One year before Arek moved to Montreal for his PhD, we met to say our goodbyes. It had been three years since we’d broken up, a fact I considered as I took off my coat and walked inside his New Jersey apartment.
We sat down at the kitchen table for tea. On top of the bookshelf were two framed photos of him and his new girlfriend.
Arek reached under his chair and placed a shoebox on the kitchen table. Inside, collections of my love letters were grouped together with rubber bands.
“I’ve been holding onto these,” he said.
“I got rid of yours,” I said.
Arek turned his gaze away from me and continued to flip through the letters. “Why?” he asked.
“I needed to let you go or I’d never move on,” I said.
We’d tried to officially end our story three years earlier but instead spent 30 minutes in his car talking about how much we missed each other. Arek had just started dating Sara at the time, and I was dating Farouk, a Marine on tour in Afghanistan.
Arek pushed the box of letters to the side of the table and took my hands in his.
“I think of you every day,” he said.
“What about Sara?” I asked. “She’s okay with you still talking to me?”
He let go of my hands. “She can’t understand why I won’t let you go.”
“Maybe because I keep calling you,” I suggested. “Maybe because you keep telling me you love me, and keep giving me hope we’ll get back together.”
The first time Arek told me he loved me was in July, 13 years ago. He led me across his father’s backyard to a hammock.
“Get on,” he said. “Come on. I’ll hold it still.”
I turned my back toward the hammock, closed my eyes, and threw myself into its unsteadiness.
“Now move over,” he said, “I’m getting on.”
We rocked back and forth in the hammock, kicked off our shoes, and rubbed our feet together. It was at that moment that Arek became my favorite place.
His breath brushed against my neck. “Kocham cię,” he said in Polish.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“It means I love you,” he said.
I was 24. He was 27. I was a short, voluptuous Jewish-Italian girl from New Jersey. He was a tall, blonde, and charming European from Warsaw, Poland.
Arek was the second person I slept with. He was experienced, and though I’d had a boyfriend before, he was my first love. That summer we fooled around in his car, in front his cousin’s house, in front of a church, and under the hammock. What we shared was hard to stop, except for when he’d return to Poland at the end of August.
Before he left, he promised to write and to call. I received a new postcard every week.
The next year, I moved to England for my graduate degree while Arek studied for his in Warsaw. We spent our school breaks traveling. We danced naked on the beach in Gran Canaria, Spain, and made love behind Chopin’s gravesite in Cimitiere du Pere Lachaise in Paris. We stuffed our packs with water, maps, underwear, and condoms. I had no idea then how this love could go wrong.
When we graduated and moved back to the states, everything changed. Life was mundane and ordinary and marked by pots of coffee, MTA tickets, work schedules, grocery shopping, conversations that began with “What do you want to do for dinner?” and ended with “I feel trapped.”
“I don’t think I can do this anymore,” Arek whispered in my ear at a friend’s dinner party.
“I know, the food is terrible,” I whispered back.
“No. I mean I can’t do this anymore.”
That night Arek and I argued for hours.
“I don’t want to get married, EVER. I feel like that’s where this is going, and I just can’t do it.”
Over the next six years, Arek and I broke up and got back together more than a dozen times. We got engaged, called off the wedding, had an abortion, cheated on each other, and cheated on new partners with each other in the interim bouts of our breakups.
Eventually, I started to date again. Arek did, too. That’s when he met Sara.
“I like Sara because she doesn’t want a commitment,” he said.
Back at the table, tea in hand, and with the letters in the box, I said, “Lucky her.”
Arek brought the kettle over to refill both cups.
“I’ve been seeing a therapist,” I said, twirling my spoon through the hot water. “He said that you and I are halves.”
“What does that mean?” he asked.
“It means that a half plus a half doesn’t equal a whole,” I said. “We’re halves. And we shouldn’t be together or with anyone else until we’re whole.”
“What about Farouk?” he asked.
“For how long?”
“Since the last time I saw you,” I said. “I’m taking time off from dating.”
Arek tapped his fingers on the box of letters. His leg bounced underneath the table. I put my hand on his thigh to calm the up and down.
“I always wanted a commitment,” I said.
“I couldn’t give that to you,” he said. “I thought I was clear.”
“I realize that now. That’s why I have to say goodbye,” I said. “Don’t you think it’s about time?”
And then I said the word I’d been afraid to say for so long, the word that would mean I’d never get the commitment I wanted, the realization I’d been too afraid to accept until now.
“Goodbye, Arek,” I said.
From across the kitchen table, I saw his once bright blonde hair now faded gray. I pushed in my chair, and Arek walked me out.
I realized I’d wanted commitment so bad I’d do anything to keep it, even if it meant confusing his indecision with the hope we’d be together. I didn’t realize at the time that this want replaced my own happiness, and how that need to be with him overshadowed my wellbeing and healthy independence.
I see now how I made extreme sacrifices to satisfy his needs without satisfying my own: left home to study abroad for him; let him leave and come back to me on his own volition and without consequences.
After taking a very long hiatus from relationships and going to regular therapy sessions, I met Joe, a Navy vet, and journalist. Three years later, we own a house, have a dog named Brutus, and are baby planning. I know I could live without him. I know he could live without me. There’s so much beauty in not wanting, in not needing anyone.
I won’t lie, sometimes I check out Arek’s social media profile. I saw from his Facebook page that he married Sara. I saw that he climbed a mountain in Italy, sat on top of Machu Picchu, and finished his Ph.D. It’s nice to see he’s out there and alive.
I haven’t reached out to Arek in more than six years and I hope I never do. Some goodbyes should last forever. Rightfully and beautifully so.
Loren Kleinman’s nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, Ms., The New York Daily News, Bust, Ploughshares, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Romper, Seventeen Magazine, and more.