His story starts like this: your hair was salty after spending hours wrapped in the balm of a dark bar on a night you occasionally danced but mostly thought about how you needed a shower, mostly wished your drink would stay in its glass and away from your pre-steamed skin. You were salty and he was interested — idly so, interested as though you were the weather on a day he planned to drive to the beach, interested like you were a book written by an author he used to adore but now, not so much — a sort of tenuous interest that could tip in either direction at any moment and once you knew that, it was the beginning of the end. The beginning of the end began the night you met; this is just how it works.
He is a traveler or a writer or an athlete, someone quick and practiced at running away. His escape routes were mapped before you were ever an obstacle, intricate paths of I’m just not wired that way or You don’t deserve this and friends will see his evacuation plan like it’s tattooed on his forehead and urge you to run, too — to run swiftly and in the other direction — but instead of sending you on your way his red flags serve to ignite you. You are not colorblind to your matador’s enticements; you are no bull.
And so it begins, this chase for acknowledgement that starts on a Saturday night at a blues concert and ends in his bed, ends with you wide-eyed at 3 AM thinking, “Why doesn’t he see it, yet?” as he snores next to you in the blackened room. He will indulge your whims but not your concrete desires, not the one where you’d like him to hold your hand in public, not the one where he speaks about his sister like you might meet her one day, not the one where this entanglement ends in a living, breathing relationship — he certainly won’t indulge that one.
Because as your bad luck would have it, The One Who Gets Away is never The One Who Sends Flowers To Your Office or The One Who Introduces You To His Family or The One Who Remembers Your Birthday. There was one time, one morning when you rolled over and his eyes met yours and you said, “I’m sick,” and as if by divine intervention, as if he were an actor who had picked up the wrong script, he actually seemed to care — actually said, “Should I get you some Ginger Ale?” and that, the shock of it all, was almost enough to heal your infirmities right then and there. He doted on you, you recovered, you accidentally thought — just for those few hours — that The One Who Got Away was actually The One; you believed that he could finally see it, see what you see, that things were going to turn around for you both.
But he didn’t and they didn’t, he was sure to disappear before that could happen. Turns out he wasn’t The One at all, just The One capable of leaving, The One with nothing at stake, The One Who Got Away.
Your friends have another idea. When they talk about Their Ones Who Got Away, they mention the stand-up ex-boyfriend who joined the Peace Corps, they speak of the mistreated man who went on to prove just how worthy of affection he’d been all along, they name flaws in judgment and timing and take blame for extinguishing what could have been. And as this happens, as you nod along and console them, you think to yourself that maybe you’ve had it all wrong — maybe you’re The One Who Got Away, not him. You are the something to be the missed, the one who wins in the end. So you relax your face and give yourself this one small victory and even begin to feel pity for this unfeeling man, this lonely person, the former One Who Got Away, when you realize it’s you — not him — who’s stuck in place.