If you must fall in love, fall in love with a stranger. You can pass him in the street and think of him for days. You can build him like God built man out of mud, like you build castles out of sand. Create him wholesale. Make him an angel who flies between stars and makes only glancing contact with reality.
Or, if a dream man cannot stir you, sew yourself a patchwork man, a quilt of all the things you’ve loved and had or loved and wished you had. Give him your father’s strength and your ex’s wet kisses. When he speaks, he uses your best friend’s words and your idol’s voice. For flavor, you can give him flaws but never enough to make you pull your hair out, gnash your teeth, weep in the bathroom, pull out your psych books. Sometimes he forgets to brush his hair and you will never find this sloppy or lazy, only endearing. Sometimes, he speaks too harshly, but he always apologizes, always with the right words, and always kisses the hurt away in the exact right way, always.
So if you love, if you must, if you cannot shield yourself even after the heartbreak of Neil and Dave and, oh God, Benjamin, you must love a stranger. Pick the pretty one. Yes, him, the one that rides the bus with you, the one who once held the lift doors open. Find that fresh-faced one with unbroken skin who has never looked at a calendar and doubted, that bright-eyed boy for whom the world is exactly what it seems. Then gut him, neck to groin, and hollow him out and sew him up into a man you could love, a man without jagged edges.
Don’t love that one. You know who. Yes, him, that one you’re thinking of because you’re always thinking of him for one reason or another. Don’t love the man who limps and bleeds and cannot be bothered to hide it. His pain wears him like a suit; his anger yanks him like a puppeteer. You shouldn’t love the broken man for the same reason you shouldn’t drink from a broken glass. He cuts up the most delicate bits of you and staggers away, oblivious, drunk on his own suffering. The heat of him will burn you up and when it does he will smear your ashes on his forehead and weep for himself.
The boy on the bus was nice, wasn’t he? Go love him.
Pinocchio will love your better than the real boy ever could. Just tug his strings here and there, and now he cooks, and now he fucks, and now he whispers every sweet nothing you’ve ever wanted to hear and all you have to do is pull the mouth open and closed yourself.
But. If on the days when the jeers break through the velvet armor you built, when the bad guys and the good guys act interchangeably, when your feet throb in time with your heart and there’s no one to rub them better, if on those too-common days you need something good, then you can think of that man and remember.
His hand, warm on your breast. His eyes, shut. The steadiness of his breath as he dedicated all thought to your heartbeat.
There are better men to want, but you don’t want them. It boils down to this: if trust looked like a man, it would look like him. He leans so heavily on you that if you move away he would never stop falling. He strips himself bare before you and the weigh t of his need is terrifying and thrilling.
You’ve became solid to the core. Your strength’s not due to him—you won’t demean yourself that way. But he’s the first person who needed you to be strong, who begged you to be, and that permission lets you march up to the dartboard and steal a bull’s-eye, and that lets you kick off your heels and chase a blagger down.
You drink whiskey now. You’ve acquired a taste for the burn in the back of your throat. He watches as you sip. His eyes are the color of your drink and he burns you just the same. When he looks away, his face turned to hollows and shadows, reach out your hand to him and tease him back to you.
Your patchwork man cannot surprise you, but your real man, he will pause in the hallway when it’s only you two, will reach for your face only to hesitate.
And then he will tell you, yes, you, just how fucking brilliant you are. You didn’t know a traitor, a liar, a madman, could make you shake with pride.
Then—because there is something cruel about him—he will leave you alone and walk himself home.
When you need to, think of him but never for long. Spare him your heart only in the still of your bedroom, in the five steps when you walk naked, your job shed in a pile on the floor, from your wardrobe to your bed. By the time you settle between your sheets, he must be gone. Sleep is silken and he rubs against you like sandpaper.
And if you still need it, really need it, if the blood’s still caked under your fingernails and the shot’s still ringing in your ears, then keep the dream man tucked away. Close your eyes and rest your hand on your breast. Dream of his ragged edges. Make them smooth or let them tear. In the safety of your empty room, curl up with the ghost of an imperfect man and fall asleep to the Sam, Sam, Sam of your heartbeat.