回家 / huí jiā / returning

I’ve been seeing someone for a little while, and last night, in those hours after midnight when pretense falls away, I found out we are on entirely different pages. My page was full of fanciful language and illustrations, question marks, exclamation points, places where I had gone back and underlined one thing, circled another. His push for connection in the beginning, initiating a whirlwind of text messages, the love bombing on our first date, the thrill of connection, exploration. On his page, a thick black circle. Inside it, arousal, sex. Outside it, fear. My page scares him. His page confuses me, disappoints me. Is that really all he’s written? I am left with mixed messages and the rejoinder that he doesn’t know his own mind, though it seems, underneath all his hesitancy to tell me about it, he himself does.

He brought it up, actually. “So, what is our relationship status?” I was surprised. I didn’t expect him to want to define the relationship. I hadn’t broached it, enjoying the early stages and wanting to live in the moment, relishing the connection the one time a week we saw each other and focusing on myself the rest of the week. A boundaried, time-limited, non-committal situationship that lended itself perfectly to what I need now as someone six months new in a country with big personal goals and not much time or energy to be someone’s main emotional support.

As expected, he started off with “I don’t want to put a label on it”. Sigh. Me neither, love, but since you mentioned it, I bet there’s something on your mind. A label is just a name, a handy way to reference a larger conceptual understanding of something. We can’t name something when we don’t know what it is. So, let’s have the conversation. Let’s open the jar we’ve been rattling around and see what’s inside. After all, once we know the contents, we can refer to it any which way we want, label or not.

He tosses a few words around. “Committed relationship”, “friends with benefits”. I see he’s struggling. He opened the door and looked through it, and is now hesitating at the precipice. I walk right through. Look, I explain, I am intentionally focusing on myself right now, and am not available for a relationship that demands too much from me. I can’t meet your parents, be your person, get on a track to eventually move in together, have kids, get married. That’s not on the menu.

But, I say, I regard you as a bit more than a friend with benefits. I don’t feel about you the way I feel about my friends. The sex we’re having is so much better than the sex I have with hookup partners because of my feelings for you. Do you understand? The thing you want and like is happening because of the thing you’re afraid of. It’s so different, in fact, that I no longer am hooking up with other people, because it’s just plain unfulfilling compared to sex+meaningful connection.

This scares him. He doesn’t like that I’ve stopped seeing my hookup partners and am focused entirely on him. He doesn’t like holding hands or other things that make him feel like we’re a couple. “It’s just sex”, he says, “I have no other feelings for you”.

I am hit with the sting of rejection. I feel him pushing me away, sliding securely into himself. Jealousy rages within me. I feel like I’ve lost some sort of balance game, an emotional tug-of-war. I want what he has. I want to unapologetically center myself around myself. Instead I am drawn, again, off my center, wanting something outside myself. I am angry, hurt. I want to hit back, push him away myself.

Instead I think of a previous date, cuddled up on my bed watching a show on my laptop, him spooning me and putting his cheek on top of mine, squeezing me periodically, kissing my face tenderly. I think of him stopping me on the street that night, the night of this conversation, to bend down and kiss me. I think of all the things he said he loves about me, including “just me”. I want to write out a list of all the times he initiated intimacy, tenderness, and affection and shove it in his face, jam my finger down on it, ask “why then? why all this? if there’s nothing here, if there’s just you and your horniness?”

I take a breath. I know that I am not in the wrong, that I am not building castles in the sky, not dreaming of more than there is. My feet are on the ground and I want exactly what we have, what we’re doing. I am accepting what he’s giving me, or was, until it suddenly, abruptly, changed. “Look”, I say, “I am not in love with you, my feelings for you are appreciation, affection, and a slowly growing sense of trust. My feelings are the exact size of the length of this relationship, and no bigger.” He nods. I nod, too, realizing validity and truth as I say it. I will not be shamed, not by him and not by myself, for connecting with someone in earnest. For feeling.

I think of the stolen glances, stopping to kiss on the street, an arm around my waist as we walk, the ease and trust we were building, the connection, the intimacy, all initiated by him. I am frustrated to find myself again in a push-pull dynamic with someone who runs towards me only to hit a wall and back away. I remind myself that this is his own baggage around attachment and intimacy, and has nothing to do with me, who I am as a person, or my worth.

I ask him if he wants something to change, or if he wants things to stay as they are. I tell him I want things to stay as they are. He doesn’t know. In fact, I don’t know either. I don’t know if things can stay as they are. He says he’s tired, asks if he can stay. I say no, we already have a boundary about overnights so I am surprised to hear him even ask. He offers to sleep on the couch. I say no, apologizing but holding firm. He starts to pick up to leave. I watch him, zero poker face as usual, my body language clearly conveying signals of disappointment and hurt, but not drawing out the conversation. He senses the unfinished nature of it all. He looks at me as if to start in again. Instead I just say “it’s late, maybe we can talk about this more another time”. He nods.

I pause to reflect on my growth. Past versions of me would have absolutely not been able to let him leave without a resolution. Past me would have most likely cried. She would have begged. She would have told him all the ways I could change and accept less, whatever he wanted. She would have rearranged her internal reality to suit his every changing need. Instead I now know I should let him go, I in fact need him to go. I need space. I need to be alone with this, to talk to other friends, to sit with my own feelings and thoughts. I like him, but I don’t need him. I need me.

I am grateful for the process of life for constantly returning me to myself. I have put forth my intention to be on my own and focus on myself, and, time and time again, life continues to provide me with just what I’ve asked for. I trust that when I decide I want life partnership, that my longing will be answered by life as well. I feel safe and at home inside my own life, inside myself.

Past me would have been so scared to be rejected. I remember the feeling so well. It felt like being left outside in the pouring rain overnight, thunder and lightning crashing around me and nowhere to take shelter. I have worked so hard to build myself a home. Now I feel I am venturing out from my home, vacationing in other lands, and returning home safe, though sometimes disappointed my vacations have been cut short. I can’t have anyone over, though. Hence, no sleepovers. In the future, my dream is that I stay home, and people come to visit me. I never have to leave home again, and I am safe and secure enough to have someone inside for a day, a month, a year, or a lifetime. I also expect my understanding of this concept and relationship with this concept to evolve over time, and I am excited to see where my growth takes me.

In Chinese, you never say “go home”, 去家, qù jiā, it doesn’t make sense. I actually said this to someone my first week here before I knew how to say “go home” properly and they replied 听不懂 “I don’t understand” (or, literally, “I am not understanding what I am hearing”). You always say “return home”, 回家, huí jiā. Home is the center, the place you always return to. I love the character, too, the little box inside the big box. Walls, a nest, safety, peace. This is what I have built in the last few years inside myself. A home, walls that never existed before. I can never be left outside in the rain again, because I have shelter now, I have a home.

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