The Man I Didn't Choose

Photo: omelnytskyi, Tama66, Olezzo, brusinski | Canva
Past, present, Father Time

I phoned Steven five years after I left him. In 1985, people picked up the phone when it rang. 

“Hello,” he said excitedly. 

“Hey, it’s me,” I said, “Deb.”

My heart pounded. I sat on an old couch in my rental house in Portland, wearing a black leather jacket, black boots, and lots of Shaper hairspray on my big hair. 

“Oh,” he said, disappointment in his voice, practically groaning. “I’m waiting for the hospital to call. My wife is having our baby tonight.” 

I congratulated him, working to sound excited and enthusiastic. Maybe he thought I was entertaining ideas of getting back with him, but I wasn’t. Not at all. 

It was New Year’s Day, and I was thinking of times past.

Nostalgic, and also missing his exuberance. I always cared about him. I missed him when I left him, but I knew I’d made the right decision. 

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Should old (auld) acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? 

No, old acquaintances of mine are never forgotten. I never forgot Steven.

Yet there were things I didn’t miss at all. I left him because our lives together had become an extreme disappointment. I could no longer tolerate being with him. Not so much being with him but living in the desperate circumstances we were in as a struggling young couple. 

The Path I Didn't Chose But A Love I Can't DenyPhoto: Gorodenkoff / Shutterstock

In part, our struggles were financial. In part, they were about being young and unable to communicate well enough. I didn’t get, at that time, how ultimatums worked. Had I been a bit older, I may have offered a few up. 

If you keep dropping acid with our POS roommate you brought into our apartment, I will leave you.

If you keep spending your share of the rent money on who-knows-what, I will leave you.

If you want to be with me, our roommate has to go, and his friend he dragged in to pay his share of the rent.

And, of course, Steve and I were as flawed as all people are. Little cracks and dull spots ruined the patina of our bliss.

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Steve and I were madly in love in our first four months.

When I met him, I was overjoyed with his spirit. He had thick, curly gold-brown hair, with ringlets so beautiful. He had a stereo system with huge speakers and jumped from the dining room area down into the sunken living room of his apartment, playing air guitar furiously and singing with a loud, full voice. 

I loved his dancing hazel eyes, his upswept eyebrows, his thin face, and his athletic build. He had a husky, low voice that became rich with laughter and amusement, and within a short time, he asked me to move in with him. By September of 1978, we were living together. I had a diamond engagement ring on my left hand, and although I didn’t know it, I was six months from the worst event of my life — the death of my kid brother.

Steve and I had split up by the time my brother was killed. 

It was the sinkhole of my life. All of my happiness, hopes, and exuberance for life drained into a dark place in my soul. I lost myself. I became like an empty vessel. This was a depression I’d never experienced.

Steve wrote me the most heartfelt letter. It came from a place of deep love. He was only twenty-one years old. His words spoke to a deep place in me. 

Dearest Deb  —  I know this is hard to hear now, but listen: in time, your grief will be easier to bear. I know this. Please call me. I know we’re broken up, but I loved your brother, and I’ll always have love for you. Please know I care. 

It took quite a long time for my life to get better, but of course, it did. In time, I realized I had complicated grief, and I needed to heal. It took years, but I finally developed the coping tools to protect myself from intrusive thoughts about death. I miss my brother, but I’ve learned to honor him and my other family members who have passed. 



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Decades have passed. I’m in my sixties now, and my care for Steve  —  and the man he’s become  —  has not diminished. He’s had quite a life, I see. 

Social media is intrusive, and our lives and choices are on display for anyone who chooses to view them. I’ve watched Steve’s life. I am not a stalker, not at all, but I have applauded and fretted for him for two decades.

When his parents died, I grieved.

When his workplace closed down, I worried.

When his children got married, I celebrated.

When he got a very difficult diagnosis of cancer, I prayed. Yes, I prayed. 

Now, I see that he is doing well, serving his community, volunteering for philanthropic organizations, and smiling again. He’s not the same person he used to be, way back when. Neither am I. 

Life has kicked us both around, but maybe it’s just time’s way of polishing our rocky parts to a shiny patina. 

There’s a part of my soul that will always love him, and I hope he knows that in his heart. When I was eighteen, I fell in love with a young man who made bad choices and drove me away. Yet he has become the man I knew he was  —  a loving, strong, good person. I have no regrets, only happiness for him.

I hope he feels the same for me. 

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Debra Groves Harman is a creative non-fiction memoirist who's been published in myriad magazines.