“Why does this happen to us? Because we have abandoned an infinite number and variety of pure possibilities, and perhaps they live alongside the choices we did make, immortalized in cosmic memory. Perhaps there are unknown lives walking alongside ours, the paths we didn’t take, and we reach for them, we ache for them, and we don’t know why.”
— Amos, in The Solace of Leaving Early, by Haven Kimmel
I know, I know: I said there were only 3 relationships. That’s true, but that doesn’t mean there were only ever three men who meant anything in my life. If I stop at three, I leave out at least one person who really shouldn’t be left out. He’s the one I often think of as “the one who got away.”
P and I met my first day at the amusement park (where I eventually spent 9 summers and also where I met J). He was my manager at the funnel cake stand where I worked and we hit it off immediately. He had a long-time girlfriend, and I never had any designs on him, outside of a he’s-adorable-and-it’s-great-to-go-to-work-and-flirt-with-him kind of way. We became friends and hung out outside of work occasionally, but that was it. His girlfriend was demanding and jealous and didn’t really like that we spent time together.
About a year later, just before I left for college, he revealed that he’d liked me but never had the guts to ask me out. I had wondered about that. There’s a picture of us at my high school graduation, me in the middle of P and another friend who’d worked with us. Me and the friend are looking right at the camera, smiling, almost laughing. P’s head is turned and he’s looking at me. My journal says that, after his confession, “we tried the dating thing for about a week,” but that it didn’t work out. I have no recollection of that. Memory is a funny thing.
P and I kept in touch throughout my freshman year, talking on the phone about once a week. He was a sophomore in college at home, and eventually he dropped out of school to join the Navy. I was devastated and begged him not to do it but it was too late. He left for boot camp and all my letters went unanswered for months. In October of my sophomore year, he finally wrote me back and included a picture of himself in his Navy uniform. On the back he’d written that he loved me.
By senior year, he was stationed in North Carolina, about 10 hours from where I went to school. A couple months after M and I broke up, P asked if he could come visit me. I said yes and we made plans. At the last second, I panicked and canceled. I couldn’t explain it to him, and he was hurt, and rightfully so. The trip was clearly meant to be the beginning of a relationship between us, but I was just too scared and too insecure to have him in my space for 4 days – what if I couldn’t be what he wanted me to be? What if all our late night phone calls and our five-year friendship didn’t translate into what we hoped they would? To this day, I regret the phone call I made, asking him not to come.
We stayed friends, of course, and kept in touch. After graduation, I moved to an apartment not far from where I went to school. That winter, P found out he was going to be transferred to Washington state and he couldn’t take his dog with him. I wasn’t allowed to have pets in my apartment, but I didn’t want him to have to take Sierra to the pound, and she was just a little mutt, so I agreed to take her. He had 10 days’ leave in January of 1999, and he drove up to bring Sierra to me and hang out for a week or so.
That week, he hung out at my place while I was at work and we’d go out to dinner when I got home and just generally catch up. I don’t know what his expectations were with regard to “us,” but when I offered him the pull-out couch the first night, he didn’t object. I went to bed in my room, but after 20 minutes or so, I went out to the living room and climbed in bed with him. We just talked for a long time and fell asleep. And that’s how it was every night of his visit – just laying next to each other and talking into the night. I’m not sure why I didn’t just ask him to come sleep in my room; it’s not like my roommate didn’t see that we were sleeping in the same bed when she got up in the morning anyway.
On P’s last night there, the two of us and my roommate and another friend went out drinking and to do karaoke. The alcohol was flowing freely and we had a great time. When we got home, my roommate went to her room and P and I climbed into the sofa bed. I suppose it was the alcohol combined with the knowledge that he was moving clear across the country in two months and that we didn’t know when we would see each other again, but we started kissing. Things were getting heavy and all of a sudden I backed off. I told him that I wanted it to happen but that I didn’t want it to be because we were drunk. He understood and agreed, and he just wrapped his arms around me, and that’s how we fell asleep.
He left the next day. We talked regularly; he wanted to know how Sierra was doing, and I wanted to hear all about everything that was happening getting ready for his move. Eventually, in March, the apartment people found out about Sierra and she got an eviction notice. I couldn’t find anyone in the area to take her, and P couldn’t bear the idea that I’d have to take her to the pound, so on his last off day before he left for Washington, he drove up to my place overnight, slept while I was at work, we had a quick dinner when I got home, then he packed her up and drove back down to North Carolina. That was the last time I ever saw him.
I had his contact information in Washington, but all of my calls and letters went unanswered. By the time I talked to him again, it was October, and he had a bombshell to drop on me: he’d met someone online while he was still in NC, and he had met her in person sometime before he’d left for Washington . . . and she got pregnant. And he was now married and the new father of a baby girl. That’s why he’d been out of touch for so long, because he’d been dealing with all of that. I almost couldn’t catch my breath.
For a while after he told me, I was so mad at myself that I’d let him “get away” when he’d visited – “If only I had been braver earlier, this wouldn’t have happened,” I thought. But then I realized that by the time he came to see me in January, he’d already met her, and so she was already pregnant (he hadn’t known she was pregnant then, but he didn’t tell me he’d met her and slept with her, either). It was already done, the die was cast. If we had tried to be together then, I’d have had to deal with a boyfriend who was going to have a baby with another woman, and I can pretty well guarantee that that would have been our undoing (I was only 22, after all).
I don’t recall quite how it started, but his wife began sending me pictures of the baby and including me in the updates she sent to their family and friends. I won’t go into details about why, but I was never convinced that the baby was really P’s and was sure she’d tricked him into marrying her. It wasn’t until the baby was three or so that I got a picture where she clearly had P’s ears and smile and thought, “Oh, there he is.” I must have talked to P after the first time he told me about his wife and baby, but nearly all of my contact and information since then has come from her. I gave up on him completely six years ago when I emailed friends about my hearing loss and she was the one who responded (“P sends his best.”).
They had another baby a couple years ago, and I know he’s well – he looks happy in every picture his wife sends me – but I miss him all the time. I miss our easy friendship, his goofy smile, his southern drawl, his soft touch. And I can’t help but wonder how things might have turned out differently if only I’d had the courage that November more than 10 years ago to roll the dice, to let him come for the weekend, and to let what would happen, happen.