Slicing through the mad rush of bodies on the subway platform at Times Square, there you are. Dressed in a sharply cut navy suit, trim and towering, you’ve disembarked from the shuttle and are now walking toward the red line. I’m tracing the opposite path. You hold your limbs near your body, your left arm hooked in a dapper right angle, a gesture learned from the pages of GQ, palm against torso, making you look important, protecting yourself from the milling mass of people. On your face is a thin film of disgust; you always hated crowds. I know your body so well that I can tell you’re holding your breath, lest you inhale something indecorous.
It has been five years, and still the mere sight of you shoots a hot pulse of desire through me. Time has barely grazed the perfection of your features, and I can see gravity has yet to corrode your sculpted form. I’m on my way to meet my literary agent, to celebrate the sale of my memoir. You, I imagine, have just left work. On your hand glints a wedding band.
Seven years and I can still feel the way your eyes fell on my skin, your lips tracing the line of my clavicle, spine, hip, your mouth seeking every dip, declaring each expanse as yours, claiming possession like the deals you closed daily. Your favorite thing, you said, was my mix of bone and curve. It was a surprise, you said, a secret that no one else was allowed to know. Under the stamp of your gaze, I felt selected. Special.
“You unhinge me,” you said, and I thought that meant love.
We were so young. I was 22, you 25, when we first met. “You’re dangerous,” you would say, and I would giggle and reply, “What do you mean?”
“You make me lose control. I just—want all of you. I hate that other people get to have access to you, when you’re at work, your friends, your family. I don’t want to share you.”
I would smile, delirious with naivete, mistaking your words for proof of loyalty.
“I’m usually not jealous or possessive, I swear,” you’d say. “It’s just with you.”
I loved you because life’s assaults had carved into me so deeply, your words felt fitting and filling for the echoing emptiness.
I loved you for being chosen by you meant, at long last, I belonged to someone. The world had taught me that my highest priority in life was to secure the affections of a man like you: 6-foot-2, white, American, a New York banker. You, the ideal man, to win and retain your love would be the height of accomplishment. It would mean I, born in Bangladesh, immigrant to the United States, had graduated through life’s rungs to become visible. More than visible—ideal.
You loved me for I personified how socially forward you prided yourself to be. A piece of art you displayed to demonstrate your sophistication. You always quipped that I would be a political candidate’s ideal wife: “You’re the just-right shade of brown.”
At 22, I got pregnant, by you. I know; I never told you. Neither did I tell you that it ended in a miscarriage. I saw you minutes after the ordeal, and I ordered my face to confess nothing. I would never tell you; the last thing either of us needed was false incentive to remain attached. Even at 22, and again at 25, and again at 28, I knew we were not each other’s destiny; we were each other’s heaving deficit. Whenever we made love, with every gasp and pant, I felt our hungry nothingness. After and between other partners, we would return to each other not for love but for unhealed pasts, for things that had nothing to do with each other. Our bodies were chessboards upon which the other would move their pieces, hoping that this time around, we’d win, finally be able to quit the game.
Had I become your wife, we would have gotten pregnant, again, consciously, with the clinical efficiency of cattle farming and social propriety, and this time, with any luck, brought children to term. I would busy my days with happy domesticity, every organ of my body occupied and outsourced to nurse the demands of you and our offspring. I would have been so perfect. Popular for the best-dressed children, homemade cupcakes, immaculate home, masterfully executed parties designed not for celebration but competition. You would have been so proud. I would have long stopped working toward any professional goal of my own, telling myself, “It’s best for my family.”
My unrequited potential and growing resentment would be muzzled and shepherded into school events, charity work, Pilates, anorexia, and running, running, running. In place of having any substantial mark on the world, I would take to marking my body; carving into myself with punishing control, starving, injecting, cutting, just to feel a semblance of significance, to prove, “See, I still exist. I can impact something.”
Having become a shell of a woman, our poor children would have received the sum total of my cavernous insecurity. I would have wrung our children like sodden towels, to absorb any drop of life vicariously, leeching from them my daily quota of self-esteem or lack thereof. On them would teeter my identity or invisibility. Invariably, they would have grown up anxious, bitter, mildly embarrassed, and pitying. Whenever I would have tried to deliver pep talks, saying, “You can become anyone you wish to be. Refuse to be mediocre. Never settle for a life beneath your possibilities,” they would have rolled their eyes and retorted, “Sure, Mom, like you?”
On dutiful occasion, I would have bought French lingerie, twirled and played any role you desired, and you and I would have laughed and nibbled daintily on each other’s parts like canapés, pretending to find each other palatable still. I would have spent my days planning meals, trips, and conversations to suit your appetite, and taken up shopping as a recreational sport. I would have rotated through my uniform of athleisure by day, cocktail dresses by night, buying clothing modulated to what you considered attractive, contorting myself to your desired shade of seductive, beautiful, sweet, pleasing. I would have done the same with my voice, attuning my levels of charm, smarts, knowledge, humor, turning them up and down like knobs on a sound engineer’s board, to ensure I performed your preferred mix and nothing else.
You always did say, “I prefer my women small.” You would have repeated it with the passing years, as a compliment, to let me know I was doing well.
Every now and then, at brunches with other couples, baby showers, weddings, endless cocktail parties for your company, I would have looked at you, myself, and the other wives, each woman coiffed and preening, and wondered about the women we could have been had we chosen ourselves over you and your brethren. The women we could have been had we decided to pursue our untapped talents instead of helping you pursue your greatness. The women we could have been had we been raised to believe we were more than negative space, waiting to fill into and be filled by men. The women we could have been had we chosen the path of our creation versus the path designated. I would have mulled these thoughts, and you would have caught me, alerted by the pensive, frozen smile on my face. You would have placed your hand on the small of my back, reminding me that I am yours, and asked, “You okay, baby?” I would have replied, “Of course, my love.”
Had we remained together, I would have never become a writer. The home we would have built would hold no space for my voice. Only your wit, your decisions, your thoughts, your opinions, would be allowed to swill, snaking like coils of smoke filling each room, traveling into me, your words replacing mine. Had I let myself love you, the love you require would have erased me.
Had I been yours, I would be living a smaller life. The seasons would change without my ever maturing. I would have been considered the ideal degree of smart, the kind that allows for well-versed banter at social events, reflecting nicely on you, especially in front of your colleagues, but I would have never discovered my intelligence; I would have kept it diluted, lest it intimidate or distract from yours. I would have basked in the opulence of your Wall Street wealth but would have never touched legacy of my own.
Had I remained yours, I would have been invaluable to you, without ever discovering value of my own. I would have never grown from a girl who excelled at being subsumed by men to a woman for whom the very notion of being possessed by another has become impossible. Had I remained yours, I would have never grown into the height that comes only by walking through this world without a man. The unshakable confidence that comes from years of not living by extension, a perennial plus-one, years of not having to consider anyone else’s opinion, needs, tastes, aspirations, when determining myself. I would have never discovered the world I hold within.
Had I let myself love you, I would have never discovered the limitless joy that comes from filling into one’s better self.
I remember seven years ago, minutes after waking naked beside each other, when you ended our third attempt at a relationship: “It’s just not the right time, but can we stay friends? I can’t imagine my life without you.”
I, finally, was able to reply, “No, thank you.”
You blinked, once, twice, your mouth half open. Your shock would have been comical were it not so telling.
“Why not?” you asked.
“Because there is no use to keeping each other around. Nothing good will come of it.”
“You’re different than before,” you replied. “You’ve grown.” You sounded both begrudging and impressed.
I look at you now, my past coming toward me as I walk toward my future. Your mouth is pinched in a tight line as you frown, appalled by the nearness of strangers’ bodies. We are walking, walking, and suddenly we are two feet apart. You have yet to realize I’m here. It would be so easy to call your name. To pull your eyes into mine. To fall into the quicksand of you and be swallowed whole. But the truth is it would be neither effortless nor exciting; gone are the days when such was my capability. Gone are the days when being devoured felt desirable.
I stand so near I could reach and touch the light scar on your temple, right inside the hairline, courtesy of your high school quarterback days. I am so close I can hear your breath. You are so focused on yourself, you cannot see me.
You never did. Or perhaps I, so different now from the girl I needed to be for you to love me, have become unrecognizable.
I let you keep walking on your way to whomever you now call home. I walk onward, a woman who has chosen herself.
Love Stories is a series about love in all its forms, with one new essay appearing each day until Valentine’s Day.