Britney Wilson | Longreads | February 2018 | 25 minutes (6,304 words)
“You good?” you asked, pulling a gray wool blanket up tighter around your shoulders, yawning, and stretching your legs out on the worn blue couch in the corner of my apartment.
“Yeah,” I said, closing the bathroom door behind me and attempting to do my version of tiptoeing back over to my bed, hoping the slight clanking of my crutches wouldn’t wake anyone.
It was the weekend of my 24th birthday — four years ago. You had driven my friends Mia, Lisa, and Monique from D.C. to Philly and you’d all spent the weekend with me. I was in law school. I’d spent the hours before your arrival cursing the fact that I had been born in the middle of February, and praying for your safe journey as I watched the snowstorm that was beginning outside my window.
The night before, on the phone, I had been worried. The news had been forecasting that the accumulation might be pretty significant, and as sad as the thought had made me, I’d suggested that maybe you shouldn’t come after all. You’d promised it would be fine and that you would all be there. I was genuinely concerned, but equally relieved by your determination.
A lawyer friend of mine had perfectly summed up what my transition from college to law school had been like. She said undergrad was alma mater (as in “dear mother”) and graduate school was the stepmom. You initially hate her because she’s not your mother, and you resent the way she seems to be encroaching on your life. Eventually, as you each come to appreciate the other’s unique role, you develop your own separate relationship and become friends. I liked the analogy, but I was two years in, and still hadn’t gotten to the friendly part. I desperately needed that reunion.
The only guy in the bunch, you had offered to sleep on the floor and give someone else the couch, but they’d insisted you take it. They had put you through enough on the drive up. You deserved your rest.
Because I’d known it would take me the longest, I’d let everyone else get ready for bed before me. So, I was the last person to get in the bathroom after our personal updates and in-house karaoke sessions wound down in the early hours of the morning, after you all arrived. By the time I came out, everyone was asleep, except you. I could tell you’d been fighting it.
It was the weekend of my 24th birthday — four years ago. You had driven my friends Mia, Lisa, and Monique from D.C. to Philly and you’d all spent the weekend with me.
I stepped around Mia and Monique, who were lying across the floor old-school slumber party style on a pile of extra sheets. Bending down when I got to my bed, I gingerly placed my crutches on the floor next to it and moved an extra pillow to the head of my bed where Lisa was lying at its foot.
You leaned forward from the couch, craning your neck slightly to watch me climb onto the bed. When you were sure I was all set, you leaned back against the arm of the couch and yawned again.
“Alright, good night. I love you,” you said.
“Good night. I love you too.”
As I closed my eyes that morning, flanked by my friends on all sides, feeling supported and at ease for the first time in months, with your voice as the last one I heard before I fell asleep, I wondered where it had come from — the love.
I’d wonder much harder two-and-a-half years later, when I got your text message. A picture of the two of you with greenery behind you, in what looked like a park, your arms wrapped around her waist as you both peered into the camera with wide smiles. Her left hand was raised, not the focal point of the shot, but impossible to miss. I didn’t need to see the diamond twinkle to know what it was. The caption read two words: “I’m engaged.”
In a way, the love had always been there, I guess. From the first time we talked on the phone when you were a prospective freshman and you asked what life was like at our school, our bond had been a natural and easy one. You told me you were nervous about starting college, about fitting in and making new friends. I said something really cliché, like, “Just be yourself.” Surprisingly, it had seemed to put you at ease. I’d admired how open and honest you were about your fears.
When you visited campus a few months later, I’d taken you on a tour. You had fuzzy cornrows with beads on the ends, and you followed me around as I zipped from building to building in my electronic scooter. I’d introduced you to professors I knew as we passed them. You said “Thank you, sir” or “Yes, ma’am,” and not very much else, in a noticeable but slight Southern accent, when they told you they hoped you enjoyed the rest of your visit or that they were excited to have you join us next fall. I smiled like a proud big sister. In the beginning, that was our relationship: big sister and little brother, sophomore and freshman. I tried to not be overbearing or condescending, but genuinely protective and involved. We had a sense of loyalty and community that connected us.
I just don’t know when things shifted.
You came home with me to New York one winter break, and we went to all the tourist spots around the city, to the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center and the boardwalk at Coney Island. You helped my little cousin with his math homework. I took a picture of you: two young Black men deep in thought, bent over a math problem — not an anomaly, just a beautiful sight. But I don’t think it happened then.
You leaned forward from the couch, craning your neck slightly to watch me climb onto the bed. You leaned back against the arm of the couch and yawned again. ‘Alright, good night. I love you,’ you said.
When you left, my mom gushed that you were “so sweet” and “very good to me.” She’d raised me, her only child, a disabled daughter, to be independent. She emphasized having confidence in my abilities, never saying “can’t,” getting an education, being responsible, and having good judgment — never emphasized men or relationships — but by the time you came back that time for Thanksgiving, her opinion of you had more than solidified.
I don’t even think the shift had occurred for me yet when you first started saying, “I love you” — and you said it first. I know you did because I never would have. I never had to any male non-relative before. I just don’t know when you said it. If it had been a sentimental moment for me, I would’ve remembered the day of the week, month, day, year, time, and Zodiac moon it was when you said it. That’s how I know it must have been a seamless, almost instinctual moment, like tying a hanging shoelace. Before long, we never ended a conversation without saying it.
Mia, Lisa, and Monique wanted answers. You had dropped us off in front of my building after dinner while you went to look for a parking space. I sat in a swivel chair at my desk, swinging around to face them at their different points in my room. It was the first moment they’d had alone with me since you all had arrived. They wanted to know what the situation was between the two of us. I told them we were good friends, some of the best, always had been. They weren’t buying it.
They knew we were friends, close ones. Although the four of us hadn’t been mutual friends, they remembered you from college, from all of my birthday dinners and events. But they had driven up there with you, in a snowstorm, singing Aretha Franklin songs, and generally being loud and enjoying themselves. They said you’d been the perfect gentlemen, being polite, opening doors, and loading bags, but that you’d barely said a word to any of them. Now, they said, in my presence, you were different. It was like you’d come alive. You were still quiet and reserved, but you were warm, engaged, and intentional. They had been trying to figure out what the difference was between the car ride and there in Philly, and after watching us over the weekend, they’d decided that I was the difference.
I explained that you were shy. You didn’t know them as well, so of course, you would seem different around me. You were more comfortable. That explanation wasn’t enough for them. That wasn’t their first time interacting with you, or with us. They weren’t really worried about you. They wanted to know how I felt, if I had feelings for you.
The Socratic method is infamous in American law schools. Rather than have students volunteer to answer questions, law professors solicit answers from the students of their choice — often at random. The responses aren’t usually factored into your grade in any way because most law school exams are graded using an anonymous submissions process. The experience is just intended to train lawyers-to-be to think through problems and formulate responses on their feet.
It was the stuff of law students’ nightmares, but it had never really fazed me. I was an experienced public speaker. I had been on stage for most of my life, from choir performances to slam poetry competitions to Junior Statesmen of America debates. I was also genuinely unconcerned with what I saw as the only real harm of the Socratic method: encountering virtual strangers’ opinions of me. Right or wrong answer, I knew I was intelligent and I had nothing to prove to anyone. So, I wasn’t filled with dread at the thought of people using my answers to judge my intelligence or preparation, and if they did judge me, I didn’t care very much. My brain wasn’t attached to my answers or to people’s opinions of my answers.
As I closed my eyes that morning, feeling supported and at ease for the first time in months, with your voice as the last one I heard before I fell asleep, I wondered where it had come from — the love.
Sitting with some of my closest friends while they asked me about my feelings for you was a completely different story. My brain might not have been attached to my answers in the classroom, but my heart was attached to that answer in my living room. But they were my friends. I trusted them, and I thought it might be nice to share the load. So, I let it out.
Yes, I had feelings for you. I had never met anyone who made me feel so safe and comfortable to be my entire, true self. You were one of only a handful of people in my life who didn’t see me as some variation of an inspirational, overachieving, Black, disabled Wonder Woman. We shared our hopes, dreams, and fears, and it felt mutual and free and special and rare — like nothing I’d ever felt before.
There was lots of squealing and jumping up and down and smiling in the room.
They insisted I had to tell you. I refused.
I’d never really had any formal dating experience. Growing up, I’d had crushes, and close male friends and associates, but nothing more. Part of that might have been because my mom didn’t really believe in “children dating,” as she would refer to middle and high school students who talked about their boyfriends or girlfriends. She’d made it clear that I should be focused on being the best student possible. I was good at that job and mostly happy to oblige. It was what I knew, and what made me most comfortable.
The other part was that, while there were guys I liked who’d sworn I was the most amazing person they’d ever met, that I’d changed their lives, or that they’d give me a kidney if I ever needed one, none of them had ever sought to pursue a romantic relationship with me, even though they didn’t seem to have trouble pursuing other girls. So, I’d assumed that meant they just weren’t interested in me. The one time I had liked a guy enough to pursue a relationship with him, it hadn’t ended well. Moses.
My Moses wasn’t the biblical burning bush-talking, Red Sea-crossing, Ten Commandment-toting Moses. He was Moses because he led me out of the Egypt of my comfort zone. He was the first guy I actually liked enough to admit it to him, to feel like the risk of embarrassment, disappointment, or heartbreak was actually worth the alternative of watching him find someone else without ever knowing I was interested. But I couldn’t bring myself to actually say the words to him. So, although I was way too old for it, I’d written him a letter — not a fourth grade, “Do you like me, check yes or no” letter, but an honest, thoughtful letter — one that had gone through many drafts and revisions and had taken the greatest amount of emotional courage I had ever exercised at the time. I didn’t get a letter back though. In fact, if I hadn’t handed Moses the letter myself, I would have wondered if he’d ever gotten it.
After I’d waited, filled with regret and agony, for far too long, he finally said, “You’re like a sister to me.” Moses had four sisters.
“My sisters are the most important people in the world to me,” he continued, reassuring me.
I knew they were, but that wasn’t the response I’d been hoping for. Biblical Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. He’d planned to lead them to the Promised Land — but it was Joshua who’d actually completed that mission, first toppling the walls of the seemingly impenetrable city of Jericho after his army encircled them with its trumpets blaring.
Moses was Moses, but Moses was no Joshua.
Mia, Lisa, and Monique didn’t care what had happened with Moses. They said last time wasn’t this time.
“Guys I like just don’t usually approach me in that way,” I told them. “Especially not with my disability…”
The words felt too real, like they’d snuck up on me from the basement of my gut. They creaked as they left my mouth, tasted sour and dusty, like fear I preferred to keep buried in a box somewhere.
“We all have things we’re insecure about, body parts we’re uncomfortable with, doubts about our ability to measure up to the next girl,” they countered.
“It’s not the same thing. . .” I began.
Establishing any kind of relationship while disabled can be emotionally draining because it requires a lot of personal investment up front. While most people can choose to share more about themselves later on, after getting to know a person, being disabled often means having to show people your “humanity” first, in order to make them comfortable enough to get to know you. It’s “Hey, I’ve gotten to know her and she’s cool,” not “Hey, she’s [attractive, in all of my classes, or whatever other random fact might motivate a person to strike up a conversation with a stranger], I’d like to get to know her.” I’m not someone who opens up easily.
So, when I did open up, I often ended up being in a certain type of relationship or deeper into a relationship before I even got to decide if I wanted more. Eventually, I got used to the friend zone being the default. So, instead, sometimes without even realizing it, I placed myself or the person I liked in that zone first, so I wouldn’t be disappointed when he ultimately put me there.
Mia, Lisa, and Monique wanted answers. They wanted to know what the situation was between the two of us. I told them we were good friends, some of the best, always had been. They weren’t buying it.
I was never the girlfriend. There were too many girls out there who were more traditionally fit for the role, so I’d stopped competing with them. I didn’t know if I even could. I just hoped that one day the right guy would choose me, and I wouldn’t have to compete.
I was more than secure in my body. I had been in it for 24 years at that point, and together we had learned to thrive and improvise — coordination, spasticity, fine motor challenges and all. It wasn’t that I didn’t think I was pretty — I did. My fears about dating with a disability weren’t just “image” issues. They weren’t about weight or complexion or hair texture or standards of beauty. They were about disability being left out of the entire foundation of femininity and womanhood — not to mention wifehood.
They were about constantly being made to feel like I was someone to be pitied, maybe someone to be admired or protected, but never someone to love and be loved by — not like that anyway. They were about wondering if my crutches and leg braces made guys see me as less capable of managing a family or a household the way a wife is so often expected to; they were about wondering if I was less capable myself. They were about being afraid of what the weight gain associated with pregnancy and my already limited mobility would do to my overall health.
They were about having to wonder about those things not 10, 20, or 50 years into my life with someone after he’d promised to stick with me for better or for worse, through sickness and health, when my hair started to gray and my joints started to ache, but right now, today. They were about having to think about all those things on top of the constant messages about the difficult, less-likely-to-marry Black woman — especially the emasculating professional Black woman.
They were about who would choose me when he had all of that to consider, when I had never been chosen before. Could I be wife material? What about #BlackLove wife material? What about Southern Christian and family values wife material? Did Proverbs 31 cover this?
“It’s not the same thing,” I repeated to my friends.
“Has he ever made you feel like your disability was a problem before?” they asked.
“No, but I’ve never tried to date him before,” I said. I also knew that very few moderately decent human beings were going to come right out and say, “I don’t think we should date because I’m uncomfortable with your disability, or not attracted to you because of it.”
“Britney, you are compassionate, talented, driven, accomplished, brilliant, and beautiful!” they said, vigorously mounting a defense against my own arguments against myself. “Look at how much you have done, no matter the obstacles — all the doors you have knocked down, all the butt you have kicked. Girl, come on! Any man who does not appreciate that is crazy. You have to believe that, they said. “You’re the one who’s always telling everyone else to believe in themselves.”
They were right, yet I couldn’t help but think that love isn’t about who deserves it. If it were, everyone would find it. I didn’t want to risk the love I already had by trying to change its form. After all, a good friend was better than nothing. Even more than being afraid that the outcome could ruin our friendship, I was afraid that rejection would be more evidence that I was unlovable beyond neutral “sisterhood” or friendship.
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Still, I was embarrassed by my own fears. I had given myself the very same pep talk that they were trying to give me on many occasions. I had even given it to a few of my disabled friends when their dating difficulty confessions got a little too real or pessimistic for me. “If you don’t love yourself, no one else will,” I’d said, as if self-confidence alone created open-minded and available romantic partners, ready and willing to deal with whatever challenges you came with.
“We’ve seen you two together. We really think it could be different this time,” Mia, Lisa, and Monique insisted.
There was a knock on my apartment door. You’d found a parking space.
Months passed before I finally worked up the courage to tell you. You had left D.C. and moved back south by then. We were on one of our weekly phone calls that always motivated me to get all of my reading done beforehand, so the conversation wouldn’t be rushed.
“I have to tell you something,” I said suddenly, at some random point in the conversation. The fear of how it could all go wrong, and what I might be losing if it did, crept back into my mind.
“I don’t really know how to say this…” I continued.
The hedging was uncharacteristic of me.
I had never met anyone who made me feel so safe and comfortable to be my entire, true self. You were one of only a handful of people in my life who didn’t see me as some variation of an inspirational, overachieving, Black, disabled Wonder Woman.
“What’s up?” you asked, not nervously or anxiously, but clearly aware that our discussion of my appreciation for Lil’ Kim was over.
I decided I just needed some sort of sign that I was doing the right thing.
Then, out of nowhere, you said, “It’s hard for me to express myself because I can’t protect myself if I’m exposed,” filling the dead air with a line from my poem, “Crutches.”
I had never performed that poem in front of you before. So, I knew if you were reciting it, it was because you’d visited YouTube a few times and searched for my performance, or something.
“You know my poem?” I asked.
“Of course I know your poem,” you said calmly. I didn’t mean “know” as in you’d heard it before or were familiar with it; I meant “know” as in you could recite it from memory on command.
I could hear the trumpets blaring. He knows, I told myself. He knows what I’m about to tell him, and this is a sign that it’s going to go my way. He just needs me to say it because he doesn’t want to assume. Then, he’s going to take it the rest of the way. Thank you, Lord, for finally letting it go my way, I thought.
“I just thought it fit well in this moment,” you continued, still referring to the poem. “What do you need to tell me?”
“Have you ever thought about us being more than friends?” I asked.
Silence. I hoped I hadn’t misjudged the moment. I prayed that you would at least say something, not change the subject or act as if you hadn’t heard me.
Finally, you responded, “No, I never thought about it.”
I immediately realized that I’d broken an important rule of direct examination: always ask open-ended questions. If you ask a yes or no question, you can get a yes or no answer — and not necessarily the answer to your actual question.
You’ve never thought about it, I repeated to myself. Does that mean you’re not willing to consider it, or that you just never have before? Does the fact that I have this question mean that you actually have answered my ultimate question? Have you simply taken the softball that I’ve given you and let me down easily, ambiguously?
You offered no clarification and I had too much pride and too little emotional energy to ask any of my follow-up questions. Neither of us rushed to hang up or make up some excuse to get off the phone. Instead, we managed to conjure up other superficial topics of conversation like the ones that had eventually led us to my asking. I ended the conversation with more questions than I’d had when it began.
While there were guys I liked who’d sworn I was the most amazing person they’d ever met, that I’d changed their lives, or that they’d give me a kidney if I ever needed one, none of them had ever sought to pursue a romantic relationship with me, even though they didn’t seem to have trouble pursuing other girls.
Recapping the moment for my friends later though, I was firm. “He said he’s never thought about it,” I told them. “He’s not interested.”
“Or he’s thinking about it now,” they argued.
“Seriously?” I asked.
“If he wasn’t interested, he could’ve just said he wasn’t interested,” they said. “The topic was already up for discussion. He could’ve just ended it right then and there.”
I wondered whether you would bring the topic back up, and if so, when. I told myself you really did have a lot to think about. We were in different states, on opposite ends of the country, and so many years of friendship were at stake. While I never let go of my initial feeling that I had gotten my answer, I decided that it was fun to hope. I deserved it.
During another of our weekly phone calls, not the next one, or the one after that, but maybe the one after the next one, I decided I couldn’t wait any longer.
“So, have you thought about it?” I asked, not bothering to define “it.” Another softball yes or no question.
“Yeah, I have,” you said. Silence. No definition of “it” was necessary.
“And?” I asked, nervous, impatient, and now annoyed that I was being forced to not only follow up about this topic but also ask even a minor follow-up question. My instinct was kicking back in, and my hope was condensing. It was liquid now, burning inside my chest like I’d drunk too much of it, too fast.
“I just don’t see that for us,” you said. No definition of “that” was necessary.
“Do you even think it’s something you would have time for?” you asked. “With your legal career and everything?”
I wondered where your sudden concern for my time had come from. “Have I ever neglected you before?” I asked, thinking about the reading I still had to get done that night, with images of an un-marriable, emasculating, professional Black woman — on crutches — floating through my head. If I was destined to live alone, maybe I could get a dog.
The phone call ended eventually. I don’t remember how. This time was last time. It was worse. You were no Moses, and you were no Joshua.
After we hung up, I was afraid our friendship was over, but I was also upset and a little confused by how quietly it had ended. There had been no discussion of the importance of our friendship or why you didn’t think we should change things, no acknowledgment of the difficulty of that moment for me, for you, or for us. This is it, I thought. I’ve freaked him out and scared him away. I felt alone, so I got down on my knees and said a prayer:
“Lord, I don’t know what happens now, but I’m giving it all to you and letting you handle it. I don’t know what the future holds, but I just ask that no matter what happens, you protect our friendship.”
You came back for my law school graduation. Actually, you missed your original flight, drove two hours to the neighboring state, and got on another flight just to make it in time. You got to my apartment around midnight of the night before the ceremony. Back on the worn blue couch while I sat in the swivel chair at my desk, we laughed, caught up, and talked about life until about 4 o’clock that morning. It felt like old times. We had definitely talked since I’d gotten the answer to my question, just less often, more cautiously — and this didn’t feel like that.
You must have felt at ease too because after a while you said:
“So, I’ve decided to pursue a relationship with her.”
“Her” was a friend of yours you’d met around the time I started law school. I’d met her briefly when you brought her to one of my mock trial competitions you attended in D.C. She was a law student too, enrolled at the law school at our alma mater and also graduating later that week.
“Okay,” I responded, trying to hide the deflation I felt.
’I just don’t see that for us,’ you said. ‘Do you even think it’s something you would have time for?’ you asked. ‘With your legal career and everything? I wondered where your sudden concern for my time had come from.
You explained your plan to visit her that summer and hopefully make your relationship official. I remember thinking that was no softball way to begin a relationship. I wondered if you had questioned her time management ability too.
As I closed my eyes that morning, with your voice as the last one I heard before I fell asleep, I wondered if anyone had ever tried to rebuild Jericho’s walls.
The next morning I watched you put on the blue tie. It was one of two ties (gold and blue) that I’d gotten you when you started your teaching job. You’d sent me a picture of you wearing the gold tie and promised you were saving the blue one for a “special occasion.”
“Do you remember that tie?” my mom, who’d been in the store with me when I bought it, asked, smiling at me after she saw you in it.
“Of course,” I said.
A few days after graduation, when my mom and I were on the road back to New York from Philly, she could tell something was wrong.
“He’s decided to date someone else,” I said, offering no explanation or backstory. I had never told my mother that I had feelings for you, but apparently, I didn’t have to.
“Did you tell him you liked him?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said. She seemed surprised to have missed a significant development.
“And what happened?” she asked.
“He said he doesn’t see that type of a relationship for us.”
“Really?” she asked. “I thought that might have gone differently.”
“Me too,” I said.
But later that evening, after graduation, when my family had driven back to New York and everyone else had gone their separate ways, you treated me to dinner. You told me you were thinking about entering the ministry, and we shared reflections about callings, careers, and purpose.
“So, you’re living your dream,” you said. “One step closer to being a lawyer. What do you want to conquer next?”
“The personal realm,” I said. “I just want my turn to love and be loved.” It was the truth — not a challenge.
“Sometimes I don’t even think that’s what you were put on Earth for,” you responded.
I stared at you across a plate of guacamole and chips as I sipped on a frozen margarita.
Disabled people are always expected to aspire to martyrdom. Why waste time worrying about love when we have so much to do, so many obstacles to overcome, so many people to inspire? I wasn’t a nun or a priest, and I sat there silently wounded and genuinely bewildered about who else’s calling might be deemed to be too great for them to trifle with pesky human emotions like love?
“Oh, so now you know my divine purpose?” I snapped.
Realizing that you might have misstepped, you elaborated. “I just mean that I feel like your purpose is so much bigger than that. You have so much work to do and so many people to help.”
And now these three remain, I thought to myself, faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love, 1 Corinthians 13:13.
“I think I can manage to fit it all in,” was all I could bring myself to say.
You always had a way of hurting me so obliviously that it destroyed all of my natural defenses. It was easy to confront someone who was loud and ignorant or blatantly offensive, but I didn’t know what to do with hurt that whispered — hurt that was fiercely loyal, polite, had been good to me, and meant me no harm. Hurt that came with no blaring trumpets, no warning of impending attack.
Disabled people were always expected to aspire to martyrdom. Why waste time worrying about love when we have so much to do, so many obstacles to overcome, so many people to inspire?
I never knew what to do when you hurt me because deep down I knew it was the last thing you ever wanted to do. I told myself that’s why you hadn’t mentioned you were thinking about marriage.
We had talked since the two of you started dating — even less often and even more cautiously, but we still talked more than many people who called themselves friends. We had been trying our best to still be friends.
In April, I tried to be more realistic. You weren’t interested in dating me — fine. We cared about each other and wanted to remain friends — okay. But even with fewer and more cautious conversations, we had never been shoot-the-breeze friends, and I’d been feeling like I was dangling off the edge of a cliff. You had my hand, and I was losing my grip, but you kept holding on, trying to pull me up with whatever strength you had. I knew in my heart that you weren’t going to be able to pull me up and I was bracing myself for the fall, but you’d insisted that you could pull me up. So, I hung on.
That July, the engagement text message came. It was a long, hard fall.
I cried on the way down. And cursed that 24th birthday visit for making me believe. And cried some more, and told myself I was smart, talented, and beautiful. And cursed trumpets and tumbling walls and math homework and blue ties and I-love-yous with good intentions. And started a poem, stopped it, and started it again. And cried and vowed to manage a family, my time, save the world, and be loved — on crutches. And cried and thought again about getting a dog. And retraced the journey with my friends, over and over again. And cried and cried, and never let my mother see me cry. And cried again, then went to meetings, mentored interns, and drafted briefs. Who said I couldn’t fit it all in?
“I prayed for you,” she said. It was March now. You were standing at the altar holding both of her hands in yours as you looked into each other’s eyes.
I’d run into your mom at the hotel before the ceremony. She’d given me a big hug and thanked me for traveling all that way to be there. She knew that you’d be so happy to see me. Then, I’d hugged your frat brothers, marveled at them all grown up and dapper in their suits, and commented on how far we’d all come since college. I’d taken a seat in a white, wooden chair on the end of the right-side aisle.
The guests around me let out hushed “awws.”
“Eight years ago, I gave up on dating,” she continued at the altar. “I got down on my knees in my dorm room and decided to give it all to God, to let Him handle it, and now my prayers have been answered,” she finished.
The congregation dabbed their eyes with their handkerchiefs.
Maybe that was the problem, I thought. In all the time I’d prayed for you, I’d never thought to pray for you, to pray that the man who had always been there for me was actually for me. I would never have even thought to pray for something like that — not because I’d assumed you were already mine, just the opposite: I couldn’t even envision the possibility. Although everyone around me could see it, I had learned not to. Someone else was praying for you before she had even met you, and I hadn’t asked for what was right in front of me. I didn’t know how God decided whose prayers to answer and whose not to, but I told myself that’s why He hadn’t answered mine. I hadn’t been specific enough. I hadn’t been brave enough.
But God was supposed to be all-knowing, so I was confused. Shouldn’t He have known how I felt about you? Mia, Monique, and Lisa had known. My mother had known–all without me saying a word. God knew, I thought. He had to have known. And if God had known that, then He had to have known this day would be coming too. So, I didn’t understand. I had already accepted my limitations when it came to relationships. I was minding my business, working hard, and being the best person and eternal sister-friend I could possibly be. Why would He let me love you if He’d known it was going to end like this? Why would you let me love you?
I thought back to that day before your wedding, when you’d called to ask how I was “feeling about everything.” You assured me that you and your future wife would always be there for anything that I needed. I felt like a parishioner on the sick and shut-in list who’d gotten a visit from the Pastor and the First Lady.
“I think my insurance covers a home attendant,” I wanted to say.
Now I couldn’t tell if your oblivion was real or a setup, some attempt to re-purpose our friendship to fit into your new life. I didn’t know how to challenge you for offering to be there for me. Part of me wanted to thank you, because I was afraid of losing you. A good friend was better than nothing. Maybe between a dog and visits from the Pastor, I would make out okay in life. Then, I realized that that was my pattern: fear.
I wasn’t really mourning you or the fact that you had chosen someone else. I was mourning what I saw as the realization of my worst fears, that I was destined to end up alone because romantic love wasn’t within reach of my crutches.
That fear was a mirror. It had forced me to face parts of myself that I didn’t like to see, parts that I needed to see in order to understand that, no matter what happened, I couldn’t and shouldn’t move through life afraid, accepting “better than nothing” out of fear that “everything” was impossible.
That day on the phone before your wedding, I’d wanted to ask if I was charity, the platonic, non-threatening disabled friend you’d made and couldn’t abandon. I was afraid of how it might come out if I did ask because I had the opposite problem: I hurt loudly, even without intention. And despite everything, I didn’t want to hurt you either. I was terrified of hurting you. Even as I write these words, I am terrified of hurting you. Instead, I let you give me my Black disabled Wonder Woman cape and tell me to fly.
“That’s good to know,” I said instead.
You were no Moses, and you were no Joshua.
* * *
Britney Wilson is a civil rights attorney by day, and a writer at heart. Her work has been featured in The Nation Magazine, and elsewhere. Her essay, “On New York City’s Paratransit, Fighting for Safety, Respect and Human Dignity,” ran on Longreads in September, 2017, and became the basis for her This American Life segment, “The Longest Distance Between Two Points.”
Editor: Sari Botton