single ladies week

Walking Away From My Soul Mate Was the Best Thing I’ve Ever Done

Photo: George Marks/Getty Images

Presenting Single Ladies, five days of essays about the ups and downs of being a woman, uncoupled.

One month before my book was to be published, my friend Renata called from Chicago to give me the news.

“Listen,” she said. “I don’t know how to say this, so I’m just going to say it. Martin got engaged over the weekend.”

“Oh. Well. That’s … Good for him,” I said. My voice was already breaking, which sort of caught me off guard as Martin and I hadn’t even lived in the same city for 14 years.

She asked if I wanted her to come to New York, and I told her no. I would be fine. How could I not be? I had known it was only a matter of time before that call came, and I had assumed I’d be prepared for it. Yet, it hurt — I felt betrayed somehow. It didn’t matter that we had lived in separate cities for years, and had dated other people, there had always been a part of me that believed we might end up together — someday. But how? When? It had been 14 years. People had married, bought homes, had kids. Some had even divorced and remarried — yet Martin and I had ended up in a perpetual stalemate.

We met during our senior year at the University of Illinois in Urbana. Back when we were both in our early 20s and our future lay before us like a vast territory waiting to be claimed. I had just returned from a semester abroad, and a summer of hitchhiking through Europe, and was still getting settled into the four-story house I’d be sharing with 13 other girls, when there was a knock at the door.

“Hey,” said Michelle, one of my roommates. “I just ran into Martin McCarthy on the quad, and he was all like, ‘Are you living with Maria?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ And he was like, ‘Will you tell her I want to have her baby?’”

“He said that?” I said, a smile already spreading across my lips. I knew who he was; I’d seen him around campus. His friends were the baseball-cap-wearing type, but Martin was different. He had shoulder-length blond hair that was chopped in irregular angles, and he wore printed button-downs, vintage trousers, and combat boots. He was also the lead singer of a band that was based out of Chicago.

“Yup, those were his words,” said Michelle, and handed me a piece of paper with his phone number written on it.

Two days later, I had an extra ticket for a show and called him to ask if he wanted to join me.

He said he’d love to, and by the end of the night we were sitting across a scuffed booth from each other, sharing a pitcher of beer, and exchanging stories. He was the youngest of six. His grandparents on both sides were Irish immigrants, and his father had put all six of them through college working blue-collar jobs, construction mainly. I was one of eight, and the first in my family to go to college. My father had also worked construction, though he had left when I was young, had gone back to Mexico.

“Whereabouts is he now?” he asked.

“We don’t keep in touch,” I said, which was true, though I was not about to tell him that my father was an outlaw, wanted by authorities on both sides of the border.

He liked that I also came from a big family, and he said he’d like to have a big family someday. I thought I might want that too.

By the time Halloween rolled around we were inseparable, spending countless hours in my bedroom burning candles and listening to everything from Pink Floyd to the Velvet Underground. He filled my head with stories of Sid and Nancy, the Chelsea Hotel, and CBGB. I had always wanted to live in New York, and we talked about moving there — someday. He could pursue music, and I could continue taking acting classes.

After graduating, we moved to Chicago, to Wicker Park, and although we both had day jobs, he continued rehearsing and playing with his band, and I enrolled in everything from scene study to improv at Second City. When I started going to auditions, I grew disheartened by the stereotypical roles available to Latina actresses, the main ones being: the prostitute, the maid, and the drug dealer’s girlfriend. I knew I could either continue to perpetuate these stereotypes or write my own material. I enrolled in playwrighting classes, joined a Latina theater troupe, and within a year we had written a full-length show — a variety of irreverent sketches that highlighted our experience of having grown up in a dual culture. We sent the script off to several theaters in New York, and some six months later, we heard back from an Off-Broadway theater company. They loved the script and wanted to know if we might be free to come and workshop it that summer with one of their directors.

On the night before I left, Martin threw a going-away party for me. His house filled with friends and loud music, and as we made our way through the living room with our fingers interlaced, someone asked how long I was going away for.

“Just the summer,” I yelled over the music.

“She’s never coming back,” Martin said, putting his arm around me. To this day, I’m not sure what made him say that. It felt like a bad omen, like he could already sense the state of flux we were about to slip into. Had I known back then that his prediction would prove to be true, I may have ended things right then and there. But I wasn’t ready for that. At that point we had been together for five years, and the thought of never returning, of living far away from him, sort of frightened me.

I arrived in New York on June 1, 2001. Two weeks later, I took the L train to meet a friend at Galapagos in Williamsburg, and as I made my way down Bedford, I was struck by how similar to Wicker Park it was, with its quiet tree-lined streets and four- to five-story walk-ups. Though I had been to New York before, I hadn’t found a neighborhood where I could see myself living. Certainly nowhere in Manhattan with its nonstop traffic and looming skyscrapers. Williamsburg was different. Back then, it felt more like a small lawless town tucked away near the river, across from the big city. I fell in love with the neighborhood. I knew that if I could find an affordable place in Williamsburg, I’d stay longer — stay until the end of the year, perhaps. Within a month, I found a room for rent on Bedford Avenue.

Rent was $350 a month. By the end of the year, I had found a manager and was soon going to auditions for Law & Order, The Wire, and major films — it felt like anything could happen. How could I go back to Chicago?

The plan was for Martin to join me in New York. In the meantime, we saw each other once a month, flying back and forth for long weekends. Whenever he was in town, we’d go out to see live music. Back then, Williamsburg was crawling with musicians and bands doing innovative things. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV on the Radio, Interpol, and the National often played at small venues in the neighborhood — if it was music he wanted to pursue, Williamsburg was the place to be.

But his move kept getting pushed back. Something always seemed to come up with his band — they were recording one more record, doing one more tour, were on the verge of a major contract. We did the long-distance thing for two years before it became clear that we had reached a stalemate: Neither one of us was making a move.

Our lives were unfolding in different directions, taking us on different paths — choices had to be made. I knew that if I went back to Chicago and walked away from the possibilities New York was offering, I might end up resenting him. I would have always wondered “what if?” I didn’t want to have any regrets. I had to stay in New York, had to continue on my journey, even if it meant walking away from my soul mate.

We ended it, though neither one of us was ready to let go. For the next decade, we remained very much a part of each other’s lives. He was still the first person I called after an audition. When acting gave way to writing, and the writing led to an MFA program in New York, which led to a book deal, he was there rooting me on, every step of the way. He had even convinced me to reconnect with my father, and had gone to Mexico with me to visit him on his ranch. In fact, my book was inspired by my father’s life.

Over the years, we both dated other people, but neither one of us had moved on. I had dated several men, from a surgeon to a cab driver, but Martin had remained my constant. He was always there for me, and because of that, I had never given anyone else a fair chance and, as far as I knew, neither had he. What were we waiting for? It had been 14 years of living in separate cities. It had been 14 years of heart-wrenching good-byes at airports. It had been 14 years of being stuck in a perpetual stalemate, until now. One month before my book was to be published, he had made a move. He had gotten engaged, and in doing so, he had finally broken our standoff.

Receiving that phone call was a heartbreak, but it was also a relief.

The last time I saw Martin was at my book party in Chicago. He arrived with his fiancée. She was in her late 20s — the same age I had been when I left Chicago, and I thought, Well, good for him. Maybe he’ll end up having that big family he always wanted after all.

I also knew that if given the chance, I wouldn’t change a thing. I would still pick up and move to New York. I had no regrets.

Why I Walked Away From My Soul Mate