it's complicated

We Had a Beautiful, If Imaginary, Relationship

Photo: J.V. Aranda

He looked like he came out of a J.Crew catalogue: a single, dirty-blond, blue-eyed, fit man in his mid-thirties. Brad was a Princeton alumnus and nonprofit vice-president who sat at a table next to mine on Sunday mornings at the neighborhood café. We introduced ourselves to each other when I was writing a book and he was answering what appeared from the expression on his face to be some very serious email, and he needed an outlet to plug in the power cord for his laptop; the nearest one was under my table.

“I think I used to see you at the Starbucks across the street,” I said, which was an understatement. For a year, I’d ogled him from three window seats down, trying to think of an excuse to say hello. Then the Starbucks closed for renovations and I lamented that I’d never see him again. Then I went across the street to this café.

Brad smiled warmly. “Yeah, I remember you,” he said.

He remembered me? I felt myself blush. “I’m Tracy,” I said.

He put out his hand to shake mine. “Brad,” he said. “Thanks for introducing yourself.”

I was in my late 30s and had never fallen in love. While my peers were married and raising kids, I was in therapy working to wrap my head around a painful past, life circumstances that had created obstacles to my personal growth, barriers to achieving happiness and personal success in love. I thought if I tried hard enough I could catch up to my peers: I, too, could find my life partner. I was a full-blown romantic: I thought maybe Brad was “the one.”

For a year, every Sunday morning I went to the café and saw Brad sitting at a table, his gaze glued to his computer screen until he took the chance to look up, at me. Every Sunday morning I said hi, asking how his week had been. And every Sunday morning Brad smiled and asked me the same. Our conversations were brief — he always seemed intent on getting back to his work — but they were, I thought, deeper than superficial chitchat.

I never paid attention to the fact that he never asked me to join him.

When my mother died, Brad was one of the few peers I knew who understood what I was going through. He’d lost his mother when he was in his 20s, and his father had also recently passed. Talking with each other, we realized that he was going to be cleaning out his parents’ house the same weekend I was going to be cleaning out my mother’s condo. We’d both be doing it alone, together.

It was morbidly romantic. I wondered if it was fate: Death was a tie to bind us.

I imagined asking him out, how he’d say yes. I imagined we’d date and, several months later, when my lease was up, I’d move out of my tiny, run-down attic apartment and Brad would move out of his place and we’d move in to a nice apartment together. A year after that, if things worked out, perhaps we’d get engaged, and then we’d get married. A couple years later, we’d have children. I daydreamed: It wasn’t too late for me; I could still attain the kind of (love) life I wanted.

I knew I was constructing a mirage, trying to force love to happen. Just as I couldn’t alter my past, I didn’t have the power to change the reality sitting before me.

When I asked Brad out, I didn’t think he’d say, “I think you’re a very thoughtful person, but I don’t think you’re my type,” or that he’d want to “just be friends,” or that “we should have coffee sometime” or that every time after, when I’d walk into the café, he’d always be too busy with his laptop to “have coffee.” I’d ponder over what it was about me that made me not his type; I’d consider that perhaps I’d come off as too tentative or too desperate to be attractive in the eyes of a guy I thought was “the whole package.”

What I didn’t consider was that it wasn’t just about me but about Brad, too, that he was flawed, just as I was, and that perhaps he wasn’t available not because he was taken (he wasn’t) but because he was always working, his laptop a curtain behind which he was hiding from the world of relationships.

Once, a few months after I asked him out, I was walking down the street and I saw, in the distance, a man standing by his car, staring at me. As I got closer, I saw it was Brad. His gaze didn’t match his stance about dating me. He said hello and mentioned he was meeting with a Realtor: He was tired of renting and was considering buying a condo. Then he drove away.

Despite this encounter, our interactions at the café remained as they’d always been, until, at some point, Brad stopped coming. I assumed he’d found a girlfriend and had no reason not to stay home in bed on Sunday mornings. Eventually, I moved to another part of town and frequented a different café, one closer to where I lived.

For a long while, I forgot about him.

A few years into the future, I got curious and Googled him, thinking I might find a wedding announcement. Instead, I found his obituary.

Brad had died of brain cancer, which the obituary stated he’d battled for four years. Four years before his death was around the time we’d first introduced ourselves to each other.

My friends suggested that Brad hadn’t wanted to pursue a relationship with me not because he didn’t care for me but because he was trying to protect me. That may or may not have been true. But what is true is that when I knew him, I made many assumptions, rooted in my low self-esteem: I thought he (and most men) didn’t want to go out with me because I was “damaged goods.” I had to let go of this myth, which I’d been wearing like a cloak around my heart.

Life doesn’t always turn out the way we want or plan. I think Brad would agree. Sometimes, when we meet a potential partner, we might just be on mismatched timelines—one of us might not be able to be in a relationship at that very moment, for whatever reason. It’s sad but true: A rejection may have nothing at all to do with you and everything to do with the other person.

Brad wouldn’t be my future boyfriend or husband, but he taught me to believe that the person I was looking for existed. And that person wasn’t perfect: he was real. Sometimes, feeling discouraged about finding the love of my life, I’d visit that old café and catch myself, for an instant, looking for Brad. I knew he was gone, but the gift of him would always remain.

Adapted from I Just Haven’t Met You Yet by Tracy Strauss, used by permission of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

We Had a Beautiful, If Imaginary, Relationship