As our relationship progressed, I began to ask myself what sort of relationship I really had with Emily. I even raised the subject with her from time to time.
‘Where do you think this relationship is going Emily?’ I would ask.
She would laugh at me: ‘Friends with benefits?’
But then more seriously, ‘You are too unstable for us to think about this relationship. It has only been a few months and you are grieving hard for Marlene. And so am I. We are not ready for a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship.’
I knew she was right but somehow I felt more strongly than that. I realized I had unconsciously held these feelings for a long time. For me, love meant having this woman with me all the time, to cherish and care for her; it was way more than ‘friends with benefits’. I wondered what her true feelings were. She had said that she loved me. But on another occasion when I asked her why she was involved with me, she lashed out in edgy humour, ‘for the sex!’
She told me every night in text messages that she loved me: ‘Good night Mr. D. I love you!’ I looked forward to our nightly conversation and love talk. I liked those emojis, but the scholar in me wondered if these cute little symbols were not serious.
Emily found lots of evidence of my instability. There were many signs: She often detected me off in some distant recess of my mind, or studying her, almost as if looking through her, not telling her what I was thinking, if I knew myself; I often cried in front of her, totally unembarrassed of my tears. She didn’t interpret this as a sign of weakness but of being willing to be vulnerable. And acknowledging the sadness.
Emily was alarmed at my impetuosity; I had announced without prior discussion that I was going to visit friends in Florida, and then I extended my sojourn another week. I had come down with a vicious bronchial infection and figured I may as well stay where it was warm. But she was distressed that she wouldn’t see me for two weeks. When I returned home she admonished me for taking off so suddenly, and leaving her alone. ‘You are so unstable!’
‘I invited you to come with me,’ I retorted, ‘but you aren’t ready for us to be public,’.
The following weekend she didn’t answer any of my texts, nor send me her usual ‘Good night Mr. D.’ message. After two days of silence, I became intensely anxious and worried. On the Monday I texted her in desperation.‘Emily, I have been very upset from not hearing from you. I don’t know what to do. I can’t stand living like this.’ I felt abandoned and betrayed. My yearning for Marlene came sweeping back upon me, and my deep fear of now losing Emily was terrifying. Deep in the back of my mind, I knew it was because of the boyfriend, Rick.
Maybe ‘abandonment’ was too strong a label to apply in the circumstances of this ‘affair’, but abandonment, I knew, was one of my psychological life traps. Marlene may not have ‘abandoned me’ by succumbing to cancer, but the deep loss felt like that anyway. It was now fully apparent to me I was falling deeply in love with Emily, and I was afraid of being abandoned once again.
And I also knew I struggled with the notion of ‘unconditional love’. I was desperate to be sure of her love for me, and this meant I needed to be exclusive. I knew, now, I could not share her with anyone else. I could not be her secret lover. For me, this could no longer be an illicit affair.
Tuesday morning she came to my house, uninvited, came in through the garage as usual. ‘May I talk to you?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ I said, my feelings still tender. I walked away from her at the garage door, but she followed me to the dining room. I stood off from her.
She came around to face me and forced herself into my arms. She took my face in her hands and made me look at her.
‘I want to be with you,’ she said, ‘You must stop thinking about him.’ But she never explained what she had been doing the previous two days.
Christmas is a crisis for many in the early stages of grief, and my own experience was a mixture of classical melancholy and longing, though the longing was as much for my hoped for future as it was for the past. I spent an exceptional Christmas with daughter Shannon’s family, in Charleston South Carolina, a deliberately different family experience. But I longed for Emily; despite daily lengthy texting episodes, I nevertheless fretted about being absent from her.
I felt compelled once again to raise the subject with her when I returned in January.
‘Emily, I know you keep telling me that I have nothing to worry about with Rick, but somehow I can’t stop fretting. I know I have interfered in your relationship, but I can’t help it. I am in love with you now and I want you in my life totally. I just can’t have three in this relationship.’
‘Don’t think about it,’ she said. ‘I love you.’
I noted to myself that she didn’t say she would stop seeing Rick, but I convinced myself that was what she meant.
So I pushed it out of my mind.
As the months passed almost blissfully, I found myself falling further and further in love with her. We were now seeing each other three or four times a week. I was delighted when she stayed over; I relished the small pleasures of domesticity – a meal at home, watching ‘Wheel of Fortune’, or a movie. She persuaded me to watch ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, soft porn but we both found it boring. Our trysts were like an oasis in time, a trip to another world, an escape from reality. I found myself content just being with her.
We began to venture more and more into ordinary public life. We walked the dogs in public parks, though not in our own neighbourhood. I held her hand in public and she didn’t pull her hand away. We began to frequent the local pub; I found it interesting that she was at ease there, so close to where we lived, and close to being seen by others she knew, even her boyfriend. She didn’t seem to worry about it anymore.
I imagined her being in my life permanently. It seemed such a natural transition. I often remarked to her that she reminded me of Marlene, not in appearance but in the way she lived in the moment. It was almost as if Marlene was still here through her. Emily took no offence at this. She seemed completely at home in Marlene’s place.
What really was my relationship with Emily? I believed that I wanted her in my life full-time now. I had asked her if she would move in with me some day; I even teased her that I would marry her if she wanted, even though I had told myself as Marlene was dying that I would not marry again. Emily said she would never marry me, or anybody else; or even move in with me. ‘We are friends, with benefits,’ she would smirk. But I felt I had moved beyond that. I wondered why she didn’t seem to have moved on with me; maybe she wasn’t kidding.