A few months after Eric and I broke up, I began dating another guy. His name was Bryan.
Bryan was sweet, funny, substantially older than me (15 years my senior). He had just gotten a divorce when we met, although he had been separated for a while. Bryan was the dad to two young daughters. I was 21 or 22 at the time, he was 36.
I started spending a lot of time at Bryan’s place… slowly, I kind of moved in with him. For the last six months of my lease, my apartment sat empty and I stayed with him. I’d swing by every couple weeks to get the mail and I was comforted by the fact that I still had my place. Bryan was the first guy I’d lived with.
Bryan and I had a lot in common; similar worldviews, same witty humor, wonderful, deep conversations. He was brilliant, and that was one of the things I loved the most about him.
He was the opposite of Eric. Clean-cut, white collar, no grease under his fingernails. Bryan was a regular guy. He didn’t stand out like Eric did… he didn’t have that strong, almost imposing presence. But to be honest, after Eric, I just wanted a nice, regular guy.
After my lease was up, Bryan and I officially moved in together. While he was helping me pack up boxes at my old place, I came across my Christmas stuff… and the life-size Santa. It made me sad.
I hauled singing Santa to the dumpster.
I was still in school and was still dancing. Bryan struggled with that. He tried to act like it didn’t bother him, but it was obvious. I was resolute that I wasn’t going to stop stripping for a guy. I totally understood if it was too much to handle, but he went into our relationship knowing I danced. It was my choice.
Eventually, my nights at the club started chipping away at our relationship. I’d come home from work at 3:30 in the morning, jump in the shower, and collapse in bed around 4am. I didn’t want to be sexy. I didn’t want to be intimate. I was exhausted and I wanted to sleep. Over time, this drove Bryan nuts. I think he felt if I was dancing for strange men all night and didn’t show him attention when I came home, I was giving more of myself to strangers than to him.
I didn’t want to feel like sex was something I owed him Bryan exchange for him letting me dance… but that’s the direction it was going. And so, the relationship started to collapse. He became insecure and needy, I became cold and distant. Sometimes thing were great, but most of the time I felt like we were ships passing in the night. Bryan was trying – he really wanted to make things work. But I was slowly pulling away.
So, when Eric called me that day while I was driving down the interstate, I wasn’t happy. I hadn’t been happy with Bryan for a while, but now things seemed more complicated because we lived together. ______________________________________________________________________________
The line rang once before Eric answered.
I took a deep breath and my heart started racing. I knew this was a bad idea. I knew I couldn’t trust him. I remembered how much my heart had broke for him.
“Thanks for calling me back.”
But I missed his voice. I missed everything. The way he said my name. The way he looked at me… god, the way that man looked at me.
“Hey,” I said. “It’s been a while.” I was trying to play it cool.
“It’s been a long while,” he returned.
“I’ve hated every minute of it.” I didn’t say anything… I didn’t know what to say. “I miss you, Jess,” he continued.
I missed him too but I couldn’t tell him that. I knew I shouldn’t even be on the phone with him.
The line hung in silence.
“You’re seeing someone, huh?” he asked. He knew. He could read me.
I heard him sigh. “Just tell me you’re not married, Jess. You didn’t get married, did you?”
I laughed. “No. I’m definitely not married.”
“Engaged?” he asked.
“No,” I replied. “You’re the only man I’ve been engaged to.” (by the way… he still is)
“Good,” he said. “Then can I see you?”
“Eric… you know I can’t do that.”
“Why not? You’re not married.”
“I’m not,” I said. “But I am in a relationship….plus, seeing you would screw with my head.”
“Because you still love me too,” he said. This wasn’t a question. I didn’t reply.
“I know you can’t say it,” he said.
We chatted for a few moments about life. Hearing his voice was triggering for me. Emotional. I had started crying but I didn’t want him to pick up on it. He could anyways.
“Babydoll, are you crying?”
And whoosh. The floodgates opened and now I was really crying. “Eric, you can’t call me babydoll, anymore.” I didn’t expect to feel so emotional… but I guess I should have known better. There was too much unfinished business.
“I’m sorry, Jess. Damn it!” There was panic in Eric’s voice. He once told me that nothing made him hurt like seeing me cry. “Please don’t cry… what did I do?”
He hadn’t done anything but I needed to get off the phone. “I have to go, Eric.”
“Jess, no! Please talk to me.”
I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I shouldn’t have called. “I can’t,” I said. “I have to go.”
Before he could protest further, I hung up.
I got off the first exit I could and pulled into the parking lot of an old abandoned gas station. I held my head in my hands. Hearing Eric’s voice, hearing him call me babydoll… it knocked the wind out of me. I missed him in the most bittersweet way. I hadn’t realized my feelings for him were still so intense.
My phone dinged. I looked down and saw a text from Eric.
I didn’t respond.
I sat in my truck for a few minutes, got myself together, and drove home.
I didn’t hear from Eric again for a couple of weeks. In the meantime, Bryan and were drifting further and further apart. I knew this was mostly my doing. I found myself constantly thinking about Eric, wondering how he was. Missing his details.
I was sitting in class on a Friday afternoon when I got a text from Eric.
My heart started racing again.
The class was early British literature. My professor had been droning on about Beowulf for weeks. I was over Beowulf. I didn’t care about Beowulf or Grendel, or the underlying ethical codes transcribed into this masterpiece of German folklore. My mind wandered to Eric.
I started imagining what it would be like to see him. Would it feel like before? Would it resurrect my old feelings of anger? Or love? Would we instantly connect like we had that first time we saw each other?
I picked up my phone. In the background, I heard my professor say something about a quiz. I typed out a message and hit send before I could stop myself.
Meet me tonight at our spot…8:00.
Seconds later, he replied.
“Our place” was a tiny country bar just outside of Tampa. The kind of place with a mechanical bull and drinks in solo cups. It was cramped, a little dumpy, and I loved it. I hadn’t been there since Eric and I split.
I told Bryan I was going out with one of my girlfriends for the night. I lied. It was messed up. Let’s call it what it was.
I pulled into the parking lot and the place was packed. This was typical for a Friday night. I found a parking space and walked to the line of folks waiting to get in the door. I was nervous.
After I showed my ID and walked through the door, I immediately spotted Eric through the crowd. The energy was high, the music was loud. People were everywhere. But when I locked eyes with him, it was like a Hollywood movie moment. I could feel electricity through my body. He was sitting at a high top table. As soon as he saw me, he stood up and made his way through the crowd toward me.
He was just as handsome as ever. Maybe even more than ever because I hadn’t seen him in what felt like an eternity. He was in his regular attire: jeans, boots, a button down with the sleeves partially rolled up, and a black cowboy hat. Just like the first time we met.
When we reached one another, I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to hug him but I felt conflicted because I knew I shouldn’t have even been there in the first place. I looked up at him and he smiled slightly, shaking his head.
“Just as beautiful as ever,” he said, wrapping his arms around me in what may have been the most romantic embrace I’ve ever experienced.
“God I missed you,” he whispered into my ear. I pulled away to look at him.
“I missed you too.”
He grabbed my hand and we walked over to the table he had been sitting at. He asked if he could buy me a drink.
“Please,” I said. He nodded and went to the bar for a crown and coke.
He came back and we talked for a couple of hours… it felt like before. We held hands across the table. I knew I still loved him and I didn’t know what to do about it. Everything about this felt foolish and reckless, which wasn’t like me. I’m cautious, a planner, a dipper of toes in the water… not a free faller.
But the urge to free fall back into the madness of Eric was strong.
As the night progressed, the bar became packed and we could barely hear one another. Eric suggested we go sit in his truck in the parking lot, where it was quiet. I agreed and we stood up to leave. He walked next to me and I felt him place his hand on the small of my back as we made our way through the crowd. Outside, the night air was unusually cool. The sky was clear. We got to his truck and he opened the door, helping me up into that big blue Ford. He looked up at me and smiled. “Goddamn, you’re gorgeous,” and he shut the door.
He walked around to the driver side and got in. We sat together in the quiet darkness for a moment. He reached out and grabbed my hand, lacing my fingers with his.
“Thank you for meeting me tonight,” he said.
I looked up at him. “Well technically, you met me.”
He laughed. “Okay, then I guess you should be thanking me.” I tried to force a smile, but I could feel my eyes welling up.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
“Oh baby, I’m sorry.” He put his arm around me and pulled me close to him. “I didn’t mean to upset you.” He kissed my head. “Please don’t cry.”
I wiped my eyes. “Okay.”
“Why are you sad, gorgeous?” he asked.
I sat in silence for a few moments, trying to gather my thoughts and figure out how to, maybe for the first time ever, speak from my heart.
“I’m sad, Eric…” I paused to clear my throat. “Because I still love you.”
He pulled away to look at me. “Hey…” I was staring down at my hand, wrapped up in his. “Hey, Jess… look at me. Please?” I looked up. He placed his hand on the side of my face, gently tilting it up so he could look into my eyes. “Why does that make you sad?”
I shook my head. “Because we can’t be together.”
“Yes we can, Jess. We can do whatever we want.” He leaned across me and opened his glove compartment to fish out a smashed up pile of fast food restaurant napkins. I always gave him hell for his diet – how he stayed in such incredible shape on a diet of burgers was a mystery to me. He picked one out and handed it to me. “I’d dry your eyes for you, but you’d probably smack me.” That made me smile.
“Yes, I can wipe my own face, thank you.” I dabbed the napkin under my eyes.
“We can do it, Jess. It could be like a fresh start. Get a place together… live life together, talk.. laugh…cook together… love on you every night.” He turned to look out the front window. I could tell he was fighting to keep from choking up. He shook his head and closed his eyes. “There’s nothing I want more than that. Nothing…. I mean that.”
I squeezed his hand. “But you’d have to forgive me… I made mistakes, Jess.” I heard his voice quiver. ” I just want to move on from it all.”
Seeing him get emotional tangled me up inside, even more.
He turned back to me, reaching over to brush the hair out of my face. “You don’t know how badly I want to kiss you right now.”
It was mutual. But I had already crossed lines I shouldn’t have. Bryan would be devastated and I would feel horrible. “I know,” he said. “I’m behaving.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“You don’t mean that,” he quickly added, with a mischievous grin.
“Yes I do,” I protested.
“I understand, you have to say that,” he teased. “But I think you need to break up with that other guy.”
I smiled. “Of course you do.” I took a breath and let out a long sigh. “It just feels so complicated now. We’re living together. And he’d be heartbroken.”
“Love is painful, huh?”
“What do you want, beautiful?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know, Eric. I feel so… conflicted.”
“It’s written all over your face.”
“Most people can’t read me that well.”
He quickly replied, “I’m not most people.” No, I thought, No you are not.
This was a predicament. I didn’t know what to do about Eric, but I knew I couldn’t carry on with Bryan. Seeing Eric that night helped me realize this. It wasn’t fair to Bryan. He deserved a woman who wasn’t still hung up on her last boyfriend. He needed a nice girl with a regular job, who wore pantyhose and flats.
That just wasn’t me. A couple years before, it was. But not anymore.
“I need some time,” I said. “To navigate this. To figure it out.”
Eric nodded. “Okay.” He reached over and squeezed my leg. “We’ve already established that I’m good with giving you time.”
I smiled. “Yes, you are.” I looked at the clock – it was almost midnight.
“I have to get going,” I said.
“Or we could just go run off together right now,” he said, grinning. “Say to hell with it all. We’ll get you new stuff. Let that other guy keep your old things as a parting gift.”
I looked up at him, smiling and shaking my head. “Eric, you’re crazy.”
“Crazy about you.”
“And clearly original,” I added.
“Tough crowd!” he exclaimed. We both laughed.
We got out of his truck and he walked me across the lot to where I was parked. I unlocked my truck and opened the door before turning back to him. “It was so good to see you. Thank you.”
“I was joking before,” he said, smiling. “You don’t need to thank me.” His smile softened and he reached out for my hand. “I love you, Jess. Do what you need to do. I’m not going anywhere.”
I nodded. “Ok.”
“Can we stay in touch?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Please.”
He wrapped his arms around me and pulled me close, leaning down to kiss the top of my head. “Good.” He hesitated to let me go but knew he had to. I stepped up into my truck and he shut the door behind me. I started the engine as he pressed his index and middle fingers against his lips and then placed the against my window. He mouthed “I love you” as I backed out.
As I pulled onto the road, a thousand thoughts ran through my head.
I had found myself in a love triangle…
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