Will I lose my one great love because I acted on principle?

I thought I was doing the right thing, but perhaps I should have followed my heart.

Published September 28, 2006 11:39AM (EDT)

Dear Cary:

I'm sorry about the length of this letter, and I understand completely if you don't print it. I simply need to tell this story in detail, if for no other reason than that I am finding it nearly impossible to decide what to do -- or, perhaps, to steel myself to do what I know I want. If you can't find the words to help me, I'm hoping that the process of writing will have done some good.

A college friend of mine fell in love with me over the summer preceding my senior year -- while I was pursuing someone else, as it happened, completely unsuccessfully. I eventually noticed her interest in me, realized I felt similarly, and we kissed. That was it -- I made my choice and never looked back. We were together physically for a bit longer than a year.

She became my first real lover -- sexually and otherwise -- and I am grateful for it. We slept together, whether in a chaste or a sexual sense, what now seems like almost every night. I told her I loved her in the heat of the moment and meant it. I told her that I wanted to get married -- in the heat of the moment, naturally -- and I meant that, too. We went on trips together. We tripped on drugs together. I met her family. She met mine.

We adored each other. We talked about each other to everyone we knew. I'd tell her I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. She'd imagine what our children would look like. My mother said that our love was completely obvious, even at a glance, the first time that they met -- which was right around when I graduated.

That, of course, was the sticking point. Although I was graduating, she had two years left to go at our college. I had applied to a number of doctoral programs in my field, one of which was in the same town. I applied specifically so that we could have the option of dodging a long-distance relationship and staying together -- even moving in together and finally getting engaged.

At the same time, we each refused to let the other consider doing anything for the sole purpose of being together. Instead, we did what now I would very dubiously call "the nobler thing," which was to insist that each focus on what would be best for us educationally. The result was that, when it came down to a choice between two equally desirable programs, the better reputed of which was on the opposite coast, she refused to let me consider a somewhat closer program, and I refused to let her consider transferring to my new school.

Once I'd moved, we talked at least on alternate days, although the time change conspired with her chronic phone trouble and my poor sleep habits to make things difficult. We visited as often as we reasonably felt we could. She eventually decided to spend another year in college to obtain a second degree, and, although I was upset by this, I supported her decision -- it was hard not to when I felt that we were doing pretty well in holding together.

During my visit that Winter, my love and I took a long drug trip, followed by a shower together. This led to one of the most genuinely transcendent experiences of my life. Kissing, feeling her body slide against mine, knowing that this was someone I could truly call my one and only love, I closed my eyes and realized I could see her still, limned in dazzling white light. I felt as though my heart would break under the strain of that love.

Unfortunately, that didn't happen. It broke two months later. She called me and told me she wasn't coming. She had decided that she could no longer bear to be so emotionally close to me and yet separated by such a great distance.

I went back to my research and tried not to take things too hard.

Then, this past weekend -- just after what would have been our third anniversary together -- I heard that she'd started dating someone else (at some undetermined time in the past, but not directly after the breakup). Hearing the news literally made me sick; I couldn't focus for days, and anything I did, whether eating or fasting, singing or sleeping, only seemed to make it worse. I called her and asked her if it was true -- it was -- but was surprised to hear her call me "my love" for the first time in a long time (what a slip, considering the circumstances). I was also surprised by how unexcited she seemed about the new man, since I've never thought of her as somebody to "rebound" or simply to give in to someone's advances out of fatigue. Even so, I did my best to express that I was happy for her, if really heartbroken (for some of the reasons outlined above).

Since then, I've continued floating on in a state of grief.

I've now realized that I love her far more than I want a Ph.D.

We've talked a lot over the past few days, which has actually helped. We've talked about her future -- she thinks she'll still be in our old college town for as long as is foreseeable, even though she'll be graduating, finally, this year. We've talked about my future, too, and my fears and doubts about staying here. She says she still loves me and misses me terribly. She also wants me to come back to her. At the same time, though, she's withheld the single assurance I'd need to get the ball rolling on my departure -- which I am unashamed to say I would do solely for her, if it weren't for the fact that my own goals can be pursued relatively easily back there.

In other words, she won't tell me that she'd get back together with me if I were to return. She won't even tell me that she wouldn't, which would be the merciful thing to do if that's the case. I'm terrified that she's being reticent because the answer is going to be no. At the same time, I'm terrified of never knowing. At the same time, I feel like we should have long been finished indulging our desires to behave nobly. We should let love speak.

You strike me as a fair and generous man, so I want to ask a question.

On second thought, it's more of a request: Please print this letter. Say what you will about it. I just hope that my love will see this and remember that I've loved her desperately for these three years, and, if the time comes that I really do have to say goodbye, this love will stand as the signal experience of my life.

Sinking in the Distance

Dear Sinking,

I'm glad you wrote to me. As you may note, I've shortened your letter somewhat in the interest of readers who may understandably have less patience than I. I just want you to know that I read the whole thing and I feel therefore that I understand who it is who is writing, and the powerful impulse you have given into to tell your story, to be heard, and I respect that.

I have just one request: Go to her. Go to her and find out for sure. Get an answer. Based on my experience with such things, I think it's over. But you need to know that it's over. You need to hear it. And remember: She will downplay her interest in this new man -- for your sake. Do not place much hope in the fact that she sounds like she doesn't like him all that much. Watch what she does, not what she says. If she wants to be with you, she will be with you. Anything less, I think, means that it is over. You just need to go to her and find out.

This is the messy, incomprehensible plot that real life follows, brutally defiant of idea and theory, stubbornly resistant to our hopes and dreams, profoundly and diabolically difficult. And yet in this we have freedom. We do not need to live by ideal. We do not have to be noble. We can ask for what we want. We have the freedom to fail. So seek clarity. Seek yes and no. And seek the wisdom that comes only from climbing a tree and falling, from chasing a ball into the street. Abandon yourself to this thing, believe in it, declare yourself. Simply act. Go to her. Find out for sure.

And then, as I sense you can do this: Be brutally honest with yourself.

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