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“Will you be here when I get home?” he asked, while dressing for his day.

It was a fair question to pose to one’s lover. But since I had my own apartment and we weren’t officially a couple, I said “I don’t know.”

He wasn’t direct with me, and so I wasn’t direct with him. I found him hard to read. Was he saying he wanted me to be there when he returned? Or was he trying to nail down my departure? Had he instead said, “Will you meet me back here later?” my answer would have been a definitive “yes.”

The perils of a freelance work schedule meant that I had days of steady employment and days with no work that, undefined, would melt into each other. He understood the ebb and flow of the creative life and the maddening lack of structure. He had a creative career of his own, albeit a more successful one.

What self-respecting woman was going to say yes to lounging at his home all day, unmoored and waiting for him to return, like a wannabe wife? Even if he did happen to have a very nice house, that happened to sit right on the Malibu sand, and his dog longed for company during the day, it still seemed desperate.

He was fine company — witty, intelligent and great fun. Except when he wasn’t, when his bouts of melancholy would appear out of nowhere and cast a pall on an otherwise nice day. One night, we had a date to see a musical that he had to see for work. When he picked me up he was already irritable. “Not a fan of musicals?” I asked in an attempt to lighten him up. He shrugged. He barely spoke to me; and afterward, he took me straight home, as if he couldn’t wait to be rid of me. But the next day he would text and ask me to come over and act as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

Over the months that we dated, each time he asked if I was going to stay, I declined. I preferred to keep a little distance. Even when I craved nothing more than to lie on one of his deck chairs and bask in the sun all day. That would mean giving him the upper hand, and I couldn’t let myself surrender. Even if I had nothing better to do, I didn’t want to be seen as hanging around for him.

I couldn’t allow myself to fully invest in him emotionally, because his heart belonged to someone else — an actress who’d stomped her footprints all over his heart on her way out the door.

Initially, I listened with rapt attention as he shared details about her and the trips they’d taken together. It was hard to escape her presence; his bathroom was still littered with her expensive beauty products. She was one of those women who completely destroys a man when she’s finished with him, and leaves a ruined mess on the floor for the next person to clean up. Only it became clear that he wasn’t ready to be patched up. He was still savoring his wounds, as they were the only things that still connected him to her.

No matter how much I liked him, the cozy dinners and walks on the beach with his dog, the limited nature of our relationship began to wear on me. It became harder to justify. While we mostly had an enjoyable time together, wouldn’t I be better-served dating someone who was open to a real relationship? Someone who wasn’t just going through the motions? Sometimes dating in Los Angeles can feel like everyone is waiting for the bigger, better deal. She was that for him, and she was always going to occupy that space in his heart. There was no competing with his fantasy of her. I wanted to be someone’s bigger, better deal.

I started seeing someone who was available and wasn’t afraid to commit. I never had to guess where he was or what he was doing, because we were always together. Even though I often felt overwhelmed by the intensity of my blossoming new relationship, by contrast it looked like I was at least moving in the right direction.

Then my own fears of commitment were triggered by this fast-moving new love. Here I was with someone who wanted me — and only me — and I was freaking out. Wasn’t this what I had been looking for? I identified this commitment phobia — something I had been quick to point out in others — as a character flaw that I needed to squash. I didn’t consider that perhaps my hesitation was trying to tell me something. Despite my reservations, I told myself that settling down and having a family was what I was supposed to be doing. Within a year of meeting, we were married.

That didn’t work out well, either. In fact, it crashed and burned. All I had done was leap from one extreme to another.

There is nothing like a ruptured marriage and writhing-on-the-floor pain to bring about some serious soul-searching. To find myself a divorced mom in my early 30s felt like a spectacular failure. It was my own overeagerness to have a family, the need to feel “on track” that led me there. I had doubted myself and my ability to know when a partnership felt right.

I needed to learn how to trust myself and to seek some middle ground, since neither holding back nor forging ahead had worked out. The sweet spot was somewhere in between. A friend of mine puts it simply. She says: “Think of it as paying attention to traffic lights. Are you getting a red light on this or are you getting a green?”

I’m still learning to read my own signals. But one thing is certain: Every time I drive through Malibu with my window cracked open to drink in the sea air, if memories of my ex float in, all I see is red.

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