I bundled up on a freezing January evening, and made it to the play. When it was over, my friend and I waited in the lobby.
“He’s staring at you,” my friend whispered. Across the room I saw him smiling at me. He came up and hugged me tightly: “Elana went to school with me,” he said proudly.
When he asked for my number outside the theater, I blushed. I couldn’t believe that a man like him could be interested in me. When he called me, I literally danced with joy. Returning to New York after years of travel meant I had to relearn the dating scene. I didn’t want to just settle on whoever was around. I wanted someone who had seen the world like I had. I wanted to date up. He was my apex.
On our first date we went to dinner and found ourselves holding hands almost immediately. He was the first guy that made this zaftig Jewish girl feel petite, he stood at almost 6-foot-5. We’d sit with eyes locked, smiling profusely.
A few glasses of liquid courage later, I asked if he wanted to come back to my place and he said yes. I remember saying, “I know you’re only here because you’re drunk.” He stopped cold, looked me in the eye and said: “Elana, I’m not here because I am drunk. I’m a big guy. I had two glasses of wine. I’m here because you are beautiful, everything about you is beautiful.” The next morning he kept staring at me, not in a you-have-guck-in-your-eye way, but this intense stare that made me feel adored.
“You know, when most women wake up they don’t look the same as the night before — they need to put their face on, ya know. But you, you wake up and you’re naturally gorgeous. You don’t need to do anything,” he said.
He was an actor, and I never knew if he was playing a role or not. As he left, he gave me a long embrace. “I’ll call you,” he said.
We dated for five months, and each time I walked with him, I felt taller, stronger, prettier. I was falling in love, finally.
When he called to meet me one crisp fall evening for dinner and a movie — I eagerly said yes. I’d had a rough day — during a routine exam, my doctor had detected a lump in my right breast. Going out with him was the perfect diversion.
That night at dinner, he started talking about Los Angeles, where he still had a house and continued to go for auditions. Our relationship was becoming more intimate; I wondered whether he was about to ask me to go out West with him.
I was ready for a change in my life. I was bored of teaching and yearned for something more creative. I hit the jackpot, I thought.
Then he reached for a sip of water, his speech slowing. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Um, I don’t think this is going to work. I mean I have a lot going on, and I don’t think I can be in a relationship right now.”
“Not today, I already had more bad news then I could handle,” I said.
He held my hands closer, but couldn’t look at me. “They found a lump in my breast today,” I said, tasting the tears as they hit my mouth. He held my hands firmer.
“You’ll be fine, I know you will,” he said.
He looked me in the eyes, and I saw my sadness reflected in him.
Not quite ready to let go, he escorted me the two miles to my apartment. He kissed me passionately in front of my building. Then he said what he always said: “I’ll call you.” But I knew he wouldn’t.
I found out the lump was benign. I reached out to him a few months later, but he had already moved on. When he said he didn’t want to be in a relationship, I learned that was code for not wanting to be in a relationship with me. He became a father while I searched for new love. But every guy seemed so small, insignificant after being with him. It would take me many years to move on. It took him a few weeks.
Eventually we became friends again, getting together occasionally, flirting mercilessly. But I discovered I didn’t need him anymore to make me feel special. I would need to find that on my own. Years passed and I stopped hearing from him.
Then one night out of the blue, he texted me at midnight: Are you still up?
It was almost exactly six years since our breakup.
He was getting married soon, he said. We spoke for almost an hour. Mostly, I listened. It felt strange to hear his voice. To know he had chosen someone else permanently, while I was still alone.
“You know you’re beautiful, right?” he said in the same provocative tone he did our first night together.
“Goodbye,” I said.
I barely slept that night, thinking of how much I once loved him. In the morning, I went to the sink to wash my face and looked in the mirror. For the first time, I saw what he saw. That I did wake up naturally pretty — eyes bloodshot, heart wounded. He wasn’t lying.
Needing to keep busy, I got ready to go for a run. I grabbed a pair of socks from my dresser. They were his, the only memento of our last night together. They were old but comfortable. I put them on and laced up.
I’d be okay, I thought. And I began to run.