I could never have anticipated that within days of moving to Boston to begin my first semester of college in 2008, I would be dropped directly into the center of the most cryptic, heart-rending story that I would ever encounter.
I still hesitate to commit his name to the page. Knowing our history, it seems entirely possible that the simple act of writing his name could summon his presence through some mysterious, impossible portal between my mind and his.
We were finishing each other’s sentences within hours of meeting, an uncanny connection unfolding between us from the very first moment—an inexplicable, instantaneous understanding of one other that was unlike anything that either of us had ever experienced. It was as though we had known each other from the time we were children, despite growing up with half a continent between us. As we sat facing one another on the edge of the reflecting pool at the Christian Science Center, the globe lights and skyscrapers mirrored in the dark water, the story of his life already felt familiar, as though it were my own.
That first night, we traversed the streets of Back Bay for hours, winding through Belvidere and St. Germain; looking down on our new city with exhilaration from the top of an abandoned parking garage; and resting on the steps of St. Cecilia. He missed the last train home, and we fell asleep centimeters away from one another, sparks of electricity passing between us.
One month later, he disappeared.
I still don’t know which details about his life were true.
It seems that he had been through a great deal before we ever met. He carried a weight greater than any eighteen-year-old could be expected to bear. I saw glimpses of this in that first month—there was a heaviness underlying his experiences that didn’t seem to reconcile with the history that he shared with me. But his dark vulnerability mirrored the shadow of depression and anxiety that had trailed in my footsteps for most of my life, and I felt for the first time as though someone was capable of empathizing with the struggle of feeling so deeply. We mused over life’s most difficult existential questions and bore witness to each other’s ugliest stories. When he collapsed under the weight of his emotions, I felt honored to share the burden of his misery; I wanted nothing more than to be the sole person worthy of knowing him so authentically, no matter how lurid the truth might be.
The facts are unclear; for every piece of evidence that he presented to ground his claims in reality, conflicting information introduces doubt to each of his stories. Through putting the pieces together in retrospect, however, I’ve devised a working theory.
Several months after we first met, he revealed to me that prior to enrolling at Berklee, he had briefly been deployed to the Middle East as a marine and had witnessed the deaths of several close friends. In retrospect, it’s clear to me that he was suffering from severe, undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. In a rare moment of complete vulnerability, he once confided to me that he was haunted by spine-chilling nightmares of a malevolent force that was slowly, inevitably creeping toward him at all times–the physical embodiment of all of the evil that exists in the universe. It seems to me that subconsciously, he was profoundly ashamed of the acts that he had committed as a soldier, and he believed that this force was coming to seek retribution.
The ways that he chose to handle the intensely traumatic experiences that he had endured made a stable, lasting relationship impossible. He was unable to do two vital things: to allow himself to be continuously vulnerable, trusting that I would care about him in spite of his jagged edges; and to transform his feelings for me into commitment toward our relationship, despite its difficulties. Over the course of the three years that I knew him, there were times when my mind was so overwhelmed by the impossibly tangled web of deception and secrets that our relationship always found itself choked by that I doubted my own sanity; and just as many times when I would make enormous sacrifices to have another chance at making things work, only for him to disappear again when I came too close to breaking down the walls around his vulnerable, true self. The moment that he would let his guard down, finally allowing me to glimpse the reality of his inner workings, a chain of alarms would be set off, causing him to hit the “panic” button and self-destruct, despite himself, every time.
But we perpetually carried these incredibly tenacious feelings for each other, no matter how much time passed or how much distance there was between us; and the chance to take another shot at a relationship that felt destined to persevere in the end provided reason enough to keep trying.
Our feelings for each other were preserved, unchanged, no matter what had happened in our separate lives in the meantime, like flowers pressed between the pages of a book.
In January 2010, at three o’clock in the morning, the phone rang. I was already awake; I hadn’t slept in days.
It had been months since we’d last spoken. He had reenlisted in the Marine Corps and had been deployed the past October. And then suddenly, two days earlier, I was overwhelmed with an unshakable premonition that something was very wrong.
He had just woken up in the hospital, he whispered. He’d been shot and nearly died. I already knew.
In May of 2011, I emptied my savings account for a one-way plane ticket. As the plane descended into Houston, I was trembling with excitement and apprehension.
For the first time, we had the relationship that we’d always imagined. We devised a blueprint for our future that felt more real than anything I’d ever known. When I flew back to Boston, I didn’t say goodbye the way that I would have had I known that it was the last time I would ever see him.
Two weeks later, I spent my twenty-first birthday with my face angled up toward the sky, my eyes searching for the plane that he’d promised he would be on. I went to sleep that night alone; one year older, but with the same old tears staining my pillowcase.
On July 3, after three agonizing weeks of silence, in closing, he gave me just ten words that offered no explanation: “I’m sorry. Be free. Live a good and happy life.” It was the last time that we ever spoke.
It wasn’t easy to fabricate my own sense of closure when the most haunting, evocative relationship that I had ever experienced ended for reasons that I had no control over and will never truly understand. The most difficult thing to let go of was the poignant narrative that had been building for three years—the timeless story of an enigmatic, powerful love that persevered in the most difficult of circumstances, destined to bring us together in the end. It was the Northern Star that kept us coming back to one another again and again, in spite of everything; but in the end, it wasn’t enough.
I still can’t explain any part of what transpired between us; but ultimately, I have to believe that I did see glimpses of his authentic self in those rare moments of apparent vulnerability. I believe that deep down, he wanted nothing more than to be the person that I needed him to be—the version of himself who could build the future that we dreamed out loud. I believe that he did the best that he could to let me into the darkest corners of his mind; and when he inevitably disappeared, it was fear that drove him away, in spite of himself. He saw the ominous shadow from his nightmares approaching out of the corner of his eye, intent on retribution for the transgressions that he had committed, and felt that he had no other choice than to disappear without a trace. By leaving me behind, perhaps he believed that he was saving me from the same fate.
What prevented me from giving up on him after being crushed by disappointment so many times was the unshakeable belief that I alone had the ability and the privilege to love him for who he truly was. Our preternatural connectedness led me to believe that I held the key to unlocking his troubled mind and transforming him into the person that I knew he could be. But in the end, I deserved more than he would ever have been able to give me.
More than eight years after I first moved to Boston, I have learned that love is not infatuation; it is not magnetic attraction; it is not the dramatic, heart-wrenching passion that results from being ripped apart and reunited. Lasting love is not contingent on these things. It is a daily choice to remain committed to someone whom you are willing to trust with everything that you have. It is vulnerability, and it is sacrifice. It is laughter, and it is reciprocity.
Love is not dichotomous, hot-and-cold passion; it is the feeling of a cup of tea warmed to the perfect temperature, savored early in the morning as the rest of the world sleeps, with a comforting warmth that persists even when you’re apart. It is based on the experiences that you build through mutual dependence upon one another, in good times as well as in bad. It is realizing that you can’t imagine life without one another, because you are the most you with this person as a part of your existence. It is wanting to depart this earth at the exact same time so that you never have to live a single moment in a reality where they no longer exist. I know this now.
He remains an undeniable element of my personal history; but ultimately, his significance didn’t arise from the fact that he was meant to be a part of my life until the end of time. His role was that of a catalyst, transforming me into the person that I needed to be in order to end up exactly as I am today: resilient and wise; unflinching in demanding what I deserve; and with no specters of regret haunting my dreams.
What do you think—do soulmates exist? Tell me your story & thoughts in the comments—I can’t wait to hear what you think!
Originally published at www.featherflint.com