Spoiler: It doesn’t work (until she stops trying).
The year after I stopped drinking, I fell in love with my neighbor. I was 27, working as a copywriter, and living in a studio apartment on Gay Street in the West Village that could fit my California king bed and almost nothing else. He lived across the street in a larger apartment that had beautiful morning light and a mouse infestation.
One afternoon he found me sitting on his stoop smoking a cigarette and sat down, looking like a young Paul Newman.
We talked for a long time, during which I learned that he owned a local restaurant and had recently broken up with his girlfriend. Eventually, we headed up to his apartment, where we kissed until it felt like it was only us and the mice in his walls still awake in the whole city.
By the time he walked me back to my building, it was past midnight, and I had already decided that our wedding should be right there on Gay Street. I was calculating what kind of city permits that would require when he placed a hand on my shoulder.
“I really like you,” he said. “But the restaurant keeps me pretty busy, and I just want to be clear that I’m not looking for a relationship right now.”
I looked up at him under the yellow glow of the streetlamps and did what so many hopeful single people have done before me: I told a lie, wishing it were true. “I’m not looking for anything serious either,” I said.
His face softened. “That’s great. So, we can just keep it chill?”
I smiled. “I’m a very chill person. You’ll see.”
He would not see. What followed was a two-year tug of war. He could not commit, and I could not accept it. I tried every tool in my arsenal to get him to be my boyfriend: I charmed, seduced, cajoled, bargained, raged. Ultimately, nothing could change the fact that we didn’t want the same thing.
Instead of freeing ourselves from this mismatch, however, we seemed bound to it. Every time we decided to stop seeing each other, one of us would eventually leave our light on all night, knowing the other would see it from the street below and send a text to come up, restarting the cycle.
It was my first experience of falling in love sober and, though I didn’t know it at the time, I was repeating a familiar pattern. I grew up chasing my father’s love, a man who, like my neighbor, could be affectionate or absent depending on the day.
Now, I was pursuing my neighbor with the same fervor. The more space he wanted, the closer I longed to be. I pretended to have no needs, then felt distraught when he didn’t meet them. I would get high off his attention, then crash when he withdrew.
I would later learn this dynamic is called an “anxious-avoidant” relationship. At the time, I only knew it hurt. And, for the first time in my adult life, I didn’t have alcohol to numb me.
So, I went to an ashram upstate and prayed for the obsession to lift. I changed his name in my phone to “prosecco” so I would remember how emotionally hung over I felt after seeing him. I went to a weekly meditation group led by a Buddhist teacher with double-digit sobriety who introduced me to attachment theory and, at the risk of sounding dramatic, changed my life forever.
He taught me that anxious and avoidant people often connect quickly and powerfully, but the relationships are a challenge at best and doomed at worst.
“You need to be with someone secure,” he said.
“You mean boring.”
He smiled. “Security isn’t boring. You’ll see.”
Eventually, it was obsessing over my neighbor that grew boring — trying to make dinner plans with someone who found reservations “restricting” and watching friends zone out as I complained, yet again, about him canceling.
I stopped leaving my light on all night, got some proper sleep, found a therapist and became open to the possibility of meeting someone else.
That someone was Henry, a friend of a friend I met at a film screening. He had freckles all over his face and a big, unselfconscious smile. He was British, like me, but the similarities ended there. He was obsessed with being outdoors, loved to cook and was a moderate drinker.
By contrast, I considered a trip to Central Park hiking, got my meals (sushi, cupcakes, pre-cut fruit) at the gourmet deli, and wasn’t moderate at anything.
I liked him instantly, but I didn’t fantasize about marrying him.
For one of our early dates, Henry made reservations at three restaurants and let me pick which one to go to. On another, we saw a documentary about the evils of salmon farming. In the following months, we met up once or twice a week to eat, go to the theater or see an exhibition. There was no waiting up late for him, no will-he-won’t-he show up.
I was used to downing a person like a shot, but with Henry, I sipped. He surprised me with his juggling skills (he’d been taught as a child to help with his dyslexia) and talked about his role as the peacekeeper between his older brother and younger sister. Later, he told me about his friend who was killed in a hit-and-run during their first year of university, the shock and the grief of it.
Each new thing I learned felt precious.
Still, I was wary. Where was the high? The excitement? I thought falling for someone should feel like having an orgasm and a heart attack at once.
“Shouldn’t it be more difficult than this?” I asked my therapist.
“In real life, good things are allowed to be easy,” she said. “Trust it.”
A few months into seeing each other, I gave Henry a book of illustrated animal facts, expecting him to appreciate it as a thoughtful if not particularly noteworthy gesture.
“This is the best gift ever,” he said.
Sitting cross-legged on my California king, he went through the book page by page, wondrously repeating the best facts aloud: “Hummingbirds flap their wings up to 200 times a second!”
Henry didn’t need things to be dramatic to feel alive because he paid attention to the small details that make life feel miraculous. His capacity for delight, his seemingly boundless sense of wonder, was one of the first things I loved about him. I just didn’t know it at the time.
My earlier experiences of falling in love had felt like being stuffed in a barrel and thrown off a waterfall, a blind tumble both euphoric and terrifying. Falling in love with Henry felt like being carried along a smooth river to the sea.
It wasn’t all smooth, of course. I was still me, after all, still anxious.
For the first few months, every morning that Henry left my apartment to return to his place, I would scramble out of bed and insist on walking him the one block to the subway. His departure stirred some vague panic in me, triggering that childhood fear of abandonment, of love walking out the door. Of course, I had never admitted that to anyone I dated.
Until one day when Henry turned to me outside the subway entrance, gave me a funny smile, and said, “Why do you always want to walk me? I sense it’s important to you, but I’m not sure why.”
My first instinct was to tell a lie, wishing it were true. Instead, I took a deep breath. “Actually, I have this thing when we separate where I get” — I fluttered a hand over my chest — “really anxious. I think I’m afraid you won’t come back.”
Henry gave me a long look and my heart dropped. I waited for him to dive headfirst down the subway stairs away from me. “I see,” he said, taking my hand. “Would it make you feel less anxious if we walked around the block together one more time?”
I could have laughed with relief. I could have pressed my palms into my eyes and cried like a child. But I kept myself together and nodded.
We walked once more around the block and then he got on the subway and I went about my day. A year later, we moved in together. Six months after that, we got married. Today, we live in a house in Los Angeles with a small garden regularly frequented by hummingbirds.
“Up to 200 flaps a second!” Henry likes to remind me. “Isn’t that remarkable?”
Coco Mellors is a writer who lives in Los Angeles. Her first novel, “Cleopatra and Frankenstein,” will be published in February 2022.
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