I gave you a bracelet for our first Valentine’s Day, something masculine and silver I bought from the basement book store at the last minute. I gave it to you in the student union, where we both spent most of our time at our respective student organizations when not in class. You pretended to be pissed that I got you something because you thought I hated capitalist, corporate holidays and also romance in general and you, a declared romantic, didn’t get me a gift. When I got to my office at the Women’s Center later that day, I found a vegan sub from the cafeteria wrapped in a napkin, a stuffed cow you named Janet, and a note reminding me to eat. It had been 11 days since I went vegan, seven days since I started dating you. That was 14 years ago today.
People tend to think I’m an open person, and I am. Open-minded. Open about my past. Open about bodies and sex and politics and difficult conversations. I try not to judge. I try to say things for which I might be judged when it’s important to say them. The truth is that I’m very open, but I also maintain complete control over how close people get to me. Open is not the same as close, though they’re often conflated.
Case in point, I wrote about my pregnancy for the whole internet specifically because I was so exhausted trying to protect myself in real life from heteronormative conversations I didn’t want to have. I wanted control over my narrative. It wasn’t about protecting private, personal info. I don’t mind sharing the details. It was about allowing people into my life in a way that let me maintain dignity and empowerment. It put up a clear boundary, this fourth wall of the keyboard and computer screen, that let me be deeply real without inviting unwanted intimacy.
I’m a person who has many acquaintances and only one or two close friends. Usually, this close friend is the person I’m dating. It’s a huge thing, to trust someone else with my whole self, the ugly parts and especially the raw parts. I don’t like to be vulnerable. I don’t like to cry in front of people, even. I’m much more sensitive than you’d ever guess and I’m genuinely afraid of being taken advantage of. I’m very open about giving of myself to others, but I don’t like people getting into my head. If I only rely on myself, if I keep my relationships mostly one-sided, it won’t hurt as much when someone I love leaves me.
I left you, over and over, in those first few years. There was the time I packed all my things in my car: two plastic tubs of clothes, a random assortment of personal items, kitchen appliances still in boxes. I stacked my little Dodge Stratus up to the ceiling and drove my things to my apartment, the one I’d never even slept in since I’d essentially moved into yours. There was the time I got to campus, lamenting our break-up that morning, and ran into you in front of the library and it was immediately apparent that you had no idea that my departure was meant to be a final one. There was the time I held you into the early morning after a particularly horrible night and when I went to work that day, we maybe both thought I wouldn’t come back home again.
Then there was that last one, the final breakup, the one after we’d moved into our semi-adult mid-twenties lives and had fallen into the bad old patterns and that one, that breakup was for real. Real like moving into separate bedrooms and real like splitting the rent and real like changing our relationship status on Facebook. Real like staying exes for long enough for you to get sober and for us to become decent friends again. Real like accidentally finding each other while out one night and real like the hair electrified on my arms as we touched skin-to-skin for the first time in months and real like crashing back into our old bed together and real like how familiar your mouth was on mine and real like you earnestly asking if you should go back to your room when we finished and real like me wrapped up in your arms breathing all of you in and replying through heartsick tears, “I don’t know.” You stayed.
The truth is that I never imagined myself with a long-term partner or with kids or married or a house or any of that. Before this one, my longest relationship was with my college boyfriend of roughly three years. We had plans to move to NYC, totally eschew marriage and children for feminism, and live in some crappy apartment somewhere while we pursued our dream careers. That was the vision.
When my college boyfriend and I broke up, it was because of cheating on both sides and the root of that cheating was the reality that we were going in different directions anyway. There’s some other version of my life where he and I stayed together, talked seriously about non-monogamy instead of inching towards infidelity, and where I shaped my grown-up life differently. Would I have moved to Long Island or NYC with him? Would we have grown up together, settled down, and ended up married and heteronormative anyway? Would I ever have found my way to my queer community or would I have always been this disenfranchised bisexual chick afraid to take up space?
You were so gloriously, unabashedly, visibly queer when we met. It isn’t your choice, really, and the hypervisibility makes life a lot more dangerous for you. I know and I can never understand. Not fully. You also made me more visible, more seen. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been clocked as queer in public when I haven’t been a) in a queer normative space or b) by your side.
When we first started dating, I noticed hetero people staring at us all the time.
Coming out of three years passing as straight (not my choice), it was jarring and revelatory. Snagging the most visible and well-known queer and trans boi at school was a serious status upgrade among the campus gay elite. Suddenly I felt queer enough to sit with your friends, to go to the bar as a queer regular. Nobody ever told me I wasn’t gay enough, but I deeply internalized that biphobia until I was on your arm.
When I first started doing queer things on my own, like getting onto the board of our local LGBT film festival, you felt a little erased. Being visibly queer was your thing. Being an outspoken feminist was my thing. If I took your thing, too, where did that leave you in our relationship? What did your path forward look like?
I started one-on-one management coaching at work recently and honestly, it’s the first time I’ve really understood what I’m missing by not going to therapy. It gets real deep in these sessions. I’ve unpacked some stuff that I didn’t even know I was carrying.
For example, I get along with almost everyone at work and in life in general. Even people who I clash with, I tend to maintain a decently amicable relationship with. The secret is that I have a high degree of emotional intelligence and I can adapt to other people easily. I’m mostly able to let negative things roll off me by keeping up a lot of personal boundaries at work. Like in my friendships, I keep people at a distance while using my openness to be viewed as trustworthy. I’ve always seen this as a work superpower and it’s definitely served me well.
It’s also rooted, it turns out, in being adopted, using ambition to mask a fear of rejection, and being self-trained from an early age to learn how to make myself pleasing to others, particularly to white people. Before I started coaching, I knew I had a good grasp on how to “win” at respectability politics and how to code switch at life and in work. I’d never considered that it had to do with being abandoned and being a transracial adoptee in a white family and constantly managing my relationships from the place of “the other” in my family, among my peers, in my romantic relationships, and now at work.
This ability to read people and adapt to them quickly, to appear open while remaining closed, to neutralize my status as an “other,” makes me very successful at flirting and making friends. It’s easy to connect with people in the short-term. Sex and emotion were always easily compartmentalized for me. In fact, I have yet to have a serious relationship that didn’t start as, essentially, a friends with benefits situation.
I was attracted to you because you were so guarded and stone. I was attracted to you because you were powerful, dominant, and very quiet. Before I knew I wanted to be with you, I wanted to be friends with you. I wanted to know your secrets. I wanted to be your person. I wanted to be your best friend.
One day, I asked if you wanted to take a walk around the lagoon with me because you looked sad. I was wearing this long brown skirt and a tiny shiny green camisole and an orange vintage bandana around my hair. I remember I was feeling myself. I looked cute. We took a walk and we didn’t even really talk that much, but I could feel something warm growing between us. We were both with other people and it would be several months before we ended up causing a tidal wave of drama in the college queer community together.
You and I were walking around another night on campus after we were dating when I confided quite unnecessarily theatrically that I was “weirder than you know.” You said you already knew I was pretty weird. I laughed. You had no idea. What I meant to express is that I wanted to show you all of me, the complicated parts of me, that I thought we were on that path together and that you wouldn’t know what to do when you saw it all, when you found me curled up on the floor of your roommate’s closet sobbing after a fight and I was right. You didn’t know what to do when you saw me break down. “You’re always so strong,” you said. “It scared me to see you like that.”
People think we’re relationship goals. We are. I believe that. I don’t think we’re perfect; we’re far from it, but we’ve figured out how to make “us” work. What I want to tell people, though, who think we are just two spectacular beings cut from beautiful Instagram filtered cloth, is that we’re this good because we’ve been with each other at our worst.
I don’t know that there’s anything we can’t get through together because I know you at your lowest points and you know me at mine. I don’t know if there’s anything that we can’t talk about, because we know each other too well to keep secrets from each other. I don’t believe there’s only one person out there for me, but I believe you and I have put so much work into ourselves that it’s hard to imagine being with anyone else. I want to tell people who think we have this perfect relationship that we got here only because we fucked it up so bad in the beginning, because we had to become whole people apart from each other, because we’ve had to work at rebuilding trust and forgiveness over many years to get to this rock-solid place.
Now that we have a kid and we’re both working so much and so hard, I worry sometimes that we’ll float away from each other. Even now, as I’m typing this, you’re watching TV alone so I can work, coming off of a week where we barely saw each other and usually saw each other just long enough to catch each other up on the bare minimum. I sometimes worry we will lose our connection directly to each other, that we’ll become very good best friends but lose our ability to connect as partners.
You vehemently resisted going with me to Sleep No More the first time I dragged you along. “This sounds like your thing, not mine,” you lamented. Actually, I think you said, “That sounds stupid.” It was my first immersive show and I wanted to share it to you when I went back a second time. I knew you’d either hate it or fall in love with it. When you ran off on a whim and I didn’t see you again for three hours, I knew it was surely the latter.
Over 100 visits to the same show later, we’ve developed a semi-well-followed fan blog on Tumblr as a couple, gone to over a dozen other immersive shows and events and parties, and found a new shared love around this place and the friends we’ve made inside it. We’ve spent countless hours talking about it, re-hashing the same stories and talking trash and gushing about favorite moments and positing new theories.
We’re our best versions of ourselves in that space. You find this confidence and extroversion that you don’t have anywhere else. I put aside work mode and over-thinking and just exist as a person who doesn’t have to talk and who follows my own whims and who doesn’t owe anyone anything. It seems like such a frivolous thing to anyone outside our world, this show we keep throwing money at and this artificial place we return to again and again and this online fandom we treat like family. What we can’t really articulate to non-fans is how deeply it tethers us to our deepest selves… and to each other.
I didn’t know we could find new intimacy together like this again, so many years into a relationship and so long after we’d cooled off in other ways. It’s reassuring to know that we’re still exciting people, past the decade mark into our lives together, that we can still find ways to seek adventure now that the slick drama of our early years together has faded into well-worn comfort.
I’m not programmed for monogamy or non-monogamy. I don’t feel either one in my bones. Maybe it’s because I’m also bi/pan/queer/whatever, because I’m so obnoxiously tuned in to being open to everyone and able to adjust to where they’re at. Maybe it’s because I don’t like to commit to one true truth about anything. (I know, how queer.) I’ve just never felt strongly called to either and I’ve done both and found it about equally challenging. That said, I’ve also cheated — a lot — including in an open relationship where I broke our commitments.
At some point, the part of me that’s afraid of losing control or of showing my vulnerabilities or of letting someone get too close to the real me freaks out. It was always easier to cheat and run than to deal with what was actually wrong, which was usually that I was feeling hurt or suffocated or both.
You are the only person I’ve remained faithful to who I’ve dated for more than a minute. Even during our real breakup, I didn’t want anyone else. And I tried to want it! It hasn’t been hard. Despite the fact that you knew I wanted a city life, a childfree life, would probably put my career first, and that you wanted the opposite of those things — you chose to be with me. It’s only because of the sacrifices of your own needs that I realized that I wanted to give you all the things you want, too.
The truth is, I didn’t see myself married, in a house we own, with a child I carried, in a place in my life where I don’t want to move away or run off to the next tempting thing. I never thought I’d want stability, but here we are. I want this life with you, where we both have our dreams on the table, where we both have our needs met, where we make decisions together. I want it because you never tried to change me or hold me back or make me a different person than I innately am.
When I considered taking a job in DC or going to law school in NYC, you took a deep breath and said you’d move or we’d work it out. When I said I didn’t want marriage or kids, you never once tried to talk me into changing my mind. When I took a job in a city, you came with me and you made this your home. Whenever I wanted to try something new or go back to school or write a freaking book while our child was less than a year old, you encouraged me to do it.
I want these things with you — marriage, stability, children, a mortgage — because of you, because there are no expectations, because we aren’t following a cisheteronormative path towards assimilation, because we’re creating something new and deeply queer and true to us, because I know we’re in this together.
I still like to have an exit plan in the back of my mind and you indulge me in our unofficial discussions of who will take custody of which pet if we divorce, but I don’t actually have one foot out the door. Not anymore.
What I’m saying is, you’re stuck with me.
You’re stuck with my hurricane-level ambition and coordinating procrastination, my late night deadlines and my early morning meetings, and my inability to fold a piece of laundry. You’re stuck with my coffee breath and my dry shampoo routine and my general unhelpfulness when it comes to meal planning. You’re stuck with my always leaving my hair in the shower drain and forgetting to turn my phone ringer on and occasionally forgetting your birthday. (Still super sorry about that!) You’re stuck with my writing this, now, at 2:30 AM on the day it’s due, while you fall asleep on the couch. (I know you’re tired over there. Don’t lie. Go to bed, already!) This is what you signed up for, buddy. I’m yours. All of me.
February 7th was our 14th dating anniversary and our 8th marriage anniversary. My Google calendar reminded me last week as I was setting up my computer for the night class I adjunct. The notification popped up in the corner of my screen where the whole class could see it. “I guess I should get a card on the way home!” I quipped. When I got home, I picked up the baby from the sitters and put in two delivery orders for us. Chinese food for me and, because I know you don’t love Chinese take-out as much as I do, beef empanadas and cheesy fries for you. When you got home, it was almost 11 o’clock. We’d barely seen each other or spoken a word all day.
“Happy anniversary! I got you something!” I said.
“Oh. I didn’t get you anything,” you replied sheepishly.
“Just kidding. It’s dinner!” I announced, gesturing toward the pile of lukewarm-ish take-out bags in the kitchen.
“Oh, good. I got you something, too, then,” you said, holding up a plastic grocery bag. “I had to stop and get diapers, anyway. I got you cake!”
KaeLyn, that was beautiful. I wish you so much love in times to come.
I wish the very same for you, @Ish!
I appreciate this so much! Having just broken up with somebody I adore because commitment felt inauthentic for where I’m at, this helps me envision that if we DO get back together, this break up can be a part of a story of being real with each other at different stages.
I actually often thing that we would have been just fine if we didn’t get back together, @kaylster! Like, that’s the whole thing. We had to believe that we would never get back together and we both had to figure out how to be OK with that…in order to be ready to even try being together. The break-up was the right thing to do, honestly. I wish you happiness in whatever comes next for you, and that you give yourself time to figure out what DOES feel authentic!
I love this so so so much!! I tried to pick a favorite part but I have too many favorite parts!! Maybe it’s because I’m a Capricorn too, maybe it’s because I can’t really imagine myself settling down with anyone and this essay oddly made me feel like that’s okay, maybe because you are indeed relationship goals if I ever embark on one again and that’s fucking beautiful and inspiring, maybe I just love you…but wow. Thanks for sharing this with us. A very happy anniversary to both of you!!
Cap love, @floralprintdress! I always thought I’d be best matched with someone who was just like me, a “power couple” kind of thing. I think, though, honestly, if I was with someone just like me in that way, we’d just end up breaking up? Because we’d both be putting our own ambitions ahead of ourselves AND each other. Anyway, I love you, too! <3
That was beautiful!
I know you didn’t use this language in the piece, but a lot of the stuff around your attitude towards relationships was super relatable to me as someone with an avoidant attachment style. I haven’t read much personal writing on relationships by other avoidant attachment type folks (everything seems to be by people with healthy attachment styles or anxious attachment styles!), and I so appreciate reading about your story. Thank you for sharing so much with us <3
I have never identified with an attachment style, but I just looked up “avoidant attachment type” and I feel attacked. LOL. Yes, that is SO me, @sketchyblondes. It is exactly how I operate. I’m glad to have a way to think about and describe it now other than…stone cold sweetheart aka “You’ll love me way more than I’ll love you, but it’s OK I like it that way.”
Wow this was amazing writing KaeLyn, and an amazing story of your relationship. Congrats on your anniversary!
14 years is pretty wild at our age. We are definitely a rarity among our friends, @emkresge! Thank you!
You’re one of my favorite writers on Autostraddle and I loved this entire essay/love note!!
Archie!!! I feel like you are one of the coolest people maybe in the world, so, like, that’s high praise coming from @whiskeyghost, rad queer artist magical human.
This is the most beautiful love letter I have ever read.
Aww, shucks. Thanks for reading, @millsy!
This was absolutely beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing!
Thank you for reading and commenting! I feel really seen, @possibleghost. :)
KaeLyn, I love your writing and I love following your life! Thank you for writing this. Happy Anniversary!
Thank you, @cline-davis! It means a lot!
i LIVE for waffle’s catstagrams!
@cline-davis, I will tell Waffle! A lot of time and thought goes into those Instagram posts and stories so it’ll be appreciated!
I… just loved this letter, wow <3
I… appreciate you, @lurkinglate!
Wow, this made me cry in parts. That does not happen often
I don’t know why my brain did this, but I initially read your comment as “Wow, this made me cry in my pants,” which is quite a strange and maybe concerning expression.
ANYWAY, @lifetree, thank you and I’m sorry I made you cry because as someone who really does not like to cry in view of others, I appreciate how much it means to be moved to tears.
Thank you for writing it!
this is beautiful KaeLyn
Just like you, @bbpapi! <3 Thank u!
“The truth is that I’m very open, but I also maintain complete control over how close people get to me. Open is not the same as close, though they’re often conflated.”
Thank you, @deli-twotone. I’ve always been that person people come to for help, but also that person people can be cruel to because I intentionally appear impenetrable.
Beautiful, KaeLyn. Happy anniversary to both of you.
Thank you, @iarrannme!
This was very beautiful and pull all the right strings in my heart. Thank you for sharing this!
Thank you for reading, @needlesandpin!
this was so wonderful kaelyn! obviously writers come and go around here all the damn time, but i’m consistently so grateful that you’ve stuck around and kept sharing yourself with us as you move through so many different life stages. i teared up at the most unexpected parts of this!
I’m so glad you’ve kept me on, @riese! Thanks for being a safe place for me to publish stuff like this and also for keeping me around despite my tendency to turn things in at 2:30 AM the day after they’re due!
Thanks so much for this! I started reading it over lunch and missed at least one bus because I couldn’t stop reading it. Then finally walked to the bus stop because I was feeling like I would cry and I too don’t cry in front of people especially in public. I related to this on so many levels. Happy Anniversary and love day.
It was the part about coffee breath and dry shampoo, wasn’t it, @allykr? Really got to you, huh?
Thanks so much and I’m sorry you missed your bus!
Real like accidentally finding each other while out one night and real like the hair electrified on my arms as we touched skin-to-skin for the first time in months and real like crashing back into our old bed together and real like how familiar your mouth was on mine and real like you earnestly asking if you should go back to your room when we finished and real like me wrapped up in your arms breathing all of you in and replying through heartsick tears, “I don’t know.” You stayed.
wow thanks for making me cry so hard kaelyn, esp at this part, like i feel the relief in your words, i can pinpoint moments i felt this way and it’s beautiful and palpable to experience that memory through your words.
also thank you for verbalizing what i have always struggled with my entire life — being pleasing, but then forming superficial and fleeting relationships with people because of it, only trusting a few — all of it resonated.
thanks for sharing this with us.
Yup, I think it’s a thing a lot of POC experience, you know @sarsquared? It’s a survival strategy, being pleasing while protecting yourself from potential hurt. It makes a lot of my friendships unintentionally transactional to the point that I start to resent people for how much they “take” and gravitate towards people who just don’t ask much of me. It also makes me very, very fragile when I establish real intimacy with someone and they break my trust. I retreat into my pleasing-but-very-closed space immediately and it takes forever to earn back my trust (if you ever can).
Nah, @kaelynrich, I’m not crying! This is so relatable and important and forms words for me. Though I still have to figure out how to find my Waffle who stays long enough for a real thing to build up while I am still on the harsh road of looking for support to unpack my attachment issues!
All the best for the both of you sticking together in a positive way!
Omg, your tiny baby photos. It makes me wish I had more photos of me from high school or college, but I was a severely depressed camera dodger so they are few and far between. R and I are celebrating 2.5 years now which is INSANE to both of us as previous to this we had very few, and very short dating experiences. I know counting half year dating anniversaries seems a bit much, but when it falls on V-day it’s hard not to!
Happy 2.5! Loved the doggo note on your wipeboard, @zoologyrocs! Y’all are too cute!
This was deeply moving. The idea of writing online as a way of being open from behind a safe boundary is incredibly relatable. Thank you for letting us in for this brief glimpse of what vulnerability means to you. ❤️
Hi, @chandra! Thanks for your comment. I’m glad to hear that you can relate to me fun self-protection strategies :) Miss you!
Crying in the gay bar right now
Hope it was a good cry @piercedsilly! <3
<3 to you and yours.
Same to you and your fam, @shewasnice!
this was a great read!
I relate to a lot of what you say, and at the same time, relate nothing at all with other aspects. It’s like we’re different people or something! :P
Anyway <3 to you and your family
Thanks for reading, @triplem!
This love letter gave me so much life. Thank you for sharing. Happy Anniversary to you both and wish you many more.
Thank you, @woodstock956! Your comment means a lot to me!
Firstly, Happy Anniversary to you both. I’ve loved reading your story.
Secondly, I don’t think I’ve ever heard or read of a relationship and couple story that so closely mirrors the story of my partner’s and my own. Perhaps all successful partnerships have the same sorts of trials and transformations in their lives but there is just so much that is familiar here. Including how you and I relate to the world around us.
KaeLyn, I love your writing and I love how much you share. Thank you for this one!
Late to reading this but this was so beautiful. Thank you for sharing, KaeLyn.
This was so beautiful. I really love that part about new intimacy in a shared fandom because that rings very true and I think a lot of people assume that sort of engagement always has to be shallow.