True love. Soul mates. Meant to be. I don’t believe in any of it. Fate is more complicated than that. We always have a choice. It’s just that sometimes—a lot of the time—taking control is more difficult than it’s worth.
Am I really happy with the way things are? No, not entirely. Could I have fought this “destiny”? Perhaps, but with no guarantee that things would have turned out any better. Certainly, they could have turned out worse. It’s easier this way. Safer, for everyone.
I’m not what most people would call lucky in love. I’ve only been in two serious relationships, and they both…well, you’ll see.
The first was Erica Tifft. High school. That first romance—first for both of us—felt like a fairy tale, and in our teenage naivete we treated it like one. We made silly promises, and sealed them with trinkets; the one I remember best was a piece of paper inscribed with every vow we could think of. Each of us signed it, then Erica ripped it in half and folded two little origami hearts, one for each of us. We kept them with us at all times, safeguards against whatever unseen dragons lurked in our future, lying in wait to separate us. Not that we really thought anything would come between us. Our love was meant to be. If ever I was a fatalist, it was back then, when the ideas of destinies and soul mates rang so romantic. We were clueless. We didn’t know that the dragons of real life can’t be warded off by childish rituals. And I know now that sometimes, predestination—if you want to call it that—doesn’t mean a happy ending.
That night, as I waited for her outside the movie theater, even as she ran across the parking lot to meet me with that enchanting grin of hers, I had no idea.
Everyone afterward insisted that I couldn’t have changed anything. That I wasn’t in control. They were wrong. I could have picked a different time for our date. A different movie, a different day. For weeks afterward, my mind spun itself dizzy with all the ways I could have orchestrated things so that Erica wasn’t standing on that patch of blacktop when that pickup truck went roaring too-fast across the parking lot.
Erica was buried with her little origami heart clasped in her hands. I carried mine in my pocket always. I thought I’d never love again. Swore it, even. At the funeral, when I saw her face for the last time, I whispered to her that promise.
But I was a foolish teenager. That vow was a last, desperate attempt to keep the fairy tale alive. I grew up, graduated from high school, got a summer job. By the time I started my first semester of college, I’d accepted it. The dragon had gotten us; the fairy tale was dead. I still kept my paper heart in my pocket, but that was more out of habit than sentimentality.
Then, in the fall semester of my sophomore year, I met Stephanie Kelsey.
I won’t pretend that I felt ready for a new relationship. Honestly, if it had been left up to me, I’d probably never have even noticed her. You could say our meeting was beyond my control, and I could say that I could have registered for a different General Psychology class or attended a different college. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. She sat next to me that morning, introduced herself, whispered funny comments about the professor throughout the lecture. When the class was over, she said it was nice meeting me, looked forward to seeing me tomorrow.
Turned out she didn’t have to wait that long, though. She found me again during lunch. Didn’t even ask if the seat across from me was taken (it wasn’t). She just sat right down and started talking. Asked what my schedule was like, wondered if we had any other classes together. Turned out there were a few. I think it was during that meal that I first began to…wake up. First time since high school that I’d actually stopped and noticed a pretty face.
Of course, putting a time stamp on it quelled my brief excitement. High school. The movie theater parking lot.
Thankfully—or so I thought at the time—Stephanie was persistent. She sat next to me in every class we shared, joined me at every meal, engaged me in conversation. After a couple weeks, I realized I looked forward to it. Found myself smiling back at her whenever she walked through a door. Waving at her across campus.
And then one afternoon, as I settled in for a Precalculus class that we didn’t share, someone sat next to me. I didn’t really notice at first; I was busy digging through my bookbag. Then I noticed the smell. It startled me. Not because it was unpleasant, but because it was wrong for this room, for this time of day. I knew this smell, but not in this context.
I finally looked up, and there was Stephanie, grinning at me expectantly. After laughing at my shock, she explained how she’d managed to reorganize her schedule so she could transfer into my Precalc class.
That she would do that, go through the effort…
The feeling that had first stirred weeks ago in Gen Psych now woke fully. This time, memories of high school didn’t break through my euphoria until I was back in my dorm room that night. Even then, they lacked power. I realized that, at some point during the past several years, my grief had faded and been replaced with a more general loneliness. I hadn’t noticed because the emotions were so similar. I’d gone from being filled with pain to being filled with nothing, and now Stephanie wanted to fill that emptiness, make me whole again.
The remainder of fall semester was great. I had fun, more than I thought possible. Winter break drew near, and it came time to register for spring classes. Stephanie and I planned everything carefully, and managed to end up with identical schedules. We were ecstatic; we’d be together all day, every day.
We went our separate ways over break. Although I was excited to see my family again, I found myself counting down the days until Stephanie and I would be reunited. A month had never seemed so long to me as it did during the drive home from college.
Being back in my hometown brought back memories, of course. It seemed a quieter place than I remembered, emptier. Driving by my old high school was a shock. The building didn’t look any different on the outside, but the bricks seemed to be stacked too tightly, like fingers locked together, grinding each other to the bone in their attempt to hold something in, something glimpsed through the dark windows.
My first night home, I couldn’t sleep. I lay on my bed, still in my jeans, unable to shake the images from my head. Familiar houses and storefronts, all watching for my return, their blackened windows turning curious expressions at whatever changes they might notice in me. Even my own bedroom: the closet, the dresser, the air vents. All the places that held darkness within.
My phone buzzed, and although I couldn’t see her face, hear her voice, I’d never been so delighted to hear from Stephanie.
Just got home, her text read. Miss you already!
Same here, I replied.
She then proceeded to tell me all about her drive, about her parents. Asked me if I had any plans for the next several weeks.
Nothing in particular, I said.
Well, if you decide to see a movie, tell me first so I can watch it too, then we can talk about it afterward.
I hesitated. I hadn’t been to a theater since…
Probably not going to see a movie.
We chatted for a while after that, then we said goodnight. But my mind was still stuck in the track that Stephanie had inadvertently set it in. Almost without realizing it, I put my hand in my jeans pocket and felt around for the item that had always been there, force of habit. That little piece of folded paper. The heart from another age.
Why did I still hold on to it? The absurdity of it…I had a new girlfriend; I’d moved on. This trinket was nothing but childhood foolishness, a reminder of darker times. Just like the rest of this town. It belonged here, buried in the dirt, left to decay until nothing was left.
I walked over to my trash can and held out the paper heart. But my hand froze there. I couldn’t make my fingers let go. It was too dismissive, too disrespectful. As painful as it was, my past had formed me. I couldn’t control what had happened. It wasn’t a choice I could erase just by throwing out a silly love note.
But I couldn’t hang on to it either. It was wrong, unfair to Stephanie.
I stood there for several minutes. Painful minutes. The darkness of my bedroom crushing me. Then I moved to the window. Opened it. Threw the heart into the air. The December wind snatched it, sent it spinning out of sight. Lost in the snow.
Seeing it go like that, it felt right. Respectful. I shut the window and buried myself in my bedsheets, and finally fell asleep.
I checked my phone the next morning and was met with a wall of texts from Stephanie.
are you there
They’d been sent sporadically throughout the night. I pondered them while I showered. What was she doing up so late?
After breakfast I called her. She answered, perky as ever, saying she was just about to call me when her phone rang. She asked me a few questions. Did my parents have the Christmas tree up for me when I got home? (Yes.) Did I dream about her last night? (No, surprisingly.) What was I going to do the rest of the day? (Not sure yet.) We finally said goodbye when she said she had to go Christmas shopping with her mother.
The next day was similar. We said goodnight to each other, I fell asleep, I woke up the next morning to find several new text messages. Did the girl never sleep?
The pattern continued throughout break. One night so many texts came in all at once that the buzzing of my phone woke me up. I read them, but they were all similar:
I sent a quick reply: What are you doing up?
cant rest lonely
I’ll call you in the morning, I wrote. Promise. Love you Steph.
I put my phone away and crawled back under the covers. I heard the phone buzz once more, but was too tired to check on it. Soon I was asleep, and then it was morning.
When I picked up my phone, there were more messages.
I called Stephanie.
“Good morning!” she said. “I’ve been waiting all night for your call!”
“Well, I hope you slept a little.”
“It was hard, but I managed.”
“So you’re all right then?”
After our usual chat, we hung up and went about our separate days. Or at least, I tried to. Stephanie texted me a lot more often than usual.
I answered her every time. Hanging out at the house. With my parents. Eating dinner. Getting ready for bed. Going to bed. Going to sleep. Goodnight.
But it kept going. Constant. One day toward the end of break I called Stephanie and asked what was going on. She said she missed me, couldn’t wait for break to be over, to get back to college so we could be together again. I asked if she could lay off the texts a bit. She sent me a little sad face in response.
And she did text me less. However, less is a relative term. The messages were still too numerous, and eventually I just turned my phone off. Break was almost over, and I couldn’t wait. Couldn’t wait for the texts and phone calls to stop. Couldn’t wait to not have every moment of my day asked after. Once we were together again, she could chill out.
In hindsight, I should have recognized the warning signs. The sequence of events. The triggers.
I moved back into my dorm in mid-January. The next day, Stephanie joined me in the cafeteria for breakfast. She grinned at me, and I almost flinched. That grin, that wild grin. Somehow, I’d never noticed how huge it was, how much of her gums it revealed. She crushed me in a hug I thought would never end.
Like I said, we had identical schedules that semester. From breakfast we went from class to class to lunch to class, never leaving each other’s side. At first it was all right. As I’d hoped, she stopped blowing up my phone. But then we parted ways for the night. As I was brushing my teeth, a text:
where are you
In my dorm, I replied.
Getting ready for bed.
That was a head scratcher. Yes, I promise that’s what I’m doing.
Yes, I promise.
The next morning, before our first class started, Stephanie sat next to me and asked, “What were you doing last night?”
I rolled my eyes. “Nothing.”
She clearly wanted to say more, but then the professor showed up and the lecture started. By the time class was over, Stephanie seemed to have forgotten about it.
By the second week back from break, I was starting to wonder what I’d gotten myself into. I’d thought that seeing me on a daily basis would stem Stephanie’s incessant communications. But nothing changed, and I didn’t know what more I could do. I was already spending every free moment I had with her, and in person she seemed fine. Perky, as ever. But it seemed the more effort I put into our relationship, the worse the texts got.
Finally, one night in early February, I snapped. When the first text came in, I wrote back:
This needs to stop. I need some privacy.
And my phone was quiet the rest of the night.
The next day, Stephanie met me not with her usual grin, which I’d come to loathe, but with a subdued “What was that text about?”
I took a deep breath before answering. “We’re together constantly. I need a break now and then.”
“A break? From what? From me?”
“It’s like I said last night. I need privacy. Some time alone. A…a break.”
Stephanie looked at me for a while. I looked back as long as I could. Her eyes. I don’t know how I could have failed to notice before just how huge they were. I guess at first I’d found her wide gaze alluring. But now they seemed like they were about to roll out of her skull.
“Fine,” she said at last. We walked together in silence to our class, and then, as I sat down in the usual spot, she kept going, across to the far side of the lecture hall.
Stephanie didn’t join me for lunch, and she didn’t sit by me in any of our classes for the rest of the day. I felt a bit guilty, but I couldn’t deny the sense of relief. I said goodnight to her at the end of the day, and, still feeling a little guilty, tried to give her a hug. She barely responded, and then she was gone, back to her dorm.
I know, looking back, that there had to have been more to her story. Some reason she got so attached so quickly, some past hurt that made my rejection—as I’m sure she felt it—so much worse. Even back then, as I watched her walk away that night, I felt some inkling. In an attempt to smooth things over, I sent her a text: I love you Stephanie. I know she saw it; I watched her pause and look at her phone.
I made such a mistake.
Those who would comfort me would say I couldn’t control the outcome. They’re certainly right about that. I also could have chosen not to send that text. Or I could have chosen to just endure her possessive behavior. Or I could have chosen to never entertain her advances from the very beginning. Where exactly is the line between free will and destiny? Are they even separate concepts, or just different names for the same thing?
A text came in while I slept, from Stephanie of course:
what between us
I didn’t see Stephanie the next day. I tried calling her, but got no answer. The day after, same story. And then a campus security officer came to my dorm and asked me a bunch of questions. Where and when did I last see her? Was she acting strange? Any clues she may have let slip?
Time can pass surprisingly quickly during a crisis. When you’re distracted. Worried. You think tomorrow will never come, and then suddenly it’s the day after and still no word, and you wonder how she could have been gone so long already.
The Friday after Stephanie vanished, as I was sitting in my dorm room, I got a text:
what between us
I tried texting her back. Tried calling. No response. I had the presence of mind to report the communication to campus security. The officer I spoke with said they couldn’t do much with the info, but they’d pass it on to the police. He also said it was a good sign. Meant she was still alive. Told me to let them know if she reached out again.
A few nights later, she did.
i find you
come for you
I wrote back, I’ll be waiting. Come quickly. Everyone’s worried about you.
To my surprise, she responded:
dragon between us
Something in my chest turned cold. What was she talking about? I asked for clarification, but she offered none. I waited up all night, waited for another text or a knock on the door or something. The next morning, I once again reported the communication to campus security.
I didn’t go to class that day. I was too exhausted from my all-night vigil. I closed the blinds on the dorm room window and buried my head beneath the covers, dozed off.
It doesn’t take much to confuse the mind. To make something mundane and familiar seem strange. For instance, waking up and thinking you know what time it is, then looking at your clock and realizing it’s already midafternoon. But you’re so used to the normal human pattern of sleeping at night and waking in the morning that the light bleeding through your window blinds must be artificial. For a moment you wonder if you’re still dreaming.
In such a manner I woke, confused, lost. Like I’d been jolted mid-journey and fallen off the train that ferried the rest of humanity safely through dream lands. Now I was stuck in some limbo. It was absolutely silent in my room, save for the irregular, metallic thump of the radiator in the hall. That lone sound only underscored the emptiness. I was alone. The sole human awake in this no-man’s region of consciousness. I wanted to open the blinds, to look out and confirm to myself that there was more to existence than my tiny dorm room, that the rest of the world still spun. But between me and the window stood my desk, and on my desk sat an object. A small, white object. A familiar object, although I refused to accept its presence. I took a staggering step forward and felt my throat constrict. Tried to swallow. Couldn’t. Couldn’t be. It couldn’t be there, every worn angle and frayed crease exactly as I remembered it.
A little origami heart.
As I stood in silent denial, my phone buzzed. I reached for it without looking, couldn’t tear my eyes from that folded piece of paper until my phone was right in front of my eyes. A text message, from Stephanie’s number:
why threw away
With trembling fingers, I typed back, Where is Stephanie?
dragon between us
What did you do to her? I asked.
My fingers were shaking so badly I couldn’t type anymore. The air seemed thin. All light seemed sucked away, consumed by the phone in my hand, intensified and blasted into my eyes so the screen and its words were all I could see. Even if I were to close my eyes, I believed I would still read them, burning through my eyelids.
I finally brought my shaking under control enough to respond: Where?
No answer. I collapsed on my bed and stayed there for at least an hour. This had to be a bad dream. The result of an over-anxious mind deprived of sleep. I couldn’t go to campus security with this, could I? What would I tell them?
I looked back at my desk, half expecting the heart to be gone. A memory of a dream of a memory. But it was still there. Just sitting there, inanimate. Glowing in the dim, diffused light from the window. So many conflicting emotions. I wanted to rip it to pieces, burn it. I wanted to slip it back in my pocket. I wanted to leave it there on the desk forever and pretend it didn’t exist.
I ended up sweeping it into one of the desk drawers. Even that brief contact was a shock. Paper made soft through time and wear, a sensation I knew so well, had thought I’d never feel again—
And then the drawer was shut, and I kept it like that. Refused to open it for anything. Couldn’t stand the thought of seeing it again.
I returned to class the next day and tried to put the incident out of my mind. Tried to go back to the relatively mundane worry I was supposed to feel about my missing girlfriend. But I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t make myself hope that they’d find Stephanie. I knew they wouldn’t. She was…gone. And I…I accepted that. My heart still grieved, my brain told me I was sad, but it wasn’t like in high school. A third part of me, the subconscious—or something deeper than subconscious—accepted it.
Over the next several days, I saw hearts everywhere. I told myself it was only because Valentine’s Day was so close. Certainly, there were the expected decorations, red glitzy hearts trimmed in lace, hanging in every other window. But these weren’t what I noticed. Instead it was the little white heart left unceremoniously on a dusty window sill. The creased corner of paper that may have been anything or maybe nothing, discarded in a trash can. I never opened that drawer in my desk in my dorm room. Didn’t want to confirm the dread that was slowly filling me. Over those several days, I didn’t receive any more texts from Stephanie’s phone. Not until Valentine’s Day itself, not until I returned to my room that night.
The first thing I noticed when I walked in was that the drawer—that drawer—was open. The second thing—things I should say—were the two pieces of torn paper laid side-by-side atop my desk. They were both creased into oblivion, and the writing on them was faint, smudged, barely legible. But I recognized them. Of course I did. I remembered writing them in an era of fairy tales. They rested next to each other, torn edges touching, forming a complete whole for the first time since their creation. One was relatively pristine, kept safe through years of being hidden away in my pocket. The other was mottled with dirt or something similar.
But there was one thing new. Something that bound the reunited pieces in strokes and swoops of rust-colored ink. A name.
As I read that impossible signature, my phone buzzed:
And from behind me, I heard another sound. A click and a breath and a rattle that made me think of soda sucked through a straw, or some other type of fluid forced through some other kind of tube. And I started to turn, but remembered a pickup truck and a movie theater and blacktop made wet by sudden violence, by natural barriers split open, and I stopped myself from looking. Instead I stared down at that name written in an awkward hand, those red letters drying brown.
If I signed my name below Erica’s, would that be the end? Would she leave me alone, or would it only solidify her hold on me?
I thought of Stephanie, the girl for whom I’d thrown away my heart. Of what had become of her. If I didn’t sign, what then? How many others would meet the same fate?
Something touched my hand. Something cold and hard like twigs in winter. Laced themselves between my fingers—
I pulled my hand away from the sharp pain with a gasp. My index finger was bleeding.
“Promise,” rattled a voice in my ear, and I was bathed in the smell of damp earth and iron.
I didn’t have a choice. Or if I did, the alternative was too difficult. That place where fate and freedom intersect. I lowered my bleeding finger to the paper and wrote my name, tracing over the faded shadow of my signature from years before, renewing it, strengthening it.
As I finished, an icy sensation wrapped around my waist. A gentle weight settled on my shoulder. A rattling sigh, the scent of blood, that familiar voice from my childhood, whispering, “I love—”
I whipped around to face the room. The pressure lifted, the cold vanished, the smell evaporated. I saw nothing but my empty dorm. Heard nothing but my own pulse.
I turned back to the desk on shaking legs. One origami heart lay there. I picked it up, thought about unfolding it to check, to confirm—but instead I slipped it into my pocket.
I’ve held onto it ever since. I’m too afraid to do anything else. Because sometimes, when I think I’m alone in my apartment, I feel something cold brush against my back. On nights when I can’t sleep, I feel the mattress sinking beside me.
No one would call me lucky…but I am loved, and she’ll never leave me. Perhaps that makes her my true love after all. Perhaps we really were meant to be.