After several straight days of rain, the sun was shining in the bright, windswept sky, which I could see out the window of the cute local bistro where I sat. I was wearing a Free People dress and leather boots, reading and glancing up at the window every half page while I waited for him to show up for our second date.
I’d actually asked him on the first one, and had been shocked when he said “yes.” I was shocked again when it went well, and he’d said, “We’ll have to do this again soon.”
So when he rolled into the restaurant (literally—he had a rolling bag) for our second date, I was feeling pretty good. We each ordered a sandwich and a side salad. I started with my salad; he started with his sandwich. A couple bites into my sandwich, he dropped, “So I wanted to talk about where we see this going.”
My stomach sank. My eyes widened, and I felt my eyebrows lift. He paused as if he was expecting my response, but he clearly had something he wanted to say.
“I think I wanna stay friends.”
This fellow was a friend. We were in the same orbits, including a creative writing workshop. I’d known him for a couple years at that point through our shared contexts.
In our workshop, I’d felt like he’d seen the real me. My poetry is often personal, and sharing it with others and opening myself to their feedback feels a bit like lying naked on an operating table. So when he repeatedly responded with empathy and thoughtfulness to my work, it had created a sense of closeness. And he’d shared his work, too. I knew I was part of a small group that he trusted to read a draft of his novel. That indicated to me that the trust was mutual.
After he’d broken up with the person he’d been dating, he kept edging closer to me on the couch at our meetings, and I slowly realized that I was interested in exploring the relationship romantically. When I deliberated with a trusted friend about these feelings and whether to act on them, I concluded, “I think I can trust him with just about anything.”
After his pronouncement, I couldn’t eat another bite of my sandwich. He invited my response. After I had expressed my confusion, in an awkward, misguided attempt at kindness, he continued to invite my response. For some reason, he filled the silence by narrating his dating history. So then I in turn shared how his friend-zoning me hit a raw nerve that I was actively working through: my sense of shame around being single.
Now I was crying. He was visibly uncomfortable. He asked for a box for my half-eaten sandwich and the bill.
The sky had clouded over again. I walked the mile and a half home.
About a week later, I had the closing shift at our graduate school’s bookstore, which is just off a large atrium where students often had meals together before or after class. I went through the closing procedure, tidying up and covering the used book tables in the atrium. And then I saw him across the atrium having dinner with another woman.
Well, that explained his sudden change of tune. So much for trusting him with anything.
I’m still proud of myself for asking him out, and I learned an important lesson that bonds forged over a shared personal pursuit like writing, while real, are limited. Good rapport over writing might be grounds for sharing more writing with someone, but it’s not the same as earned intimacy. It created a sense of closeness that hadn’t actually been road tested yet.
After that second and final date, I regretted that I’d shared so much. Just because he overshared didn’t mean that I had to. It just made me feel more hurt, my trust more deeply broken when I saw him with someone else.
But it wasn’t only his fault. I have some agency with what I share. I did not have to share something so personal with him in that moment. My categories were too rigid—either someone is trustworthy or he’s not. Really, a person’s being trustworthy in one area does not mean the person is trustworthy in every aspect of life.
Catholic priest and theologian Henri Nouwen writes in The Inner Voice of Love, “You must decide for yourself to whom and when you give access to your interior life.” He compares this decision to the lord of a castle deciding when to lower the drawbridge. You have to possess control over that drawbridge, he writes. Otherwise, you allow “yourself to become public property, where anyone can walk in and out at will.”
In relationships of all kinds, it’s my choice what I share, and it’s not a once-for-all decision with each person. Especially where my heart is concerned, I have to ask not just, “Can I trust this person in general?” but also, “Can I trust this person with this specific thing? If so, is now a good time and place to share it?”
That second date with this fellow was a crash course in what happens when I let my drawbridge down and don’t realize when it’s time to take it back up. Knowing that in the moment can be hard, and I’ve not mastered it yet, but being aware that I have the choice—and that it’s an ongoing one—is a good place to start.