I first met Trey* on a date for tea. He had his sleeves rolled-up revealing an unfinished sleeve tattoo of two Simpsons characters and an outer-space galaxy. The tattoo would come to signify much of our relationship. With Trey I was navigating a world equal parts cartoon-land and cosmos—always incomplete, yet indelible to the mark it left on me.
On our second date, to Bear Mountain, Trey pointed out the late-blooming witch hazel and led us down wooded paths off the marked trails. Afterward, we sat in the lobby at the base of the mountain, talking for hours by the fire. I didn’t hear from him for five days. I assumed things were over. But the third date came, by hand-written invitation left on my car windshield. Date three was a homemade pasta dinner, midnight cemetery trek, and a drive to the cliffs across the river. In the end, he handed me a custom-made CD of the songs we sang in the car.
Like a mischievous Peter Pan with a glint in his eye, Trey was unlike anyone I’d ever met, let alone dated. Content to be his Wendy, I grew used to him flying away, only to return again through an open window. When he felt like talking, we talked; when he was sullen and withdrawn, I lay low. After a dry spell would pass he'd send a postcard with hand-drawn hearts.
One morning he handed me binoculars and pointed to the bright orange oriole on a limb; the next he'd loudly swear when I poured too much milk in his coffee. At one wedding he twirled me around the dance floor till I collapsed laughing and breathless; the next one he'd sit out, arms crossed, identifying the best-looking guests. One day he'd plan future trips and asked if I’d thought about moving in together; mere weeks later he'd say, “I don’t feel that way now.”
After our second date, I told a friend, “Whatever happens next, mark this: there will be a ‘Before Trey’ and an ‘After Trey.’”
How right I was—but not in the way I’d imagined. Before Trey, I never thought I’d take someone back who broke my heart not once but twice. Before Trey, I never believed I’d bend and twist myself for a man who seemed impossible to please. Before Trey, I never fathomed the full-body sobs I could choke out for a guy who left me completely gutted.
But, before Trey, I never knew how sweet the interior moments of dating could be—chopping vegetables from the farmers market, jumping in the living room to a song he insisted I hear, strumming new chord rhythms on guitar, reading aloud about foxes, coyotes, and desert suns. That wide grin and variable voice, his long lean tree of a body, that shock of coarse gray-brown hair like a sharp flower atop a cactus: the whole sum of him slayed me. I never knew how fully I could love someone—to the point where forgiveness barely required effort.
Before Trey, I never imagined the way a man could awaken my sense of adventure-animating the woods and rivers with an almost holy regard. With eyes that took in a wider angle than mine, he pointed out a row of mountains on our hike and said, “See that skyline? There’s something vital in the unaltered horizon that the human eyeball needs to see.”
I envied the shapes and patterns he saw, the birdsongs he knew by heart. “How do you do that?” I said, “… notice in a moment those details of a hawk in flight?” A field naturalist by trade, Trey replied, “I’m a noticer.”
I lived for the moments he noticed me. On rare occasions he’d beam across the table, “I can hardly pay attention to what you’re saying, your eyes are so bright.” But more often he regarded me with scientific scrutiny, some invisible assessment behind his brow taking stock of all the ways I fell short.
I tried to play it cool, but sometimes I cracked. Our conversations during a downswing left me confused, questioning, crying. “I don’t like who I become when the ground’s always shifting under my feet,” I said. My morning prayers found me digging for deeper bedrock, repeating to God, “You are love. I can’t lose love. Love is the truth of who I am.”
After one of our breakups I told my late spiritual director, a 93-year-old nun, “Sister Miriam, everything hurts: my brain, my body, my heart—my whole being!” She paused, then said, “That’s because you loved with your whole being.”
The weekend before Valentine’s Day, Trey broke up with me for the third and final time. For the second February in a row, I found myself at Whole Foods Customer Service, returning the same $8 Valentine I’d bought him the year before. It featured a cut-out paper tent with a couples’ feet sticking out, and said, “With you I’m a happy camper.”
Trey and I had camped together in the Adirondacks and the weekend of the breakup he mentioned my discomfort when our tent got wet, my new shoes in the mud, the way my legs couldn’t ford the streams as fast as his. “You’re not always steady on the rocks,” he said, his stature a foot taller than mine.
My legs are nimbler now, running and hiking and reclaiming life without him. I’m slowly crossing over to a clearer view. But clarity doesn’t come easy. I discover later that while we were still together Trey fell for a woman at work. The one he’d insisted was just a friend. The news hits me like a meteor.
Desperate for a distraction, I began watching “Jane the Virgin” again, a series Trey and I started together. In one scene Jane wonders whether Rafael—her love interest—is “the one” and goes to her mother and grandmother for advice. The latter, Jane’s Abuela, pulls out an old article from a women’s magazine. “This is the test,” she says, “that made me marry your grandfather.” The first question: “Does he give you an allowance?” The second: “Does he eat what you cook for him?” Before she gets to the third, Jane and her mother erupt in laughter, dismissing the antiquated advice.
Abuela shakes her head and says, “No, let me translate. ‘Does he give you an allowance?’ means, ‘Is he generous?’ ‘Does he eat what you cook for him?’ means, ‘Is he kind?’ and this last one needs no translation: ‘Does he know the real you, down to your core?’”
I pause the scene, pondering the unfinished picture of Trey and all that we didn’t know of each other. My heart softens when I recall a relationship of mine long past. Though unsure from the beginning, I married that man—and for four years was never quite pleased, never fully myself, only minimally giving and kind.
When you know better, they say, you do better. So I wonder: what if each of us is just doing the best we can, with what we know and who we are, in any given situation? I know Trey tried. And so did I. It takes courage to leave a relationship that doesn’t feel right.
Maybe next time I’ll love smarter. Maybe next time it will be more mutual. And maybe the only way to make peace with pain—my own and others’—is surviving a rocket-crash to the heart. Amid the rubble I’m discovering that kindness, generosity, interest, and care are there for me to find, and there for me to give.
On a recent day in a different state, I went out with a man who told me I am brave. We lay on our backs on the pebbled sidewalk near a water fountain and prayer labyrinth. I can only make out a few stars behind the clouds, but send up a wish and a prayer of thanks—that I don’t have to be brave alone.
*Name has been changed.