Honey, I've Been Really Struggling To Think Of You And I, And All The Mess, You've Often Bought And Sold, The Love You Gave Ebbs And Flows, So I Don't Think I Should See You Again
Toby Claire Frisson was fourteen when I realized I had real affection for her. I was thirty-one and not really looking for her, or anyone for that matter. But like all happy accidents she fell into my life with all the subtlety of a comet crashing into Earth. She was smart, funny, articulate, and, most importantly, full of this energy for expressing herself in her own way that I recognized immediately.
I remember the story she told me which pushed me over the edge from casual interest into full-blown affection. She had told me that as a kid, at around seven or eight, she had worn oven mitts due to her germ phobia, a phobia which persists even today. She had told me that the oven mitts were the only defense against her hands persistently getting dirtied. You see, it wasn't the germs that bothered her. It was the idea that she could get her hands as clean as possible, but there was no possible safeguard from them getting sullied again. Her bathroom, her own bedroom, and even her own desk at school she felt some semblance of control over. Her hands, though? Those she felt she could never get quite clean enough.
Thus, the oven mitts.
I forget what she told me about how she handled school since she obviously couldn't bring the mitts to school. I do remember, however, that she would place them on her hands whenever it came to walking outside her home or anything involving the possible contamination of her hands. That was her existence whenever she wasn't at school, being the girl who couldn't touch anything--not directly, at any rate. She was the girl who had to stifle her sense of exploration for fear of getting too close. Even now she agrees it was no way to live.
But one day she read a poem by Cecilia Woloch called "On Faith" that changed her life completely. She was eight-years-old and reading some of her sister Nora's English books. She didn't understand every word. She knew that there was more to the piece than she could possibly comprehend at her young age. But she also knew that what she could decipher was something new and exciting to her. She knew there was power in those particular set of words that other words she had been called upon to read did not possess. She wanted to harness that power, tame it somehow. That was when she decided that she wanted to be one of those people who could shape thoughts and ideas into something more than information. She wanted to be one of those people who could chisel words into art, give soul to the page in her own special way. In that effort she began to read every poetry book she could get her hands on. She began requesting more novels, and short story collections, and literary journals. She started keeping notes in class and at home every time an author or poet sounded interesting to her. She began to construct her own sense of style when it came to writing.
For that the oven mitts had to come off. She very well couldn't write with the blasted things on, now could she? Sure, at first, it seemed unnatural to her to go hours at a time without the safety net of cloth around her delicate digits. And, at first, she balked at leaving them off after she was done writing. Slowly, but surely, though she stopped feeling the need to have them off when she wasn't writing. Eventually, she stopped feeling the need to wear them altogether. She said that inspiration could strike her at any moment. It just wouldn't do to have the gossamer thread between thought and words unravel because she couldn't get her mitts off fast enough.
She essentially learned to overcome a slightly superstitious practice because of her love of writing. Her passion for her art was that compelling to her.
That's the tale that did me in, because anyone who could overcome a phobia because of her love for the written word instantly gained my respect, my admiration, and, I suppose, a bit of my heart too. After all, it's not like I ever cured my phobia of heights, ghosts, or aliens because I loved writing that much.
I also recognized another aspect of her character that made us kindred spirits. She didn't have a lot of friends. Not really. Not at all. She knew people and people knew of her, but she never solicited the popularity and attention that so many of her age seem to aspire too. She was like me in that as long as she had a few close individuals of distinguishable merit she was find. People like Jack and Françoise she came to depend on and no one else. No one else mattered, not when measured against the considerable bar set by her close friends and her two sisters. It was exactly the same pattern of establishing a tight circle of friends and letting no one else in. I mean--she wasn't anti-social. Neither was I. She just knew that the more people she let into her life the more her life felt a separate entity from the content of her character. She didn't want her life devolving into a series of displays to keep up appearances. She didn't want her life to overtake her life, and the less people you have to please the more you can concentrate on being who you really are. That was my philosophy and I instantly recognized the same rationale to her lifestyle--like attracts like.
I don't know if I ever had the opportunity to fall in love with her. To me it felt as inevitable as an ocean wave eventually crashing into shore. There was no turning back the tide. She was young, certainly pretty, and she cared about me and my life like no one had cared about them in quite a long time. At first glance, it shouldn't have happened. I shouldn't have let it happen. But, as evidenced here, I don't know how to fight against how I'm feeling. I've never been quite good at denying an impression, an impulse, or a gut instinct. I wanted to get to know her more so I got to know her more. I wanted to hear from her as often as possible so we talked up and down the whole week for years after we first met. I wanted to like her so I liked her. I wanted to find somebody to love again so I volunteered her for the spot.
To be clear, she was never an unwilling participant. I never had to "convince" her. I never her to cajole her. She felt the way she felt. And she said all her words without prompting. There was no trickery involved. What it was at the time and maybe what it continues to be is an understanding between two people that the two of them only work because they choose to involve themselves. It was a meeting of two like-minded people who didn't see any particular need to leave one another. I don't know how to explain it better than that. We didn't have the ability to describe what we were; it just was. And for a time it worked.
When I visited her in 2008 for a few days it wasn't like meeting her for the first time, not really. We jumped into conversations we'd been having for eighteen months by that point. We didn't have to tell each other our life stories, we both knew them. We didn't even need to figure out what to call each other, we had our nicknames already picked out. About the only thing I needed to do was get used to the manner in which her beguiling eyes functioned as a signpost to her emotions. About the only thing that took my breath away was just how full and bright and starry her smile was in person. About the only thing that I couldn't have imagined is the way her hand felt in mine in those first few instances she deigned to give it to me.
We never slept together. That much is true. We never as much stepped foot in my hotel room during those three days. What we did, what we felt appropriate, was just go out. We had dinner. She took me on a tour of her hometown. She took me to meet her sister Faye, the only person in her family who knew her secret. We talked. A lot. It was as chaste as a couple of first few dates could be. I was getting used to the idea that the two of us could be okay as a couple. It was the same way it worked with Breanne when I visited her the first time. It always takes me a few days to be okay with seeing someone that young, that sure of herself, as somebody capable of wanting me. It always takes me a few tries to get past the crazy notion that somebody this desirable could actually want me back. The only difference between my first meeting with Breanne in person and my first meeting with Toby in person, aside from the fact I met B.'s parents and it was Christmas at the time, was the fact that I had to leave just as I had reached that comfortable state with her.
The next time I visited her in 2009 we did sleep together. Napping counts, right? I learned from my mistake and spent six days in Louisville with both Toby and her sister Faye. Not only that but Toby and I felt it appropriate to introduce me to her family. For the most part we didn't lie... all that much. I was Faye's friend from California, it being that much easier to explain how a thirty-three-year-old could be friends with a twenty-year-old rather than a sixteen-year-old. I was also on good terms with Toby after speaking with her more than a few times in the last few years. And I had had a keen desire to visit Kentucky all my life so when Nora, the eldest Frisson girl, had invited me to the wedding I had no choice but to accept. We just didn't inform them that I was Toby's friend first and foremost, that Toby and I had spoken quite a bit in the last three years we had known each other, and that this trip to Louisville was not my first nor was it my first time visiting to see her. You could call them white lies. All I know was I got to go to the wedding as a friend of the family and I got to escort both Toby and Faye around Kentucky, Ohio, and parts of Indiana for almost a straight week. And, more amazingly, those trips out of Louisville included overnight stays where nobody questioned the sleeping arrangements. Naps, that's what we're calling them and that's all you'll ever hear me speak on the subject.
After that I fell hard. And fast. I know I'm an impulsive person. It comes with the territory of being a romantic idealist. Patterns abound when you basically have one overrunning motif in your life. I couldn't stop thinking of her. I couldn't stop wanting to fly over there to be with her. I couldn't stop planning how to accomplish that. It's extraordinary the depths I'll fall when I go crazy for a girl. It's like I stop reviewing any plan of action, and just go. I think that's how Breanne lives all her life, but for me it's rather situational. It pretty much only happens when I think I can't live without a person.
That's the thing about feelings. Like any idea no one knows where they come from. They just appear. I got into my head that I had feelings for her and I went with it. I didn't take time to assess where they might originate from. I didn't take the effort to sort out what was genuine affection and what was impulsive whimsy. I suppose I never actually sifted the sand from the the dirt to know the ideas I was planting would be in rooted in something solid. I wanted to love her and so I did, or at least I fooled myself into thinking so. As much as I wanted to compare it to the case with Breanne, the very notion that that relationship is entering its third decade is proof enough that we did our due diligence and made sure we had secure footing in our journey together. There was no such vetting with Toby. We went with our guts, moved along too quickly, and let ourselves into the trap of being enamored with the idea of one another.
I loved her. I still do. But I wanted to love her so much more. I wanted to love her as much as I thought she deserved, as much as I thought I was capable of loving her. I fell in love with the girl with the big words and even bigger eyes, the fairy-tale-colored glasses, and the heart that was as fine as a bee's wing, so transparent and fragile. I wanted to love her to bits and pieces. Sometimes that wanting is enough, but in this instance it wasn't.
It was a relationship built on a love that was never defined. Did I see a future for the two of us? Marriage and kids and all that accompanied that dream? No. Did I have any clue as to how the particulars of a long-distance relationship would work? No. Did my reach exceed my grasp? Yes. I was a boy longing for the cookie jar, not caring whether I'd break the jar in my overzealousness. That's exactly what happened. I pushed too fast for too long and found myself at the other end of a burnout.
I just one day reached a point when all my doubts and fears came flush with the notion that I didn't really know what I was doing. One day I just called her to basically ask her who she was really. I asked her what it was she thought we were doing, and how much we were fooling ourselves. And when I didn't like her answer I shied away. Suddenly I couldn't defend our relationship to myself. I turned to her and asked her to defend it. Naturally, her answers sounded as false as mine. Naturally, I used that as an excuse to distance myself from her. She didn't deserve that kind of treatment. It wasn't her fault we failed as relationship planners. It wasn't her fault she loved me more than I could love her. Somebody always has to play that part, right? She was the right person at the wrong time or maybe the wrong person at the right time. I kept playing the game even though I didn't what winning entailed, while she was playing a game she didn't it was impossible for her to win.
Her going to college was just an excuse. Telling her she was getting too old was just the cowardly way of saying I had changed my mind. I could have easily made her schooling work for us. There's no huge difference to me in visiting her at Notre Dame or visiting her in Louisville. They're both just as far. And gently nudging her away from coming to USC? That was selfishness. I knew I wanted to end things between us and I didn't want her committing to California when I knew California was not where I wanted the two of us to be together in. I didn't want the sequence of events to be her come to my state because of me, break up with her, and then her being stuck in California for at least a year because I had somehow misled her into coming in the first place. I wanted a clean break. I also didn't mean to tell her she gotten fat or ugly or old or whatever else I had yelled in frustration to her. Sometimes I break under pressure, choosing to say the most hurtful thing I can rather than to tell the truth even if it would be less hurtful in the long run. Honesty sometimes doesn't just elude me, sometimes it escapes from me entirely.
The truth is I never knew how to love her. Not really. Not ever. After not talking to her for eight months I understand that now. I tried to apply the same principles that I had employed in earlier relationships. That's always a mistake. Toby is not Breanne. Toby is not Ilessa. Toby is not DeAnn. Toby is not Kerri Ray. Hell, sixteen-year-old Toby isn't even nineteen-year-old Toby, the age she is now. I should have looked upon her as the unique, truly special creature she is. You can't box her in as being something you have a template for. You shouldn't even want to. I should have loved her on her own terms, as much or as little as I could honestly afford to give her. That would have been the fair thing to do.
And now that she's back? And now that she's willing to give us another chance after eight months of hating my guts? I feel I can be honest with her. It might not sound as sweet as it did before. The reality of the situation isn't as pretty a picture as I portrayed earlier. But there's a clarity to what we feel for each other now. There's no bullshit. There's no expectations for everything to come up rosy, but there's also no fear on my part that everything's going to end in fire and tears and venom. There's just this calm that washes over everything when you know you're speaking to someone you connect so well with on so many different levels. Because that's never changed. Not one bit. There's just this feeling of bliss that overrides the taste of betrayal or bitterness. What we are is what we are. And for now that's good enough.
I don't want any more. I don't need any more. I just want her as much or as little as it's in my power to do. And, for her part, I think she believes in the same thing.
We don't need all the feelings to be in place right now. We never did. We were never one to have a large circle of friends and I guess it's appropriate that we don't need the full spectrum of emotions to be there either. Whether you're in the first few steps of a new relationship or finding your footing again after stumbling for a bit, I think it's just nice to have that chance of something real, something happy. Because the alternative is a life of loneliness, and wishing you had your chances to do over again.
So, yeah, Toby, this I can tell you is true. I may not have loved you the most or known you the longest, but you still represent my best chance at something lasting.