We met on the subway on a Saturday morning nearly 14 years ago. Our meeting had been a long time coming. He had been my subway crush for four years.
I had met him once or twice at those early 20s apartment parties in New York, the kind with opened bags of tortilla chips on Formica counters, gloppy salsa poured into Ikea bowls, bottles of cheap liquor lined up next to red Solo cups and cigarettes smoldering in ashtrays on fire escapes, with illicit activity happening in the bathrooms or right on the coffee table.
He had been dating a co-worker of mine, a woman named Lana, and then he wasn’t, but he was still around, just out of sight, just out of reach. I liked him. A lot.
His name was Ronen, but to me and my friends he was known as “that Israeli guy” and then, months later, as “subway crush.”
I would see him sometimes in the morning on the way to work, at my stop in Carroll Gardens. I would fidget on the other side of the concrete pole separating us as the F train pulled up and watch him when the crowds parted: He was tall with black hair and a beard. Big hands. He listened to music. He read. He was never with another woman.
Seven years passed. Sometimes months would go by and he would disappear. Occasionally I would ride the train with some other guy and hope to see him so he would see me with this other guy.
I never did. I also never saw him in the neighborhood, although he clearly lived nearby.
When we finally met on that fateful Saturday, my voice shook. He was with my old co-worker, the woman he used to date, Lana, and her newish husband, Max, Ronen’s best friend to whom he had introduced her. She and Ronen had not been a match, but Lana and Max were. And Ronen was part of that love.
Lana said hello and Ronen followed and I said, “I see you on the subway all the time!” Too loudly, I’m sure.
“I see you all the time,” he said in a voice that was not at all the voice I had imagined him having. And his smile — it brightened his face like a light bulb. I found myself squinting as it shone down on me. And smiling back.
A week later we went on a date. Six months later I moved in. One year later we were engaged and a year after that, married. I could not believe I had been right, that my intuition about Ronen had been so spot on.
And then the universe punched me right in my smug, dumb face.
Eight years and two beautiful sons later, Ronen left for work from our home in Decatur, Georgia and never returned. During the day, blood vessels suddenly ruptured in his brain and he fell into a coma from which he never emerged. A week later, he died.
Inside that beautiful head, behind that megawatt smile, had been a ticking time bomb, an arteriovenous malformation — a rare tangle of abnormal and poorly formed blood vessels prone to hemorrhage and rupture — that was lying in wait to devastate him and the many people who cared for him.
No one saw it coming. I certainly had not. The thought had never entered my mind — that Ronen could be here one morning and be gone by that same afternoon.
It was near 100 degrees the day of the funeral, the sun beating mercilessly on the heartbroken crowd. Later, my father would say to me, “I’ve never seen a crowd like that. It was like J.F.K.’s funeral or something.”
And it was.
Friends and family had flown in from all over the world to pay their respects, not quite believing that this kind of tragedy could befall Ronen, the kind of man that lent sparks of life-affirming energy to everything he did.
And there I was, holding the hand of our 5-year-old, our 2-year-old sucking a lollipop on my lap, the “Ema?” “Ema?” “Ema?” questions already relentless. Ema is the Hebrew word for mother. I had always assumed I would be “Mom,” but I became an Ema. Ronen was Aba and I was Ema. That’s how we worked.
Sweat rolled down my legs as tears fell from my eyes. What in the world had happened? Never in a million years did I foresee this unfair fate. It had no resemblance to my childhood, and I had nothing to compare it to. How on earth was I going to be a single mother? How could it be that their father was gone? Time would press on, we would all — hopefully — age, and Ronen would be forever 44.
It’s been two-and-a-half years. I look for him. Is that him, that hawk circling overhead? Or that butterfly flitting through the back yard? But these things don’t resonate.
I have a recurring dream in which he has left me for another woman, and I’m so angry I want to scream. I do not like this dream. My wise friend, Pam, suggested that perhaps it’s my subconscious trying to give me a replacement explanation for his absence, one that makes some sort of sense, and I can see that.
But why pile pain on top of pain? Couldn’t I just see him in a white robe? Couldn’t he just give me one of his famous hugs? That I would much prefer.
And my intuition. I don’t trust it like I used to, but time has pressed a sort of reset button on my senses. All of them, but especially this: I have come to understand the difference between intuition and clairvoyance. Trusting your gut and following your heart is intuition. I am no clairvoyant and never claimed to be.
So there is a difference. Just because I failed to foresee Ronen’s untimely and unjust death does not mean I can’t listen to (once in a while, when it’s especially loud) that inner voice in my head, that fluttering of recognition in my chest. I may be heartbroken, but I would fall in love with and marry Ronen all over again.
Once when we were dating, Ronen said something to me that I hold deep in my heart, still. We were people-watching in South Beach when he turned to me and said, “Sometimes I look at you and forget that you’re my girlfriend, and I think God, she’s so beautiful. Like you’re a stranger but then I realize that you’re not and I’m just so proud.”
I’d never heard something more romantic. It didn’t matter if other men saw me that way or not; it was that he did. And the fact that he would so effortlessly say that to me as steel drums played and the sun set in the pink sky made my heart explode into a million songbirds.
I see Ronen in our boys, Ari and Lev. Seven-year-old Ari is built exactly like Ronen, tall and thin with yeti feet and impossibly long toes. And his face is Ronen’s, as are his facial expressions. He was too young when Ronen died to imitate those expressions, and yet here they are: Ronen’s look of wonder, his goofy grin, the way his smile lights up his brown eyes. There he is.
And Lev, my 4-year-old. He resembles me more than Ronen, but the things he says! Ronen used to tell me to hug him “harder.” “Harder!” he would say until I could barely breathe.
Lev says the same thing, with the exact same inflection.
Our boys channel him. They say things that knock the wind out of me.
Once while I was sitting poolside, barefaced and dripping, at my friend’s parents’ house in Florida, Lev stood in the shallow end and looked at me. Really looked at me.
“What?” I said, patting my head for who knew what.
“Ema,” he said. “You look so beautiful.”
Another time, putting Ari to sleep, before I left the room, he said, “Ema?”
“You’re more beautiful than you think you are.”
These are not the normal kinds of things I imagine little boys saying to their mother. Not with this kind of eerie, otherworldly conviction. And I swear, I haven’t bribed them. The only explanation I can come up with is Ronen. Speaking through them.
It’s what he would say to me now, if he could. If he were here like he should be.
Intuitively, absolutely, I feel this in my bones; I hear him in their voices.
Time has replanted a few seeds of optimism in the new, forever altered soil of me. My heart can and should still be followed.
And I am grateful for the growth.
Modern Love can be reached at email@example.com.
Want more? Watch the Modern Love TV series, now on Amazon Prime Video; sign up for Love Letter, our weekly email; read past Modern Love columns and Tiny Love Stories; listen to the Modern Love Podcast on iTunes, Spotify or Google Play Music; peruse our T-shirts, totes, sweatshirts and temporary tattoos on the NYT Store; check out the updated anthology “Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption”; and follow Modern Love on Facebook.