The first time I ever experienced someone falling in love with the idea of me, and not actual me, was when I was 16 years old and in a top secret relationship with another girl.
It was early May in the northeast, and we were sitting on the rusty swings of a neglected playground on the wrong side of the beach at night. We had just snuck out of a painful high school performance of "The Music Man" and were hiding from our friends, seeking solace in the sandy safe haven.
"I love how outspoken you are," she whispered.
It was a brisk 55 degrees outside, and I was underdressed in my ripped denim and slashed T-shirt, but I was suddenly warm and short of breath. The fact that not a single entity outside of the cocoon of her and I knew about our spiral into the sh*t storm of teenage love and sex only added fuel to the fire of attraction that burned between the two of us.
"I love that you’re emotional, and sensitive, and open-minded," she whispered again, leaning across me, her fingertips lightly grazing mine.
I blinked, and our lips were interlocked in a kiss.
It was one of those life-changing kisses that starts out soft and shy, but quickly becomes aggressively sexual and passionate, only to become sweetly soft and shy all over again. You can feel the wind shift and the earth rotate. You feel so vulnerable that you're not sure if you want to run in the opposite direction screaming or if you want to just melt in your partner's arms and stay there forever, immersed in newfound tenderness. You suddenly question if maybe God is real after all.
Unlike the slew of boys I'd dated, when I told her I loved her, I actually f*cking meant it.
Every night, I spoke to her on the phone, hidden beneath the thick comforter exchanging secrets, talking, talking, talking until 2 am, 3 am, 4 am. Sometimes we fell asleep connected through the airwaves of our house phones.
We were in deep. Until the fantasy wore off, and sh*t got real.
The moment I opened up to her about the incessant anxiety that lingered beneath the surface of my "outspokenness" and the underlying depression that accompanied my “emotions” and "sensitivity" and the alienation that fueled my "open-mindedness,” she was out. And I was left licking my wounds alone.
I was heartbroken to lose my first stab at intimacy. I was heartbroken to not have mind-blowing kisses in our secret spot every day before the school bell rang. But I was mainly heartbroken because I had learned a painful life truth: the girl who I thought authentically loved me, loved the idea of me, not the real me.
She loved the person I was on paper. She loved the idea of being with the creative, passionate, artistic girl, but she didn't want the multifaceted person who lived underneath the roof of those labels.
And the pattern continued to repeat itself, bleeding into my adult relationships.
My whole life, people have always fallen for me hard and fast, only to be left baffled when I step outside their perception of who I'm "supposed" to be.
And it f*cking hurts. It's a specific kind of pain when you realize someone loved the curated version of you, the persona of you, but not the real you.
After too many times of falling into this trap and finding myself bending myself to try and fit into the "box" in which my partners placed me, I finally decided enough was enough. The only way to get out of the cycle was to examine the patterns weaving their way into my relationships.
So ladies, here it is: how to tell if someone actually loves you or just the idea of you.
They fall in love with you after the second date.
When a person would tell me she loved me on the second or third date, I thought it was because she genuinely saw something in me that was stirring up intense feelings. I stupidly believed that love at first sight existed.
Now, I've wised up. When love is professed too quickly, I'm out. Because it takes time to really, truly love someone, kittens.
You don't even know me, so how can you say you LOVE me three dates in? You're loving the fantasy you've created and projected on to me.
It took me too long to realize love at first sight only exists in the cheap rom-coms I hate anyway. It isn't a real thing.
Lust at first sight, however, is definitely real, and while it's tempting to confuse the two, they are very, very different things.
They're thrown off when they discover you're a multifaceted human.
We all have a front, a cover with which we arm ourselves to survive in the blistering world. I'm not going to march into the office the first day of a new job and express my slew of vulnerabilities, traumas and fears.
No. In fact, I'm going to present a neatly gift-wrapped version of myself to my co-workers and save my insecurities and fears for the people whom I love and trust.
There is always that moment in a relationship when a new partner sees the person beyond our persona. The raw, stripped-down version of who we are.
From my experience, they are often thrown off when they discover that, yes, even though I love fashion, I have deep rooted issues with my body and have been in therapy for an eating disorder. That even though I'm fun and impulsive, I have a f*cked up past that haunts me. That my creativity is rooted from a desire to feel connected because sometimes I feel so disconnected from myself.
It doesn't mean that the outer me is fake. I am an authentically fun-loving girl who loves to party and create art. But I'm also a multifaceted girl creature, who is many things besides the girl in the red lipstick who makes lewd jokes.
You start to play the role they've cast you in.
This is the most dangerous part of all. When I would start to open up and reveal the hidden parts of my partner, I could sense this isn't the "Zara" she signed up for -- so I stepped into a role she wanted so she wouldn't leave me.
She wanted the fearless partier? Well, dammit, I could play that part. She wanted the artistic, fashion-loving, sophisticate? I’ll score that role and nail the sh*t out of it.
Everything would be fine. Until I found myself lying awake at night, heart thumping out of my chest, sorely exhausted and irrepressibly anxious from putting on an act -- and from being found out.
Now, I stopped. I don't let myself get in deep with someone who only wants Zara on her own terms.
Don't ever, ever play a character. YOU are so much more interesting. Cuff only with the person who loves all sides of you. Someone who loves the multifaceted, gorgeous little human you are.
I don't want to be with a curated version of a person. I want to be with a real person, with strengths and flaws aplenty. I want all of it.
And if someone doesn't want all of me, I have two words: F*ck off.