I've never written much about my second girlfriend, Grace, probably because it's the one relationship where I carry the most shame at how I conducted myself towards the end of it. It's also probably one of the few relationships that would have worked had I been more mature at the time. My friend Akey once described the difference to me between Grace and my recent ex-girlfriend Desirée.
"Desirée is like this really pretty white porcelain doll," he told me after I showed him a picture. "Grace was more like a firecracker, a sexual minx." I know that sounds kinda sexist and objectifying, but if it helps, Akey is also this big, gay, flamboyant African man from Togo. If it doesn't, well, I'm pretty sure he still wouldn't give a shit.
I met Grace at my job as a project supervisor at an at-risk youth program in White Center. She was actually my boss and I was 20 at the time. I remember first meeting her at the interview thinking she was kinda cute, but not really remembering what she looked like until my first day on the job. Short, petite, brown-skinned Cambodian girl with a spark, but what really got me was the confidence. The way she commanded a room. She wasn't imposing at all, physically, but whenever she spoke up, everyone listened.
We made little flirtatious exchanges on the job and she began inviting me to after-work outings that became less and less work-related as time went on. I only dated one person beforehand so I was pretty thick at the time, not knowing what any of it meant. Even after she started calling me at late hours of the night to talk about life, I'd still ask myself, "I wonder if she likes me?"
It eventually got to a point where we knew how we both felt, but I was too shy to make a move. Plus she was my boss, so I didn't really know the proper etiquette. Finally, one day after we went out for drinks, she pulled up to a motel and said, "So, do you wanna go in or not?"
From there we were essentially together, at least for me we were. I remember we once had a conversation early in the relationship where she asked me if I wanted to date her exclusively. I had to ask her what that meant. She said that I'd be with her and only her. I shrugged my shoulders and said "Sure." At the time, I thought that was the only type of relationship there was.
She'd slowly teach me her views on proper courting manners whenever we went out. Let the woman order first, walk on the outer edge of the sidewalk to guard against water splashes from passing cars when it rained, wait until the other person got into the house when you dropped them off. Basic shit. Things I didn't know.
From that point we were never really apart from each other. I mean, literally, from the beginning, we saw each other everyday. The longest time I went without seeing her was when I went to a boxing tournament in Kansas City for a week and it was good to come home to her after that. I was either always at her parents house or she was at mine. Her parents actually really liked me and I was happy about that. I remember that being the first time something that like mattering to me. Her father was the shy and quiet type, mellow, but had a strong sense of responsibility. Her mother was much more social and outgoing, and you could tell that back in the day she was a looker. I could see which side of the personality genes ended up with Grace. She told me one time that she overheard a conversation between her parents betting on how long we'd last. "I think this one will stick around," her father had said.
The two of us had this connection. I always use the example of us getting something like 12 matches in one round of the game "Taboo" to prove that we were connected at the hip. It's cliché to say we would finish each others' sentences, but we could, and often did. There was just this language between us, inside jokes that would never get old, and saying them to each other before bed each night made the days easier. I still remember that look of relief on her face when I agreed to move in with her after she bought her first house. She told me she was so afraid that I wouldn't and was elated when I did. I didn't see it as such a big deal, but I guess I also didn't understand a lot about life at the time.
We had a routine living together, almost immediately. She paid the mortgage, I did the chores. She'd drop me off at the university, I'd wake up early to make her breakfast and pack her lunch. She had a small battle with anorexia back before we met, caused, according to her, by a mixture of self-image issues and an addiction to rich, fried finger foods. She used to tell me that she'd gorge herself only for them to come up hours later. I did my best to make nutritious meals that would stay down, stuff notes in her lunchbox to remind her that I thought she was beautiful.
We were different people, Grace and I. I was sort of this bland guy where things like discipline and routine came easily. She was more flavorful and wild, living closer to her instincts. We needed each other that sense, like we were the missing part of the other, and the moments where things did clashed, it was funny, cute even. One time I found a lunch bag full of old apples in the backseat of her car, an accumulation of my attempts at packing a healthy snack for her lunches. She kind of gave me this innocent look of a kid being caught doing something wrong and said "uh-oh" in the same manner. "You know I could have just ate them, right?" I said grumpily. We always laughed at that memory for the rest of our relationship.
When I look back on those two and a half years with Grace, I can say that they were probably some of the most peaceful times of my life. I can count the number of times we seriously argued on one hand. Hell, I wouldn't even need all the fingers. But I guess the one thing that always gnawed at me was that I never really knew anything about myself outside of the relationship and that scared me. What if she left me? Who would I be then?
My sister told me the one thing she regretted not doing in university was studying abroad. I kept hearing about how living in another country gives you so much perspective on the world and your life, so it sounded ideal. I didn't know if Grace would see it the same way, but she actually put up no resistance, was supportive even, saying she wished she would have done it herself. Now was the only issue was the relationship.
Being in a new country, meeting new people, new friends, it would have been ideal for me to be single. But that also meant she'd be single. I was a little scared to leave Grace to her own devices. I mean here was a girl that more or less took advantage of a former employee and did it in the boldest way possible. I remember when we were together in that motel room, the front desk clerk called to see if it was actually her. Apparently she had slept with his brother at some point in time, and he called wanting to tell her how his brother was doing. I wasn't the only person she pulled that with, apparently not by a long shot. I guess her past was never something I accepted during our relationship. Her younger days were filled with so much promiscuity that I cringed at thinking of all the times she was with other people. At the time I would have said that I found it to be immoral, but I think I was just jealous that I didn't have any in mine. In any case, I couldn't handle the idea of her potentially going back to that, so we took a shot at staying together.
Now I think infidelity is a horrible thing. It was and still is one of my greatest fears. It's all the questions that get me. How it happened, the first words spoken, how another person could incite a passion when you thought that ability was reserved only for you. It must be unbearable, that pain. But I never thought I'd be the one to cause it.
When asked in retrospect, I guess the reason was many-fold. I didn't know who I was, I wanted to prove something, I was lonely. But it always boiled down to one central point: I wasn't strong enough to protect her feelings.
See here's the thing. Grace thought I would be the last person to cheat on her. Hell, everyone thought that, even I thought that. I always tried to carry myself as this guy who believed in honor, in protecting sacred bonds. But it was a façade, something to brush over the fact that I just wasn't that good with women. "It's not that I'm not good at getting girls, it's because I have a commitment and I'm too righteous to break it," was what I would tell myself and the rest of the world. But my principles were just a petty ideal. They crumbled at the feet of reality, gave way like brittle chalk the moment any pressure was placed on them. I was a charlatan, a liar. I was everything that I so deeply despise today.
The one thing I can be proud of in this whole ordeal, the one fucking thing where I can look back on myself with a morsel of decency, is that I told her. I didn't have to. No witnesses knew her nor would they ever. But I did it anyway, because given the situation, it was just about the only thing I could do. I actually flirted with the idea of not doing it, of going back home even lower than I had already sank, but Akey, god bless his soul, told me otherwise.
"Nick, you have to tell her, because if you ever end up with her, the entire relationship would be based on a lie."
I still thank him today for saying those words to me.
"Get the fuck out," were the first words she said to me when I first broke the news. She meant it. She was pissed. I recognized that tone from a time I came back from the bar and she had a switchblade in her hand after she heard from someone that some girl was trying start a fight with me and my friends. "I thought I had to go out and cut a bitch," she said that night.
I started to walk out after she told me to leave, but then she called me back. "Wait," she said. There were tears streaming down her face, her palms faced upwards in her lap trying to hold onto something in the hollowness of the moment. I'll never forget the look in her eyes when she asked me the next question.
I don't know if it was the way she said it, or the fact that I didn't have an answer, but that question hit me in the pit of my stomach. I had no answer. And I think that was the hardest part. I didn't know why, at least nothing that wouldn't sound absolutely fucking stupid and insensitive at the time, so all I did was stare back her in a way that wanted, more than anything in the world, to take that pain away. But I couldn't. I was the one that was supposed to protect her from ever feeling this way, the one that made things better when no one else could. But here I was, the one that stabbed the knife in her back. I was a fucking chump. Lower than dirt.
"Why didn't you just say something before?" she continued. "If you would have said something, maybe we could fix this, but now...god...now, like this, what am I supposed to do?" She sat in silence for a moment, stewing in a treacherous brew of emotions.
"God, I had SO many opportunities to..."
She didn't finish the last sentence and went back to her thoughts. I was just standing there. My body felt hollow. I wanted to pass out and pretend this all wasn't happening. Then she finally said to me, in almost a sense of defeat, "I just want someone to love me, you know?"
I remember moving back to my parents house later that day. My parents just kinda nodded their heads when I asked them, "You think I could stay here for a while?" I laid in my bed feeling like my body had been cut in half, like part of me was missing. Living with Grace was like living in a symbiotic environment. We functioned almost purely as one unit. I lost sight of that in all my selfishness. I cried uncontrollably that day, partly for losing her, mostly for what I had become. And shit, I was the one that did wrong. How the hell did she feel? I don't even want to think about the days and nights she had to go through after that. They give me chills just brushing the topic.
We ended up reconnecting a few times after that. She had gone back to some old habits. I'd see recycle bins full of wine bottles and beer cans when I stayed over at her house. I don't really know what I was looking for at the time. I don't think she did either. But there was an understanding over what happened, at least some semblance. I remember one time we were in her bedroom and she said something along the lines of, "You know, you destroyed me from what you did. But I'm better now, stronger even. So in some weird way, I have you to thank for that." I didn't really know how to take the words.
In some ways we had a relationship again, except that it was broken, never going back to what it once was. I'd go about my life, as she would hers, just every once in a while we'd be together again, trying to relive an old life that was no longer there. After a few months of seeing each other regularly, I left again for my trip to Latin America, called her once I landed in Guatemala.
"A coworker saw me the day after you left," she said. "She asked why I looked so sad and I told her that the people I love keep leaving me." It came off in a tone between jest and an acceptance of reality. We'd contact each other everyone once in a while when I was on the road. I'd call her whenever I was lonely and hearing her voice reminded me of a home. I remember I was in Nicaragua on my 24th birthday and she was the only person that called me. I owe her for that one.
She tried contacting me again after I came back, but I started dating someone else and wanted to keep that relationship somewhat honest. I left for Peru three months after and called her when the times got thick.
"You know I still have that gift certificate to The Keg," I said to her over the phone a few days before I returned. "I need to go there with someone."
"I'd like that," she said coyly.
The Keg was a steak house we'd go to on Sundays when I was in the middle of training for a fight back when we lived together. It was the only day I'd allow myself to eat something outside of my strict boxing diet and it was a time that would take the edge off both our lives. I thought it would be the ideal setting to bring back some good memories, maybe go back to casually seeing each other once again. But something was different when we finally met. She was distant, colder. Some part of the love that I thought would never leave was no longer there. We went back to her place and she put the ultimatum on me. Told me these sporadic rendezvous weren't going to work, that she felt it was unhealthy for her to keep seeing me, that would make it impossible for her to move on. I nodded my head and moved towards the door.
"Wait!" she said to me. "Tell me what you think."
I basically said that everything she had said sounded logical and that I understood her perspective. I didn't want to end it, but I also didn't want it to get anymore serious either. I still wasn't sure, and I wasn't going to do anymore to her than I had already done. She let me walk out after that one. I still wonder if she secretly hoped that I had wanted to stay.
I haven't seen Grace since that night. I don't really know what became of her. Some people told me she starting dating women and moved to Cambodia. I found out through some minor internet stalking that she might be in Oakland working for another non-profit. I remember her telling me that she had some friends there so that very well could have happened as well. But I'd like to see her again now, even if she still kinda hates me.
Sometimes I envision randomly walking into some smokey dive bar in the run-down district of some city. I'd see her there relaying old stories between the barkeep and the regulars. I'd take a seat next to her and meet her eyes. She'd nod her head, but wouldn't say a word. I'd order her a glass of house red, slide it over, take a hold of my own at the stem. I'd raise my glass and give a toast to our bandaged wounds, maybe throw in a couple of Marb Reds for good measure. We'd take our first drags and breathe out in a misty silence, take a sip to wash away the staleness. Then after a few moments of our respective contemplations, I'd say to her:
"Baby, I finally know how you feel."