I Almost Married The Wrong Man Just Because He Loved Me So Much

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Love, Heartbreak

Is it possible for a person to truly love another without reciprocation?

My sister sold me on "nice."

Russ had done some electrical work for her hair salon, and she thought of me. He was single, handsome, intelligent, and above all, "a really nice guy."

After a five-year run with a bad boy type, I finally released myself from destructive relationships that made me feel racy. "Nice" sounded calm. "Nice" sounded like a future — one without doors slamming, threats being issued, and tires peeling away.

I was 31 and had always been a bit of a non-conformist — probably why I'd been attracted to the bad boy type to begin with — and I liked living against the grain: listening to Alt Nation instead of pop; reading literature instead of newspapers; working nights and weekends instead of nine to five; working for myself instead of someone else. At the time, I owned a coffeehouse.

But perhaps, deep down, there had always been a seed of traditionalism in me.

The girl who once turned up her nose at her Long Island suburban friends getting married and having kids, found herself surprised by wondering what it might be like to have that.

Russ could've been a magazine model for J Crew. He stood on my doorstep, six feet tall, in his black turtleneck and jeans, his black haircut to look messy when gelled, his Italian skin smooth and perfect, his teeth flashing white. I was 5' 10" in heels, had skin that tanned dark in summer and brown hair. Superficially, we looked like a good fit together.

He was 36, felt established with work, and was now ready for that next phase in life, he told me. We started dating regularly. He courted me like a gentleman, offering long, passionate kisses goodnight, but waiting a respectable month before staying over.

When he called on the phone, he had a way of saying my name that sounded familial. Drawing out the first syllable and lowering his tone on the second syllable: "Heh-ther." I liked it and would feign curiosity, answering, "Hello?" despite that the caller ID told me it was him.

He had intelligent eyes. I'd share my views on current events and ask for his thoughts. He would squint and say, "That's very interesting. Let me give it some thought and get back to you."

I liked that he thought things through, that he took his time in answering, that he considered things.

We moved in together and had our friends over for brunch. We went to those same friends' engagement parties, weddings, and baptisms. They elbowed us in private, "So, when are you guys going to take the plunge?" The relationship math worked in their minds: we were now 32 and 37.

The math worked in my mind, too. Why not? I had to ask myself, because a vague uneasiness quivered through my abdomen.

Russ told me to look for a ring. He left me Fortunoff's catalogues on the kitchen counter. "Take a look," he wrote on a Post-It.

I went with a girlfriend to the department store. She was super-excited. "I can't believe you're going to get married!" she said.

"Me either," I said, reaching for an enthusiastic tone.

My gut quivered again. But why?

Was it my friend's story — a woman I knew who was going through an ugly divorce? One night over some wine, she confided in me that she'd known on her wedding day that marrying her husband-to-be was a mistake. She had looked in the mirror and known a full year before she ever started planning the wedding.

"Then why did you go through with it?" I asked.

She shrugged, "I wanted a wedding. I wanted to get married."

"There's too many choices," I told my friend at the ring counter. "My head is spinning ... let's come back another day."

Was it me? I wondered on the way home. Was I the Goldilocks of dating? This one was too bad; this one was too good.

My doubts increased, in that space between waking and dreaming. "I love you," Russ told me before we fell asleep one night. "I'm so lucky to have found you."

"I love you, too," I lied right back to him.

Another year passed. I began to hope that I would wake up and feel the love. I even prayed for it, but it never happened.

During our second Christmas together, Russ handed me a small jewelry box and I felt the world slip from under my feet as I opened it.

We were really doing this? Inside was a pair of diamond stud earrings. I exhaled loudly. Too loudly.

He looked hurt. But I knew we would both be trapped and hating ourselves if we conformed for the sake of conforming, if one of us didn't find the courage to be honest.

I ended things soon after.

He told me he was shocked. Hurt. Betrayed.

Was he really?

I looked into his eyes again, intelligent eyes that thought things through — and yet, he never did get back to me on anything, did he? There was a hollowness there, perhaps even an inauthenticity or maybe he was just completely out of touch with his own feelings?

That might be worse: if he believed he did love me and was lying to himself.

He moved into a house not too far from mine. He had purchased it as a fixer-upper. I offered my friendship.

It took a few weeks for him to even speak to me again. Once that became a normal, regular thing, we agreed to be friends.

I helped him decorate his new place. He changed high hats in my house. In between, we lived our lives.

Eventually, we spoke less frequently. When we did, I was reminded of his goodness: his charitable work for Habitat for Humanity, his care for his mother, whom he made pasta for on Sundays, and how he looked after his employees.

I began to regret my decision. I had let this good guy go. What was wrong with me? I began to feel cold and hard.

And yet, I knew I couldn't try to make amends. I wouldn't. The moment I even thought about it, that quiver turned into a paralyzing wave.

Six months into our awkward routine, he called to me to ask if I would care for his dog while he traveled for the weekend. I agreed. I had loved his old, sweet Boxer. More, I felt somewhat ... obligated to Russ for having "broken his heart," as he'd continued to claim, even if he said it now as an elbow in the side.

The pictures of Russ's new girlfriend were tacked to the refrigerator. I studied every one of them. She was pretty and watery, blonde and blue-eyed, almost like an impressionistic painting, her features blending into one another. Soft to my hard; light to my dark.

And he looked handsome next to her and intelligent. Honest, even.

I poured out food for Ripley, and as I waited for him to eat, I went through Russ's kitchen drawers to see what else he had been up to. I found a card. On the cover was a Christmas tree. Inside, beautiful handwriting: "You are the best Christmas present I've ever had. I love with you with all my heart. Love, Donna."

I couldn't move.

She loved him? With all her heart? What had it been, all of five months? I hadn't been able to utter those words for at least a year. And when I had, I'd lied.

I let the dog out and sat on the steps, numb.

Maybe there really and truly was something wrong with me. 

I started to cry and couldn't stop. I cried out of confusion and self-loathing and self-pity. And then I cried out of envy. I wiped my face and sat up when that happened.

Envy was my problem, not regret. I didn't want Russ back; I was happy he hadn't bought me a ring. I was happy I'd been honest. I was even happy he'd found someone to love him the way he had selflessly loved me — with no reciprocation. He deserved reciprocal love and happiness.

I was envious of this Donna person's certainty, and Russ's certainty, even if it was false.

How great would it be to know that you loved someone with all your heart?

But how? How did they know? How did anyone know? Maybe I had found love several times over and had never known it.


I suffered for two years.

And then one day, I woke up in that groggy truthful place at dawn, full of certainty and love toward the man who would become my husband.

And I felt validated about my authentic choices of the past.

Still, it bothered me on an intellectual level that I'd been with someone whose love had been so one-sided. 

Was it possible for a person to truly love another without reciprocation? Not to lust after or obsess over, but truly love?

It took eight more years for that question to be answered. One afternoon, while cleaning out my jewelry drawer, I noticed that a stud from one of the diamond earrings Russ had given me had lost its diamond.

I took them to a longtime, reputable local jeweler to see if the stone could be replaced, or better yet, if the jeweler wanted to take the remaining stud off my hands.

"I hate to break it to you," the jeweler said, inspecting the diamond with his loupe. "But this is cubic zirconia through and through."

"That can't be," I said.

"Well, I'm telling you, it is."

My mind reeled with possible explanations. Maybe Russ had gotten swindled — although that seemed unlikely, as he had shopped at a reputable retailer.

"I get a lot of these," the jeweler continued. "People wearing jewelry for years, thinking it's the real deal. I had a lady in here who was going through a divorce who came to sell her ring, only to find that her husband had switched the stones."

Had Russ later switched the stones as a scorned lover? Or had they never been real?

"One day I'm going to write a book," the jeweler continued. "You can learn a lot about the human heart when it comes to jewelry."

I agreed to buy his book then drove home feeling lighter.

However it had happened — Russ switching out the stones at a later point, or buying fake ones from the start — the earrings were not the real deal, and that was enough to feel vindicated.


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