My abuser used to joke about me being a shitty kisser.  He’d needle me about how he put up with it on our first date.  We met for coffee, which turned into hours of talking and then dinner.  He wore a leather jacket and gave me his arm when we walked.  He made sure to open doors for me.  At the end of that date, he put on music in his Jeep, rolled the windows down, took hold of me and danced with me in a deserted parking lot.  At the time it seemed charming.  I also remember thinking for a moment: Is this some kind of first date schtick for this guy?

Looking back I see that thought as my own intuition–activated by this very contrived gesture and rapidly shut down.  When he pulled me in to kiss me, I wanted him to and liked it, but I didn’t want things to get more intense so when he used his tongue I pulled away–repeatedly–because he kept trying.  I guess I liked him so much I put up with it.

There was that intuition again, and I didn’t listen–which opened the door for him not to.  And until I left that marriage, he’d make fun of me for not kissing him the way he wanted on our first date.

I went on a first date again not long ago, surprised to have a man ask and not feel fear in response.  I’d been talking to Kevin* with increasing regularity for weeks.  I noticed how he was warm and empathetic, how I felt less alone and calmer having him to talk with.  When he asked if it would be all right to get together, I was delighted.

We talked about a lot of things on that date–happy things like racing and big ideas, and awful things like PTSD.  As we stood next to a creek, he told me about some of the low points in his life.  He steadily returned my gaze and addressed personal baggage in a way that was new to me–not the avoidant half-truths of my abuser and not with some veneer of detached completion.  I felt admiration and deep connection, and I wanted to touch him but held back.

Eventually we spoke about a memory that was sensitive for me.  As I recalled a previously forgotten piece of that story, I suddenly felt incredibly raw.  I stood there shaken, my lip beginning to quiver, on the verge of shattering.  He didn’t seize me and pull me to him–he held out his arms and I went to him, put my head on his shoulder and wept with old heartbreak and new relief.

When we finally went back to our cars, I searched his face warily in the darkness. I felt at once the warm glow of connection at my heart and the taut readiness for flight in my legs as I silently pleaded with him; Please don’t try to kiss me–not yet.

He told me he was grateful we’d connected and he wanted to honor my healing process.  He said goodnight, hugged me briefly and stepped away decisively.

I have wondered longingly and repeatedly what it might feel like to be with a good man, and I am discovering now.  There is the intoxicating sense of connection, very different than it has been for me before.  This connection also has the sobriety of respect and mutuality.  This is a man to whom I confess that my excitement is tinged with fear.  I am learning that he will respond without a trace of disappointment or defensiveness, that he will patiently stand there with his arms out and wait for me to come to him–and I love him for it.

*Name changed to avoid possibility of needing to file another goddamned restraining order

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