Sitting across the table from my ex, I searched for something, anything to inject some humor to balance out the anger and resentment that we were there to work through. A week prior, after being out of touch for a couple of years, my ex had sent me the following email:
I've been meaning to email you for a while. Recently I realized that it's my sh*t that gets in the way of us being friends. I don't understand it completely yet, but I believe that I have issues (that have nothing to do with you) that keep me from reaching out when I think of you. I'm working on those issues.
It ended with an invitation to meet up for coffee. I was surprised; although we lived in the same small town, we almost never ran into each other, and I had long before accepted that we weren’t destined to remain close.
I'd started dating Charlie, then a computer engineer at Boeing, about four months after an MRI at 26 revealed that I was born with a hole about the size of a lemon in my parietal lobe, the part of the brain responsible for judging time, speed, and distance. I didn’t know this about myself until I went to get that MRI, trying to get to the bottom of why I’ve never been able to learn how to drive. My brain has a hard time “seeing” the landscape in a way that makes sense to my eyes (I don’t hold a map in my mind and I have a difficulty translating a map on my phone to the area surrounding me, and it’s difficulty for me to determine how far and fast vehicles are moving), because this can be cognitively overwhelming. It's made me an introvert with extrovert interests.
A precise analytical thinker and my complete opposite, Charlie was my boyfriend for five years. Eventually, after much prodding, we had to come to terms with understanding that the brain is too mysterious an organ to be recoded like one of his doctoral projects. When he started ignoring me and avoiding the cottage that we shared, I felt like a science experiment that he’d lost interest in.
Finally, I felt bullied by his silence and broke up with him. Once we split, we made a pact to stay out of contact with each other for a year. At the end of that year we met up once to commemorate the occasion, but we didn’t mesh easily back into each others’ lives.
When we didn't speak for another year after that, I wasn’t particularly surprised, especially because I knew that helping me compensate for my lack of a parietal lobe reminded him of the exasperation that he felt in caring for his mother whom he cared for until he resented her so much that he would just shut down.
I felt like a science experiment that he’d lost interest in.
Still, he was my only family in Santa Barbara, where we had moved together, and I missed him. So, when I got his email reaching out to meet out of the blue, hesitantly, I agreed to meet him.
I could feel the resistance building in my body as I walked toward the Santa Barbara Public Market where we'd agreed to get coffee. The glossy high-end food court had opened up about five blocks from my apartment the prior summer. I liked the idea of meeting him somewhere that hadn’t existed when he first moved here. I wanted a place devoid of any shared history. The brushed silver and wide glass doors of the market are the entry to a sleek, dirt-free bountiful whole range organic world. No one has a past or a future here, nothing ever expires. There is only a well-lit present, stocked with fresh squid ink pasta and perfectly plump grapefruits.
But the first meeting went well. And, soon, we slipped into an unexpected rhythm: we were going on regularly scheduled friend outings — for coffee, to walk his advisor’s dog in the park, for ice cream. I soon noticed that it was easier for him to hang out with me precisely because I now required so little of him. It was a side of Charlie I'd never seen — that I'd never cracked open before.
Breaking up with Charlie and rebuilding a relationship with him has taught me that love is about both about being in sync in seemingly impossible ways, but just as importantly about being an individual and having compassion with regard to what makes each person different. For instance, no one can lift back the curtain of my skull to know what it’s like to live with an unusual sense of perception. And, try as I might, it’s hard for me to wrap my head around how it’s easier for Charlie to spend time with people who aren’t as close to him.
No one can lift back the curtain of my skull to know what it’s like to live with an unusual sense of perception.
What we share, and what led to both the demise of our relationship and the slow renewal of our friendship, is that we both struggle with the push and pull between attraction and independence. I am always afraid of leaning too much on a partner because of my invisible disability. Having grown up caring for his mother, any close relationship feels to Charlie like reliving that same suffocation.
This week he’s taking me to the grocery store — an errand that’s hard for me, given the never-ending aisles to navigate. I’m going to try to help him pick out something to cook his girlfriend for dinner. Together, we’re starting to learn how to stake boundaries, and also to lean on each other.