When I was 19, I was chosen as the sole participant from my college in a full-scholarship exchange program with the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. While I was there, I met a boy. (Of course I did. That's what you do when you're studying abroad. It's part of the curriculum.)
He always said he 'knew' pretty immediately, despite the fact that he had a girlfriend in his home town. It took me a bit longer to the same way towards him, but I remember the turning point, a night he came to my attic dorm room (yes, with eaves and no heat and the wind whistling past...the full-on Jane-Eyre romantic vibe) filled with almost as much despair and guilt and longing as he was with cider and ale. Even though he passed out soon after declaring his feelings for me, I was touched beyond measure. How romantic, yes?
We were inseparable for the rest of the year. I even flew back to England during winter break of my senior year of college to be with him. We planned to be married after I finished my degree. We planned a lot of things. And then we waited for our time.
That waiting was painful, for both of us. His pain was more evident, however. It showed itself in letters he wrote to me from pubs all over England and Scotland, on the backs of paper coasters and cocktail napkins. It showed itself in the jaw he broke when he fell off the roof of a pub one night; he'd climbed up there to get some air, to be alone, to think of me, he said. How romantic, yes?
I'd like to say that this is why I broke up with him; that I was smart enough, had enough self-preservation to know that my love alone was never going to conquer a drinking problem that already had that much of a hold in an 18-year-old boy. But, honestly, that would have been asking too much of me, even at 20, even as 'mature' as I supposedly was. What ended our relationship was the Atlantic Ocean, and my inability to remain faithful when on the opposite side of it.
I don't even remember how I told him it was over; considering the year, and considering the distance, and considering that neither of us could afford more than the very rare trans-Atlantic phone call, it was probably by mail. All I can say with some certainty is that, as in the beginning of the relationship, he bore the brunt of the pain at its end as well.
Over the next half-dozen or so years, I heard from him on occasion. I remember one call, on or near the new year one year, where he was clearly inebriated, and I found myself with nothing but impatience on the other end of the phone. That, for me, was the true end of our story. I think of him sometimes, but briefly, and with regret. I don't dwell in it, ever. I don't think I've really ever told anyone who wasn't there at the time even this much about our relationship.
Yesterday, I woke up to an email from him in my Facebook account.
After my heart stopped pounding--ghosts from your past just popping up like that can indeed set your hear to pounding--I read his note. And, in the middle, there it was: one failed marriage alas - which was mainly due to my drinking which I managed to stop 5yrs ago - thank god!
He's now remarried, he says, and has two young children. His Facebook profile has a photo of him, holding a round-faced, grinning baby girl. He looks so much the same, and yet so different. Older, fuller, calmer. Better.
Today, I can't stop thinking about him, and of the past. I've been digging those memories back up again, or at least trying to. And I've been wondering why they lay buried so long. Was it because I felt guilty about hurting him, about being unfaithful, about ultimately not having enough depth to make things work between us, over an ocean? Or was it because I felt guilty for not intervening back then, for never once saying, "You have a drinking problem, and you need to do something about it"? Is that what all this not-thinking has been about?
In any case, it's too late for regrets. Something saved him...someone, maybe. Maybe it was just himself, as it probably always has to be.
In any case, yes. Thank god.