By MIRIAM JOHNSON
The first time he slept over was an accident. He came to watch a movie, which for me became an exercise in remaining perfectly still while I focused on the proximity of his legs. After the credits rolled, we talked until dawn. Then he began listing his hesitations about “us,” even though we had never touched.
“I’m working through a breakup,” he said. “Well, it ended a year ago. I’m leaving the city soon. But I’ll be back in a month. I’m not sure I’m grounded.” After a long pause, he asked what my hesitations might be.
I wasn’t sure where to start, so I pointed out that it was getting late — or early, depending how you look at it — and asked if he wanted to sleep over. “If you do sleep over,” I added, “you don’t even have to kiss me.”
He laughed. As we slept through the morning, he reached for me shyly and held on.
He was like a living version of my favorite books, records of places I dreamed to go: “Voodoo in Haiti,” “Moby-Dick,” even “A Field Guide to the Birds of Australia.” He was the perfect castaway, a man who would be at ease whittling driftwood into fish hooks while lost at sea.
The second time he slept over, he brought a toothbrush. A clue that this was no accident.
The third time, he said he had never met anyone who looked like me, murmuring, “You’re lean and lithe.” Later he would compare me to an ocelot, those leopard look-alikes that slink through the Amazon.
I was flattered. In my previous relationship, I felt more like a hamster, a classroom pet purchased in a rush and forgotten over spring break. Now I had moved on to men like this one, who saw me as a wild cat, and whom I pictured as a cross between a sea horse and a deer, track-star tall with a dancer’s grace.
Not long after, he set off on a cycling tour overseas. My expectations of commitment were low. I was surprised to receive messages every day from remote villages with weak reception, and invitations to connect on Skype. He sent me links to hit songs from the ’80s — “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” — and pictures of luminous markets at night. We snapped photos of handwritten letters and emailed them to each other, like postcards twisted by time travel.
“Animal reporting to watering hole,” I wrote.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about you, too,” he replied.
Months after his return, I lay next to him thinking I couldn’t have asked for a person who more closely fit my heart.
“I feel love for you,” I whispered as he fell asleep.
“What?” he asked, twitching awake.
“I feel love for you.”
I was never sure if he heard me clearly or if my words were more like the sound of an alarm clock that steals its way into a dream.
One day, we sat down at a small cafe for breakfast. We laughed at sketch comedy clips on my phone, calculated the relative lengths of Chile and Canada and pondered cycling across both.
When we got back in his car, he said, “I guess there are a few things we should talk about.”
It was another couple of hours before I realized he was breaking up with me. It was a 12-hour conversation in all; I spent 10 of them feeling as if I were slipping off a craggy cliff face, clawing at every sapling while trying to make sense of the downfall.
Our talk moved from his car to sitting lakeside near my house, after which I had to meet friends for dinner — a previously planned engagement that became an awkward confession of the day’s events. Then back to his car, where our breakup resumed.
“Don’t chase a man who doesn’t want you,” I told myself.
“This is sad,” he announced blankly at one point, staring out the window.
It was the middle of the night before I finally slipped away and into my house. Pausing to turn the key, I felt physical pain in my limbs and on my face, my skin wind-whipped and hot from the free fall.
I had begged him not to give up on us.
I woke up the next day with regret that I had spent so many hours ending things, for believing a person could be talked into feeling something he didn’t. (When he sent me an email several days later, I wrote back like a secretary politely responding on someone else’s behalf, signing off with, “I wish you well.”)
I focused on what I learned during our marathon breakup: that he wasn’t feeling connected, either to me or more broadly. I couldn’t tell if he was actually struggling or just trying to let me down easily, but his words gave me hope that the problem had little to do with me and was resolvable.
“How do you expect to feel connected to me if you don’t feel connected to yourself?” I asked.
“That’s a great question,” he said, offering a shrug instead of an answer.
I thought if the fog lifted, he would surely return, and we would resume our talks about tree houses to vacation in, animals we would like to be. But as days turned into weeks and then months of silence, I began to move through a fog of my own, deeply questioning the masks people wear, the parts of our interiors that can be seen by others only if we choose to reveal them.
Hearts and minds can be as opaque as a rain forest; only small pieces of them are ever visible. And I realized this, too: You can’t contain the people you love. You can’t contain your own love, either.
I looked for ways to manage the hurt, denial and rage. I took up kickboxing, which helped. I contacted a therapist I had seen, a powerful woman nearing 70 who often spoke with the air of a monk meditating on a mountain.
“There are no shortcuts to love,” she said. “Honor the truth inside yourself and give that to another.”
After months of meditating on the parts of him that had blindsided me, I started to consider the parts of myself that I had hidden from him. Not just from him but from myself as well, parts of my life where I wasn’t living honestly.
While we were together, I had anxiety attacks every day, though I never mentioned them while dancing across the kitchen to offer him oven-baked salmon and glasses of wine.
I’m not sure if we fall in love with people or if we fall in love with the way they make us feel, the ways they expand who we are and wish to be. The last time we spoke, I told him how moved I was by a photo in National Geographic of hundreds of shark fins drying on a rooftop in Hong Kong. I pictured the finless sharks drowning after being cast overboard, the marine equivalent of being buried alive.
He had seen it too.
“I’d like to get involved somehow,” I said, ignoring that the ocean is nearly a thousand miles from Toronto. If I had learned anything from therapy, it was to pay attention to everything that lit a fire inside. Listen. Feel. Tend that flame.
One day, I ran into a friend at a coffee shop who, as it happened, was working on a film about sharks. Excited, I offered to volunteer. He took me on and eventually hired me. It felt as if I were casting off the husk of who I had been so I could emerge as the person I wanted to become.
I can’t help but think that if it weren’t for how those interests were stoked in that relationship, I might never have recognized how badly I craved a life like those depicted in the books on my shelf, a patchwork of stories about faraway places.
Shortly after starting my new role, I went back to my therapist and told her: “It’s been a year since we broke up. I thought my dream job and exercise would heal me, but I still think about him every day. What more can I do to let go?”
First, she told me a story about a man she loved in her early 20s, nearly 50 years ago, whom she still thinks about to this day. Then she said: “You’re asking the wrong question. It’s not about getting over and letting go.”
I looked down at my hands and considered how this could possibly be about anything else.
“It’s about honoring what happened,” she said. “You met a person who awoke something in you. A fire ignited. The work is to be grateful. Grateful every day that someone crossed your path and left a mark on you.”