"That's weird," I said, eyeing the search results on my laptop. My boyfriend was slicing into a loaf of soda bread we'd made the night before. "There's some big-time Mafia guy with your name!"
"Oh?" he said, as if it had been a question. Later, I tried to remember: Did he cringe? Did he offer a sign I didn't catch? "Yeah," I said. "A real mobster!"
I can't remember why the conversation fizzled. Probably because I'd found what I was looking for: a picture of my boyfriend, a semiprofessional rock climber, on the cover of a magazine. The weight of his body hung from his fingertips. His knuckles were dusted with chalk and smeared with blood, an indication of how far he'd climbed before the shutter clicked.
Later that night, we made love until we were both crying. Tangled in sheets, he put a callused hand on mine. "There's something I need to tell you," he said. And that's when I found out that the mobster was his father.
I instantly forgave him for not coming clean earlier. He'd had no contact with his father—who had been in and out of prison for decades—since he was a child growing up in Pennsylvania, but had kept his father's name. His mother was remarried to a man he admired. She had not known about her first husband's career until after they'd had children. How could she not have known? I wondered. I was certain I understood my boyfriend better than anyone I'd ever known. But maybe I didn't know him at all.
We'd met at the local newspaper office just a few months before and were both in our 20s. I was a staff writer; he was a freelancer, there for his first editorial meeting. Initially, we were alone in the lobby, but when a coworker walked in during a conversational pause, she'd looked at the two of us and said: "Sorry, am I interrupting something?"
Our magnetism, strong enough to form a palpable field around us, wasn't just physical. We finished each other's sentences. I'd enter a room, thirsty, to find he'd already poured me a glass of water. Sometimes we stayed up late, reading to each other. He tenderly described everyday situations—encounters with snowflakes and small children—in ways that made me think to myself, That is exactly how I would have said it. I imagined us riding through life as if passengers on a train, him looking out one window, me watching the world from the other side, calling out from our respective vantage points. Together, I thought, we could get a larger view of the journey, at least for a little while.
From the beginning, we suspected his heritage would break us up. He'd been planning a trip to Italy, his grandparents' homeland, long before we met. Given his father's identity, that made even more sense: My boyfriend wanted to better understand where he came from. He already had a one-way ticket, and he didn't know when, or if, he was coming back. At first, this seemed OK. We'd see where things took us, pheromones pulling like tides. But later—after he'd pretty much moved into my apartment, turning a spare room into something resembling an REI outpost—serious questions surfaced: Should he stay? Should I go?
When he told me about his father, I understood that my boyfriend's upcoming trip had undercurrents that weren't in line with casually backpacking through Europe. Climbing was a physical way to work through the seemingly insurmountable challenges of his family history. This wasn't about seeing beyond tree lines as much as it was about rising above personal circumstance. That was something he had to do alone.
The last time I ever saw him, he was waving from my kitchen window. After I went to work, he stayed behind and wrote me dozens of love letters. Then, he hid them all.
The romantic gesture punished me for months. I found letters in tea boxes, under my alarm clock, and in hats hanging by the front door. Each discovery was a paper cut. We'd been together for a short amount of time, but our breakup brought pain unequal in size. And my own heartache was compounded every time I did what those of us abandoned by rock-climbing, Mafia-connected boyfriends have been doing since the dawn of the Web: I Googled him. Again, and again, and again.
Every time I entered the digital forest to look for him, I found his father instead. The elder wasn't a run-of-the-mill mobster; he was a famous one. His notoriety had spawned treacherous landscapes of gnarled stories and horrific details. There were tales of the mobster's money and murders, but never any mention of his children. In the shadow of his father, my beloved did not exist.
It is still hard for me to reconcile the soulful man I loved with the reputation of his father, who—in addition to sharing my boyfriend's name—had the same chin, same eyes, same face. But, years ago, it was nearly as difficult to reconcile my life with the absence of that chin. Those eyes. That face.
When I think of my climber now, with more than 10 years of distance between us, I no longer dwell on the excruciating months following his departure. I don't think about the letters that arrived via airmail, for nearly a year, each one delicate and heartfelt. Not even the last one, the one I never responded to, because I had to move on, pulling myself out of the peculiar sorrow of our premature ending.
Instead, I think of a late-night trip we made to the grocery store, back when we were still trying to talk our way around tearing our newfound wholeness into halves. Together, we huddled in a checkout line, watching the group of teenagers in front of us. Soon, they started rambling about a haunted house. One of the girls asked, "Wanna come?" It seemed crazy, that we would follow these strangers into darkness, chasing ghosts. We knew without exchanging a word that we were going to.
Our time together was ending. But that night, we wholly trusted that neither one would lose the other. When we finally made it to the house, we surveyed the front yard, full of shattered glass and discarded mattresses. The teenagers' disembodied voices streamed through broken windows from inside, along with screams of fear and delight. Without a flashlight to guide us, only the cool, reflective light of the moon, we could see that the house was in bad shape, all crumbling masonry and splintered wood. Clearly, the structure could give way at any minute, with little notice. But my boyfriend and I laughed at our own nervousness and went in anyway, holding hands as we stumbled through the ruins of someone else's life.
This article appears in the October issue of Marie Claire, on newsstands now.
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