I completely overshot the bus stop I was supposed to get off on, but he was gracious about it all, giving me directions to find my way back and ultimately walking out to meet me halfway. We clicked in an instant. He walked with his thumbs hooked behind the straps of his backpack, in which I could hear the clink of the beers he’d promised to bring. I waved my hands wildly in the air as I spoke. He smiled.
When we finally reached the sandy lakeshore, he slung his backpack off and pulled out a Blue Moon for me. For himself, he chose a Miller High Life. We cracked the beers open in the darkness of the Milwaukee nighttime, as planned. Mine sputtered over my right hand, and I made a joke about it. Two inaugural sips, and we began walking down the coast. My final exam for my political theory class was in less than twelve hours at this point. Spoiler alert: I made it back there on time and would end up passing the class with a high B. But I digress.
We talked about a lot of things that night as we sat on a boulder, watching the waves crash and attempting in vain to shake the sand out of our shoes. A lot of it was basic small talk, all of which I fail to recall now. But as the night wore on and the beers kicked in—my Blue Moon had become a Leinie Summer Shandy by now—we came across a conversation that has stuck with me still.
“Just think,” I said. “Whoever you’re going to be with one day is already out there now. Walking. Breathing. Doing their laundry. Whatever. They’re out there. I mean, they have to be, unless you’re Hugh Hefner and that someone isn’t even born yet.” (I noticed him chuckle to himself as I said this.) “But really,” I continued, “just think about it. They are born. They’re out there. Isn’t that spectacular?” I took a swig of my shandy while he sat in silence, staring out into the water. And it hit me. And I voiced it. “But what if you don’t end up with anyone? What if this person doesn’t exist?”
He was quiet at first.
Then, he responded with a soft certainty, “Doesn’t matter. They’re still out there. Someone’s still out there. Whether you end up with them or not, it doesn’t matter. Five, ten, twenty years from now, you’ll wake up in your bed, and you’ll either be alone, or you’ll be with someone, but at some point, that person, that hypothetical, whoever they were or are or will be, they’ll still exist, whether you fucked them up or you won them over or you haven’t met them yet. Someone will be there. Or their absence will.”
And it was amazing. Mind-blowing. I had never considered the fact that the alternative to finding your soulmate wasn’t simply never finding them; it could also be finding yourself with only the memory of them instead. And it made sense to me, because as I sat there on that rock beside him, this relative stranger, I realized I had already been there. There was a hole in my heart, a space that had once been filled that I’d, through my youthful errors, forcibly vacated years ago.
What was now a memory had once been a boy, two weeks shy of graduating valedictorian of our high school, sitting in the driver’s seat of his father’s red car, immobilized by the unexpected meeting of my lips against his, a moment that was not only our first kiss but entirely his. He had a name. Feelings. Arms that brought me closer as the shock wore away, and for a few hours, didn’t let go. And now, three years later, he was studying business at Wharton and I was sitting on the shores of Lake Michigan very much without him. And yes, we were inevitably separated by 850 miles—assuming you were driving on I-80 and I-76, but there are alternatives, and I digress—but there was also the very undeniable fact that I had fucked him up.
My fifteen-year-old self would never have known that at seventeen, she would kiss this boy, and they would fall in love, and she would subsequently tear him to shreds when he rejected her on the very reasonable grounds that, while he loved her, long-distance was simply not something he could do. She would much less have known that my twenty-year-old self, having crossed that once-enigmatic five-year mark, would have not only crossed paths with her soulmate, but very much lost him, too.
And likewise, my fifteen-year-old self would not have known that she’d be nursing a summer shandy with a beautiful stranger the night before a crucial final exam. It was bizarre to think about. While I had been awkwardly making my way through high school, making new friends and figuring myself out, this boy, now rifling through his backpack for a third beer, had also been in the midst of his own existence, equally oblivious of me.
“Where will you be in five years?” Here, apparently, tipsily wondering if this new guy liked me, and where we were going to go from here. Our paths had crossed now, and it didn’t matter if we were going to end up together, or drift apart, or any of that. The outcome of this night, of any night, made no difference, because he was still going to be “out there.” Walking. Breathing. Doing his laundry. And maybe five years from now, we could be married. Or we could be going out for beers, as friends. Maybe we would have long ceased to communicate by then, amicably or not. He was right. None of that mattered. He would still exist.
As would I.