This story is a cliché, but I’m going to tell it anyway. Love gained. Love lost. Love that endures.
I still remember the moment my heart flew out of my chest and landed on L’s shoulder. I was 15, we were at a dance and had been talking all night. That year my attention had been diverted by the more showy and extroverted boys in my circle, and I had overlooked this perfect one, hidden in plain sight.
Toward the end of the night, the DJ was winding things down, and played a slow song, a schmaltzy ballad. I stepped into L’s arms for the first time, felt the heat of his body through the thin cotton of his shirt, and in a moment that foreshadowed many to come, I lay my head on his shoulder and inhaled the clean, soapy scent of him.
I never wanted to let go.
I never wanted to forget that moment.
I never have.
It would be months before we actually went out. I was only 15 and he was heading to college. My parents were wary, thinking I was too young to date.
I was desperate and worked on persuading my parents. My older brother was friends with L and put in a good word for him. My parents hesitated and then opened the door and let me fly out
Years later, when I was sharing the story of my Big Moment at the school dance with L, he shared an even better story about when he’d first seen me. He had pulled into our driveway with his best friend and was looking for my brother. I was only 12, and came bursting out of the house. L said he loved my long hair, my big smile and infectious laugh, the sparkle in my eye. He knew I was WAY too young then, and so vowed to bide his time. I am still touched that he saw something in me when I was so young and gawky.
L proved to be more than a school crush. We connected spiritually, intellectually and on a cellular level. Yes, I know how insipid that sounds, but I’m standing by those words.
I loved his mind. He was smart, brilliant really, rational and observant like a scientist with the sensibilities of a poet. Reserved, quiet, and clean cut, he had the appearance of an All American Boy, but he was very much an independent thinker, a non-conformist, someone who dared to ask life’s hard questions and live life on his own terms.
I still remember the June day I stepped out my parents’ house and into his world. The way my heart came to nest in his chest, and how his stories and secrets and family became my own. I loved him deeply, freely, and without fear. Every time he had to return to college and I was holding back tears in his embrace, I dreamed of a moment when I would not have to say goodbye. We imagined a life together, and oh, it’s almost embarrassing to say this now, but I wanted to have his babies. Really, truly I did.
We dated for two years. That’s a long time for adults. That’s almost a lifetime for teens, especially since he was away at college.
Then at the end of a spring marked by distance and long silences on his part, he broke up with me. It was Friday the 13th. And while I can conjure so many moments of our years together and remember every contour of his body, every place we went together, I can’t remember That Moment. What he said. The WHY of it. All I remember was that he was gentle and I was heartbroken. Oh, the tears.
Decades later, he’d tell me he was insecure and didn’t think he was my equal and so felt compelled to set me free to meet someone better. Oh God. The things we do.
When we broke up, I wrote in my journal that even though L and I were no longer a couple, our story would never end.
And it hasn’t.
For years afterwards, we kept in touch, writing long letters to one another. We didn’t see each other but we kept each other company on paper as we navigated all the angst and adventures that came in our late teens and 20s. I heard about his classes, his uncertainty, his girlfriends, his dreams, his travels. He heard about my boyfriend, my experiences in college, a sad drama unfolding within my family, and my plans for the future.
At one point, he wanted to get back together, declaring his undying love for me. By then I was with someone else, and L’s offer tore me in two. I struggled, I cried, I tried to think things through. I was divided, absolutely divided, between L and the man I was seeing.
In the end, I chose the other man and eventually married him. L made me a wedding gift. He continued to send letters. One year he sent me a Valentine: “To my best friend.”
Among my husband’s great qualities is his ability to understand that L and I share a bond that can’t be broken. He has always accepted it and has never felt threatened by our correspondence. L has been part of my life all the years my husband has known me.
Eventually, the correspondence with L tapered off, and when I tried to revive it, L didn’t answer my letters. I heard he was married. Another woman was having his babies, and I wondered what parenthood meant to him. His mother always sent me a card at Christmas and included a note updating me on L and the rest of his family. I kept up with him from afar until his mother developed Alzheimer’s and all contact ended.
For a long time, I was hurt by L’s silence, but I respected it too. It took me years to make peace with what seemed to be our final separation.
Then one day, L’s name appeared in my inbox. I was stunned, equal parts elated and cautious, afraid to open that message, and even more afraid to open myself up again. I told my husband I’d heard from L, I took some time to think about a response to his message, and then I wrote it and hit send.
Thus our correspondence was rekindled. In the beginning, we were trying to find our footing and there were long gaps between receipt and reply, but soon we found a new rhythm and were sharing family stories, news links, and music and discussing current events and science and all the things we’d discussed before.
When L learned I’d be traveling through his area of the country, he invited me and my family to stay with his family for a day. I was touched by his offer, but we declined, in part because of scheduling issues, but also because while part of me thought it would be easy to spend time with L, part of me feared seeing him face-to-face. What if we were attracted to one another?
We’d shared photos of our kids but not photos of each other. For me, it was an unwritten rule. Written words only. No instant messaging. No phone calls. No photos. No visits.
Then one day, an e-mail appeared in my inbox from L’s second wife. It was short. She said L had just told her of our correspondence, had shared my messages with her, and she was “devastated” and thought her marriage was over.
I’d assumed Wife #2 knew of our correspondence. L said he’d told her when he’d found me online and asked if she minded if he wrote to me. She’d said, “Do whatever you want.” So he had, but when he mentioned he was writing to me later, she was shocked and felt she’d been deceived.
I didn’t know her and really couldn’t understand why she would be “devastated” by our correspondence and so sure her marriage was over. Especially since she’d read the messages in his inbox, and he shared them with her willingly. There was nothing in any of them that I felt was inappropriate, nothing to hide.
Still, as a woman, I was sympathetic with her fears and tried to assuage them, but a part of me struggled to comprehend just what was going on. At first I was crushed that I had inadvertently hurt her, but then I realized Wife #2 had a flair for drama and ultimatums, born, I think, from deep-seated insecurities. I wasn’t sure if she really truly thought I was trying to steal her husband or whether I was a pawn in some invisible battle unfolding behind the scenes at L’s house. Clearly, there was a lot going on there, and it wasn’t good.
I admit I resented her insistence that L and I should not correspond at all, and L wrestled with it too. There was a lot of anguish and sadness and attempts at compromise and understanding, but in the end there was only Silence.
L and I stopped corresponding, and I learned to swallow the words I could not share with him, a pile of broken glass nestled in my gut.
Yesterday, I was on Facebook, and up popped a friend suggestion. L had launched a Facebook page. I should have gotten offline that very moment, but I didn’t. Instead I did that most stupid and human of all things, I clicked over to his page. I scrolled through his short list of friends, which include his first wife and an ex-girlfriend, as well as his sons and his current wife. I wondered how that ex-girlfriend, the one he had traveled around the U.S. with, had made the cut. Why had she passed through the jealous wife’s filters and I had not? I don’t know.
There were no status updates or notes that I could see, and because L is famously cautious and paranoid about Internet privacy, I didn’t expect there to be any photos. But when I hit the photo tab, I was surprised I had access to an album he had just uploaded: photos of a camping trip he’d taken with his wife and his youngest son.
I clicked through the pics, delighting at this glimpse into his life. His son had grown so much since I’d last seen photos of him and resembled L more than ever. His wife seemed happy and full of joy, and I hoped it was deep-seated and real. The geography was familiar, mountains and rivers just like the ones we’d explored together years ago.
And then there was L. He looked like his best self, just like the man I remembered from all those years ago. How had he frozen his face and body in time? Looking at those photos, I knew exactly how his hair would feel in my hands and the way his neck would smell if I could lay my head on his shoulder again. I saw myself on this camping trip, imagined what our family album might have looked like. The fact that I was thinking about it upset me, as I have long exercised the discipline of Not Going There. I felt a familiar pain, the cut of all my unspoken words, the burn of a well of tears, the punishment of my choice.
I knew I would not be sending a friend request. I knew that I would not receive one. As Facebook would say, “It’s complicated.” We will remain connected and unconnected as always, two people in parallel universes, wishing for something we can’t name and living with all we can’t forget.