“It was right there, all along.
The truth of his soul. All you had to do was look at any photo of him. I have a friend, Cully Culpepper. Long ago she told me that you can see a person’s soul, whether light or dark, by focusing on what you see in their left eye as captured in a photograph—or the right eye as it appears in selfies.
In every photo I have ever seen of him, Michael’s left eye radiates pure kindness, light, joy.
He was love.
I knew this the moment I met him, three years ago. We had connected on a dating app. I’d swiped on him because, c’mon. The man was gorgeous. And seemed happy. I was actually surprised he’d ‘liked’ me, because he was almost twenty years younger than I was. Our first text communications were along those lines; me saying I was too old for him, he saying I was silly, and that we should meet and at least see if we could be friends.
It was the sort of thing many guys say who don’t ever intend to be your friend, so I wasn’t buying it. I’d had so many bad experiences with dating and men over the 10 years since my divorce. I tried to weasel out of it, but Michael was persistent. He called me and talked to me about it. He was friendly, confident, and the first thing I noticed was his deep, booming voice. The second thing I noticed was his accent. He wasn’t from around here.
‘New Jersey,’ he told me, and I smiled, but added that he’d moved a lot as a kid. I’d spent 13 years living on the East Coast, Boston and New York, and there was something comforting and familiar about the way he talked. And he was funny. He made me laugh, put me at ease. I don’t remember our exact conversation, only that it was me saying ‘You don’t want to meet someone old and fat like me,’ and him laughing and telling me I was ridiculous and of course he wanted to meet me, because he liked that I was a writer and ambitious and smart.
I agreed to meet him for a drink.
We met at O’Neills, an Irish pub near Nob Hill in Albuquerque. He suggested this place, because it was about five minutes from my house and maybe 45 minutes or an hour from his, as he had to cross the river from the West Side during rush hour traffic.
‘Don’t you want to meet somewhere more in the middle?’ I asked.
He laughed. ‘What? No way. I’m a gentleman. You’re a single mom. You’ve been working and taking care of your son all day. I want this to be as easy for you as possible.’
I was suspicious. The men I had dated in the past were always demanding, narcissistic, controlling, familiar. Often, they came on strong and polite at the start, only to devolve into abusive jerks when I finally got to know and trust them. I’d been badly abused by my last two serious boyfriends and didn’t want to get abused again. I kept my guard up and went to meet him. I expected more of the usual, but he was different. Very different.
He got there before I did. He was standing outside, waiting for me near the door. He was taller than I’d expected, a giant of a man, and even more handsome than his photos. He wore a light blue polo shirt and jeans, and he looked nervous.
I walked up and said hello, and he smiled. I can’t even begin to describe that smile of his. I have only encountered such pure, genuine kindness in a few people in my life, and two of them have been Buddhist monks. Michael, though he was only 28 or 29, had that peace to him. He was an old soul, and a warm, welcoming person. He hugged me off the bat, but not in a creepy way. In the warm, genuine way of people from Latin America or the Mediterranean, which made sense considering that his father was from Mexico and his mother was Greek.
He held the door for me, and we went inside before settling on the patio. I ordered a Moscow Mule, and he got something non-alcoholic, I don’t remember what now. He told me he couldn’t drink because he was on antibiotics. I did not ask about it. We talked, for hours. He was an incredibly good listener, and fully, effortlessly bilingual, his Spanish lilting with Mexican cadances. And when he told me I was beautiful, it was not in a sleazy way, but in a sweet way, like a brother, almost. Like a guy who can’t believe what you’re saying when you put yourself down. Like, ossh, whatever, c’mon, get outta here, girl.
But he was different from the people I usually socialized with, in that he was not snarky or cynical, and did not share my progressive political outlook or my uncertainty about God. He hated politics, he told me, because no one ever changed anyone else’s mind and all people did was fight. He said that his father was a Fox News watcher, and this felt like a red flag for me. He told me that he himself attended a born-again megachurch, Sagebrush, on the West Side, another red flag for me. He had grown up military, was patriotic in the kneejerk way of those who do. He had studied a little bit after high school and was looking to find a job as a computer technician or electrician. For the snobby person I was, then, this was yet another red flag. He didn’t fit the box I had painted in my mind of what I was supposedly looking for—a progressive atheist, educated and professional.
And like a complete fool, I told him so.
Michael took my concerns to heart, without getting defensive. This was also new to me. All those professional, educated, progressive atheists I’d had in my life before had gotten furious whenever anyone disagreed with them or doubted them. Michael took it in stride. He told me, calmly and kindly, that he understood how I felt, and said that he himself tried not to let those things influence how he felt about people. Instead, he told me, he looked at the way people treated other people and, more importantly, animals. As he said this, I realized that he was very lovingly trying to teach me how to actually be the enlightened, tolerant person I thought I was.
It was amazing.
I smiled. He was growing on me. Also, he was absolutely beautiful, physically. Just my type, minus two decades.
The date ended, and we discussed what to do next. I wasn’t ready to bring anyone home, or go home with anyone, and told him so. He said that was totally fine but asked if it would be okay if he followed me home, just to make sure I made it inside okay, given that I lived in an iffy part of town. Again, my guard went up, and I grew suspicious. There were only two reasons a man I just met might ask a thing like that. One, he meant it and was a good guy; or two, he was a bad guy who just wanted to know where I lived.
Michael noticed my reaction and seemed to read my mind. He explained that he had grown up around women, with two sisters and cousins, and that he was also the defacto big brother to a lot of their friends. He was just used to looking out for women he cared about, he said. He didn’t mean to come across creepy, and he was sorry for asking. I believed him and let him follow me home. He kissed me goodnight in front of my house, then got back into his car and went home.
Michael texted me that night to say he had a great time. He also said he wanted to hang out again soon. He said he thought I was great, and he was ready to see me and only me and take things slow and see where they went. He wasn’t a fan of dating multiple people because, again, he had sisters and lots of female friends, and he wanted to make sure I knew he respected me and would never hurt me.
This all seemed too good to be true. I’d been duped by guys who said all the right things, many times, and I still did not quite trust him. But I saw him again. We never slept together, mostly because I did not trust anyone enough for that, and he was totally cool with it. He liked me and wanted me to feel safe. I wanted to believe him, but I obsessed on his social media, the way he had tons of pictures of himself with pretty girls. He’d laugh when I brought it up and tell me they were his sisters or cousins or old friends. He was comfortable with having female friends, he told me. I did not believe him.
I never let myself trust him. Not completely. And that wasn’t his fault. I was still hung up on the man I’d seen before him, a guy who lied and cheated and told me our age difference (similar to the one between me and Michael) wasn’t a problem, only, a year later, to dump me because I was too old. I wasn’t eager to repeat that mistake. I was, in fact, terrified. So, the nicer Michael was to me, and the closer we grew, the worse I was to him and the more I pushed him away. I looked for reasons to put distance between us. Always I went back to our differences in education and beliefs. Always he told me those things didn’t matter to him.
Michael wanted me to meet his friends and family, so I’d see he was honest. He wanted us to be an official couple. He invited me over to do that, and I said no. He invited me to the Grecian Festival in town, to dance with him and his family, and I said no because I was close to his mother’s age. He laughed and said no one would care and they’d all love me. He invited me to be a date to a family member’s wedding, and, again, I said no, afraid to get too close, unable to see that this man was, honestly, everything I needed and wanted. I was just too stubborn and prejudiced and wounded to realize he was one of the good ones. Maybe the best one I’d ever met. You know those men animals and children love? He was one of them.
Finally, I told him we could only just be friends. I was stupid for doing that. I was worried he’d hurt me like the last younger guy. I was worried he wasn’t sincere. I worried I wasn’t good enough or attractive enough for him. I was worried about what people would think. It was also a classic move for someone with Borderline Personality Disorder, a way of testing people to see if they’ll stay even when we mistreat them.
Michael was patient about my fears, and he stayed. He said he didn’t care if we were never physical or romantic again, he just cared about me and wanted me in his life, even as a friend. And he meant it.
When I was sick, he brought me food without being asked. He offered to fix things around my house. And one time, when I was depressed in the middle of a grocery run, and he texted to ask how I was and I told him I was feeling suicidal and wondering what the point of it all was, he drove to the store just to meet me in the parking lot. He hugged me close, and hard, and I legit felt the life force and beauty and kindness flow from him to me. It was not a sexual hug. It was a bear hug, a hug of pure love. And he told me he loved me. And he lifted my chin with his fingertips and looked me in the eyes, not romantically but with the forceful, loving determination of someone who has come to save you from yourself. ‘Hey,’ he told me. ‘You are amazing. You are wonderful. You are beautiful, and smart, and talented, and exactly the way God made you. Don’t let anything or anyone bring you down.’
That’s the kind of man Michael was.
The more I got to know him, the more I realized I loved him back. That’s the honest truth. But I felt like he was so young, and would have been such a great father, that he deserved someone younger than me, who was going through menopause. I felt totally inadequate. I told him so.
He accepted how I felt but said he disagreed. And for the next year he kept telling me, every now and then, that he wished I would just give him a chance. He said, yeah, sure, it would be great to have kids of his own, but it wasn’t the end of the world if he didn’t. We could adopt, he said. Still, I wouldn’t believe it. It all seemed too good to be true. And so, I dated other guys, and Michael stayed my friend, and knew about it, and helped me through it when, inevitably, my broken man-radar left me wounded yet again.
Michael was always there, to pick up the pieces of me. Always.
I loved Michael just like I believed in God. But having been raised to make fun of religious people, by a dogmatically atheist father, I have always felt ashamed to admit, publicly, that I do believe in God. I couch the language, call God ‘the universe,’ and express my awe at the mathematical consistency across scale in the universe, things like that. But it’s God. I felt God and loved God. But I felt embarrassed to admit it, like I’d be punished and abandoned, mocked.
Once in a while, Michael would call or text in a depression, and almost beg me to love him. He’d say he was lonely and tell me that he didn’t really want anyone but me. I tried to talk him off the ledge as he had done for me and told him he deserved a pretty young wife. But he didn’t want a pretty young wife, he said; he wanted a beautiful old one. He wanted me. I told him that was silly because he would outlive me by twenty years and spend his 50s pushing me around in a wheelchair. He said we’d pop wheelies.
Sometimes, I’d block him when I felt overwhelmed by how often he texted me, and how nice he was to me. I was afraid to get close to him because I loved him, and I know that sounds crazy, but in my life, it was always the ones I loved the most who hurt me the most if I let them in. And I didn’t want to do that again.
So, I pushed him away.
I was mean to him sometimes, complained about how he texted me in all caps, even though his text had been telling me how beautiful I was and hoping I had a great day. I was a damned monster to him.
And I did that because I was scared, and insecure, and I thought he’d always be there, and I thought that with enough time, I would finally let him in if he still wanted me, when he got a little older.
He’d take some time off from texting me here and there and I never thought much of it. He always resurfaced, or I did, and we’d pick right back up. When my dog was dying, he came over and held me as I cried, and then held my dog as she suffered. She had always felt great peace in his presence. Dogs know.
I should have believed my dog.
Mother’s Day came this year, and I woke up expecting to hear from him, because he had always taken the occasion of holidays to remind me that I was amazing to him, usually with a bunch of fireworks and flower emojis and lots of exclamation points. No text came. No call. I felt it was odd, and also hoped that maybe he had finally met that pretty young thing who would be a great wife to him.
I went to his Facebook page to check his relationship status, and instead I found a funeral announcement.
Michael was dead.
I sat up in bed and stopped breathing. I stared at my phone. The words came out of my mouth as though someone else was saying them, a howl, a cry, a deep anguished noise I had never heard myself make. ‘No,’ I cried. ‘No no no no no no no no!’
I scrolled and saw the posts from family and friends. It was true. He’d died from complications during surgery. He had texted me days before the surgery, and I had not responded.
I cried for two weeks straight. I’d thought there was time. I thought he’d outlive me. I thought he deserved someone better to love him. And he’d not felt loved at all by me, at the end of his life.
I had tried not to. I tried not to love him, with everything I had. I had punished Michael for the sins of other lesser men. I denied him love. I denied myself love. All because other people had hurt me.
I had tried to hate him, even, sometimes. Because that kept me safe, I thought. To assume he was like the others.
But look at his left eye. He was an old soul, he was pure light and love, he was enlightened, and he did not show up in any of the ways I had told myself the right one would. He was too young, too religious, too conservative, too nice, too attentive, too too too too…
I was such a fool. And if I can impart any wisdom to others from this terrible chapter of my life, it is this: love. Love, even if it feels risky. Love. Even if you think of a million’s reasons not to. Love.
I should have loved Michael while he was here.
Truth is, I did. I did love him.
But I never told him.
And now, it’s too late.”
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