When I was 18 years old, on the first day of college, I met the man I was going to marry. My suitemate introduced us. I remember the moment: “This is the guy I was telling you about,” she said. “Elizabeth, this is Smith.” I remember looking up, up, up at a six foot four guy with almost black hair, beautiful eyes crinkled into a smile, and a jaw you could use to miter corners. He bore a rather uncanny resemblance to a young Tom Cruise — in a very, very good way.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hey,” he said back.
After that moment in our dorm lobby, we were always together: Elizabeth and Smith, or Smiff and Biff, as one of our friends cutely nicknamed us. We played poker that night on my dorm room floor and scandalized my Baptist roommate. We swam in fountains. We spent most of our time laughing together. When we weren’t laughing, I could tell him all my secrets, the worst ones, the ones I was afraid to tell anyone, and he never looked away from them. He held them in his hands, then held me as I cried. He told me all his secrets too, the ones he’d never spoken aloud. We were crazy in love, wildly in love, the way you fall in love when you’re 18 — but there was something different there, something deeper. We were too similar, too close, too enmeshed. We loved each other in a way I can’t begin to articulate.
Everyone knew he was the man I was going to marry. My parents knew it. His parents knew it. Everyone knew it.
I lost my virginity with the man I was going to marry on a dark night in December, an unremarkable night, the dorm empty just before Christmas, everything quiet around us. It was perfect. When I left for break, I cried.
On Valentine’s Day, I bought him presents — but I also sneaked all over campus and scrawled, in chalk, “Elizabeth Loves Smith” everywhere he’d go, all day, throughout his daily round of classes. The whole university, thousands of people, saw it. He gave me my first diamonds, a small pair of earrings. We planned baby names: his full name, a third (he was a junior), for a boy; Elizabeth Bretney for a girl — we’d call her Bret, after our favorite character from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.
He drove my car. We lived together over the summer. When he had minor surgery, and needed to be taken care of, I was expected, without question from his parents or my parents or him, or me, to do it. Sickness and health.
His mother told us which family heirloom we could use for an engagement ring. We were 19 years old.
Then he died.
I could tell you the whole story, moment by moment, image by terrible image, flashes of hospital tile, crying my contact lens out, the beep of machines. I could go on and on about every horrible detail of those two weeks. Instead, I will say this: on August 24, 2000, the man I was going to marry went into a coma. He stayed in that coma for two weeks. Smith died on September 7th.
Everyone thought I would die too. I didn’t. I shattered instead. I never did fit back together right, not really. People worried, of course, for the first year. But then it faded for them. For me, the man I was going to marry had died. I felt like Alice fallen down the rabbit hole, to a place where nothing made sense, a dark Wonderland. For them, my boyfriend had died and I needed to get over it. I was dragging something around with me. I needed to calm down.
My world had crumbled. The man I was going to marry was dead. My entire future had erased itself as church bells rang noon on a Tuesday. I dated again, but desperately, mostly for the sex and for a connection that wouldn’t happen. None of my boyfriends understood. All of them stood baffled in the face of this loss that dominated my existence. I was, in many ways, a nineteen, twenty, twenty-one year old widow. My mother even said to me, “You need to get over him. No man will want to be with you if you keep up with this.” I still choked up at strange moments; the site of a person in a coma could send me spiraling.
No one understood. After one year, two years, three years, I was the crazy girl who wouldn’t get over her dead boyfriend. I had become some farcical, pseudo-tragic figure. “Oh, her,” people would say. “She just can’t get over it.”
It’s been 19 years.
After this long, no one speaks his name anymore.
The man I was going to marry died when he was 19. He died 19 years ago now. There will come a time, on some date I refuse to calculate, when he will have been dead for longer than he had lived.
My husband knows. But he doesn’t understand. I don’t talk about it, because how can you? You can’t look at the man you did marry and say, I ache for someone you are not. I love you but I loved him first, and you are not him. Some days, I look at our children and the realization that they are not Smith’s brings me to my goddamn knees. I have long taken his picture off my dresser.
I try to tell people about it, but they don’t understand. They hear: I lost my boyfriend when I was 19. They do not hear: I lost the man I was going to marry. I lost the love of my life. He died, and he left me alone, and I choke when I remember it. They do not understand that you can be 18, 19, and you can be so sure. People assume puppy love. They assume the whirlwind of teenage infatuation.
My friend Daniel met the love of his life at seventeen. He gets it. They’re still together in their thirties, and we talk. It helps. Even if his husband is still here, he knows the surety that comes with knowing, so young: I pick you. You are my one in seven billion.
There’s a terrible pain that comes with this loss, and the lack of acknowledgement makes it worse. It becomes somehow shameful, somehow hidden. My husband doesn’t even remember when, at the end of August and September, I get angry and depressed, why I cry for seemingly no reason. He forgets why I can’t bear to see people in comas. I want to scream, sometimes: the man I was going to marry died. None of you understand and none of you will understand unless you have lost someone. Don’t tell me because I was 19 that it meant nothing. Don’t minimize my age. Don’t tell me I didn’t get it, don’t tell me it didn’t matter, don’t tell me I didn’t feel it because I was too young to know what it really meant. Don’t tell me it doesn’t hurt every single day. Don’t tell me I should be over it my now; don’t tell me time heals all wounds; don’t talk about mending broken hearts and be grateful for what you have and don’t you love your husband?
I love my husband truly, madly, and completely. You can love two people at the same time, for different reasons. You can choke over the loss of one and still adore the other. They have nothing to do with one another. Love is not a zero-sum game.
Smith’s sister understands. I see her from time to time. Last time, as we sat, of all places, in a tattoo parlor, she was complaining about something and I noticed her wedding ring. She told me it was her grandmother’s. “Lydia,” I said, and my voice almost broke over the sound of whirring needles and chattering clients, “that was supposed to be my engagement ring.”
She stared at it. “Yeah,” she said quietly. “Yeah, I guess it was.”
She held my hand. Her brother was dead. The man I was going to marry was dead. And 19 years later, the pain hasn’t left.
I wish someone would understand that.
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