The one who got away…


“When we’re married, I’m gonna be home really late some days,” he said, “and I won’t always be able to call ahead to let you know.”

I was angry. Disappointed. Confused.

This was my first foray into being that kind of “girlfriend,” the one who makes him dinner, instead of the one who managed a restaurant at 19, or the one who left him–twice–at 20 & 21–to backpack through Europe.

After a seven-year tug of war between love and autonomy, I thought making him dinner would prove something; but it was he who proved something to me.

Desperate, I slammed down the phone, “Is this love?” I wondered. “Is this what it will be to become a wife?”

We had only just reconnected as a couple a few months earlier just after my sister’s New Year’s wedding. I had recently celebrated my 22nd birthday and finally felt ready to settle down. “I miss you,” I wrote in a letter from the Latin Quarter. “I miss us.”

What I didn’t know then was that while I was thumbing through Ireland and strolling through Paris and hiking in the Alps, he had fallen for someone else; someone he must have dumped after we went home together after the wedding.

I woke the next morning beside him in his brother’s twin bed. The bright sun. My mouth full of cotton. Still wearing the scarlet bridesmaid dress or was it on the floor? I felt like a Mack Truck had run over me.

If these were signs, I wasn’t listening.

One of my travel buddies had offered her spare bed in NYC, but I decided to return to Philly after the wedding to take that last elective. Because it was simpler. Because he was nearby.

For the first time in forever, instead of my push and his pull, we found a sweet stride.

Even so, lyrics from the same song kept playing in my mind:

How do you keep the music playing?
How do you make it last?

Day by day, I sang along without knowing why.

How do you lose yourself to someone
And never lose your way?

Over the course of those winter months, I came down with a rash and simultaneously lost my appetite, dropping a couple pounds each month, shedding what 4 years of keg parties lent me.

I know the way I feel for you
It’s now or never

In February, we were slow dancing at the 25th-anniversary party of my friend’s parents.

“Did you sleep with him?” he asked, about a long-time friend.

He never welcomed my honesty. Never wanted real me. Preferred a fantasy. But now that I’d returned to him, now that I’d surrendered to love, I welcomed this new transparency. I was giddy for it.

If we can be the best of lovers
Yet be the best of friends

“Just once,” I said. “By accident. We were drunk. It was years ago.”

“I knew it,” he said, letting go of me.

“Knew what?!”

“There aren’t guys who are ‘Just friends.'”

“He is my friend,” I said. “We were never a thing. You’re the one I’m choosing.”

And since we know we’re always changing
Why should it be the same?

Which brings me back to the dinner, the one for which he arrived exceedingly late or not at all (I can’t recall), and looking back, I can see that this was the prelude.

On St. Patty’s Day, he canceled our plans, saying, at the age of 25, that he just wanted to hang out with his friends instead.

The next day, he called to say, “Let’s take a break.”

The more I love the more that I’m afraid
That in your eyes I may not see forever

I’d never cried over a boy before. I hardly recognized myself. I finished my class in Philly and returned home to the shore to open the restaurant.

In the spring, while I was in the throes of hiring staff, he stopped by my apartment during a visit home. We slept together.

“I need more time,” he said, before leaving.

A month later, without mentioning it, he proposed.

How do you keep the song from fading, too fast?

The following winter we were together again at my New York friend’s wedding. (She married his roommate. We had introduced them.) I came across his fiance in the bathroom. She seemed kind.

When the afternoon of their wedding came that spring, I took to my bed.

He went on to have two daughters while I had two miscarriages. Later we both had sons.

Three funerals brought us together over the decades. We took a walk. We shared a car ride.

We laughed at the catastrophe that would have been our future. He still keeps secrets, wears gold and lives in the suburbs. I wear Birkenstocks and speak about everything from a dirt road on a mountaintop.

“How will I ever bear the day when I hear the news that you’ve died?”

“Don’t worry, Kel,” he said. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“But tell me if you ever get sick, okay?”

He’s a grandpa now. Both of us have celebrated our happily-ever-after 25th wedding anniversaries, ours three years after theirs.

With any luck, then I suppose
The music never ends

That old song still leaves me hopeful and sad.

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