You were in the hospital. They had found something wrong with your heart.
I showed up 10 minutes before visiting hours ended with a smuggled-in protein bar. It wasn’t much but it was better than the smashed turkey sandwiches they had been feeding you. We joked about how your heart was broken, how mine was too.
You said how comfortable the hospital bed was and I climbed into it with you, careful to not disturb the mess of wires. I put my head on your chest and listened to your heart beating. Other visitors left, the lights dimmed on the hospital floor. Nurses passed by your room and took pity on us with a sideways smile. There was some cheap late-night TV show on, I don’t remember what, but it made us laugh.
I only saw you a few times after that. You moved into some big fancy house and you’re married now. It’s odd, to think of you married. To me, you’re still the boy with a broken heart and beautiful, sad eyes.
You were my first real love but I had no idea what love was at the time. How could I? I was 16 but jaded beyond my years.
I would come over to the mobile home you lived in with your mother after she’d had too much wine and fallen asleep on the couch. I believe you looked after her perhaps more than she looked after you. After high school, you joined the Marines and I was living on a boat in Ventura. You would come up to see me on the weekends and we slept together on a twin bed. How on earth did we sleep together on a twin bed?
You took me to Sea World. You walked too slow and told me you loved me too much. My head was full of rebellion and I gave into the gaze of an older man with a house and a Porsche. We saw each other again in our 30s. Though you said you were happy, a part of you had grown dark. The sparkle from your eyes was gone and it was hard not to mourn the lost innocence we had once both shared.
You were lovely in every way and you captivated me from the beginning, but I wasn’t as strong as you. You visited me in California, you took the train down from Portland. A terribly long trip, but you thought the train was more romantic. I doubt that you’ve ever been wrong about anything.
You were married, but he knew about us. He didn’t mind; you may have even said he encouraged it. We stayed at an old cheap hotel on the coast—the kind with a bottle opener mounted to the wall in the bathroom. We held hands under the orange lights of the alley and kissed in dark corners of bars where no one knew our names.
When it was time for you to leave, your train was running hours late, but I had made other plans and I didn’t cancel them to wait with you. So, you waited alone. I think I will always regret that. Years later, after you had left your husband, I found out it was an awful marriage and it hurt me to know something as full of life as you was tied to something dead for so long.
You were a wild-eyed boy with painted arms and I knew I didn’t stand a chance against you. You took me to your big empty mansion. It was too empty and too big for you. The driveway was still gravel and nothing in it felt finished, although you had lived there for years. I suppose I could have said the same thing about your heart—all I wanted to do was fill those empty places.
For a while, I did. We would talk on the phone after your daughter had fallen asleep and you begged me to make the hour drive to come see you, wine heavy on your breath. Of course, I did.
I would have done almost anything for you. We would fall asleep, the three of us snuggled together in your bed—you, me, and your daughter. I don’t know if I ever told you, but that was the first time that I felt like part of a family.
That big empty house burned down in a wildfire the next year. Your old newspapers from when you played baseball, your daughter’s Barbies in the blue tile shower, and your four-poster bed—all gone. You live in another big empty house now—an even better one, you say. Once in a while, you will text me to tell me you’ll always love me, and the loneliness in your words will break my heart but I know I can’t go back. Passion like that rarely leaves people unharmed.
I saw your picture online and I felt like I had looked into your eyes for centuries. I’m not sure how two souls can know each other before the flesh does but I believe it in my bones.
I showed up at your house in my yellow sweater. You made spaghetti. We drank wine and danced in the kitchen like children. We confessed our love with the unabashed enthusiasm of someone who has never been hurt, but we’ve both known our share of hurt. Life got hard for us, but for the first time in my life, I didn’t want to run. You held me closer in the dark and we waited for the dawn together. You asked me to be your wife, and with those words, my entire past made sense.
I finally saw my lost loves for what they actually were, all along. They were not tragedies but guiding hands, shaping me into the person I was meant to be.
I will hold them in gratitude like glass jars on a shelf. Snapshots in time that I can look back on and smile, knowing how far I have come. Vessels that I thank for teaching me strength, compassion, empathy, wisdom, and most of all, how to recognize what love truly looks like when it arrives.