Untrue Love by L.A. Shortliffe


It’s happening again. There is itchiness under my skin and tension in my muscles. It’s like some part of me wants to crawl out and away from her. I force a broad smile, looking her in the eye, because I know it’s what I’m supposed to do. Here she is, looking up at me with that delicate face – saying she loves me. Strangely, I’m fixated on the cardboard boxes in the corner that need to get broken down for recycling. 

I met Zoe at a party. My friends had been talking about her for a while. She was a childhood classmate of someone’s girlfriend and recently had moved to the city. Everyone seemed to think she was hot, but that kind of hot you wouldn’t mind bringing home to your parents because she was also classy and smart. My buddy, Mark, had taken a run at her already without success. 

We were both a few drinks deep when we met. She laughed at my jokes with a broad open-mouth, head-flung back kind of laugh. I teased gently – respectfully. She was the girl you try to make eye contact with through a crowd. She was beautiful, but not in a bitchy “I’m too good for you” way. She was Ivy League educated, obviously bright, but not pretentious. She spoke seriously about her graduate studies in architecture, but her ease shooting tequila showed she was able to let loose and have a good time. She was the thoroughbred racehorse of women. I know how to talk to women like that. They want to see they are special in your eyes – that they are unlike anyone you have ever met before – to see that you want them, but also respect them.

When the moment for a kiss arrived, I paused and pulled away.

“I want to kiss you, …but I think I should take you to dinner first,” I said, flashing my most sheepish smile. 

Her wide grin told me I nailed it. We made plans for the next night and she kissed me on the cheek when she left. Mark came up behind me, socking my arm. 

“Shit, Man!” he rasped in my ear.

The date was fine. Zoe was exactly as expected. She was interesting and polished. She appeared on a scene and people gravitated to her. Stranger’s eyes lingered, foot falls quickened in a rush to open a door or pull out a chair. Her charm with the hostess and servers caused the best table and on-the-house cocktails to materialize. She was knowledgeable about food and wine, informed on politics and international affairs, and had sophisticated assessments of film and literature. Conversation flowed. When she ate nigiri, she expertly manipulated her chopsticks to dip the fish and not the rice in her soy sauce. She asked me questions and conveyed rapt interest in my responses. It was a high of sorts. When the girl who charms the entire room only has eyes for you, it’s one heck of an ego boost. I basked in the glow of it, but couldn’t ignore a nagging feeling of inadequacy.

I found myself thinking about how much cachet would come from dating a girl like Zoe. She’s the kind of person you want to bring to your high school reunion because she marks your worth in the eyes of others. You could take her anywhere because she could navigate a conversation with people from all walks of life. My mom might stop worrying about me if I showed up with her. Hell, I could probably run for office with her on my arm. 

We kissed goodnight and it was the kiss of people with very different instincts. Lips, tongue, teeth all colliding in ways that they shouldn’t. That probably should have been my cue to say goodnight and goodbye, but the next day Zoe called and asked whether I wanted to go to a restaurant opening with her. How could I say no?

We have been dating for three years. I was right about her on that first date. Everyone loves Zoe. She always does the right thing-the good thing. She is invariably kind, reasonable, responsible and completely appropriate in all situations. In our rare…it’s hard to call them fights, so…disagreements, she never raises her voice and she stays completely rational and fair. She has sparked growth in my life. Being with her, you have to play the role of deserving her. So, I do the right thing. I am responsible and appropriate. No more drunken brawls or finding myself in shady cardrooms at 2am. Now I’m spending my evenings at dinner parties having cerebral conversations. My credit card debt has transformed into savings for the future. I got promoted. Twice. My parents finally treat me like a grown-up instead of a man-child and my mom stopped asking if I was okay. People want to be friends with us. Our calendar is crammed with birthday dinners, gallery openings, concerts and weekends at so-and-so’s country house. 

I’ve been playing like I belong since I got in on a basketball scholarship to an “elite” college. While teammates blew wads of cash on rounds of drinks, I would throw down a credit card, crossing my fingers that it wouldn’t be declined. I found a sperm bank that would pay $70 for jizzing in a cup and let me come in three times a week. It kept me afloat, but didn’t compare to what seemed like the endless allowance handed out to most of my friends. When people started talking about favorite travel destinations or their ski cabins, I usually left to grab a drink or hit the head. Once, after a few too many, I confessed I had never left the state. 

“Bullshit,” the guy on my right said in shock. Worse than his stunned response was the look of pity on his girlfriend’s face. That was a rare slip though. Most of the time I kept up the façade that I was one of them. With Zoe on my arm, it’s even easier. 

My parents love Zoe. They think she saved me. Until she came along, I was the focus of family concern. My older sister was the star pupil, the award winner, and the goody two-shoes. She fit right in with my librarian mother and struggling journalist father – the three of them sitting around the dining table in the evenings, lost in their respective readings. I would watch them, not sure what it felt like to find so much pleasure in a bookish existence. They were all so content with quiet. I found my friends though – mostly through basketball. Action, noise, and bravado were our game. Of course, it led to some shenanigans. There were calls home from school and maybe a couple of rides in the back of cop cars. My mom would wring her hands and moan about my delinquency, certain I was ruining my future. The joke was on them though. All that time I spent with “mischief makers,” led to a lot of time playing ball, and to everyone’s shock, including mine, getting that college scholarship. I assumed that getting into school, would have quieted their worries about me, but it really wasn’t until Zoe came along that they relaxed. Zoe would trade books with them, would volunteer to help in the kitchen, and would sit at that dining table, talking well into the evening. Zoe knew how to thread me into the conversation, creating dialogue between us all, but somehow I still didn’t feel like I belonged. She got my parents off my back though. No more furrowed brows or questions of concern. 

I almost broke up with her once. She went away for a weekend with friends and I felt relief. I drank too much. I went out with the boys and hit on the wildest girl in the bar. I bought everyone drinks and got in a fight with a bouncer. I was tossed out, but we just kept changing up the scenery until it was 4am and time for late night kabobs. At home, I put my feet on the table and left all the dishes undone. By the time she got back, the apartment was a disaster and I probably looked like as much of a wreck. Did she yell at me or throw something? No. 

“I’m glad you let loose this weekend, hun,” was her only comment on the state of chaos. She sweetly hugged me and cleaned up the mess I had made. I wanted to scream at her. I wanted to shake her shoulders and liberate something human from this robot. I could have just walked out the door. I had been fantasizing about leaving all weekend, but how could I hurt someone so pure? I thought of the guilt I would feel at causing her pain, and the shame that would come with all the questions about what had happened. Everyone, myself included, would know that there was something truly wrong with me.

So, I act like the kind of guy that should be with her. Does that mean I became that guy? I don’t know. Sometimes I feel like a caged animal, but maybe wild animals need to be caged to live in domestic environments. Is that for the sake of the animal, or for those who must live with it? I don’t know. Maybe this is maturing? Maybe this is just sucking it up and growing up.

Really though, she is great. I’m lucky to be with her. No one will ever love me like she does – so unconditionally, so thoughtfully. So predictably. So, when she looks up at me like this, with love in her eyes, announcing her affections, I know what the right thing to do is. Maybe if I keep doing the right thing, it will eventually feel right too.

I look deeply into her eyes, and say, “I love you more.”


 “Anything here speak to you?” the fashionably dressed sales woman asks as she peers at me through her tortoise framed glasses. I smile warmly, but feel frozen. I want to give her a clear answer that will make her job easier, but in truth, as I look out over the sea of sofas, I feel completely overwhelmed. My breath gets shallow as I wonder whether she is finding my uncertain silence to be irritating. Quickly, I respond with appreciation of her inquiry, to dispel the awkwardness, and let her know I will find her after I peruse the store a bit more.          

Paralysis grips me when I am asked what I want. I never know how to answer those questions. 

I hoped Adam would come today, but when I broached the subject, the look he gave me spoke volumes. He hates shopping and the Knicks were playing and I knew that if I pushed it, he would grumble and I would feel guilty the whole time for making him do something he didn’t want to do. So I told him, it was no problem, I was happy to do it. But now I’m standing here feeling lost in indecision. I run my fingers over the soft velvet upholstery of a deep purple loveseat. Adam would hate this. He would see purple as too feminine. I think of the lovely pale neutrals of a friend’s apartment as my eyes settle upon a striking white chesterfield, but I can see my mother’s disapproval at such an impractical choice. I make my way to a buttery soft camel leather option, that I can imagine Adam loving, but when I pick up the tag, my father’s voice chimes in with a reminder of fiscal responsibility. 

I walk up and down the aisles for two and a half hours. At first the saleswoman checks on me, but after a while she probably assumed I was insane and she leaves me alone. Twice I am near tears. I settle upon an option, ready to conclude the search, to be stopped by certainty I am making a mistake and the conjuring of Adam’s resulting disappointment. Finally, I select a dark blue sectional with modern lines, good lumbar support for Adam’s back, easy to clean fabric, and a budget price tag. I thank the saleswoman profusely for her patience and am effusive with my gratitude for their same day delivery option. 

I’ve always been able to read people. It’s the tone of their voice, their body language and facial expressions. What they say matters, but the emotional tone behind it reveals much more. Most of the time, I’m not even aware that I’m reading them. It feels natural and intuitive. I fairly quickly start to form a collage of personality traits, values, and anxieties or insecurities. I start to see what they want from me – what they need from other humans. Some people need you to laugh at their jokes. Others need some verbal sparring and to be teased. So many need you to listen with curiosity, shining the light of attention on their inner world. Most people feel more comfortable when you show you are listening with questions, and head nods, and “yeah…I know what you mean.” People don’t want to feel alone in the world. They want to feel understood, seen, and prized for who they are.

When I’m giving people what they need, I feel more comfortable. I feel like I know what to do and how to be. As a kid, people saw me as quiet and shy. I watched people intently, noticing how they interacted with others, how they responded to their environments, and who they gravitated towards. I learned that in different environments, I’m expected to be different. My mother’s family sat around the dinner table talking over each other, passing heaping piles of food and drinking large quantities of wine, the volume creeping upwards as the evenings stretched on. They wanted me to speak up and be playful, to tell humorous stories about school and to run around freely with my cousins. There were hugs and kisses and smiles and laughter. My father’s family ate bland foods, spoke at length about politics, the news, and literature, leaving me feeling lost in erudite language. In grade school, my inability to contribute to conversation served me well in this environment as I was expected to sit quietly without interrupting the adults throughout the meal. After all, children were to be seen and not heard. As I aged, they wanted me to show my serious intellectual interests through logical discourse and rhetoric. I was neither the wholehearted free spirit, nor the articulate academic. I wasn’t really sure what I was, but I did realize at some point that my failings were less obvious when I pretended. I could pretend to be who they expected me to be. There was power in this. It gave me clarity about what to do and how to act. It meant I could step away from the discomfort of uncertainty around who I was. The awareness of what others wanted or expected from me was like an instruction manual that removed all the confusion about how to proceed.

The hardest part was when my worlds collided. Thanksgiving at our house, with both sets of grandparents felt like a juggling act. I tried my best to perform both roles, but always ended up feeling like I had disappointed both sides, and would collapse in pure exhaustion at the end of the day. Post turkey, while clearing some dishes, I once overheard Grandma Rose asking my father when I had become so loud and silly. She bemoaned the fact that I seemed to be growing into the kind of frivolous girl who lacked serious intent in my life. As I rounded the corner to the kitchen, Nana Sofia was loudly questioning my mother as to whether there was something wrong with me. She found me to be unusually quiet and was concerned I might be ill or depressed. Despite my efforts to walk the balance between expectations, I felt the shame of being a disappointment in the eyes of both matriarchs. In the future, I did my best to avoid being in the room with both families at once.

 In general, I preferr one- on-one interactions where it is easy to be what is needed. The more people involved, the more complicated it gets. It is almost impossible to make everyone in a group comfortable and to attend to the reactions of each individual. 

Harder still has been the accumulation of additional “important people” in my life. As a kid, of greatest importance was measuring up to who my parents expected me to be. But now, I need to be a good daughter, sister, girlfriend, employee….gosh the list just seems to go on and on. So often the roles I’m supposed to play are in conflict and I feel like my ability to be everything to everyone is crumbling. 

 “Guess, what! They are going to deliver it today!” I announce as I make my way into our living room. 

 “They probably could have built it in the time it took you to pick it out,” Adam teases. “I’m glad I skipped that trip. It’s not like you needed my expertise on that one.”

  I prickle a bit thinking of the ordeal I just went through, but walk up behind his chair to kiss his head and massage his shoulders. When Adam and I first started dating, I felt like he saw me. He seemed to appreciate me for how hard I worked and to respect me for it. I loved the way he looked at me, like there was awe in his eyes. On our very first date, Adam made an offhand comment about how any guy would be lucky to grow old with me. It was a bit shocking that someone might not just want to date or hook up with me, but could also imagine a future by my side. I felt valued for who I was. I also wasn’t used to having guys like Adam interested in me. I hadn’t been able to shake the nerdy and awkward identity that had been assigned to me in adolescence, and dating in college had been precluded by a lingering hometown romance that ended abruptly upon discovery of my long distance boyfriend’s local girlfriend. Then suddenly there was Adam. He was the kind of guy who wouldn’t have known I existed in high school and yet he made me feel like I was someone special. He told me that he had never introduced a girlfriend to his parents before, but seemed eager and proud to introduce me to his friends and family alike. I haven’t seen him look at me with that gleam of excitement and pride in a long time though. He is loving and affectionate, but whatever magic was there seems gone. I keep thinking that if I give him enough of what he wants or needs, that spark might come back. Sometimes I feel like I’m a dog chasing its tail.

  When the sofa arrives, they unpack it and set it up. He looks at it, appraisingly, and takes a seat, running his fingers over the fabric. 

 “Well, what do you think?” I ask.

 “It’s nice. It looks like something you would pick… stylish but practical. I wish the seat sat a little deeper – it would be nice if you could think about my comfort and not just style, but it will work,” he responded.

 I bite down hard to restrain my frustration. For a moment I have an urge to hurl the closest object in his direction, but my anger is interrupted by a dueling voice of self-blame. I’ve always thought that putting other people’s needs first was the kind thing to do, maybe even the virtuous thing to do. But I keep making mistakes. I never seem to get it quite right. What does it mean? Am I just destined to be a failure? Or am I setting myself up for failure by trying to do the impossible? I don’t know how else to be. I have to just keep going. People say thinking of someone else before yourself is love. This must be it. 

 “I’m sorry, hunny. Do you want me to try to return it? I promise I will always take those manly legs of yours into account in the future,” I reply with a grin as I sit down next to him.

 “No. It’s okay. We can keep it. I don’t want you to go through the hassle,” he says.

 I snuggle in close to his chest, but then pull back slightly to look up into his eyes. “I love you,” I say.

 He smiles broadly as he gazes back at me. “I love you more.”

L.A. Shortliffe is a clinical psychologist who squeezes in time to write whenever possible. She loves exploring the complexity of human experience and life’s big questions in both her writing and clinical work. Her writing has been published in City.River.Tree and After Dinner Conversations. She lives with her husband and two daughters in Sacramento, CA. For more information, please visit www.lashortliffe.com.