This essay first appeared on Full Grown People.
My phone buzzes just as I drain hot pasta over the sink with Sam hanging on my leg and my husband talking about the mortgage or some electrical issues in our basement or something else house-related. I try to nudge Sam away from the boiling water and towards the dining room table—with a quick stop to wash his sticky little hands. I hear my phone again, impatiently beeping and buzzing, and I recognize that someone is trying to send me a message over Skype. It could be my mom or my brother, so I settle Sam, serve dinner, and quickly glance at the screen.
It’s not my mom. It’s not my brother. It’s Him. It’s a short message and it’s written in German and despite not having spoken one word of German in oh, about fifteen years, I know and understand every single word immediately. “I was at a charity event tonight and I don’t know why but I’ve been thinking about you all day.”
That’s it and I am nineteen again.
That’s it and I am back in his small, dark college dorm room, lightheaded from one too many fuzzy navels and giddy with excitement. I am sitting on the floor across from him, cross-legged, but all I can think about is how much I want to wrap my legs around him and pull him even closer. We are both wearing flannel, and Whitney Houston is playing in the background. A friend of ours stops by for a few minutes, but quickly realizes that he is interrupting whatever it is that’s about to happen. He laughs and rustles my hair as he gets up to leave, like he is happy for me.
I feel happy and confident when he finally kisses me—I’ve done this before, I know what comes next, but I am amazed that it is actually happening to me. I mean, he is so cool. So blond. So blue-eyed. So dreamy and smart and worldly and, oh my God, that accent. I am a chubby Jewish girl from Hungary—I don’t get swept off my feet by sparkly-eyed blonds. Ah, but I am now, and we quickly make our way to my room—my roommate is away for the weekend.
There is some confusion about whether I am a virgin or not, but after I reassure him that he is not about to deflower me, he is tender and hungry and talks to me in German the whole time. I wake up in the middle of the night, squished between him and the cold cement wall and spend the rest of the night in the lounge of my dorm building, watching bad TV and thinking that what I have just done was so cool and so grown-up and so sophisticated. And so very unlike me. I don’t see him leave in the morning, but he leaves a note on my bed. “You are a wonderful woman. See you soon.” And his initials: PD. I realize in a panic that I have no idea what the “D” stands for.
It’s March now, and he is graduating in two months. It quickly becomes clear that our night of passion does not guarantee me any privileges when it comes to seeing him, or talking to him, or eating together in the cafeteria. It does not gain me invitations to the cool parties he attends or to the spring dance. I think we go on one date maybe—a movie and an uncomfortable dinner.
It doesn’t matter. I am in love.
It’s easy to think back and say that I was young and stupid and confused sex with love. It was probably true. He was doing what handsome German students do during their study-abroad year. I was doing what bookish lonely girls do when said handsome German students pay attention to them. It is all so dull and obvious now, but it was so tragic back then and it would have stayed like that in my memory if our story had ended there.
But it didn’t. In fact, our story is still not over and that’s an unsettling feeling in the pit of my stomach every time his name shows up in my inbox.
After our (well, mostly my) tearful goodbye on a cool May morning before I headed back home to Budapest for the summer, I was convinced that I would never see him again. But for once, I was pleasantly surprised. He came to visit me that summer and the next, flew to the U.S. to see me at college several times. We talked on the phone and e-mailed all the time, and we met up at international airports for quick, furtive rendezvous in business lounges. Most memorably, he showed up at my office, unannounced, a month before my wedding.
Through all those years of not seeing each other much, we somehow became friends and moved on from our beginning as a tipsy one-night-stand. I think we both found it easier to open up when we were so far apart from each other, yet just a phone call away. The heart and the mind are so easy to reveal in a quick e-mail, a brief message, a silly card. There was always something easy between us, something natural and light-hearted. He was six years older than me, already weighed down by starting a career and figuring out what grown-up life is about, and I think for a long time—and maybe even now—I represented a carefree and happy time in his life. It was a comfort to both of us to recall our haphazard romance and to share a laugh about our youth and naïveté.
We never really talked about it, but obviously we both dated other people and I got married first. When he showed up at my office on a cold November morning, my heart stopped because again, this was not something that happened outside of movies—a scandal before my wedding? Did he come to take me away? To confess—finally!—that he is truly and madly in love with me? Did I even want that anymore?
He made no confessions. He came to say goodbye—I suspect that by then he was in a serious relationship with his future wife and had to put an end to whatever was going on between us. We held each other for a long time. He kissed me on the forehead and brushed his knuckles playfully across my chin before he left my apartment. I watched him walk down the long stairway leading to the street from my front door and for a moment I almost—almost—called him back. But I knew that would have been a mistake and that neither one of us were the kind of people who would do thatbefore our weddings.
We stayed in touch for the next decade, exchanging a few phone calls, a few e-mails about birth, death, jobs—the big stuff of life. There was always so much tenderness and so much history in our exchanges, assuring us that we weren’t alone in navigating all of this uncharted grown-up territory. It felt like we were finally on equal footing—I didn’t feel like the chubby Jewish girl anymore, and he didn’t seem like that shiny, untouchable person I remembered him to be. We were just two people who knew each other from way back when, who built a friendship out of an ill-fated college romance.
So here we are now, almost thirteen years later. Here is this message on my phone, beeping and wanting attention. I want to give it attention, because it’s …well, because it’s Him. I am a practical person: I believe that love is a choice every single day; that marriage is a choice every single day. No matter how hot the passion is in the beginning, to sustain a life together the passion must cool and every morning must begin with a choice—to be present, to be kind, to be understanding, to iron shirts, to cook a favorite meal, to listen.
But whatever this other thing is, it is not my choice—and it never has been. Whatever pulled me to him on that March night when I was nineteen is still in me—irrational, unexplainable, unstoppable, and I assume never-ending. I have felt this stupid love-like-thing for this man for the past eighteen years of my life and I have no reason to think it will change.
The next morning he e-mails me to say that he is thinking about what the rest of his life holds for him, how to handle the responsibilities thrust upon him and still find happiness. “Right now, but also for the past few years I wish I had you by my side,” he writes. “For many reasons.”
I know that, years ago, a message like that would have had me in tears of joy. And I am in tears now too as I look at my iPad screen in the early morning darkness. But it’s not joy I feel. I want to scold him. I want to be angry. Has he not learned how easy it is to believe that life would be different—better, more exciting, sexier, easier—with someone else? Does he not know that if he did have me by his side, he would not write me lovelorn notes in the middle of the night? I would be the nagging wife who only has time for the kids and I would not be the young love that got away.
I turn off the iPad and try to go back to sleep. As I drift off, I think about how I don’t want our story to be a sad one. I don’t want it to be about regret, or the road not taken, or opportunity not seized. I don’t want it to be about making the wrong choice or picking the wrong person. I am not sure what our story is about, but I can’t let it be about those things. I want it to be about possibility, about love that endures in whatever shape it appears in life. I want it to be about making a choice and sticking with it.
I want it to be about that little corner of the heart where I tuck away what I treasure most: an old friend with sparkly blue eyes, the smile of my baby, the reassuring weight of my husband in bed next to me.