Should You Chase Down A Past Love?

Should You Chase Down A Past Love?

A distant, but not forgotten, love comes back to haunt a now-married writer.

During college I studied abroad in a place I didn't belong, and met one of the most unforgettable loves of my life.

Just after the Oslo Accords in 1993, the Middle East was more peaceful than it was before or has been since, and my interest in studying historical perspectives on western religions led me to sign on as the only non-Jewish student in a Boston University program to Israel. Weeks before embarking on this journey, a family blow-out over my new and rather conspicuous tattoo left me feeling disowned for no good reason, and I arrived in a strange country excited, but with an undercurrent of loneliness.

During the first week, an orientation period in Jerusalem before moving on to work at a kibbutz in the north, I met a young Israeli man with whom I had an immediate connection. We didn't speak each others' languages perfectly—not nearly—but we seemed to have the same approach to the world, laughed a lot together, and well, you know the universal nature of the language of love. Avi was a soldier—most Israelis are at that age—and he happened to be on leave for the week. I dropped out of orientation events to see the sights with him, and within days I had met his family, a progressive and cosmopolitan bunch who seemed to accept me readily.

Avi came up to see me on the kibbutz, but it wasn’t until weeks later, after I had moved on to the University of Haifa for a semester, that our relationship solidified and I started trading weekend travel with him, often taking the bus to Jerusalem to stay with him at his family’s home. When in Jerusalem, the requisite activity was clubbing each Friday night—starting not before 1 am and dominated by groups of guys on the dance floor (camaraderie was helpful and encouraged in the army, I suppose). I was not altogether comfortable with this strange scene, but Avi was quite insistent about bringing me along—he needed me, his angel, he once emphasized in a drunken plea. Isolated from all I had known before, it only made sense to go where I felt needed. By the close of the semester, Avi and I had made a habit of spending all of our spare time together. My departure back to Boston felt unbearable.

During the spring semester of my junior year we wrote to each other weekly (egad! this was before email, though not by much). His letters were short, full of misspellings in English, and nearly illegible, but how I loved getting them! All else would fade away while I spent hours reading and rereading them, looking for nuances in feeling even among the same old lines: I love you, please come back. I miss you. I'm going crazy.

Before long we decided I'd return that coming summer and live with him and his family. I didn't come from a well-to-do family or have savings of my own, so this required that I drop everything but my studies (and even those a bit), and start working long hours at a local café so I could afford the plane ticket to Tel Aviv. I didn't see friends anymore—no time. Though he was half the world away, Avi had become my only friend. And for better or worse, getting back to him became an obsession.

Within days (hours?) of my last exam, I was in the air heading east. Even amidst the armed soldiers and a level of security I would never get used to, when I saw Avi waiting for me at the airport, I felt like I was home. He was allowed time off, and we traveled around the country together before he had to go back to the daily grind. What I didn’t fully grasp was that the daily grind for him would be a week-long grind—indeed, he wouldn’t be at home but for weekends. Further, his job was somehow top-secret, and while most people in the army could tell you their schedule—when they would be home, when they had to be back on base—Avi couldn't say when he was coming or going. Maybe he didn't know exactly when he would be released, or maybe he went on missions of an unpredictable nature? Perhaps everyone else knew when to expect him, but I couldn't know because I was a foreigner? It wasn't clear. Further, he had a sibling in an even more secret situation—I was given the impression I couldn't know more in that case because it was a question of national security. It all made me wonder, what was I doing there? This marks me learning the lesson that love does not necessarily conquer all.

Once, Avi never came home all weekend and, though I was somewhat close to some of his many siblings, no one said a thing about when to expect him. I went nearly two weeks without word. Is this what I worked so hard to come back for? A relationship full of secrecy and long-term absences? Perhaps that was the price I had to pay for loving him, but after working so hard to get there, and still not being accustomed to the ways of the country, or the very real security concerns, I was upset. The longer Avi was away, the lonelier I felt. At just 20 years old, I couldn't clearly identify my discomfort as something justified, so instead of investigating it, I tried hiding it. My loneliness turned to depression and my fear to anxiety. The relationship soured, and we avoided making future plans. Our goodbye at the end of the summer was lackluster.

This time we exchanged few letters and eventually none at all. The end of our relationship felt unresolved. In a childish attempt to gain closure I wrote a scathing letter to his family scolding them for allowing me to be somewhere I hadn't belonged. (This letter is my biggest regret to this day.)

Later, my mind would protect me from strong and difficult memories by suppressing them. I forgot all the Hebrew I had learned. Names, places, and events became faint memories. It was as if I had lived in Israel not in a past era of my life, but in a past life altogether.

Life ensued. Jobs and relationships came and went, but in the back of my mind, I must have never stopped wondering about Avi. After more than 6 years, my memory was jogged when the second Intifada brought images of familiar places to the nightly news. An American actor who looked like Avi made a series of popular movies, and I felt haunted by the handsome face I had once loved. Places, smells, and even Hebrew words came flooding back, sometimes in dreams. Then, during last summer's war in Lebanon, I started to obsessively wonder about Avi. Was he even alive?

By now I was married, and my fear and wonder about Avi seemed unsavory. I told my husband about it; he supported the idea that I might find relief by just learning about Avi's general whereabouts. Finally I got the courage to contact his one sibling who could be found on Google. Soon after, I heard from Avi himself. This was just over a year ago.

Through some great email exchanges since, I've learned that Avi did all of what he once told me he planned to do in life: travel at length, study history at university, and become a teacher. He now teaches disadvantaged, inner-city youth in Tel Aviv and studies and writes about liberalism and secularism. Only my favorite topics. Turns out he's quite a smarty. He's cool, yet compassionate. My heart skips a beat when his name appears in my inbox. Though we’ve toyed with the notion of meeting again one day, it is clear neither of us is going to pursue it any further. To what end? But we keep writing; we keep checking in on each other.

And I have learned much about myself and my relationships in revisiting my past, namely:

How we change over time and can be left with an ill-fitting relationship as a result; how we must let our partners in on our metamorphoses and give them space to learn to love the new us and ask them for space to find new things to love in them—or suffer the consequences.

How after years of depression or running from aspects of ourselves, when we rediscover a more authentic self similar to who we were when we were younger and less crazed, we might find ourselves preferring a life or a lover we admired or desired back then, as opposed to the mate we chose and settled in with during the years of frenzy.

How it helps to respect the decisions we made when we were younger—and respect our younger selves who made those decisions; we might make decisions differently now, but our younger selves did the best possible given the resources and circumstances and knowledge available at the time. And how there will always be moments we yearn to go back, but in other moments when we can live fully in the present, we are more free than we can otherwise be.

Oh, and how we think we know someone just because we've corresponded with him a bit, when really we haven't even seen him for 13 years, so how can we know really who he is? Wacky. And also, perhaps, wonderful. Even if for now, or forever, it’s from afar.