Saturday, October 3, 2009

LOADED QUESTIONS

A few posts ago, I talked about dangerous questions. Can we talk? Can I ask you a question? Yesterday I was reminded that the follow-up to the latter doesn't necessarily have to be negative. (He was right?)

But what do you do when it involves matters of the heart far more important than penis size or sexual position?

Do you love me? Do you still love me?

I've never been asked the former, thank God. But I do remember the first time anyone asked me the latter. I was 25 years old and having lunch at Acme Bar & Grill in the East Village of New York City with my second boyfriend, who by then had become my second ex-boyfriend. It was a week or two following our break-up after one and a half years together, and we were trying to see if we could do that elusive (for me) amicable break-up thing.

I don't remember the course of our conversation before he popped the question, but the moment of truth arrived just before our main dish of crab cakes. He didn't ask permission beforehand, but thinking back, I sort of wish he would have. Perhaps I could have prepared myself and somehow avoided the humiliation that awaited both of us.

"Did you ever love me?"

"Of course, I did."

"Do you still love me?"

Years ago, the summer after I graduated from college, I spent three months as a reporting intern at the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina. One afternoon, my editor sent me to cover an event where Jesse Helms, a notoriously bigoted U.S. Senator from North Carolina, would be making an appearance. As I nervously approached Senator Helms for a brief interview, I overheard him chewing out a reporter for asking him a "loaded" question. "Do you still love me?" would certainly qualify as one of those, but I raised no objections.

"I don't know. I care about you. I feel sorry for you, and I want to help you."

Some 15 years later, I realize the blunder of my ways. First of all, no one wants to be told "I care for you." I certainly didn't when what's his name dumped me by email while I was on vacation in Brazil six and a half years ago. Even worse: being told by someone that they feel sorry for you. Not only is it condescending and a tad haughty, but it also implies that the other person is damaged goods. My ex certainly was, but I should have let someone else, like his shrink, point it out. I know this now, but at 25, several years before Sex & The City made being single in New York a multi-million dollar industry and spawned the ongoing trend of analyzing relationships to within an inch of their life spans, I didn't know any better.

My ex glared at me in a way I had never seen before and, thankfully, haven't seen since.

"I don't want your pity," he snarled.

He stood up, threw a 20-dollar bill on the table and stormed out. I felt like I had fallen through the looking glass into a scene from The Young & The Restless. My first instinct was to sink into the crevices of the booth. But I stood -- er, sat -- my ground. I ate the rest of my meal alone, in silence, with no book for company, no cell phone to commiserate with my friends (this being B.C., as in before cell phones).

After paying the bill and asking for my ex's meal in a doggie bag, I walked to his house and asked if I could come up. By then he had cooled off. He accepted both my apology and his lunch, hugged me, and we left it at that. This would not be the last time we saw each other. A week later, he showed up at my apartment with my 26th-birthday present (a Donny Hathaway compilation CD), turning on the waterworks (in both of us, though I saved up all my tears for after he left) and solidifying my belief in the power of love (even when it's firmly past tense). After one final good-bye letter (did I mention that this was B.E., before email?), which I received on the day I was moving out of my apartment, we lost contact for a nearly a full decade before reconnecting briefly and ironically by email.

Although I'm not one to harbor regrets, if I could live this one chapter of my life over, it would have the same ending but the middle part would be somewhat altered. I knew that we couldn't possibly be together, and I didn't want to give him false hope nor a false answer just to spare his feelings. So when I found myself in the sudden-death round of our lunch-time conversation, I inserted my foot directly into my mouth. As I walked home from his house, I hoped that I'd never have to walk that way again, and if I did, I prayed that I'd have the answer that the other person was looking for.

I did. Second time, lucky.
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