I watched him from my perch on the fountain, the splashing water behind me muffled the sounds of my pounding heart. It recognized him in an aching way. It seemed it had been too long since my soul had found his and yet it also felt like it had been no time at all. My soul always finds his.
In our last incarnation, it had taken us twenty-five years to find each other. Seeing him as a teenager this time felt like a great relief. I always wanted to steal as many years with him as I possibly could.
We were soul mates. Literally. Cursed soul mates. Our love was intense. A blazing forest fire, a swirling rip tide, a swirling hurricane. Nothing could stop us, but we also destroyed anyone who got in our way. It was all-consuming. We weren’t evil. But passion takes many forms, and not all of them are good.
So we were cursed. We would reincarnate life after life, always destined to find each other. But he never remembers who he was, he never remembers me. But I can never forget.
I remember every lifetime, every word, every whisper, every spine-tingling touch he’s ever shared with me. And every time I return, I have to start over again. I have to watch my lover date around, explore the world, and try to find his place in it. I watch him learn who he is.
But I have lifetimes of knowledge. I always know where I fit. And it is wrapped in his arms or curled up at his side.
This time my name was Betty. I’d never been a Betty. I’d been plenty of Elizabeths, Bethanys, Rebeccas. Never a Betty.
His eyes found mine. His eyes were a warm golden brown, but it lacked the spark of a lover’s gaze. That simply added insult to injury. He did look curious though, that initial attraction that was always there. It was the only amount of recognition his soul would give him to his past, to our never-ending destiny.
He moved gracefully among the crowd, navigating his way with ease until he made his way to my seat on the fountain edge. With the sun behind him, he had a golden halo around him. Brown hair that glowed, a crooked grin that sent a jolt straight to my heart.
“Is this seat taken?” He asked, pointing to the empty spot next to me.
I couldn’t help but grin in return. “Not at all,” I replied. “I’m Betty. And you are?” I raised an eyebrow at him.
“James.” He kept that crooked grin and offered his hand for me to shake. The second our hands touched I felt the excitement in my bones, the comfort unfurling in my heart being at his side. The string tied to our souls were no longer floating around the city, waiting to meet. Our string began to wind around itself, curling and looping in until we were knotted together again.
I spent all of spring discovering him all over again. I knew his soul, his heart, but his quirks changed every lifetime. His personality changing with the times.
We’d been kings and queens, servants, forbidden lovers, celebrities, secretaries, doctors, soldiers, artists, activists. He had so many versions of himself that he would never remember. I loved the quest of mapping out this new version, digging in and finding new pieces of him to add to my collection.
In this life, James loved nature. We would sneak away from class and spend our afternoons lazing on the sundeck on the High Line, dipping our toes in the water feature while he sketched the trees. We slipped out our windows and danced under streetlights, drunk on stolen whiskey and passionate kisses. He would stop at a red light and kiss me for no particular reason. Being alone with him was heady, my heart pounding so hard in his presence that when I was finally alone, I felt like I had run a marathon.
I saw him beginning to connect the dots as he drew lines between the scars on my arm, scattered like a constellation. The picture that was our past began to come into focus that summer. Memories of other laughs, older stolen moments, dreams from another lifetime. It all began flooding in. I saw it in his eyes when he studied me, saw it in his sketches. He drew the meadow from five lifetimes ago where we made love. A rough outline of the castle we’d once lived in. Versions of me from other lifetimes.
And then one achingly hot night, as we lay together on his bed, naked and glistening with sweat, he looked at me with the warmth that I always yearned for.
“Do you remember?” I whispered, scared for the answer but desperate to hear it anyway.
“This isn’t the first time I’ve loved you, is it?”
I chuckled. “Not even close.”
And I spent that night telling him about us. The real us. The first version of our story. One that began so long ago. Then I told him all the variations that followed it. He listened closely, trailing his fingers over the scars on my arm. I told him all of our love stories until he finally drifted off to sleep. His breathing evened, and with each breath I was lulled further into sleep, the burden of all those pasts lifting off me. And true rest finally found me for the first time in this life.
But I awoke to an empty bed in an empty room, save for the piece of paper on the nightstand.
Need some time to think —James
My heart sank as I let the paper flutter to the floor. Sometimes this would happen, especially as we moved further and further into the future, where magic was forgotten. It was hard to process. All I could do was give him the space to let this knowledge settle in, let him unpack what memories I had been able to stir in him. He would always come back to me — if not in this lifetime, then the next. Not every lifetime was a perfect fairy tale. Sometimes it was messy, painful, chaotic. Sometimes we tore ourselves apart, ripping the seam that binds us together. I could only hope this lifetime would not end up that way.
So I did. I went to the High Line by myself, sat at the fountain where we’d met, studied every sketch that connected to our pasts. But hours turned to days and days into weeks. Calls were missed, texts ignored. I knocked at his door. I cried on his fire escape, desperate to catch a glimpse of him.
And then I finally did. And the sight tore me open. He was kissing another girl, holding her close. I knew what he was doing. He was running, trying desperately to escape the weight of our situation. After all in his world, he’s only seventeen and I’m his first love.
I’ve been seventeen too many times to count, and he had been my only real love. Just because love is destined doesn’t mean it’s easy to accept. I’d learned that hundreds of times over. Soul mates are a deeper love, but that means the hurt cuts deeper, too.
The tear fell down as he looked up from the girl he was kissing. The regret registered instantly in his eyes. He pushed himself away from the stranger and tried to make his way over to me. The pain and longing in those eyes added to my own.
So I turned and disappeared into the crowd, losing myself in the city and the memories. Eventually my feet led me home, stumbled me into my bed. And I tried not to drown in my tears.
Hours later a knock at my window had me peeling my eyes open. I felt the stain of my tears on my face. I looked out of the window, bleary-eyed. But I knew who it was. James.
I took a deep breath and opened it, climbing out onto the fire escape with him. I simply looked at him. The pain had numbed my senses to the point where I could do little more than simply stare at him.
“I’m sorry,” he managed to fumble out. “I—“ He ran his hand through his hair, stopping to rub the back of his neck. “I’m a shitty person,” he said. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
I couldn’t help but agree but didn’t say anything. So he talked. He talked like he could fill the void between us with his words as if his ramblings could build a bridge across the distance between us.
He was scared. It was a lot to adjust to. He asked how I dealt with all these memories in my head, how I could be so calm about this.
“It’s all I know, James. It’s all I’ve ever known. You get to forget. You start fresh every time. I carry around all these memories. Happy memories and sad ones and devastating ones.” I finally looked at him, eyes thick with tears I was trying desperately not to shed. How many times had he broken my heart? How many times had we argued? How much pain had we inflicted on each other across eons? I couldn’t even begin to count.
All those memories kept rushing back. Him as a king in a political marriage while I remained the mistress he truly loved. Me as an aristocrat’s daughter in love with the stable boy I could never marry. Him choosing to go to war instead of staying safe at my side. Flashes of jealous moments, heartbroken cries, and unimaginable grief.
I was drowning in them. I desperately searched for a happy memory to cling to, a life raft in the dark sea. But each time I had my hand on one, I saw him kissing that girl, and the memory would slide right out of my hands.
“Did you think that since we’re soul mates, you can do whatever you want, and I’ll take you back no matter what?” I managed to whisper. I didn’t trust my voice not to crack.
He stumbled over words, trying to apologize. Stammer after stammer until I couldn’t take it anymore. I simply crawled back through my window, back into my bed. Leaving him out in the dark.
I had fitful sleep, fragments of past lives invading my dreams. I wanted to hate him, but I couldn’t. Not truly. Even if he ripped my heart out, no other sadness in the world would do.
Inez made me throw a party that weekend. I wasn’t really interested in doing much partying, but she was insistent, thinking it would make me feel better. I’d thrown plenty of parties through my lives — everything from lavish expensive parties and parties with just three people in attendance. But none of them felt as pathetic as this party. My beer had barely been touched. I kept it in hand simply so Inez wouldn’t keep trying to get me to drink.
I wasn’t listening to the music or anyone’s conversations. I wasn’t even really looking at anything. Not anything here in the present. I was lost in the past. Good memories were the only salve for my soul.
“Betty!” someone shouted over the din of the music. “Someone’s at the door for you!”
I rolled my eyes and dragged myself over to the door. Where James was standing on the front step, eyes locked onto mine with a fierceness I hadn’t seen in quite a few lifetimes. I could feel the party’s eyes on us, so I shut the door behind me. With the music muffled I was suddenly left with the sound of my pounding heart. I nervously pulled the sleeves of my cardigan down over my arms.
James opened his mouth to speak but glanced over my shoulder and stopped. I turned to look behind me to see Inez and a few others staring out the front window, watching us. I took his hand and led him around the side of the building where there was a small garden. The sounds of the party were even more dulled here, my heartbeat was even louder. I nervously glanced up at him.
He looked at me for a moment before pulling me into his arms and kissing the top of my head. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered against my hairline. “I hate myself more and more every day that passes without you. I love you. I don’t want anyone else but you. Do you think you could forgive me? Maybe not now, but one day?”
I gave him a dry chuckle. “I love you. I’ve loved you for so many lifetimes.” I gave him a slow, sweet kiss. “I will forgive you.” He kissed me again, this time deeper and more urgent, like he needed to make up for lost time.
Our many roads were bumpy and had forks in the road everywhere. We didn’t always take the right path, but the strings always brought us together, always tied us together. Despite the pain, I couldn’t imagine a lifetime without him.
It is my greatest curse and my greatest blessing. I couldn’t imagine only having him for one lifetime. I lose him each time in some way or another. But when I come back, I have another lifetime of memories with him. Our love is infinite, destined to happen over and over again no matter the outcome.
Even faithless love from him is better than any love I could find with anyone else.