The One That Got Away
by Suzanne O'Neil
fill the spach
I have been trying to write this column for weeks now, battling the resistance. Even as I pen these words, I am still resisting, to tell you the truth. Why? Because I am so OVER this. I am so over this, in fact, that I recently (and finally!) told him to please not call me again for a really long time, like five years.
But the truth is, I was very much NOT over it - and him - for a very long time. We orbited each other for literally decades, living our lives, marrying other people, with both of us not realizing that we were, for each other: “the one that got away." We shall hereinafter refer to him as TOTGA for simplicity's sake.
We met for the first time when I was young, hot and skinny. TOTGA was also young, hot and skinny, and I still remember what he was wearing - painter’s pants and a white t-shirt. It’s pretty much what he wore most of the time. He wasn’t a painter, it’s just what he wore. He looked good in that particular ensemble, comfortable and accessible. I have no idea what I was wearing at the time. I’ve often wondered if he remembered. I never asked. Maybe I didn’t want to know.
For three years all we did was talk on the phone, usually Sunday afternoons while we watched (in our separate apartments) PBS specials, or late at night when it was quiet everywhere. We first fell in love with each other’s voices on the phone. Every time we talked, he'd say "I love your voice," and I would say the same. Sometimes it was: God, I love your voice.
It took him that long (he later told me) to finally work up the courage to come see me. He was supposed to bring ice cream, but he showed up empty handed. Little did I know that the long delay and his empty hands would set the stage for the rest of our relationship.
We saw each other for six years, usually late at night, sleeping together and talking for hours. We didn’t date, we didn’t go out to dinner, he didn’t open car doors for me, or bring me flowers. We didn't make plans for the future. Once he fixed my car early in the morning after a night together so I could drive him to get a tire, and we had breakfast along the way. That was it. Otherwise, we just…hung out. And fell in love, although up until about three years ago, I thought it was just me. Three years ago, he told me I broke his heart when I married someone else.
I was shocked by this confession, like down to my toes shocked. He said he came by my place one day, about 25 years ago, to ask me out to dinner because he was going to ask me to marry him. I remember that day like it was yesterday. He’d been looking at rings, he said, talked to his mother about me. I still shake my head at this, because we’re talking 10 years after we met, and he’d visited me in every place I’d lived in…but I’d never met his mother, or anyone important to him, and vice versa. We’d never even gone for a walk together. The idea that he thought of marrying me was…frankly kind of crazy. But I could tell he wasn’t lying.
If I let my mind go back in time, the day returns to me in crystalline detail. He came by in the middle of the day, I was in my apartment with the guy I was seeing at the time – who later became my husband and the father of children (hereinafter referred to as Joe). I knew in my heart Joe was not right for me, but I also knew intuitively that I would not get away from him. I knew I had some soul work to do with Joe (marriage and a couple of children definitely qualifies as soul work).
Anyway, the doorbell rang and Joe answered it.
Long story short, TOTGA chickened out when he heard Joe’s voice. He asked for someone else in my apartment building, instead of me, presumably reading the name on the buzzer. I stood with Joe at the window and watched him walk to the apartments next door then back to his car – acting out the ruse as if he knew he was being watched.
EVERYTHING in me wanted to run out after him because I knew somehow this day was different. Something had changed. Something was up, I knew, for him to come by in the daytime. I knew that this was a critical moment.
But I think the weight of that soul work waiting for me…and Joe standing with me watching TOTGA be a coward, was too much. I stayed still. And I, too, was a coward. In my mind, that will always be the day TOTGA actually got away. It was the day the universe opened a crack in the realm of possibility that surrounds us all when we might have been everything I wanted us to be.
I went on to marry Joe and have two children, as I’ve already mentioned, and TOTGA also got married and had a child. He called regularly, like every few months. He’s never stopped calling. No matter what relationship I was involved in. I justified our continued telephone intimacy by telling myself I knew TOTGA first
After my divorce, I saw TOTGA a few times, went out to dinner a couple times, fooled around once or twice. Once he went out to lunch with me and my children. All this time I had no idea what he’d been planning that day. But still, whenever he reached out, I dropped everything. He was the most important thing, top priority. I was like Pavlov’s dogs, an automatic yes.
For a long time, TOTGA’s presence in my life was like background noise, a constant but mostly unobtrusive thing in my life - like being from Boston. Even when I was seeing someone else after my divorce, if he called, I talked to him. He wasn’t always calling to hook up, just to talk and connect. But again, I justified the emotional intimacy.
But there came a point when it was no longer just background noise.
Over the years, it became deeply uncomfortable - and frankly embarrassing - to be hanging on this long to what basically amounts to an illusion.
Time runs out for all of us, and I knew that if I really wanted what I thought he and I might have had in some fantasy parallel universe that never happened and was not ever going to happen, I needed to let him go.
The last time we hung out together - just dinner - we sat on my porch afterward and I knew it was over, at least for me. I finally accepted the reality that he had never actually been there for me, never actually loved me in that day-to-day, hell-or-high-water, bad breath and bad hair days, crankiness and unhappiness, joy and ecstasy, hot tea and long naps, excitement and wonder kind of way that real love is about. And I told him that truth, out loud, on the dark of my porch - you’ve never actually loved me. You’ve only loved me in fantasy, the same way I loved you.
And even though months later he told me on the phone that he still loves me, that he would have been a better man if he’d married me, that he knew that truth from the moment he met me and was terribly afraid of it, even though I cried a little when he said those words to me….still, I asked him to please not call me again for a really long time, for like five years. He asked why, and I told him the truth.
I said these words and I meant them: “I am 100% committed to the man I am with, and you and I are each other’s ‘one that got away’ and whenever you call, I remember that and it makes me sad, and I don’t want anything from my past, no matter how small, to get in the way of my relationship with this man.”
He said “Okay, I will only contact you in my sleep,” and I said, “Not even then. Take good care.”
And that, as they say, is that.
I have blocked him on my phone. I know you’re going to find it hard to believe, but I really don’t miss him. Except for his voice. He was only an illusion anyway.
My real man is a real man - courageous and true, smart and kind, loving and funny. He’s as real as real gets.
Suzanne lives with the love of her life in Bedford, Massachusetts (the Little State That Could). I like to joke that she is our token blonde, but she says she's not technically a blonde anymore. Suzanne loves laying on sun- warmed boulders by the sea, yoga and hot tea first thing in the morning. Suzanne adores her sons and granddaughter. She is a mixed media artist, a trained Soul Collage facilitator, a poet, and one of the God-mad. She has a real job. She is one of life's frequent miracles and is absolutely convinced the best is yet to come.