He told me that he loved me. For two months, we had a relationship through text messages and illicit phone calls. To this day I still don't know how I fell head over heels for him so quickly, but there can be no denying that I did. Perhaps it was because his heart was broken, and I've only ever wanted to be someone's savior. If we were awake, we were talking. Twenty minutes of silence between us meant that something was wrong; seriously wrong. The hours that we spent together in the company of others, unable to acknowledge what we had and having to pretend nothing was there, were torture. He was the flame, and I was the moth; totally unaware that I could finally have him only once; unaware of how badly I would be burned.

After all these words exchanged between us – poetic descriptions of sex acts; promises of love; promises that he was going to come live with me – he finally showed up at my house unannounced one night. He was drunk, and he had driven, with an existing DUI already pending against him. It was over between them, and he was here for me – and me alone – at last.

I should have listened to a feeling in my gut that said this was not right: that a drunken "I've finished with her" is very different from a sober "I choose you"; that he knew I was held back by insecurities and that surprise meetings like this were not romantic to me. I should have gestured to the two friends sitting on my couch and said "sorry, I've got company", but I invited him in. He sat beside me to watch movies with my friends, concealed from their view, and he could not pretend. His teeth found my earlobe, his lips found my neck, and I sighed. My friends looked at me. I panicked; tried to disguise the sigh as a sneeze. "We know," they said, "and we don't care."

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It was the ultimate freedom to not pretend anymore. I loved him. I loved him, and I could shout it from the rooftops. I could let him put his arm around me and hold me close as we watched the movie, right in view my other guests. I could let him kiss me, and I could kiss him back. When I pulled out the couch for my friends to sleep on, he came with me upstairs; we made no attempts to pretend he was sleeping on the floor or in another room. This was the beginning of us. He laid me down and I thought we were making love. When I woke the next morning, he was in the shower. As he pulled on clothes, I lay there naked in my bed, and asked him where he was running off to. He smiled at me, and said he just had to go home to get his prescription painkillers; his back was hurting something awful today. Picturing him laid out across my bed as I massaged his broken body, a savior at last, I told him to hurry up. He kissed me, and looked at me the way he had done the night before.

"One more time couldn't hurt, could it?" I asked him.

I was making breakfast when he left. We didn't kiss or share a long goodbye: what would be the point, when he was coming back in just a few hours? As he left, I called after him: "we're having steak for dinner, by the way."

I never saw him again.

***

He had a backstory that would tug on the hardest of heartstrings: a young man sweeter than sugar, who had been cheated on when he was fighting a disease intent on killing him. A Southern gentleman on the streets, the kind you take home to Momma, and a freak between the sheets. The first time he met me we could not keep our hands off each other, even to the point of (attempted) drunk sex in a parking deck. After I flirted for months, played hard to get for months and wished for months that we didn't have to play bullshit games, we finally got our drunk sex. He put his clothes on again. He told me he'd be right back, but I'd been burned before. I went into the kitchen to get a drink and on my way I found him on the couch. "Aren't you coming to bed?" I asked him. He told me that he would get too hot sharing a bed, and, stupidly, I believed him.

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As time passed and we continued to play games, I overanalyzed every signal until I convinced myself that he had feelings for me. My crush only grew. In my head, he was The Big Sensitive Dude, scared to put his trust in anyone because of his past; head over heels in love with me but unable to show it for fear of getting hurt. For over a year I waited patiently for the day that he would notice me right in front of him, waiting to give him exactly what I thought he so desperately needed.

I soon learned that what he needed from me was just one more Jameson-fueled encounter. Once he'd had it, all the flirting stopped. When he was drunk now, he didn't tell me he wanted to fuck me; he told me he wanted me to fuck off. When he was sober, I didn't exist to him. I packed my feelings for him away and tried my damnedest to forget about them, although they would resurface from time to time when I caught his eye. I had offered myself to him wholly, and it wasn't all of me that he was interested in, but just a few specific parts. I had learned my lesson by now. I was fine. I was over him.

Until he found someone else, and I realized I was neither.

***

He was the one I never had. For six years, we were close friends who knew that there was mutual physical attraction between us which we never had chance to act upon: we were separated by several states, and by circumstance. When we first met at a party I had a boyfriend, who I went on to marry. When I eventually filed for divorce, he had a girlfriend. When he broke up with his girlfriend and I was separated, he came to visit a friend seventy miles away from me. It was the closest we had been in half a decade, but my divorce was only pending; I was still technically married. He returned home and found a girlfriend, 'The One'. My divorce finalized, and we were back to where we'd always been: apart.

And then came the day 'The One' left him.

Between drawn-out, late-night conversations where I did a good deal of virtual hand-holding and tear-drying, explicit pictures were exchanged. He was heartbroken, but he also wanted to seize an opportunity he'd been trying to grasp for six years. We planned a trip. A weekend where he would come see me, and when we left my bed (which would only be rarely) I would take care of him. Cook him hearty meals (he said he had been too depressed to eat). Make sure he was getting enough sleep (he said that he wasn't). I was going to nurture him. Save him.

Until, all of a sudden, he became quiet. No more flirting, no more pictures, and no more long conversations: just total silence. With his trip fast approaching, I asked him if he was still coming. I had to know, not only so I could prepare my home for a guest, but because I needed reassurance that the things I had been dreaming of would still happen. That he really would be here, and find me irresistible. That he really would need me.

His response? "I can't come, I've got to work that weekend."

"Oh."

"And I met a girl."

***

What do we do, then, with these almost lovers? The ones who never were? We are not afforded the same rights as exes when we have been needed and wanted by them only in our dreams: friends will not go out of their way to comfort us; people will not give us space and time; we will not be forgiven ill tempers and angry outbursts. Does it make the pain any less real, that it was not a 'real' breakup? When our lives are in limbo, with every move calculated based on how it will affect our future with them, what do we do when we learn there will be no future with them?

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So comes the moment when we realize that it is truly over, this thing that we never had at all, and we will wonder why. Did we misread every signal? Were they never interested at all? Or did we do something wrong, make some huge mistake along the way that cost us our own happiness? So we grieve. We grieve for the loss of a relationship we never had; a love that we never won; a dream that we now have to part with.

How terrible it is, to be haunted by someone more than you ever haunted them. To cling on to the ones who never were.