Discuss: Lessons from the Inside of a Burning Match

Apr 20, 2012

As you grow older, one of the few constants in life is that your current self will look back at your past self–two or five or ten years younger you–and think, “Boy, she was kind of idiot, wasn’t she?”

You’ll grow and mature and realize that some of the things that you thought and some of the things that you did were just plain wrong. Sometimes you’ll laugh about it, sometimes you’ll cry about it, sometimes you’ll drown in the deep regret. And if you don’t, then you are either Mary Poppins (practically perfect in every way) or you should re-evaluate your perspective.

The truth is that as we age, we grow emotionally, spiritually and intellectually. Some more, some less. And if we’re lucky, the lessons learned along the way will inform and better our decisions.

When I was 16, I met a boy who was incredibly smart, handsome and funny. He was also wildly inappropriate, the kind of boy who fathers hate and grandmothers fear. But I spent the next few years nursing a secret crush on him, until one night, he admitted that he felt the same way about me. I almost died from the shock. (And thank God I didn’t, because my last outfit would have been jeans and a navy hoodie. My friends thought I should “dress down” for the one high school party I attended.)

We never got together he and I. At least, not in the traditional, socially accepted way. He was never my boyfriend. I was never his girlfriend. But we went to the same college, so for several years, he found his way into my life from time to time. He also found his way out of it, usually in fairly short order. Sometimes the damage was bull-in-a-china-shop, other times it was barely a scratch.

People who knew us were perplexed by what made us tick. On the surface, we were deeply incompatible. I was an introverted homebody whose idea of an exciting Saturday night was West Wing DVDs and Chinese takeout. Maybe cocktails at a friend’s house if I was feeling adventurous. While he was wild and reckless, diving headlong into whatever and whomever could sate him until the next thing came along.

But aside from all that divided us, we connected on some deeply personal level, in a way that I had not felt before and have not experienced since. A trusted friend once described us as two strings tuned to the identical frequency, inaudible to the human ear.

Like many people who feel that kind of passion but cannot make the day-to-day work, we were very good at hurting one another. I was armed with an acid tongue and a rapier wit. He packed a pistol full of indifference and a magical cape that allowed him to disappear into the ether as if he had never existed at all.

Even with 2,500 miles between us, we continued to pass in and out of each others lives. Though the damage one can cause from three time zones away is significantly muted. But in 2007, I had enough.

I didn’t burn the bridge. I Napalmed it. At both ends. Or so I thought.

Once someone has you like that, they’ll always have a piece of you. There’s just no getting it all back.

During the in-between years, I imagined how our first conversation would go about 654,327 times, give or take. The fantasy was exactly like the reality. We laughed. We yelled. We expressed our regrets, unable to believe that we had been talking around each other for so many years. We admitted that we still felt the same things that we felt over a decade ago. And when it was over, I sat in my bathtub with a bottle of Piper of Sonoma until the water was colder than my glass of bubbly.

We are still deeply incompatible on the surface, and too alike for our own good underneath. We are older and more mature, one of us more than the other–though I am sure we wouldn’t be able to agree on which. I can still say things to him that I can’t say to another living soul, and I can still tell him what he’s thinking before he opens his mouth to speak. Nothing has really changed, and yet, everything has changed because Belle 2.0 knows something that BetaBelle didn’t, something that I’m going to share with all of the ladies who read this blog:

“When it comes to men who are romantically interested in you, you should ignore everything they say and pay attention to only what they do.”–Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture

A conversation can feel like sustenance, like nourishment, like hope and possibility, and it can fill you so full that you take flight. But, a conversation is just words if the follow through isn’t there. You can feel something from the top of your head, to the tips of your toes, but if you’re not willing to act on it, it’s not really real. And at almost-30, I’ve learned the difference between a fantasy and reality. One you want, the other you need.

The hardest thing in the world is to let your logical mind overrule your heart. Hope and emotion are powerful motivators, but insanity is repeating the same behavior and expecting a different result.

This time, I didn’t need to flee from the flames of the burning bridge like Scarlett from Atlanta. Though I did stand there holding the match for a long time. But sometimes, it’s better to just brush the ash from your shoulder, and cross the bridge knowing that if the other person doesn’t follow, you’re better off alone. I suppose that’s the other thing I know now that my younger self did not.

Editor’s Note: I wrote this post several months ago and forgot about it. It might be too personal to share on this blog, but oh well. I’ll hardly be the first woman to talk about her past heartbreak on the Internet.

Discussions

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  1. L says:

    Kudos to you for writing this… I honestly think this is a story many women can relate to! It is comforting to know that not only has someone else gone through this type of situation, you've also made similar mistakes/decisions and came out stronger in the end. You may be a style blogger but your social commentary and personal stories have always incited entertaining debate/discussion and I appreciate the detour from fashion, if only for a bit!

  2. Kate says:

    Ah jeez Belle, you really made me test the limits of some of your other advice about not crying in the workplace with this one. I think I speak for a lot of “Beta” versions out there when I say logically, we know what we should do and we're good at nodding and smiling when we get advice like that. But when the advice is more of a personal anecdote about crossing that bridge – sometimes alone – and still surviving? It packs a heck of a wallop. And oddly enough, gives me a little hope.

  3. Katie says:

    perfect timing. thanks,

  4. m says:

    I really appreciate this post – your blog is great for appealing to different crowds/styles and showing something for everyone in the fashion world, but this post is a universal truth and I'm very glad you shared.

    Props for having the wisdom and maturity to take care of yourself.

  5. AG says:

    Thank you for sharing, Belle. Like Katie said, perfect timing.

  6. Anon says:

    Perfect timing and beautifully written.

  7. Helena says:

    Wow, that was unexpected. Thanks for opening up and sharing your story so movingly and eloquently. I don't know a woman over 30 who doesn't have a similar one and, without exception, once they realized that actions speak louder than words, they too let go.

  8. Melanie says:

    Love the honesty and prose of this post.. You are your mother's daughter. As pawpaw says, ” doing what is best hurts more for awhile” . perspective 'awhile' can be a lifetime. It really doesn't hurt us one bit, to want what we can't have and can hurt a lot less than getting what we want. There is no way to KNOW for sure, we just keep eyes forward and feet moving in the same direction. Love you.

  9. Monica says:

    You are a beautiful writer Belle. I can't say it as eloquently, but thinking of my younger self (two weeks ago is younger too, right?) as an idiot is something I do often. Our younger selves are so moved by ideas and words, it's regrettable it takes so much disappointment to make actions more important to us. Stay strong.

  10. Terri says:

    The title of this post is inspired!

  11. H says:

    So did he follow?

  12. Emilie says:

    Needed this reminder more than I realized.

  13. CS says:

    Wonderful, and beautifully written. I have recently looked back on my beta-self and past relationship that was just as poorly/perfectly paired and thinking about how we never really leave each others lives, as much as we may desperately want to. Sometimes I hate that he'll always have a part of me, but I wouldn't be where I am now if that wasn't the case, and I'm grateful for the experiences that have made me in to the person I am.

  14. JenR says:

    Awesome post. Been there and felt that but could never express it as well as you.

  15. Theresa says:

    I had an identical relationship with someone for about 8 years. Now that I'm in DC, we don't speak, and we've never run into each other on my trips home. While I'm glad it's over with because we don't need each other like we might have thought, I'm not ashamed to admit that I still think about him from time to time and wonder what he's doing and if he's happy. The important thing is that it's over and I've taken away from it all the memories that mean anything and left the rest in the burn pile. I'll always remember my adolescent feelings and remember how dumb I really was, but I can't regret any of it because my feelings were real and they taught me a lot. Thanks for your thoughtful and well-written post. ๐Ÿ™‚

  16. Emme Gee says:

    Loved it. Thanks for sharing…

  17. S from La says:

    Absolutely loved this. Thank you. This post is like a great piece of art created with words.

  18. MidWestChic says:

    Just love you, Belle.

  19. Sara says:

    beautiful. thank you for sharing.

  20. Lauren says:

    Love the post, Belle. Instead of scanning through posts, as I typically do in my Google Reader, I sat and read it carefully and thoughtfully. As L put it in the first comment: ” You may be a style blogger but your social commentary and personal stories have always incited entertaining debate/discussion and I appreciate the detour from fashion, if only for a bit!รขโ‚ฌย Kudos.

  21. amy b.s. says:

    i think just aboug every girl can relate to this. and i wish i'd had these words of wisdom about 10 years ago.

  22. Broncogirl says:

    Well said. I can't wait until you have another decade under your belt. The life-lessons never end and you have a way of expressing them beautifully!

  23. Jenn says:

    Very wise words. Bravo to you for putting this out there.

  24. FR says:

    Good Lord I can relate. Except the sharp pangs of “What if?” really weigh on me, since as in your case we never actually were in a relationship officially. We've come into and out of each others lives in dramatic fashion for the past 6 years, and you'd think by now I would know better than to let it/him live rent-free in my head for so long. I'm now with someone much better for me, but I have frequent dreams of my not-quite-ex. I think I'd feel much differently if we had given “us” a chance and been able to say we tried even if it didnt work out (and we both know it wouldnt), but it seems the uncertainty can be quite torturous. Sometimes I think about how I'm going to react when inevitably I hear about his engagement. sigh I hope I have your wisedom someday, Belle! Thank you for sharing.

  25. HH says:

    Amazing post. Thank you.

    And I immediately had to re-post the quote on FB.

  26. Betsy says:

    This is a really good post. Love the title.

  27. Britt says:

    Wow, this is written so well. Thank you Belle. I like that you opened up in this way.

  28. sPe says:

    This post couldn't have come at a better time. With graduation rapidly approaching, I broke similar ties a few months ago. Thanks for posting this and reaffirming I did the right thing. Beautifully written and a great detour from fashion for your readers.

  29. BN says:

    You are an extraordinary writer. You had me on the edge of my chair wondering what the next sentence would bring. You told a moving, poignant story that was heart-felt, funny, warm and terribly sad all at once. I know you love your job, but you most definitely have a second career if you ever need one. Thank you for sharing, not only because it feeds your reader's need to know more about the elusive Belle, but because it was magnificent writing.

  30. R says:

    I don't usually comment, but THANK YOU for this post. You described nearly an identical relationship to mine and worded it so beautifully too! It always helps to know I'm not alone. Thank you so much for sharing and please don't hesitate to share more posts like these. I truly loved reading it!

  31. CR says:

    Lovely post – open, honest, thoughtful, and not an empty invitation to join a pity-party. It's pieces like this (plus the awesome fashion, obviously) that keep me coming to this blog. You're a great example of a grown-ass woman actually growing in life, not stagnating in awkward pseudo-adulthood. Thank you.

  32. Desert Rose says:

    Many, many thanks for this perfect post. Reading this took me right back to the mr. wrongs that seemed so right at the time if only they would care more, love me more, respect me more…but they didn't. It took a long time for me to actually focus on actions not words in a man, and by that point I was cynical, lonely and jaded. Along came what seemed like mr. wrong–and I treated him as such, but guess what? When I pushed him away he always came back. We're now living our version of happily ever after, I left the Hill and am now a new mommy. I'm glad I finally let go of the fantasy and grew and found the reality (to use your words).

  33. Amy says:

    He's your Mr. Big. Not Mr. Big of the Sex in the City movies but back when it was just a great tv show. Not at all good for us but chemistry that crushes you. I had my own Mr. Big. It's now a fond memory. Never would have worked and found myself in a relationship that is far more balanced. Does the chemistry crush me? No. But I wouldn't trade the deeply loving feelings that replaced the damaging chemistry. Mr. Big's rarely make good partners but oh the memory of their touch stays with you forever. Just make sure you don't try to take more than the memory. Part of what makes the Mr. Big's of the world so hard to resist is their unpredictable nature. Try to bottle that up and what you thought you had will become unrecgnizable. Just enjoy the moments when you have them and know that one day you will move on.

  34. Anon says:

    Brava! What a great post.

  35. R says:

    You know Belle, I think it's time you started dating again.

  36. Marissa says:

    Just wanted to reiterate how much I needed to hear this advice, and how grateful I am that you shared your experience with your readers. Thank you.

  37. Ali says:

    Kudos for being brave and sharing – it was beautifully written ๐Ÿ™‚

  38. Kat says:

    Belle,

    Your words bring tears to my eyes, because as you wrote, “Once someone has you like that, they'll always have a piece of you. There's just no getting it back.”. So extraordinarily true. Thanks, and smiles to you! ๐Ÿ™‚

  39. S says:

    I needed this today. Thank you a million times over for sharing.

  40. Tina says:

    First-time reader here who's so glad she stopped by – this is an amazing entry! So full of wisdom, insight, and acceptance…beautiful and helpful, thank you!

  41. DC Celine says:

    I am so glad you wrote – and posted – this. I think it important that those of us who write about One Thing sometimes share about others.

    Also, don't we all have this boy in our lives? The one who shouldn't be there, but keeps coming back until we finally wake up? Sigh. I know I do.

  42. Christina says:

    I hope I can explain this as well as you did, to my own daughter someday. It's a tough lesson to learn and to teach. I'm sorry you're heartbroken…but I'm sure you're better off. Thanks for posting so honestly.

  43. Lindsay says:

    I'm new to your blog and when I came across this post I just found myself nodding in agreement the entire time. My story is almost exactly the same as what you described and I only wish I would have learned this lesson sooner. This is wise and beautifully written, thank you for sharing.

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