Why they couldn’t love me 

He lives in Mexico, the most recent. We saw each other at the airport — close physical reflections of one another. He caught my eye while he was on the phone, as he held the tram door open for me. But it was late and I was tired, so I rushed from the tram to find my way home. But since nothing and no one is lost forever as long as we have apps, days later we matched on Tinder. It was “fate,” he said, so we met for coffee.

My instinct knew from the beginning that he was wrong for me, but I wanted to believe in our similarity. The same birthday, the same skin, a similar backstory with absent white fathers and single black mothers. I always say I don’t believe in coincidence, so I told myself that at the very least, there was something I should learn.

The lesson remains unclear, two months later, our last words exchanged over Instagram. I cut him off because he treated me poorly — I sensed unresolved disdain for women. At one point I apologized for cutting him off, after a week of no contact and missing him. To my Insta-apology he said “apology accepted” — nothing more. He never apologized in return for being unable to love, or even like me.

I was not a pretty preteen. I cutened as I aged into high school, but by then my view of myself as undesirable and awkward was solidified, and I carried myself like the girl who couldn’t get the boy. But then, as if the universe conspired to make me believe in my own appeal, the most beautiful boy I ever laid eyes on moved to town and came to my church. I was just shy of 16, the age my very protective mother said I could start dating.

Before him, I’d kissed a couple of boys, held a couple of hands, but that’s as far as it went. My angst was so substantial that at age 12, the picture of Josh Hartnett hanging in my room had a wet mark where I regularly kissed his glossy paper lips.

I was starved for male attention, so when I looked at this beautiful new boy and he looked back and smiled in return, a new feeling entered my body. I was desired, and I finally felt that maybe I could be the girl who got the boy.

But he couldn’t love me. Besides the fact that we were 16, and besides the fact that he was two grades below me because I was one ahead and he was one behind, I think a big reason he couldn’t love me was honestly-earned fear.

We thought we were home alone one night, and started what could be called heavy petting. My shorts were off when my mom turned the key to the front door. I scrambled behind the couch as she walked in, then crawled where she couldn’t see me as I tried to find my shorts.

“Mom have you seen the remote?” I said in a feeble attempt to gain a few more seconds. There was a pause.

“Stand up,” she said, in her once-an-army-captain-always-an-army-captain voice. I stood slowly, revealing myself in a t-shirt and underwear. “It’s time to go,” she told him.

It wasn’t long after that he said we shouldn’t see each other anymore. But he strung me along in the way a teenager with little hope of loving anyone else allows herself to be strung along, and because, to this day, he is still one of the most beautiful people I have ever seen. He sent me to college with a big pink teddy bear sprayed with his (likely Axe) cologne, and I held onto it for dear life that first semester when I was worlds away and homesick. But he couldn’t love me, and the scent on the bear didn’t stay.

In college I met the one who would become my first real relationship. We were friends freshman year and I didn’t see another possibility. Until sophomore year, one fall evening, we had dinner in a dining hall and I realized our banter made my heart flutter. We talked on the phone that night until 2 or 3 a.m., and I, often the initiator when it comes to matters of pleasure, made sure to hold the tension as we wandered into talking about sexier things.

I dared him to come over. He did. We made out for the rest of the night in my dorm room — just about as innocent as two college sophomores can be. We hid our relationship for a while. We “weren’t supposed to date” because we were in a group together and that was frowned upon and we took ourselves very seriously. But after a few months I didn’t want to hide anymore, and we agreed we were mature enough to handle it.

In hindsight I think I knew even then that he couldn’t love me. He had laser vision set on becoming a doctor, and nothing, certainly not me, was going to deter him from being the best on that course. I was always very proud of him, because he is someone to be proud of. I don’t know if he was ever proud of me. He told me about girls he thought were pretty, and I said it was cool — I wanted to be “cool” more than I wanted to know if he could love me.

We had sweet moments, but in the end our two-and-a-half-year relationship felt like a series of him choosing other things before me. And I felt guilty for being mad about that because I knew that at 19, 20, and 21, his life wasn’t about me. What I didn’t understand was why I also couldn’t fixate on something else — why all I ever wanted was his love directed brightly, constantly, toward me.

Years passed after that one. My desire to be loved and claimed never left, so when Tinder introduced me to the man whose interest was so complete hindsight makes it look obsessive, I jumped all the way in, leaving behind friendships and New York City.

I was 26 and he was about to be 30. A real man, I thought. He was a surfer; he rode life’s waves. I was linear — always thought that to get ahead was to go from point A to point B. He taught me to see things in between.

He loved me, but it was conditional. He “loved” me so much I couldn’t breathe — I allowed myself to melt into him and when I looked up, I was in California, riding his wave, which I knew wasn’t for me.

I made myself believe we could make a life. But the writing was on the wall, and I’m not one to go too long pretending not to see.

We fought like dogs, I blamed him for so many pitfalls, accused him of untrue personality flaws —  I was mean to cover my insecurity. I knew I needed to leave, but he was the first man whose love consumed me. When I finally went, it was because I knew our kind of co-dependence would drive me crazy before it would make me happy.

I’ve been alone since then. There are those who have come in and gone out, mostly thanks to apps. There was a skateboarding geologist with the best smile who I wanted to be with right away. He said he couldn’t give me what I wanted after what I thought was the best date of my life. There was the one who aspires to be mayor — “a power couple,” I told myself we could be. But he didn’t see that in me.

There was the engineer from an island with a house I imagined sliding into comfortably, until I noticed I was interchangeable with any attractive, smart, credentialed woman — he didn’t want me. There was the artist who snorted pain pills from my table without asking; the art we made together still hangs on my wall. There were a few who were fathers — their attention often elsewhere. They couldn’t love me.

So when the recent one said “apology accepted” with nothing else to say, I smiled so I wouldn’t cry and told myself, “Courtney, he couldn’t love you anyway.”

All the men I’ve loved, lost, or never had have their reasons, but in the end, there’s no reason when it comes to lasting, serene love. There’s fate, or chance, or someone’s ability to love themselves enough to radiate a vibration to attract real love. But for many others I suspect it’s the opposite — so in want of love they ignore the writing on the wall, writing I insist on reading.

Now I’m 30, the new 27? Or maybe just 30. Unattached, not a spinster, not too cool, not too hot. Just a 30-year-old woman, not far from a girl, hoping to find someone who can love me.


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