Before I met my late fiancé, I didn’t believe in soulmates. At least not the kind you want to fuck.
After nearly a decade of post-divorce dating, I considered hope and heartbreak to be symbiotic.
I did believe in the kind of soul-level connections you find inside powerful friendships, the kind of intimacy that bends and grows over laughter, wine, and shared experiences of hope and heartbreak.
And I certainly believed in soul-level chemistry. I’d been swept off my feet enough times to know that there are people out there who can rise to the challenge of meeting my every physical desire while falling seriously short when it comes to communication, trustworthiness, or a willingness to build dreams together.
But could one person be all of those things? An intimate friend and a passionate partner in life?
I didn’t think so. I was jaded enough to swipe left on the whole concept of soulmates.
And then I met Jeff.
. . .
A Day like Any Other Day
Every minute has the potential to be life-altering, but we forget that most days, don’t we? It’s only in retrospect that we smile (or scream) at the memory of our unsuspecting selves walking out the front door to begin a day that will forever change our lives.
It is August 12, 2017, and I am thrilled to be back home in Chicago following a long stretch of work travel. The neighborhoods thrum with the music from summer festivals and block parties, and the air smells of grilled meat and spilled beer. It is hot but not oppressive for a late summer day in the city. All in all, it’s the perfect day for a birthday party.
“Shots!” the birthday boy yells as I walk onto the patio. And then “Jennnnnnnn!”
We hug in the way that you do on a sticky, August afternoon in Chicago. Shoulders touching slightly, hips and cheeks held strategically apart in an effort to exchange greetings rather than sweat.
That’s when I see him over the shoulder of my friend’s beer-stained T-shirt: Jeff.
He is seated on a bench with people spread beside him and around him. Though the table is circular with a sun umbrella and a smattering of half-filled plastic cups in the middle, Jeff seems, somehow, to be at the center of the scene.
Our eyes meet as they always do; he holds my gaze as he always does.
We’ve shared countless moments like this, despite exchanging, maybe, three actual words between us. I know only that he is a schoolteacher of some kind and a diehard fan of the Philadelphia Eagles.
And that he laughs in a way that draws people closer to him.
Suddenly the very thing the birthday boy demands materializes at Jeff’s table in the form of a tray filled with shot glasses, and I quietly slide toward the bar to avoid the shots and to survey the scene.
I shake my head and smile when the familiar chant erupts behind me:
The cheer startles the poor bartender who spills a bit of frothy beer on me as she hands over a cold cup.
“Eagles fans,” I say with a smile that offers forgiveness for the spill. “You can’t live with them, and you can’t live without them.” It isn’t a joke she would understand, but it’s a joke that my friends and family surely would.
When my then-husband and I moved to Chicago 13 years before, we helped to form an Eagles fan group. It was a labor of love for me since I follow baseball rather than American football, but we literally wrote into our wedding vows that he would always cheer for my Chicago Cubs and I would always cheer for his Philadelphia Eagles.
That group started with a handful of Philadelphia natives before it grew to hundreds of chanting Eagles fans from all over the United States. Through the years, that core set of original members stuck together, though. We held each other’s hair during the binge-drinking years, stood up in each other’s weddings during the matrimony years, and mourned each other’s divorces during the most recent years.
I stopped cheering for the Eagles cold-turkey after my divorce, but seeing as how I am surrounded by a huge network of Philly folks, I have managed to date far too many of them.
So, here I am, cold beer dripping from my hands and onto the hot pavement, desperately reminding myself of the self-imposed Eagles-fan ban that I’m on — no more dating anyone who chants E-A-G-L-E-S! for me — and, simultaneously, unable to avoid the smoldering eyes of an actively chanting Eagles fan.
I am screwed.
I actually laugh out loud when my heart flutters because a single empty seat opens up next to Jeff as I approach the table, which is now littered with discarded shot glasses. I’m not going to be able to avoid this man for a second longer it seems.
Jeff immediately turns his light eyes on me when I slide onto the bench next to him. “Hi, Jen,” he says warmly.
It isn’t just a flutter. My heart pounds. My stomach drops.
I smile back and nod, gripping my beer far too tightly.
There is a heated conversation underway across the table. Something about the merits of men wearing rompers and whether a group of them should, in fact, buy matching rompers for a costume party of some kind. I have the distinct impression that Jeff is supposed to answer a question about the potential purchase of said rompers, but he is still staring down at me. Smoldering.
Somehow, I locate the auto-pilot button that emits polite small talk, and I poke it. “How are you? How is your summer going?” So lame, I chide myself.
Jeff says something or other about how his students are off for the summer, but I am not listening anymore because, as he speaks, Jeff also shifts in his seat, turning to straddle the bench so that he is facing me and, in doing so, his arm lightly brushes mine.
My swallow is a gulp. My breath is a gasp. My arm is a fine, blonde porcupine.
I can’t ignore this anymore. I have to know more about this guy.
I match his movement so that now both of us straddle the bench, facing each other directly.
When my friends arrive twenty minutes later, I tear myself away from the non-stop conversation that easily flows between Jeff and me to join in the round of hugs and joyful greetings.
Resisting the urge to put a hand on his arm, I give a departing nod before following my crew to an empty table on the other side of the patio.
I feel his eyes on my back the whole way, and I hope he will follow.
A few minutes later, Jeff slides onto the empty bench next to me. And it’s as simple as this: I will never walk away from Jeff again as long as he lives.
The problem is that he will only live for 296 more days.
A Rock and a Happy Place
“Goonies never say die!” Jeff is holding a DVD triumphantly over his head from outside the sliding glass door that opens to the Oregon Coastline and Haystack Rock.
Four months after that birthday party on the Chicago patio, I’m introducing Jeff to the Pacific Northwest where I grew up.
From inside our cozy hotel room with the fireplace aglow, I am more than happy to close my laptop and its never-ending work emails, opening the door to a burst of cold air and warm exhilaration as Jeff rushes in, kicking off his sandy shoes and shrugging out of his rain-soaked jacket.
“I can’t believe you’ve never seen this film,” he says with feigned disapproval.
“I can’t believe DVDs still exist,” I retort, taking the box and staring at a photo of a gaggle of kids standing on a heap of gold coins and pirate treasure.
Jeff snatches The Goonies back and slips it into the dusty DVD player, unwilling to spend even one more moment with a woman who has never seen Mikey and the gang search for the hidden treasure of One-Eyed Willy.
Earlier that day, he insisted on taking us on a driving tour of the nearby town of Astoria, Oregon, where The Goonies was filmed, staring up at a home perched on a coastal hill — known as the “Goon Docks” in the movie — almost as reverently as he stared up at Haystack Rock, which is also featured in the film. Almost as reverently.
At his first glimpse of Haystack Rock, the beautiful basalt formation that towers over Cannon Beach, he walked confidently toward it and into the receding tide, ignoring the chill and the ever-present December drizzle. He removed his hat to watch the last rays of that day’s sun fall into the ocean.
I watched from a dry spot on the beach as Jeff’s footprints disappeared into the wet sand behind him and as the waves swallowed the sinking sun. I completely understand and appreciate his reverence — and it’s not because of any movie.
There is something about this rock in the ocean that provokes meditation. It is, perhaps, the only place on the planet where I am can be utterly still without effort.
When he returned to my dry spot on the sand near a bonfire that crackled and spit heat into the moist air, Jeff declared firmly: “This. This is my happy place.”
Now as I curl up against him with a sigh of mock resignation for this wild Saturday night filled with microwave popcorn and an 80s flick, I can hear the waves hitting Haystack Rock outside, slowly eroding its strong, upright position.
Jeff has his date sweater on, the one with the maroon and gray stripes, and I’m perfectly content to lay my cheek against the warmth of the wool, feeling his chest shake with laughter beneath my cheek.
This, I think. This is my happy place.
I promise myself that even if the worst happens — if one day I wake up and he is gone — I will never regret a single day that I spent loving this man.
And Then He Was Gone
When cancer came for Jeff, it came fast. He first developed a nagging cough in September and by January he was having trouble swallowing. He was diagnosed with stage four esophageal cancer on Valentine’s Day, and he died on June 4th, 2018. He was 40 years old.
Just four days before he died, Jeff wrestled a ring out from its hidden nook in the mounds of blankets covering his hospital bed. “Marrying you,” he whispered through tears and morphine, “will give me one more thing to fight for.”
“Of course we’ll get married,” I said, my tears leaving little wet dots on the exposed paper-thin sheets.
We didn’t have time to get married in the end. We didn’t have time for most of the adventures or dreams that we planned together.
But in 296 short but purposeful days, Jeff taught me so many lessons about life, love, and death.
One of those lessons is that life is too damn short to wait to follow your dreams.
One week after he died, I quit the job that kept me working at my laptop while Jeff scoured a seaside town for The Goonies DVD alone.
One month after he died, I left for the airport with a one-way ticket to see the world, traveling solo through Asia and Europe, and walking 500 miles across Spain on the Camino de Santiago. One year after he died, I started writing the book I’ve always dreamed of writing.
Two years after he died, I tried — and failed — to fall in love again.
. . .
What if You’ve Already Found Your Soulmate?
Today my perspective on soulmates is far different than the jaded one I held on that fateful day when Jeff and I connected for the first time.
When I tried to fall in love again, I approached it from that same sense of urgency that Jeff’s death taught me. If life is too short to delay our dreams, I reasoned, isn’t it also too short to deny love?
Rather than my usual reticence, I dove right on in. I rationalized compatibility; I told myself that it was unrealistic to meet a second soulmate and that this love was good enough.
When it all — rather predictably — fell apart, I thought back on the lessons I learned from meeting a soulmate. I remembered what it was like to be with a person who is both an intimate friend and a passionate partner in life.
When that kind of connection happens, there is no need for rationalization and there is no room for doubt. There is no question about whether you are doing the right thing; you know you are.
Jeff wasn’t just on my path, he was my path.
Now that I believe in soulmates, why should I limit myself to the belief that there can be only one for us?
Losing my soulmate taught me that life is too short to delay our dreams, but it also taught me that life is too short to settle for anything less than soul-connecting love.
That kind of love is worth the wait.
This post was previously published on Hello, Love.
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Photo credit: Jen Nilsson