I Let Go of the Love of My Life Without a Word
Why I didn’t reach for love when I found it… and what I should’ve said, instead of nothing.
I met Matt* (*renamed for privacy) when I was 25, and I can’t explain what exactly drew me to him. We’d casually taken opposite seats amongst mutual friends at a carved-up bar table, and in the divey dimness of that first night, I kept studying his features under the shadow of his cap, trying somewhat absurdly to catch a glimpse of the guy’s “real” face. In hindsight, maybe this was just my soul trying to re-brief: the new guise of someone from another life, someone I’d last seen — and loved, and lost — when we’d each had different bodies, different faces. Decades before. Continents ago.
That first night, though, I didn’t sense the deeper history yet; Matt was just a guy at a bar. And I was intrigued by him.
I was a grad student in that era, sitting on abandoned dreams of travel and writing, so I usually preferred men whose faces and accents seemed to promise a vicarious connection to the faraway, because of my own frustrated yearnings for elsewhere. Alternatively, I liked men slightly older, since their age, I assumed, meant they had their lives figured out, and I fancied myself as somebody who had her life figured out too. (What did I know?)
Matt, meanwhile, was four years younger and just a few weeks shy of graduation, with more or less the same familiar kind of wiry, brown curls and thick-browed Mediterranean eyes that I did. Not older. Not “exotic.” But handsome. Friendly. Down-to-earth. Which is why, when my friends and I left the bar that night, I immediately started prodding them for another chance to see him again. They delivered.
Matt was moving soon. I knew this. Out of town, then out of state, then out of the country. That was part of his appeal, to be honest; I was too busy for love (I had a Ph.D. to finish), and his impending departure meant no chance for feelings. No complications. Just some no-strings fun. So I floated an innuendo one night — a facile invitation, the offer of sex understood — and we found ourselves alone for the first time at my apartment on an evening in mid-May, dancing around the inevitable for hours as we moved from room to room to room, looking at books together in every single one while we fell into the same sort of deep, unflagging conversation we’d had the previous two times we’d met. Travel. Culture. Languages. Writing. Sociology. Family. Our shared desire to help empower people, someday, somehow.
All night, on all manner of topics, our common, mutual refrains were, “That’s what I always say!” and “Me too!” But this was not a false affinity; there was no guile. We’d been freed by default (i.e., by the very naked nature of my proposition) from any need to posture or impress.
And eventually, after hours of this hands-free deep-dive into each other’s minds — just when I was starting to wonder if he even wanted to hook up at all (Oh… maybe he’s not attracted... Guys don’t usually want me. Not really… Ah well, at least it’s fun just talking...) —
That was when Matt leaned in to kiss me. At last.
For hours afterwards, he stayed. And in the afterglow, the endless conversation that his kiss had interrupted, deepened. We moved on now to poetry. Spirituality. Man’s long journey of evolution. The conflict of being a free spirit in an academic world. He probed my heart and my history. Why was I not living my old dreams of getting out and seeing the world? Why was I not writing? Why was I squashing myself down into a number-crunchy Ph.D. program in rural Pennsylvania, when I was made — he could see my true self so plainly — for a life much more creative, expressive, borderless?
I’d dreamed of all the same far-flung, poetic wonders that animated him too, once upon a time, and something about remembering this now made my own unhappiness — the existential ennui I’d been settling for until then— impossible to ignore. Secretly, I realized: after this night ended and he left here, I could no longer hide from the fact that everything must change. So much more happiness was possible in a life. Matt made me want it again.
A litany of unbidden memories was bubbling up now, which I was secretly cataloguing in the warmth of his embrace. Reasons why I’d stopped dreaming at all, slights and traumas from long before we’d met. Like the memory of my thighs shaking under the weight of an unwanted body. Or the primal fear of being thrown around a kitchen by a man who was enraged that I wouldn’t take him back; the ex who’d insisted that writing was a stupid hobby and I should get a Ph.D. instead. Or the helpless terror of being followed daily, for weeks, without reason, by crooked cops in the foreign land where I learned to loathe the very shape of my being, during a semester abroad at age 19.
This was why I was stuck here in a college town in rural Pennsylvania while the idealistic young Matts of the world were actually going out and living all the adventures and inspirations I’d long ago relinquished.
But had things been different, I sensed… had I been born a man… without any of the vulnerabilities attendant to being female… I would be this guy, right here, in my bed.
We were cut from the same cloth, said a quiet voice within — just one of many random musings arriving fully formed to the threshold of my awareness all night long. Thoughts like, We were made of the same things, at the same time… and, I’m so happy he exists. Thoughts like, I never dreamed of finding someone like this, but only because I never imagined it possible. Or — looking at him sidelong as we laughed together against my pillows—thoughts like: Once he leaves, I hope I can find another guy just like him. And:
I could love a man like this…
I was too stupid to realize I already did.
Love was this soul-deep affinity. This sense of reverence at this person’s mere existence. The joyful wonder at the fact of inhabiting this planet at the same time, and that, by some delightful, divine accident, here we were together. Love was the feeling that I could tell him anything at all — and that I wished there were time to tell it.
It was the sense that absolutely nothing was missing.
It was the deepest peace I’d ever known.
Peace doesn’t hit you like all those famous clichés. Not with lightning bolts or thunderclaps or the force of a thousand butterflies. This was why I didn’t understand or recognize right away when love — Love — finally found me.
I kept my feelings quiet, while Matt continued articulating many of my own sentiments, nonetheless. (Of course...) His eyes lit up again and again with an “I’m really glad we met” or a “Why didn’t we meet sooner?” or an “I wish I could stay here with you, like this.” And I would agree. I would smile, reach up from the pillows, and kiss him. And with each kiss, I’d resign myself, ever-more-achingly, to the terms I’d decided before he ever even walked in the door: that this would be just one time. I could already sense it was one of the best nights of my life… but I’d have to hope there would be others to replace it. Others to replace him.
By the moment I showed him to the door that evening, I already knew, something had changed forever.
Life’s different now. It’s nearly a decade later. I don’t live in rural Pennsylvania anymore. Never finished that Ph.D. Instead, I overcame a hundred fears and started traveling again. I live in Berlin on a freelance visa — one that says “Writer.”
I have loved other men since Matt — various, incredible — in a string of life-affirming connections that helped to heal so much more than I’d ever even imagined could be healed in a single lifetime. Along the years, I learned self-compassion. Started making choices for nurturing and pleasure. Raised the bar on fulfillment of all kinds. Became much more attuned to my own soul. The 25-year-old who took a practical-stranger to bed probably would’ve been thrilled to know she’d live a story far more magical and expansive than she could ever have fathomed. But even from a distance, Matt would always be part of that story. The silent spaces between every line. The ink with which each word was written. The inspiration that drove me to write it at all.
Why didn’t I tell him any of what I was feeling before he’d even left my room? I wasn’t ready to reach for love back then. Wasn’t ready to believe I could truly have it. Besides, my own personal sense dictated that “healthy” connections must surely follow a more measured pace. Why say too much, too soon?
I didn’t want to follow him, so what was there to do with the sentiment anyway? While he dressed to leave, I distinctly recall an inner voice urging me to let him go, don’t try to cling, because I had choices to make on my own. If I wanted to dismantle the lifestyle I was done with and create a new one of my own design, I needed to be un-swayed by the needs of a man. After all, love thus far had taught me that I was prone to compromising to the point of sacrifice — to the point of fault. How could I travel life’s roads with Matt and yet still find my way back to myself? Nowadays I believe two people can bring out the best in each other and support each other’s growth… but back then, self-denial was all I knew about loving.
No, I didn’t want that… nor would I hold him back. We met on the eve of the grandest journey of his life. Why spoil his joy and excitement by burdening him with my feelings? What would the options have been if he’d felt similarly? Move forward, but with a newfound sense of loss for a love left behind — or stay to be near me, and let his dreams wither? Neither choice was fair. I respected him too much.
… And I was still accustomed, back then, to being a second choice. Insulted, ghosted, abused, forgotten, unworthy of commitment or care. Not the kind of woman, I feared, that any man would want to be loved by. Matt’s world, I believed, would be brighter without me in it.
Finally, this: if the universe genuinely needed two of us — which it must have, to have created two souls so kindred — then perhaps we were meant to exist as far apart as possible, shining our light on this Earth from two entirely different (hemi)spheres of influence.
Why condense all that light by joining as one?
All of this was why I let him go without a word.
In a counterfactual universe, without all my old, nihilist, self-deprecating hesitations, I still don’t know I could’ve told Matt what I was feeling because the feeling was bigger than anything I understood. So I might have been similarly dumbfounded. Nobody ever told me this feeling existed... What is this?
But were I to relive that moment in a counterfactual universe where I did understand my feelings… and where no feeling was a burden… I would probably have wanted to say something like this:
Listen… I don’t want to change anything about your plans or hold you back in any way. And I have my own road to figure out once you leave here. But you’ve reminded me tonight of what I always wanted from this world, and what I always wanted to give to it, long before I stopped daring to believe that any of it was possible. I do believe it’s possible again; I saw that in your eyes. Thank you.
Please, live your happiness. Any road you take, my spirit will always be rooting for yours. Maybe someday — I hope — our paths will meet again, and we’ll each have found whatever it is that we’re looking for… or maybe we’ll have nothing figured out, and that’s okay too. Because what I feel for you is not about what you’ve achieved. Not about what you can share with me, nor what you can give. This feeling is something beyond all circumstance or condition. Beyond all words. So just remember these ones. Take them with you:
I love you. Someday, let’s begin.