It just happened to come wrapped in a broken heart.
Three years ago the Universe decided to show me that she can be good to us.
I awoke on the morning of my first Valentine’s day as a single father. My first Valentine’s day as a single person in over 6 years. In so many ways I was relieved. I got my kids out of bed, prepared them for the day, dropped off with their mother, and went about my day.
That night I had planned to join in an Irish music session held at a local pub. I’ve been playing the violin since I was seven, and Irish music had always been the love of my musical heart.
There was a woman I’d met at work — L — who I had invited to come meet up with me after she got off her shift at her other job. She worked nights and weekends at a restaurant downtown, just around the corner from the pub. I figured by the time she was off, we’d be about done playing, and she and I could have a drink.
I suppose a part of me also wanted to charm her with my musical abilities in a way that looked like an accident.
I noticed her come in earlier than expected, but pretended I hadn’t.
She took a seat at a booth across the aisle from me and the other session players. After a while, I glanced over and saw her staring fixedly at me. We made eye contact and I smiled. She gave a little wave, along with a look that seemed to say with a wry admiration, “Well look at you.”
Eventually we all packed up our instruments and either filtered out, lingered to chat or took up our own places at the bar.
I joined L at her booth.
We sat close. Closer than I had imagined we’d sit. She used the noise in the bar as an excuse to scoot closer to me.
I can’t remember anything we talked about, but I do remember that we both tore the paperboard coasters to shreds and ended up making shapes on the tabletop with the piles of paper scraps. It became a game of whiskey-infused Pictionary (the best kind), but instead of drawing we would arrange this bar confetti into increasingly imaginative displays of everyday concepts.
Neither of us talked about the fact that it was Valentine’s day. I took her presence to mean she had no other commitments.
After a while she invited me to join her and some of her other friends — other folks from the restaurant who were just getting off their shifts — at another bar down the street.
Newly single myself and with no parental responsibilities for the night, I gladly accepted. More than anything I was loving every minute of being with her.
We met her friends. My heart dropped when the group was a mix of men and women, but mostly men. She greeted each of them with a hug, and it became glaringly obvious that, all being servers and bartenders in the same restaurant, they had a seemingly endless litany of inside jokes.
I began to accept that maybe we would just remain friends and tried to enjoy my time there regardless. It had been a long while since I had been out drinking with a group, after all.
And drink we did. A lot. Well, they did. Laura had a few, but seemed to hold her own limits. I had ridden my bike downtown, but it was also February and the roads were Icy, so I didn’t over-indulge too much, either.
It must have been 1:30 in the morning when she came over and asked in my ear if I was ready to go. The way she leaned in and talked directly to me, as though we’d come in together and would therefore obviously leave together, gave me chills. If I remember correctly, she also placed her hand on my shoulder when she leaned in. I melted.
She learned I’d biked down and insisted I let her give me a ride. So we loaded my bike into her Honda Fit (it did fit, by the way) and closed the hatch. But then she got in the passenger seat and told me that I’d be driving. She wasn’t up for it. I checked myself and, feeling fine, agreed.
I decided I’d take her home, then bike the mile from her house to mine. It would be a nice way to decompress.
We took the side roads. Maybe I was killing time, or maybe I just didn’t want to get pulled over. L leaned back in the seat and looked from the window to me and back again. She was smiling broadly and her hand was resting on the headrest of my seat.
As we drew nearer to the turn where we would be headed in the direction of her house and definitively away from mine, she broke the silence between us and looked over at me. Her eyes were piercing.
“Do… Do I have to go home?”
I felt a fire ignite within me.
“Well, where else would you go?”
“I think I want to come home with you.”
Was this really happening?
And so we drove to my house, parked out front and made our way inside.
L was the first person I slept with after my marriage ended. It felt intoxicatingly novel, and I felt like a teenager having sex for the first time. But my hands found her body almost without my doing, and with each piece of clothing we pulled off of each other, I felt deeply that I already knew her.
It’s been three years since that day. L and I have been together as partners three separate times since, each for a period of a few months. But something about us just couldn’t stick — wouldn’t work.
In a conversation after our last breakup, she put it best. L told me, “We work when it is only you and I in this whole world. When it’s just us, we’re amazing. Perfect. Beautiful, and happy. But when life comes in — as it invariably does — we can’t handle it.”
I hated her for saying that. I hated her because I knew she was right. I’ve always had a special distaste for the instances in which life and truth — the natural order of things — get in the way of what I want. This was that to the Nth degree.
But three years after that fateful night when the Universe decided to show me she can be good, I feel a peace with our paths in this life, and a gratitude that we’ve been able to share them for a while.
L showed me that I could be loved. In many ways, she showed me this most of all after our breakups, by refusing to love me if I couldn’t love myself. She also showed me that healthy partnership can exist, and does exist. That when one finds a truly healthy partner, they ought not project all their shitty past relationships upon them.
After a challenging marriage, I always feared the worst, but that was never the place from which L had come. I ended up botching countless conversations because I simply couldn’t believe she was truly doing her best for me, for herself and for us. I couldn’t believe that love could be so good, so I found my own ways — subconsciously — to prove myself right. Unfortunately, I usually succeeded.
So when my phone buzzed with a text from her at noon on Valentine’s day this year, I smiled. I smiled because I still love her, but I recognize and accept that the lessons she came to teach me — and I her — have run their course.
I smiled because of course I’d hear from her on this day of love. I smiled because I recognized within myself an acceptance of our diverging paths and a surrender to the mysterious ways in which life carries us through each of our chapters.
And I smiled, perhaps most of all, because I realized that I have finally come to accept that love does not mean possession, and it is not a destination. I realized that I can look fondly upon both the good and hard times L and I have shared without wishing anything to be different. And I realized that I have finally released her to the wild.
Our time together has come to a close, but her place in my heart has been transformed into a shrine to love itself. And I can’t think of a better Valentine’s day gift than that.