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My mother has a thing for fixer-uppers. Show her a pile of dilapidated bricks with a weed-infested backyard and a crumbling concrete garage; she sees a heritage estate, a secret garden, a guest house.

The family home is a three-storey Victorian that was abandoned for a decade before she descended on its mildewed halls with vinegar and elbow grease. No project is bigger than her imagination.

Over the winter holidays, we talk and she worries. She's afraid I'm starting to look at boys, or men - I'm in that in-between stage - the way she looks at rundown houses. Relationships, she says, are not projects.

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"Girls always think they can fix guys," the Guy says. Years older and more damaged than I am, with scores of acquired neuroses and questionable habits, he's my mother's latest reason to worry.

I protest. "They do not! I do not."

"You definitely do."

"I don't think I can really fix them," I say, softly now. "I just want to fix them up, you know, bandage them."

Bandage them, tend their emotional wounds, nurse them slowly back to love.

This is the romantic fantasy, not just for me but for every self-canonized saint of a girl who has ever set out to save a guy from himself. I call it Florence Nightingale Syndrome, a term I thought I'd invented. When I Google it, however, I turn up more than 1,500 results. Evidently, I'm not labouring alone under this delusion.

My ex-boyfriend Kyle was a classic case, a brilliant but paranoid pothead who moved back to his parents' home after university and spent his free time jamming with his suburban punk band. My friends didn't think he was good enough to breathe the same air as me. I would have lent him my lungs.

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When our relationship train-wrecked, I limped away in a daze, unable to understand how I had given so much and been left with so little. Or how I had been left at all. For nearly a year, I had tried to be everything his first girlfriend wasn't: supportive, intensely passionate and always, always there. He told me I was all he had dreamed of, all he could ever need.

Then I had an abortion. Suddenly I was the needy one. I couldn't take the thought of a single night alone without spiralling into a screaming panic; he couldn't take it any more, full stop. He told me this on the phone, 10 days after the procedure. I was still bleeding.

It didn't end there, but by the time Kyle and I had nothing left to fight for, I was the walking wounded. For weeks, I slept little and ate less. Then, one crystalline spring morning, I woke up. I was through wasting myself on him. I wanted better problems, a bigger project.

Enter the Guy. Long before he tells me the extent of his damage, I can sense it. I look at him, shirtless and perfect in Levi's, and I see the bruises under his West Coast perma-tan. He's emotionally wounded, unavailable and irresistible. I haven't crushed this hard since the sixth grade.

My friends don't get it. Does he take me to dinner? No. Does he make me breakfast? No. Does he make me feel good? Yes. Well, sort of. Not exactly. No. He doesn't make me feel good. He makes me feel good. As in, a good person. A heroine. A martyr.

"Or a masochist," says Jessica, the office receptionist and lucky recipient of my Monday morning unloading. Every week, I lean on her desk and tell her that I'm in love, or infatuated, and he's indifferent. Every week the same story.

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I don't expect this one to have a happy ending. I don't expect anything from him at all, I remind myself every time he neglects to return phone calls or affection.

When he forgets my 22nd birthday, I don't shed a tear. But when, on the morning of his 30th, I attempt to surprise-deliver a cake - only to find that he's out having brunch, doing errands and being fine without me - I go home and cry so hard my ribs ache. All my caring is painfully, obviously in vain. Perhaps it's all vanity, this relentless need to be needed. This devastating letdown when I realize I'm not.

It's one kind of hurt to give your heart to someone and get it back in pieces. It's another, somehow deeper hurt to have it returned to sender, unopened.

"There's only so much you can do for a guy," my friend Adrian says. "You can bandage him, fine, but then you have to let him go and heal."

Adrian's right. Thing is, the Guy probably doesn't want to heal, not fully, not yet. He would like to believe he's beyond help. He has certainly never asked for mine. When he tells me he feels better now than he did four months ago, I smile a little wistfully. It's not me making him better. It's the four months. Nothing but time will close his wounds. The only healing I'm providing is the Marvin Gaye kind.

If I keep playing nurse, I'll just end up in the same ward. The more I try to fix him up, the more I find myself the one who's breaking. I know it has to be over. And with a more painful certainty, I know that when I finally stop trying to heal someone else's heart damage, I will have to deal with my own.

Sarah Nicole Prickett lives in Toronto.


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