If you’ve ever wondered about the one who got away, or the road not taken, or felt any kind of those Hallmark what-ifs, then the following story is for you. Catherine Monahan’s account of her second chance at a life with her first love is straight out of a Nora Ephron plot. You can just imagine Meg Ryan or Amy Adams playing her in the movie as she loads her boxes into the car, her face streaming with tears. All that and a happy ending. It’s a perfect way to start the week.
Three years ago I was engaged to be married. Two years ago, I was not. Now I am … again. To the same person. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Not long after graduating from college, I found myself living in the town where I’d gone to school, with a few good friends and a job at an ad agency I loved. I had been dating Matt for the three years since sophomore year of college. I was comfortable to a fault, moving through a daily routine of meetings, quiet dinners at home, and Dateline murder mysteries. But I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that maybe I’d slipped into this comfortable state a little too early, bypassing another life I was meant to live in between.
I listened longingly to my friends’ tales of their adventures in singledom. I watched them move to Portland, teach in Poland, and try their eager hands at typical post-grad larks. Then a few months later, I found myself accepting a marriage proposal I wasn’t sure I wanted.
Matt and I were as complacent as we were happy. After the ceaseless stress of studying for and taking the bar exam, he was relieved to finally start his career. I had been his sounding board throughout law school, his moral support when we drove to the state capital to take the exam, his cushion from the pins and needles that followed. And suddenly, all was quiet in a way I wasn’t ready for. I loved him more than anything, but when it came to marriage, I felt like a little kid. And when it came to the life we’d made for ourselves, I felt trapped.
I wanted more in a vague, inexplicable way, and until I could put my finger on it, the restlessness would continue. I had been planted, but I hadn’t bloomed yet
Six months into our engagement, as all the plans and decisions began to pick up speed, my interest in the entire process waned. Yet every time I watched Matt read the paper or fall asleep with the dog, I felt an ache-the ache that comes with knowing you’re about to hurt someone you love.
One Friday evening after work, I inched by him as he stood in the doorway of his apartment and placed the ring on his desk. There were words and crying, most of which I don’t remember. I knew I would feel regret no matter what I chose-but which form of regret was I willing to bear? The pain of hurting a loved one, or the endless dissatisfaction that comes with knowing there is a you that you never got to be? Walking out of his apartment, I felt crazy and cruel, but I was ready to deal with the consequences.
Soon after, I picked up and left Omaha to move to Chicago, a city that had been my Oz since childhood. I’d gotten a job offer just days before, and went for it blindly, anxiously, hopefully. I moved in with a roommate I found online and I learned the ins and outs of the city while getting used to the deep, interminable loneliness.
I started the writing program at Second City. A year later, I was able to see my sketches performed on stage, in front of an audience of people who’d paid to be there. I volunteered at a creative writing tutoring center. I met new people, endured a layoff, found a new job, made mistakes, and learned from them. And I did all of it on my own
By way of a mutual, unspoken agreement, Matt and I were not in contact during my time in Chicago. I had no idea what he was doing, who he was dating, or how he felt about me. To a certain extent, it was better not to know. I missed him, and I wished him the best, but I had finally gotten used to city life-the pace and the people, and I never looked back.
And then my dad died after a few weeks of quickly deteriorating health. I quickly learned what it was like to be vulnerable after months of depending on my own strength. Matt was the first person I e-mailed when we got home from the hospital, and after a week of silence, I received a reply. He explained that he had been mountain climbing in the Cascades and hadn’t gotten my e-mail until that day. He has a way with words that could make one of those old-time executioners get misty-eyed. Everything he said was exactly what I needed to hear.
I spent the next few months traveling between St. Louis, where my mom lives, and Chicago, trying to maintain the life I’d built while holding things together at home. They say that the holidays are always difficult after a death, and we had the misfortune to face Thanksgiving and Christmas after just two months. One Sunday night in early December, I was sitting alone in my room when I got an e-mail from Matt.
He told me he loved me, that after more than a year of making the best of his life without me, he wasn’t ready to let us go. Oh, and he was in Chicago. I was paralyzed and didn’t respond until he had left the city. What ensued was another e-mail, followed by a series of phone calls, then a decision to meet for lunch when I returned to Omaha to visit friends in January.
I tried not to be duped by the rush of warmth I felt when I saw Matt again after nearly two years. We filled each other in on our adventures and misadventures over egg salad and fries. He had traveled to Portugal, hiked and climbed on every vertical surface imaginable, made new friends, and smoked his first and last cigarette. He had learned to live without me. I had learned to live without him. We had learned to be happy apart, and here we were, together.
The rest isn’t so much history as a life in the making. We started dating again, taking turns making weekend trips to Omaha and Chicago. Gradually, the topic of marriage crept into our conversation. It felt natural and mutual and-this time-it felt right.
Matt and I are getting married in November. It will be simple and unfussy. We are the same people, but we are better, and, after two years of loneliness and personal growth, we are better for each other.Catherine Monahan writes for a marketing communications firm and is currently dividing her time between various Midwestern cities.
Photograph courtesy of Catherine Monahan.