Marriage and children! Even as I carried on going steady with him for 7 more months, mostly because I didn't know how to break up with him, even then not wanting to hurt someone's feelings, I had already withdrawn from the relationship the moment after he showed me that vision in his head. I found out many years later that he was married to his college sweetheart, the father of 4 kids and a born-again Christian.
I had only 3 months with the sweetheart of my high school life, right before the end of the school year and the departure of both of us to distant parts of a distant country, to the ribbons of time and experience that were already unreeling in different directions when we got together. That boy taught me about romance, about long hours spent talking with heads on shoulders and arms around each other, about filling a small notebook full with letters to him during a concert tour bus trip I went on, away from him for over a week, in the first days of our relationship, knowing already then it was a bubble, a shining ephemeral thing to be pressed like the blue paper flowers from prom in a book of memories.
College taught me flirting, it taught me fun, it taught me not to take things seriously. I had no heart, I was only a cartoon character despite falling in and out of innocent couplehood with a few laughing boys. Then I fell and I fell hard, my feet swept out from under me completely, totally blind to everything else in the world except the wonder of the size my heart had expanded to. What if? What if I had never learned to love?
What if the person who broke my heart after that 5-year relationship had never done it? Never taught me the power of betrayal, the truth of the cliché that the things that don't kill you make you stronger? Some days I still long for the giddy heights that relationship took me to. Some days I wish I had never taken it for granted in the first place. After that, I put my own ring on my finger, a ring of strength and independence (my preciousss), and inwardly declared that I would never replace it until I was sure that its replacement would be permanent.
What if I'd married the second man who told me he loved me too fast? He, too, made the mistake of mentioning marriage and children. I never made any secret of my aversion to the 2nd and disdain for the first. 3 months we'd been a couple, and a long-distance one to boot. "Love me?" I said, "You don't even know me." That was the beginning of the end.
The one after that didn't believe I could be so cruel to break up with him at all. He made me promise to think about it for a month, even though I knew my decision was final, and meet him for dinner to tell him all over again that I hadn't changed my mind.
The one after that forced me to see that I was not nearly as nonchalant about life as I had thought. He was too beautiful for me in the end, though, and too callous. We made something and broke it together. I still miss the flowers he brought me every week. I miss the way he made me feel in that red and black dress and high heels. I don't miss the high heels, though. And, you know, I don't miss him.
What if I'd married the man who never told me he loved me, the one I told instead, learning what it felt like to be on the other end of that statement and facing someone without a heart, someone like the someone I had been for so long? The one I meant when I confided to my grandmother, a woman for whom propriety and conformity were highest in importance, that I was going to marry him someday. I was wrong, thank goodness, and while I miss him as a friend, miss his unexpected sly humor, his slow smile, his carpenter hands, the relationship I had with him was ultimately all in my own head.
When I put on the ring that I wear now, I knew it was the right one to replace the hardness I had carried around my heart, around my hand, around my life for so long. Maybe I softened with experience; maybe it just took the right place and the right time, to meet the right man. A man who both took me at face value and took the time to learn the value behind the face. What if I had never learned all those lessons? How to love, how not to love, how to be lovable.
The algebra of love, a mathematical sum that brings me to where I am now, never just a simple addition or subtraction. Both plus and minus, a secret x which stands for my heart and y which stands for his heart, a line drawn between us, parentheses enclosing us. I was never good at math, but I've always been an excellent student, and I've been lucky in my teachers.