At a restaurant recently, my brother Ze'ev told us about a friend of his. The friend's middle-aged son had died suddenly. The funeral had been that morning.
Ze'ev attended the funeral and said it was a beautiful ceremony. Moving eulogies. A life celebrated with laughter and tears.
"And guess who I ran into?" my brother asked. "Turns out the son had been best friends with Nim!"
My nephew asked, "Who's Nim?"
"Short for Nimrod—great-grandson of Noah," Ze'ev said. "He used to date Aunt Denise."
Nim had gained weight. Sold a script to Amazon Video. Gone bald. Nobody noticed that I had a frozen smile plastered on my face, a face drained of color. I couldn't speak. I could barely breathe. I felt like I had been punched in the stomach … again.
The first time was when Nim walked out on me—27 years before.
We were just about to move in together. Something was bothering him but every time I asked, he said it was nothing.
We had met through personal ads—long before Internet dating apps, there were newspapers ads. I advertised, he answered. He was years younger than me. By the end of our first dinner, we were a couple.
We took long weekend trips. He got his first studio assignment. I met his parents. He took me to a pumpkin-carving party, a B-52's concert and the extravagant Vanderbuilt mansion in Rhode Island.
We decided to live together. He packed up his place. I added a second phone line in mine. He changed the message on my answering machine to "Hello from Nim and Denise." But he seemed reluctant to make that final move, to lug over the last of his boxes, to shift his computer from there to here.
"Is something holding you back?" I asked.
"Of course not," he said.
America, in 1990, was in a tizzy. The Gulf War had yet to happen. Would we, won't we? Should we, shouldn't we? When Nim changed the answering machine, he played Bob Dylan's "Masters of War" as part of our message.
Nim idolized Dylan. He owned every book ever written by Dylan, about Dylan, analyzing Dylan, even referring to Dylan. Those books he HAD carted over, making a Dylan shrine in the bedroom. I found it amusing because, while he worshipped Dylan, I had lived Dylan. Crush on freshman dormmate? "Lay, Lady, Lay." Soundtrack to my two-minute film senior year? "I Want You." Nim was too young to have heard Dylan as folk performer, or lived through the controversy of Dylan going electric. He only knew Dylan, the Icon.
"What do you think?" Nim asked.
"About a possible war?" I said.
"About the song," he said.
I could see the Dylan shrine over his shoulder. I knew I had to tread carefully, because (Shh! Don't tell anyone!) I didn't particularly like the song.
I answered, "Dylan has written other, more sophisticated lyrics, don't you think?"
He was silent for a moment. Then he said, "That's it. I can't live with a woman who doesn't love Dylan." And he turned and walked out of my life.
When we later did the obligatory handoff-of-the-last-bag-of-personal-things, I was scared, but I'd be damned if I'd show that to Nim. I arranged my face into an innocuous mask.
"Are you ready to tell me the real reason you left?" I asked.
"Because of Dylan," he said.
"No," I said. "You were nervous about starting your first paid script. Your father didn't like me, thought I was too old to give you babies. You've never before had a serious relationship, you were scared. Lots of reasons. Just don't say it was Dylan."
"But it was. It IS," he said.
I knew then we were really, truly over. Even if he couldn't admit why.
I waited till I was home to collapse. I felt like I'd been punched in the stomach; I could barely breathe. I couldn't stop sobbing. Sure, other people found happiness in life. But me? Who was I to dare believe that I ever would, ever could, be happy?
"He asked about you," Ze'ev said. "Wondered if you ever talked about him."
I turned to Ze'ev, but still couldn't speak. Even after 27 years, I felt the pain of Nim walking out. The man who broke my heart was supposed to disappear from the face of the Earth, not show up decades later at the funeral of my brother's friend's son.
My sister-in-law finally noticed my ghastly demeanor. She rushed to change the subject.
"Mmmm," she said. "Menu looks great. Anybody want to share an appetizer?"
A memory tugged. Once, making love to Nim, a man I thought I'd marry, I realized: "This is the last man I'll ever get to fuck."
When I met the man I DID marry, I remember thinking, "This is a man I get to fuck for the rest of my life."
I had survived the loss of Nim. It was no longer traumatic pain; it was only the memory of pain. It was time to let it go. My smile unfroze. I started to breathe again.
"Nim—married?" I asked.
"Married twice, divorced twice," Ze'ev answered.
"Kids?" I asked.
"Nope," said Ze'ev.
While everybody else ate bread with garlicky butter, I had a scoop of schadenfreude. No kids! Take that, Nim's father! I couldn't help being just the teensiest bit smug. He'd learned firsthand that life without me was meaningless.
"Did you tell him I looked fabulous?" I asked. "And that I've had several gallery shows of my ceramics?"
"Of course," Ze'ev said.
This time my smile was real. And then … I let go. I was ready for Nim to be happy and successful, wherever he was now, whomsoever he was with.
A Dylan song, of course, began to play in my head:
I ain't saying you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don't mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don't think twice, it's all right.