Falling in love, falling out of love, and finding something greater than both

We met cute, real-life edition: Three years older, she was in the exit lane of a failing young marriage, and, being 24, I was struggling to distinguish my rear end from my elbow. I was moderating a talk uptown, and she was an editor looking for new writers. In the post-event scrum, I barely noticed her.

But when we had lunch in Bryant Park a month later, I realized that she possessed that rarest of qualities: She was not only beautiful and smart; she was interesting. For a season, we lived out that life that New York promises but so rarely delivers: Hours of talk in beautiful, low-lit places that seemed to have been built just for us.

We were opposites in so many ways. She was from a comfortable family, and I was a frugal immigrant. She loved New York, and I was overwhelmed by it. She loved journalism, and I resented it with all the bitterness of a 24-year-old trying to publish. She was connected to the religion we shared, and I was aggressively secular. She was relatively at home in her skin, and I wanted to crawl out of mine. But the only thing that we remembered when we stumbled out of those bars at midnight and later was how interesting it was to talk to each other.

She wanted to settle down, but that was the last thing I knew how to do, especially with someone so different. “I wish I could meet you in five years,” I said to her once, the only self-aware comment I produced between the ages of 20 and 30. “It’s too good not to give it a try,” she said. She seemed so much more settled and knowledgeable – our conversations usually ended up grappling with how I could rescue myself from my existential bewilderment – and so I agreed. Not every love involves the kind of attraction that would make Gabriel Garcia Marquez sit up, and we’d been blessed with just that.

We were together for seven and a half years, lots of it in three-month on-off installments. We loved each other – when we could stand to be in the same room. (That thing they say about opposites attracting? Not true.) She got all the shrapnel from my frustration at the distance between my desires and my circumstances. Angry, she disappeared into her career, which was beginning to take off. Our differences didn’t help. There is a map of rancor and heartbreak to be drawn, as there is for so many New York couples, of all the corners in Manhattan where we argued and said things we regretted. I still can’t buy woks at Win Restaurant Supply in NoHo without remembering that fight when she was wearing the yellow coat and her eyes were tearing, first from the cold and then from me.

It never stopped being interesting to talk – as long as the subject wasn’t us. When it was, the harder we tried to explain, the less clear things became. (Heartbreakingly, the one thing we had always done so well was no longer ours, an organism’s vital function suddenly gone.) Our helplessness became frightened, furious, resentful: Individually, our lives were making more and more sense, but together they kept coming apart. In helping each other become the people we wanted to be, we became people whose differences made being together impossible.

She was the one who managed to end it for good. I pleaded with her to reconsider. She burst into tears, but resisted. Several months later, I learned that she was seeing someone new. Though I couldn’t move from the couch for weeks, doing my bit for shares of Philip Morris and Diageo, what was most difficult was that it felt like I had to mourn this death by myself. In our first year together, she had regularly met with her ex-husband, partly to finalize divorce details and partly to commiserate over a failed fantasy. I couldn’t understand it then; I understood it all too well now.

We still mattered to each other, and, every several months, came together to try to begin a friendship. Each time, we dissolved into recriminations. A year after we split, she moved in with her boyfriend and his two children from his first marriage to an apartment in Brooklyn, a borough I’d urged on her but she had refused with all the fervor of a girl whose first love was Manhattan. I moved, too – back to the couch. Throughout this time, I dated with all the terrified industry of a late bloomer starting a second career. You can imagine how that went. I’ll take this opportunity to apologize to lots of people.

And yet, I kept reaching out to her. Why? Because I refused to accept the truth and let go, my friends said. But I couldn’t believe that our kindredness was a fraud. (Also, simply, I missed her.) I felt helpless – when I didn’t feel crazy. We all know the definition of insanity. I was 34 by now. I was supposed to be figuring my life out.

One day, in the midst of yet another argument, I said: “What if we never talk about the past again?”

“I’m in,” she said.

The desire had been expressed on a thousand occasions. But this time, for unknown reasons that have come closer to detaching me from my secularism than anything I’ve experienced – I guess this is what non-Jews call grace – it kept. Where we had looked for divergence, we became loving. Desperately grateful for the reprieve, we became fiercely protective of it.
I began to wish for this person, whose life has almost never been simple, to experience ease and joy, and also the motherhood that’s been her dream as long as I’ve known her. And she began to help me understand myself, just like all those years ago. Again, we were doing the one thing that we always did so well: Talk. One of the things I loved most about her available to me once more, this was when, perhaps not coincidentally, I finally fell out of love with her.

She was married in January. I was there. I helped her pick out her wedding dress. And because, after the reception, her husband had to leave to put the kids to bed, I remained behind to help her gather the centerpieces and presents. We were the last two in the hall. At one point, someone on the clean-up crew asked if I was the lucky groom. “I am the lucky friend,” I said.

Watched over by something greater, we remain in parallel lanes – her baby is due around the same time as my first novel, which she nursed into existence alongside me. She has become one of my closest friends; we look over our shoulders to make sure the other is there. I think about being 80 and rolling our eyes about that time in the yellow coat. To get ready, we’ve both sprouted our first gray. It seems we couldn’t be together in the ultimate way, but our consolation is togetherness in almost everything else.

After the wedding, we shared a cab, and I helped load her into the elevator of her new life. “I love you,” I said, and, before the door shut, I could see that she knew exactly what I meant.

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