Slowly, the fog of sleep dissipated from my mind. A light rain was pattering softly upon the roof of the building. It took me a moment to identify the sound that had awakened me; it was a soft but insistent knocking at the door of my apartment. Slowly, I extricated myself from my bed and padded across the carpet to the door. The knocking continued... soft, but insistent. My mind was not yet conscious enough to wonder who might be calling at my apartment in the middle of the night. I stood there for a moment, struggling to compose myself—and beginning to question whether I actually wanted to deal with whoever might be out there—before I reached out and opened the door.

Standing on the step was a beautiful young woman. She looked tired, worn out, bedraggled—like a rat that has just escaped from a sinking ship. Her long brown hair hung damply around her face and her clothes clung to her slender figure. Her face was pale and drawn, and her mouth was making a valiant effort not to collapse into a frown, while her large brown eyes held a look of abject doubt. But despite all of that, she still projected a sense of inner strength, like a spark of flame glowing in the ashes of a burnt-out bonfire. If I hadn't already been in love with her I think I would have fallen for her at that very moment.

"Hello," I said, "what brings you out here so late?"

"Can I come in?" She asked, in a voice husky with emotion and weary from anguish.

"Of course... Come in... Sit down... Make yourself at home... Is there anything I can get for you?" My brain was still trying to catch up with events.

She shook her head in response to my last question, her eyes roaming curiously around the apartment. I tried to remember if she had ever been there before. I couldn't think of any time—but then how had she known how to get here? Perhaps I had told her where I lived once, although she had never actually come over. I watched her while she sat, blinking slowly, saying nothing, shivering occasionally—although from cold or sadness I could not tell. She didn't seem interested in talking, and somehow I knew that this wasn't the sort of silence that should be filled with idle chatter.

She wiped a shadow of a tear from her eye. After a long time, she spoke. "I'm sorry. I don't know why I came here. I shouldn't have disturbed you so late... I think I should go now."

"No, no, don't go," I entreated, reaching out to touch her hand. "Something happened, and I'd... Well, if there's anything that I can do to help, I'd like to..."

"Thank you, Tyler, but... I don't think you could really give me the kind of help I need right now."

Normally, I would have given in to this, accepted her assessment of me and withdrawn quietly to let someone else step up to comfort her, but tonight was different. Tonight I felt an unfamiliar determination flowing through my veins. Tonight I rose to her challenge. "How will you know if you don't give me a chance to try?"

She hesitated then, uncertain, torn between her desire to find a closer confidant and her growing conviction that she was treating me unfairly. I looked into her eyes, her deep sultry eyes, with a look that said "Come on, you got me up at three in the morning, after all that I deserve a chance, don't I?" She looked down, sighed heavily and raised a hand to her eye to wipe away another tear. "I guess I can tell you... You've always been a good friend, and I guess you deserve some consideration after the trouble I've put you through tonight."

But she didn't start then; she just sat there, eyes downcast, fidgeting with the ring on her right hand—moving it from her middle finger to her index finger and back again. After uncomfortably watching her struggle for a few minutes, I cleared my throat to offer some encouragement.

"I know it's difficult—I have a hard time talking to people about... things that I'm having trouble with..." I finished rather lamely.

She smiled at my awkward effort to put her at ease. "It's not that... It's just that... I don't really know what to tell you."

"Well, something pretty upsetting must have happened to bring you out on a night like this... You could start by telling me about what happened," I suggested.

"Uh... Well, I guess you could say that I had a fight with my boyfriend."

"It must've been pretty bad."

"Yeah... It started with some silly little thing and, you know how it goes, we started getting into all these issues we've been having, and it was just awful—I didn't even want to be in the same room with him anymore... And then I came over here." She paused, then abruptly changed tones. "And I'm sorry about that, I'm sure you don't want to hear about my troubles at this time of night."

"No, Natalie, I'm... I'm your friend..." It's more than that—you're in love with her, I said to myself. "...and I want to help you. Tell me what's been going on."

"Well, I guess I'm really not sure about the future of our relationship."

"Do you still love him?"

"Yes, but... He wants me to go away with him—he has family, friends back home—and he really wants me to be with him... But I don't think... I'm not sure if there's anything else for me there—except being with him." She took a deep breath and looked up, meeting my eyes for a moment before sliding here gaze to one side. "But the really hard part is, I think he would stay here with me if I asked him to—but I don't know if he would still be happy."

I considered this for a few moments. You should tell her to break up with him, a voice inside me suggested. But that wouldn't bring her any closer to you... She'd probably just take up with somebody new, another part of me cautioned. "I guess the question you really need to ask," I suggested to her, "is 'who do you really want to be?' Do you want to be the kind of person who would give up part of her own life to be with somebody? Would you want to be with someone like that? Could you stand to live a life where all of your happiness and satisfaction came from being with that person? Could you take that sort of responsibility for someone else happiness?"

Natalie looked straight at me for a few moments, pondering the questions I had posed her. Finally, she spoke: "But... Isn't that what love is supposed to be?"

"Maybe, but can a relationship like that really be sustainable? Can love survive in the face of expectations like that? I know it's a clichÈ to quote lines from popular music, but a very successful man once said that 'if you love somebody, set them free.' I don't think you can really love somebody when you depend on them that much."

"Then what do you think I should do?"

"I don't know... I'm not sure I'm really the best person to ask..." Yeah, you're not really an impartial advisor, taunted the voice of my inner cynic. "I haven't done that well for myself when it comes to love." I hesitated, "For a long time now, I've been in love with a woman, but I haven't been able to tell her how I feel... I guess I've been too afraid of what she might say." You're skating dangerously close to the edge, I warned myself.

"Hmm..." She started to say something, but I quickly added, "I can tell you that I would never ask you to give up any part of your life to be with me, no matter how much I loved you. I love..." I stopped myself. "The woman I love, I love her more than anything in the world, more than life itself... I would do anything to be with her, but I would never ask her to do that. Because one of the things I love most about her is her strength, her independence—I think it's one of her best qualities; I would never want her life to just be a subset of my own." Natalie pondered this, shifting absentmindedly in her chair.

"I guess I haven't been very helpful," I commented.

"No... You've given me a lot to think about. You've suggested a really different perspective for me to look at..."

"Well, I think when most people think about relationships, they mostly think about the other person—what they're doing, or not doing—and they don't really think about how their own decisions are affecting things."

"That's interesting... I never thought about it that way, but you're right, people always talk about what other people are doing that's making them unhappy, and they never think about what they can do to make themselves happier."

"I have this idea: everybody's got these stereotypes about how relationships are supposed to work, and we just fall into them unconsciously, whether we want to or not—and it hurts people, because they fall into these co-dependent relationships, where they put all of their energy into satisfying their partner's needs and they don't have anything left to take care of themselves. And they take it for granted that their partner is going to take care of them, so whenever their partner makes a mistake it really hurts them—because they've become so dependent on each other. I think if two people got together who could meet their own needs—so that they didn't need to rely on each other for everything—they could love each other so much more deeply, because they wouldn't have to worry about their partner letting them down."

"Wow... That sounds pretty cool."

"Of course, who am I to talk, I don't even have a relationship with the woman I love... Well, I mean, we're friends... but we don't have that kind of intimacy..."

"No, no, I think it's a really cool idea. I would love to be in a relationship like that—it sounds really awesome." She sighed, continued: "I don't know if I've ever met anyone who could handle a relationship like that—I'm not really sure that I could, either... It seems like you'd have to really be able to rely on yourself completely. I don't know if I could do that."

"You can learn. I was able to... It hasn't been easy—and maybe I'm not totally self-reliant, but I do my best. Self-reliance is very important to me. I believe that it's the key to becoming a fully realized individual... And that it's essential to having healthy relationships—so you should think about whether this relationship is helping you to become more self-reliant or not."

"Hmm... That kind of sounds like a pretty radical idea."

"Really? You think so?"

"Well, it just sounds really different than what you usually hear. I've always been kind of independent, and I feel like I've been, I don't know, sort of... criticized for it. I don't know if that's really right, though... It's more like, I don't know, everybody wanted me to be different... less independent, I guess."

"Yeah, self-reliance is definitely out of fashion these days—and I don't think it ever had that much mainstream acceptance. Most people buy into the society of mutual dependence—they don't really like it when people don't want to participate in it with them. I read this book by an economist once about how we're all becoming such horrible people because we don't have to depend on each other like we did in the tight-knit communities of the past."

"Like everybody was so wonderful in those days..."

"Right. It's just that it's easier for people to be independent these days than ever before, and the old guard doesn't like people opting out—after all, they depend on us to satisfy their needs."

"Ugh... It's all so disgusting. Sometimes I just wish I never had to deal with any other people."

"Me too... Well, except for one person."

She smiled at that, but only briefly before reverting to her almost-frown. "I guess I should be going. I need to get home and get some sleep. You'd probably like to get some sleep too."

"All right," I sighed, knowing it would do no good to press her to stay. "You sure you'll be okay?"


It had stopped raining. As she slowly gathered up her things I thought about what she had told me. Maybe you'll never get to really be close to her, I told myself, but still, you shared something intimate tonight.

"Thanks for your help," she said, "you've really given me a lot to think about. And I think you told me some really helpful things."

"Well, I'll see you later, I guess," I remarked awkwardly as I opened the door for her.

"Yeah, I guess so," she replied, equally awkward. Then she suddenly stepped close and wrapped her arms around me and hugged me tight. I hesitantly put my arms around her and gave her a little squeeze.

"You were really sweet," she said.

"Thanks," I replied, "I'm just glad I was able to help."

Then she pulled away and stepped through the door. As she was starting down the stairs, she half turned and spoke: "About that girl you're in love with..." She said with a trace of a smile, "You should tell her how you feel. You never know, she just might feel the same way." Before I could respond she had disappeared down the stairs. I closed the door behind her and closed my eyes. When I opened them again, daylight was sneaking around the edges of the window shades. I looked around... There was no trace of Natalie's midnight visit. I remembered the sparkle of life I'd glimpsed deep in her eyes—Could it have been only a dream?


I ran into her a few days later. She was just as I always thought of her, slender, graceful, self-assured... She seemed to exude an aura of creative energy—a power that glowed beneath her skin and glinted in the depths of her eyes. Out of everything I loved about her, it was those eyes that I loved the most. They say that looking into a person's eyes is like looking into their soul; well, looking into her eyes was like looking to the depths of the night sky—you started to feel like infinity was looking back at you. You could lose yourself in eyes like that.

I remembered the first time I saw her: she didn't seem like anything special—just another pretty girl—but there was something; some special quality in the way she moved, the way she spoke, the way she met your eyes. The woman I looked at now was so different than the one I had met that day... but that core of quality, that essential spark had remained—even grown. That was what I had fallen in love with that day, nothing else. I had never known anyone like her before. I thought I had known what love was, but I had never known love like this... I had always dreamed of meeting someone like her, and now that she was there before me, there was nothing that I could do.

I was helpless before her, afraid that she would not share my feelings, that she would not see me for who I truly was. She was the most intense person that I had ever known, and I could not dare to approach her—I was terrified by the prospect of the intimacy I so desired. And as time passed, it became harder and harder for me to imagine telling her how I felt. She was so real, so unique, so alive—there was no one else like her in the universe. I hope whoever she ends up with can appreciate that, I thought, she deserves someone who can understand what an exceptional person she is.

She saw me, smiled—she always seemed happy to see me—beckoned to me. I sat down across from her.

"How are you doing?" I asked.

"Okay," she replied, "I've been busy."

I awkwardly tried to make small talk. Despite our friendship, I didn't know her all that well—I always felt inadequate in her presence, and those feelings of inadequacy contributed to my shyness and awkwardness. It became a vicious circle: the more inadequate I felt, the more inadequate I became. Sometimes I wondered if she even liked me, or if she was just being nice to me to spare my feelings. At times like that the thought of her could drive me into a bleak despair, and I wished with all my being that I had never met her, that I had never fallen in love.

She showed no sign that we had shared a night of intimate commiseration in the shelter of a storm, perhaps she preferred to forget that it had happened—or perhaps it had not happened at all. I looked at her: she had seemed so real then, so present, could it have been anything but true? I thought of the words that she had spoken as she turned to go: "...she just might feel the same way." I took a deep breath, marshaled my courage, prepared to bare my soul to the object of my love.

But she was speaking, "...I need to get back to work, but it was nice talking to you."

"Yeah," I answered, all of my determination draining away, "I guess I'll see you around."

"Um-hm," she mumbled as she turned to go.

"Natalie, wait!" I called out as she walk away, "I..."

She turned, looked at me with an expression that I was too distracted to discern—almost like a combination of expectation and impatience.

"Never mind... I'll see you later."