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Unconditional

“I made up my mind I was going to find someone who would love me unconditionally three hundred and sixty five days a year, I was still in elementary school at the time – fifth or sixth grade – but I made up my mind once and for all.”

“Wow,” I said. “Did the search pay off?”

“That’s the hard part,” said Midori. She watched the rising smoke for a while, thinking. “I guess I’ve been waiting so long I’m looking for perfection. That makes it tough.”

“Waiting for the perfect love?”

“No, even I know better than that. I’m looking for selfishness. Perfect selfishness. Like, say I tell you I want to eat strawberry shortcake. And you stop everything you’re doing and run out and buy it for me. And you come back out of breath and get down on your knees and hold this strawberry shortcake out to me. And I say I don’t want it anymore and throw it out the window. That’s what I’m looking for.”

― Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

There’s a certain kind of love, when the impossible happens and agape settles over eros, storge, and philos. It is unconditional.

Unconditional love is a horrible thing. I suspect those who want it are lucky and unimaginative both: it doesn’t occur to them just how bad conditions can be. Even as a kid I sneered at it: the Giving Tree was a cautionary tale, surely, about giving up oneself for someone who may not care at all.

When it happens, it’s not by choice. I don’t want it. It’s more than vulnerability. It’s illogical. It pushes aside “why do I even care?” no matter how valid the question. Why doesn’t matter. Supporting this person will be a priority. I’ll sort myself out later.

It’s automatic. Unexpected, the first time. I’d always been so good at walking away from anyone who hurt me. From anyone, really; cut-and-run was an easy solution to any argument. But there I was, wedged in the back of a closet in the middle of the night with an overheating cell phone pressed against my face. Listening to a voice I’d heard grow and change all the way from childhood say “You’re so much smarter than I am, and I can make you an idiot. That’s all you had going for you–being smart. If you’re not bringing that to the table anymore, what good are you to me? I never cared. I just wanted to see if I could make you care. If I could break you. It was easy.” There was more. I don’t remember–I spent the better part of that night in fugue–but he said there was worse, later. That he was too ashamed to repeat it, that it was inexcusable, unforgivable, and please-believe-me none of it was true.

Inexcusable. Unforgivable. He was probably right.

I couldn’t say anything. Couldn’t tell him to stop, ask why, apologize, beg, anything. The closet was a safe space: small, cramped, easy to control. I could lock out the whole world, every threat and person and object except my own clothes and shoes. I brought the phone with me. He was causing the panic, too-calm words spinning me into nothing like a spell, but I brought him with me. I was so afraid that whatever had caused this was hurting him. I couldn’t go unless he told me to, couldn’t hang up in case he needed help.

Inexcusable, but I spent weeks talking him through it. Excusing it. He was mentally ill. We talked for hours, found the process that had brought him there. I understood. We were badly cracked but not broken, both willing to patch each other with pieces of ourselves. Unforgivable, but I forgave him long before I understood.

I was in love with him. Horribly, impossibly, unconditionally. I never said it. Not even after I admitted it to myself, nor after he said the words to me. There was no point. We were dangerously incompatible. His mental illness, and mine. His religious devotion, my near-atheism. His monogamy, my unwillingness to consider it. He wanted children so badly. I never have. Impossible.

I thought it would eventually fade. I’ve been passionate, fond, and philosophically and intellectually engaged before. It’s not the same. Those relationships form connections–strong ones–but cruelty, incompatibility, boredom, even distance wears them down. They need maintenance, building up. To be clear, that’s one of the best things about them. Affirming the worth of a relationship is part of keeping it intact. When that other valve opens, it turns sand to concrete with me sunk in its center. Once it sets, all I can do is learn to walk with the weight of it.

I had hoped to be done with the unconditional. It isn’t better. It’s not just illogical but harmful. The first one broke me. Survivable, but life with a missing limb. The place he used to be still hurts. I wanted never to do that again. I went through stages of grief falling for the Techie: No, this isn’t real, just a biochemical surge fueled by intense play and incredible sex; it will pass. No, I refuse, how dare I even think of falling for him? Okay, yes, I was playing too close to the edge but if I back off maybe we can go back to just fun. Fuck, I hate myself, why can’t I be smart enough not to do this again?

I haven’t seen him. Not because I’m hurt–sure, it was a measurable quake, but I’ve been through worse with people and come through still friends. There’s just no point. He’s showed no interest in maintaining anything. Best leave it alone.

I have been spending time with his girlfriend. She’s unhappy. Doesn’t trust him (who could blame her?). I don’t mind talking her through some of it, though I tread carefully around offering advice. He’s my ex; there are so many reasons not to go there.

She said something. “He’s mopey because he thinks he doesn’t have any friends anymore. And all I can think is ‘whose fault is that?’ you know? The way he treats people doesn’t exactly earn friendship.”

She’s right, of course. But that’s not the way I think. It’s automatic: he’s unhappy, I wish I could help. If he did want friendship, I’d still be there.

Unconditional. It’s pretty well fucked up.

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