He’s the one who told me. Over a Facebook message after I asked him how he’s been. “I’m getting married in February.” He snuck it in among other updates about his family and his job, probably aware that this knowledge was going to send a slight shock to my heart. I answered cheerfully, told him that I have a job I love, that I’ve been writing a lot, and then, because I feel like its absence would somehow be a glaring void, I said “I am decidedly unmarried.” He never responded.
It shouldn’t have made me stop in my tracks like it did. We broke up three years ago and I was the one who instigated it. He was in the army, on base in Missouri, and I was starting my senior year of college. I told everyone it was because he was boring, that I didn’t want to be an army wife, that he was emotionally unavailable, and while there was some truth to all of that, it was mostly because I really wasn’t ready for the serious commitment I saw in our fast-arriving future. I wanted to date more. I didn’t want to have to rush home so I wouldn’t miss a call from my fiancée overseas. I wasn’t ready to start thinking about the way my dreams might mesh with another person’s. Our talks about marriage had been getting progressively more determined and I was scared out of my wits.
He visited me in Chicago twice after we broke up. Both times we drank too much and cried a lot and both times he pleaded with me to give us another chance. I would respond with a resolute “no” and watch as his car disappeared into the skyline. And I’ve never regretted making that decision because all the heartbreak and growth and art that came after couldn’t have happened were I bound to him. But now, in spite of all my sense and self-awareness, I am haunted with the image of him down on one knee in front of another woman.
Losing him all those years ago left a scar I didn’t notice until now. I’ve been head over heels for others since then and he typically only crossed my mind when someone mentioned the Coen brothers or the Black Keys. Sometimes I would think rather morbidly that if something happened to him overseas, I would probably never find out. He would go on living in my mind, off somewhere in the world being bold and brave and still carrying a torch me for me. To me, he was blissful, unattached ignorance. On rare occasions, my mind would entertain wildly romantic ideas about us reuniting years later when I was finally ready to settle down, but these were half-hearted imaginings, pleasant to behold and safe from causing heartache.
But now I am broken up and feel like I have no right to be. I have been trying to justify this pain, hoping some solid reasoning will make it go away. I’m supposed to be over him. I was so certain I had moved on, so sure that our story was over and that I was absolutely a-okay with that fact. So why does it hurt to write this? Why do my eyes well up when I acknowledge, tapping away at the keyboard a little more violently than normal, that our door is closed forever?
Maybe all of this sudden hurt is due to the fact that what we had is going to be filed away in some dark cabinet in the mind and never glanced at again. Promising your love to one other person for the rest of your life is not something to be taken lightly. There can be no what-ifs dancing around in your mind. There can be no lingering hope that the one that got away will be reeled back in again. I imagine he has been in this place for a long time. He’s sensible like that. Those two years of his life when he and I were inseparable have had time to grow dusty. He’s happily abandoned them for the love of his life and an eternity of happiness. Maybe I’ll cross his mind once or twice in the future. He’ll wonder if I’m doing alright, if I ever met someone, and then he’ll kiss his wife and think about how lucky he is that I walked away from him so many years ago. Or perhaps I’m aching because the world won’t stop spinning. Time has passed since the last time we touched, we’ve been different places, met different people, and for the most part changed for the better. We have stories that the other will never hear. We have experienced so much pain and loss and joy without each other and there is a great deal more to come. I am a virtual stranger to him, and he is one to me.
The truth is that this is all just a fact of dating and I’m finding comfort in that harsh reality. You might fall in love a great many times, but you will only (ideally) get married once. The next man I fall in love with and spend years with and build a deep emotional connection with could very likely not be the one I end up with, either. And that’s fine. We’ll go our separate ways and the world will spin and spin and spin some more.