Once I spent six hours of a twelve hour Greyhound ride sitting across the aisle from a couple who had met when they sat next to each other, and apparently, discovered that they were two halves of a sundered whole. Or something. When we hit El Paso, they were going to part ways, she for Tucson, he for Denver. Off to lead their lives, I suppose, I never caught the exact story.

They spent their time alternating between discussing the deep and abiding parallels between the courses of their respective lives and worldviews and making out under a blanket. At the time, the whole thing made a deep impression on me.

Assuming that what they thought they had was honest, which I suppose nobody can know but them, think of the existential conflict involved. Assume that you have one perfect soulmate: would it be better to live your life in ignorance of this fact, making do on your own, or meet that person exactly once ever, for a few hours around midnight on a cramped bus full of poor students and day laborers? It's been a year or so since then, and I wonder if they still think about it. Probably they've just laughed it off. It's the sort of thing you would really have to diminish in your head, to be able to keep on going.

I've got an image in my head, a scenario. One of them, thirty years from now, old and broken by the world. Drifting through the crowds in some great city, and seeing the face of the other in the crowds, and then blinking. Gone.

This hit way too close to home.

During the summer of 1997, I was interning in a cognitive psychology/computer science research laboratory at Brandeis University as part of a special summer program there. I was in the eight-week program, but there was also a four-week program that was much less intensive.

About two weeks into the four-week session (which was roughly in the middle of our eight weeks) I met a wonderful girl named Liz. She was 15, I was 17. We hit it off instantly.

We had absolutely nothing in common, but it didn't matter.

Sometimes we'd just sit there holding each other for hours without saying a word. We almost didn't need to talk. I'd leave my room and go visit her out of the blue, and we'd meet halfway between rooms because she was going to do the same thing.

I'd never felt more right in my life.

Four days after we met, she told me she was leaving the program early (like, the next day) because she was due to start crew camp in a few days.

Then, after the longest night of my life, she was...gone.

Probably forever. She lived in Philadelphia, I lived in New York. We exchanged a few letters, but I never heard from her again.

It took months for that sinking feeling in my stomach to go away.
Not a day goes by that I don't think about her.

I'm still not over her.

I don't know if I ever will be.
I met her on the internet in the middle of October. She was a PhD student in Spanish at Santa Barbara, a 2.5 hour drive from Pasadena (if you don't hit traffic, which can add more than an hour to the time). At the time, I already knew that I was going to move from Pasadena to San Diego at the end of November.

I had the entire month of November free, as I was taking my accrued vacation days from my old job in one big lump. On the other hand, she was extremely busy finishing up her semester with her own work at school: writing several different papers simultaneously, on top of doing TA work and reading lots of boring books on Linguistics and other fields tangentially related to her field. Because of this, we could only see each other once a week. That meant 6 dates, maximum. It would just be fun.

Of course, we fell in love. The first date I drove up to see her at 4:30 PM, and left to come back at 1:30 AM. The same thing happened on the second date. The other four dates consisted of me driving up to Santa Barbara on Thursday afternoon, bringing her back to stay with me in Pasadena until Saturday morning, then driving her back to Santa Barbara. She would do her work during the day on Friday, but Thursday and Friday nights were (usually) ours to enjoy.

Our last date was three weeks ago. We both had to spend the next week moving into our new places, so we could not meet each other then. San Diego is 5 hours from Santa Barbara. That's too far to drive up and back on a regular basis, not if I want to set up a new life down here. She knew this too.

She gets her degree in a year and a half, and then she has a wealth of opportunities ahead of her. I also have opportunites ahead of me. None of these possible futures can be shared, and we are both too stubborn to give up on our prizes, not after coming so far. So we said good-bye. I don't think I will ever see her again in person.

Was she my soulmate? I haven't been in enough relationships to be sure. I do know that I connected with her more than I've connected with any other woman in a long time. And even though she was crazy sometimes, I am still missing her deeply. There's a phrase that is supposed to be applied to people like us: Two ships, passing in the night. However, I can't identify with that. The two ships are going opposite directions, and are only there for the briefest period of time. Our situation was more analogous to driving along a highway next to a train. You are going the same direction for a while, but sooner or later, one of you is going to stop, or change direction, and your paths will diverge.

San Diego is a big place. I expect to find another woman sometime, but I do not expect to replace her.

The plane wasn't going anywhere. It had just been delayed for two hours to fix a broken door and now the air conditioning was out. Four rows from the back of the plane we sat with many other people franticly waving the laminated air safety guideline in vain hopes of getting some air circulation and cool air. The temperature was about 90 F, and it was rapidly coming up on midnight.

Sitting around in the airport waiting for a new plane we chatted about sunsets, the northern lights, seasons and other nothings for quite some time. Occasionally in the silence I would catch a glimpse of a smile as her eyes caught mine. Eventually the other plane took off. She slept the entire way, and I tried to write a letter to hand her before we parted ways. My muse only mummered... but never sang.

These words never made it onto the paper I had before me, but still echo within my mind when I think of that far too long flight.

I'm scared. It has been far too long since I walked down a hallway chatting with an attractive young woman. And even longer since it was with someone who was interested in who I am rather than what I am.

When I saw you smile as our eyes met, it sent a shiver down my spine along with butterflies to my stomach. I'm still confused about which emotion to trust - if any.

I half wished for the plane to be delayed for hours more so that I would get the opportunity to spend that time with you. Your smile meant more to me than you realize.

Ashley, you do have a beautiful smile. Best wishes.

Once the plane landed we headed our different ways. No words or goodbyes were exchanged, just a sad smile.

If by some fluke of fortune, if you... Ashley, read this: I was too scared to follow through with anything more than wishing. I hope you will forgive me.

There's this little town called Metzger on the way from Tigard to Beaverton, if you're going down Hall Boulevard. It's one of those delightful little hamlets that you can probably throw a rock across if you've a good arm.

I used to drive down Hall quite a bit. Just as you pass Washington Square, it gets into a heavily forested sort of Oregon-type suburbia that you can see encroaching on Scholls and other small towns. Just as the road branches off to the right, if you look closely, through a line of trees, there's Metzger Park.

Metzger Park has haunted my dreams since I was 8. My memory is good, bordering on eidetic, and I honestly don't think I could drive by the place and not think of Robin if my life were in danger.

When I was 8, there used to be a McDonald's. I think it was on Hall, but it's been a decade and a half, and that detail has slipped. This particular fast-food joint was the gathering place for some kind of fishing trip.

My mother and I got onto a school bus - I think there were several - and they drove us out, down Hall, to Highway 99W, and we went all the way through Tigard and even Sherwood, out all the way to Dundee, to this trout farm called Rainbow Farms. I suppose the trip was probably about an hour, but I've got to be honest. I wasn't paying the slightest bit of attention to the trip. For all I cared, we could have been driving straight into the Pacific Ocean.

There was this, well, girl, sitting next to me. I was 8. Girls were supposed to still have cooties, though I really didn't care. I was already developing a nerd complex; it wasn't like I was going to somehow become less popular.

So this girl and I started to talk. I only remember a few things. Brown hair, short and symmetrical. A bob, I think. Alto voice. I remember the image of her face. And her name, Robin. She was from Metzger, near that park. And she was polite. That more clearly than anything.

I've always been too honest for my own good. I mumbled something to the effect of, "Don't take this badly, but I like you." That same "like" that is spoken of in hushes and whispers on every playground in America at recess.

And Robin says she likes me too. She wanted me to visit her house, in Metzger. I recall getting directions, but I can't remember them. There's the park, and a left, I think, but that's all.

Now, I know, I was just 8, what could I know about soul mates? It's true, I may know next to nothing.

But almost every time I look at that picture of my mother and I at Rainbow Farms, holding the only fish I ever caught, I wonder. What if I do know something?

Every so often, I drive by the park on my way to some place or other. I'd be lying if I said I didn't look for Robin.

So there I was, out to coffee at Sufficient Grounds with my brother. Ian nodded at a giant sitting at a table with a thin, weaselly man. The guy looked like a fifth wall to the room: tall, wide, muscular, with a layer of fat over it all. His brave baldy-head shave and goatee bracketed a pair of warm, intelligent blue eyes. "Bear," he said, "Everyone calls me Bear."

Good name, I thought, shaking his massive hand. Firm handshake. "Karen. Ian's sister."

The place was packed; there were no free tables. “Mind if we join you?” asked my brother, but turned away to grab a seat from another table before they could answer. Not that Bear, or his companion weasel, seemed to mind. It's not a place you go for a private tete-a-tete, Sufficient Grounds.

I pulled up a chair, bumping one of the legs on a motorcycle helmet. "Let me get that out of your way," he said, bending down to tuck it under his seat. Considerate.

As he straightened up again, his eyes travelled up my body. Subtle.

His gaze reached my face, and he realised I'd noticed. He had the good grace to blush, but his eyes twinkled. Honest.

Ian and I chatted for a while, before the conversation became general. As the four of us talked, I realised the weasel was a troll. He expounded some elaborate theory about September 11, ignoring all input, deaf to disagreement. Ian, who hates conflict, left to smoke a cigarette and chat to the less argumentative people outside. Bear left too, and I was trapped. I offered to agree to disagree. The weasel trolled onward. I considered gnawing off my leg, but looked out the window instead.

Bear was standing outside the cafe, watching me, finishing a cigarette. I must have looked as desperate as I felt, because he came back inside and turned the conversation with soft-voiced, implacable persistence. The weasel finally gave up and left, and Ian rejoined us. We talked the rest of the evening, a three-cornered chat that ranged from computers to truck driving to children. Bear and I compared tattoos, and joined forces to gross Ian out. We all laughed a lot.

And in between the words, I got to know him. Bear was an unhappy optimist, divorced from one woman, separated from his beloved toddler son by another, entangled with the boy's lesbian mother. I felt almost guilty, describing my own baby, asleep at home, and the happy marriage that produced her.

Another round of coffee, and we all moved outside so the smokers could indulge. Walking through the door as he held it open, I felt a sudden rush of physical attraction to this mountain of a man. The conversation outside was electric: fast, funny, wide ranging, and sociable. People kept stopping by the table to chat with my companions. We were the center of a whirlpool of activity.

Then Ian wandered off to speak to a couple of paramedics he knew, and the two of us sat in silence. Bear took a deep drag of his cigarette, held his breath for a moment, and blew out a lungful of smoke. "You sound really happy," he said.

"I am really happy. It's been a good year. I have a good life."

He looked at me with his blue, blue eyes, and I saw his soul in them. "If it ever goes sour..." he said, but didn't finish the sentence, didn't make the offer, didn't quite take the risk.

I met him halfway, neither lying nor telling the truth. "I'll look you up." A promise I won't keep, a gift I could afford to give. He nodded.

Ian came back, and we left soon afterwards. I shook Bear's hand once more while Ian lit his last cigarette. We didn't say anything much; the important stuff was already past.

I didn't sleep much that night, but lay in bed shivering for hours. Was it the caffeine? The cold? Or the memory of what might have been?

He wasn't my soulmate. If I have such a thing as a soulmate, I am married to him. But Bear needed to believe that night that I was his, or one of his. He needed to know that happiness was possible. I hope he treasures the memory of me, as I do of him.

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