for him to hear it than it was for me to say, more painful for him to know I was falling in love than to admit he was not and that this would not change.
We did not end things quickly, which some say you should, because neither was eager to see it all go. There was no anger in our parting, and the tears—which were mine—came only when I told him how special he was and how much I would miss him.
So it ended as it started, with us stripped of our stories and laying in one other’s arms.
“I keep thinking in six months I’m going to realize that this was a mistake,” he told me.
He didn’t because it wasn’t, but it was a wonderful thing to hold onto.
The hardest part about losing him wasn’t letting go of the future I knew we’d never build together. It was the immediate empty of the space he left vacant—the second seat on the sofa, the extra place setting in the cabinet, Sunday evenings after church, and curve in my back where his hand used to rest. I did not lose him entirely, but in a large way I did. I lost my safe space to question and cuddle and cry and sometimes just to sit in the strength of his arms.
It was a beautiful relationship, even in winter when we were no longer together. Even in the empty ache of missing what was and wondering if it would ever come again. I would survive off of memories like I would off the plums in my freezer, preserved for the days after fruit had stopped falling. Sometimes winter is like that—long and cold, full of darkness and night. Sometimes we wonder if spring will come again.
I’ve been grateful and surprised by the number of people who have followed this story, which I wanted to write mostly for myself. I had initially intended to post it all at once, but letting it linger was much like the experience itself, a build up of affection and anticipation that ends bitter-sweet and not how we’d hoped.
C.S. Lewis drops this beautiful line in the middle of The Four Loves, “To love at all is to be vulnerable,” and I keep this in mind when I find myself faced with the choice to abandon or the choice to hold back. The fact that this love story ends with the two of us parted does not change the fact that we both chose to try or negate the risk that it took us to do so.
Some people learn to love as a way to hold on, but I have learned to love most when I’ve had to let go.
Two months ago, the plums began dropping once again. I told myself I wouldn’t bother this season, that I would let the fruit fall and leave it to rot. A part of me became wistful, thinking back on last year and the man with whom I shared it, but mostly I was busy. Now that I work not-from-home I don’t have the time I once did to climb ladders and shake branches. But I also don’t have it in me to let the fruit waste.
Last weekend I made my first plum crumble of the summer. It will not be the last. My freezer is stocked full of nectar and compote and bags of perfect fresh plums—hardened to crystal and waiting for the day that I’m ready.
Whether or not we’re eagerly waiting, the fruit always comes. Maybe not right on schedule or how’d we expect, but always there will be something to glean from the seasons. It falls onto us to choose how we use it.