“Let’s make a list of all the places we would like to go, and then we can compare them, and see what overlaps. That way we can plan to see what we can do and where we will go together. I’ve had this idea of the two of us, moving around the world together, doing different projects and seeing different places. Let’s see how we can make it happen, ok?”
I’d never been so happy to have anyone suggest something to me. I’d never felt so relieved that I was going to get what I’d always wanted, what I was terrified I’d miss out on.
This request came at the perfect time, a time that was a major crossroads for us. We had just had a huge fight a few weeks prior because she found out – only after I had left China for my year of teaching in Israel – that I had wanted to move to Israel to live for a few years since I’d touched down in Tel Aviv for the first time. I had been enamored with the country since that trip in 2012. I remember distinctly telling my friend Alex that I didn’t have anything to return to in Michigan, and that I didn’t want to go back. Maybe it was the place itself, maybe it’s just because I finally felt like I’d been set free.
There is a lot of backstory to my trip to Israel and my desire to live there. It was very personal, a long time in the making, and incredibly intimate. That being said, my girlfriend didn’t really know much about it, other than that I was currently living there. It stood to reason that it was confusing to her. I can see why. I said I wanted to be with her and yet moved to a country she wasn’t living in. But that’s the problem then, isn’t it? She stayed, and I left. She chose her career over the relationship…
At least that’s what it felt like.
And I’m sure it felt like I chose that dream over her…
I didn’t mean to fall in love with her. Honestly, I didn’t, and I definitely didn’t mean for it to be the most real, honest, and intense love that I’ve ever felt for someone, while at the same time being the most possible, plausible opportunity for a future. I didn’t mean to want to make a life with her. I didn’t want that at all, and I didn’t know what to do when it hit.
I guess it’s really like that cliche that I keep hearing over and over again now that I’m single: “It’ll happen when you aren’t looking for it” or “you’ll find someone when you least expect it”. Well, this time it was true. But also, fuck that noise! Basically what we’re all propagating is “When your life is going well and things seem to be leveling out, that’s when it’s gonna get all fucky and go sideways.” Awesome.
She was sexy as hell, and gorgeous…
That much I knew before meeting her. I remembered her from a group chat I’d been added to for Spanish speakers in Guiyang. I was single back then, and when I saw her posting I made a mental note of her profile picture, and the Mexican flag next to her name. She was gorgeous. She was Mexican. (Well, I’m sure she still is.) I once lived in Mexico on a student exchange and fell in love with the place and people. Most I meet become curious about me, because, what gringo ever moves to Oaxaca and picks up the southern accent?! Americans go to Tijuana, Acapulco, and Cancun – sometimes Mexico City so that they can act “cultured” when they leave. But who the hell goes to Oaxaca? I did, and it seems that makes me an oddball that stands out when meeting me. I thought maybe I could use this as a reason to talk to her. Maybe it could be a way in, at least just to meet new people.
But then the other girl happened…
I had a wonderful relationship with my lovely Italian foodie, that ran its course in its due time. It was a tale of its own, a saga best left for another chapter in another book about my life. Fast forward a full year, and I saw my “Sexy Mexi” (she loved that nickname and that I had her saved in my phone that way for the longest time) at a birthday party for an acquaintance in a bar. I recognized her, and was again hit with how hot she was. All black outfit with blonde hair, gold accents, and gold lipstick. She was a vision. A sexy, curvy, latin vision. After a few minutes of seeing her wander from person to person and group to group, I realized that she wasn’t just physically attractive. The people she was interacting with were buzzing. She had this energy around her…she was vibrant. She was uplifting and fun. We never spoke, I think we made eye contact a time or two. I played pool, she danced.
Such was life.
Fast forward again to Halloween. There she was, dressed in a skeleton jumpsuit with a crown of flowers and her face painted like a calavera. Friends told me her name when I was caught staring. I knew who she was, even with the makeup on there was no mistaking that shape and figure, and definitely no mistaking that energy and vibrance for someone else. Always curious, always inquisitive and wondering about something, she sat next to me on the couch at the KTV. “Hi, why are you sitting alone?” Brave and outgoing. I liked it. She introduced herself by the shortened form of her name. “That’s short for… isn’t it?” She never likes it when people call her by her full name. She prefers the shortened form, except if it was me. She’d ask me to just use the full form instead. I’d tease her and flirt with her for months afterward by repeating that line. It was what got her attention, and I knew it. It’s what made me stick out to her, it’s that small thing that couples have that draw them together that no one else gets.
Hey, no one expects a guy that looks like an overgrown leprechaun to speak Spanish or know the nicknames for Spanish names. I suppose that it’s something to take note of.
But that was the line and the rest, as they say, is history.
“Oh, how do you know that?”
“I speak Spanish.”
I’d had her curiosity, but now I had her attention.
Aloof and charming, that was what I was going for. Most men I know try on all kinds of personalities when we first meet someone we are interested in. We change them as often as we can, just praying one will work. If this didn’t work, I might try juggling and singing next. Whatever I could do to make an impression.
I made small talk and eventually left with other friends. I knew that if nothing else I’d add her from a chat group and since we’d met in person, I’d have an “in” for conversation. I actually met another girl in the bar I went to afterward. A college student from Russia. Athletic, young, model type. After a few quips back and forth and a rather small amount of verbal foreplay she said “Vee are going to nightclub, vill you join me? Dancing, drinking…vee vill see vat else” as she touched my thigh.
Two minutes later I was in a cab. Three minutes after that, I was on the dance floor and From Russia with Love was getting a drink for herself and a Red Bull for me. And then I turned around and saw her standing there, looking at me. I swear she was blushing under the makeup. “I didn’t know you were coming here” she screamed above the EuroTrash techno being pounded into our skulls. From this close I could smell her shampoo on her hair. It’s the same one that she’d later make a game of pouring on my head in the shower when I was trying to rinse it out. She’d wait for me to close my eyes and stick my head under the water, and then squirt more on top to create a never ending fountain of bubbles while she laughed at me and I groped around blindly trying to get the bottle out of her hands and save myself.
She looked at me and asked a question I’ll never forget:
“Do you want to be my someone special for the evening?”
She put her hand on my chest and stared up at me, nervously awaiting my answer. I kissed her. I pulled her close and held the kiss for a moment, and when I broke away and opened my eyes I saw Kara KGB staring at me from behind her, drawing a finger across her throat like a knife.
We danced for a while and when all of our friends started leaving, so did we. I asked to see her again. I told her I wasn’t a “one night special” kind of guy. Good line, right? Sometimes I seem like I know what I’m doing. I knew she didn’t believe me, but I was determined to change her mind.
Man, I really didn’t see her coming.
A week later, I was on a date with her. A few weeks after that, we were awkwardly dating, trying to figure out what it all meant, slowly going crazy for each other. She mentioned that she wanted to go on one of the Hong Kong junk boats to me once, and when I went with my friends a few weeks later I made sure to send her the pictures of them out in the harbor. I told April and Jill that weekend that one day I would bring her with me and take her on one. She was special. Eight months later she and I sailed along Victoria Harbour on a night cruise staring at the lights of the city as they bounced off the water. The joy that not only had I surprised her with this evening cruise, but even remembered that she had mentioned it, was palpable between us. I did good. I’d made her smile.
She was fun, caring. The fact that she was a smokeshow was quickly replaced in my mind with how I just liked *her*. It was new and exciting to me, but I was also still reeling from the heartbreak of the last relationship and how we ended. The previous one couldn’t handle being a continent apart, not knowing how my depression was, not seeing me, worrying… so even though we had already broken up, she decided we couldn’t even speak. It was too hard for her, she had said, “knowing that you’re out there hurting and depressed and worrying constantly, but not being able to do anything about it. I need to forget you”.
My new girl? She didn’t know anything about mental illness. When I told her why I took that pill every morning, she decided to learn. She did research. She looked online for forums of people that lived with a loved one that suffered from depression and mood swings. She sought to find ways to connect with the parts of me that scared me. Nine months later, the evening of her graduation from her master’s program, she told me that after that conversation she had made the decision to always be someone that brought joy to my life, as much as she could, since depression was waiting around every other corner in my mind.
I’ll be honest, for the first time.
One night early in the relationship, I went through her phone while she slept. She had told me she wanted to be my only girl, my only interest. I agreed, told her I wanted that too, and asked her to be my girlfriend. But in reality I wasn’t there yet. I was convinced that she must still have other guys. I was convinced that it couldn’t be real. That’s how I found myself in her messages, reading conversations with guys that she had talked to before we met, saying things like “Sorry, you had a chance and blew it. I found someone new, he’s awesome, and I’m giving it a real chance.” That was dated less than a month after our first date. Then there were the messages to her closest friends and even her mom about me. “So, is this guy ‘husband material’ do you think?!” “I don’t know, it’s too early. Don’t tease me like this. But he’s the first guy that I haven’t freaked out about that question with”. Then there was the “We danced together that first night that we met. He’s NOT a good dancer (ouch!) but, there was real chemistry there. He isn’t the type of guy that I’ve been interested in before. He’s got really white skin and light hair and a red beard…but I had to tell myself “Hey, stop thinking about what he’s not, and look at the person right in front of you and see what he is.”
Sneaking her phone back onto the charger while she slept in my twin bed in the tiny room of the apartment that I was renting, I felt, for the first time in my life, that love that people say is better to have and lose than never have at all.
I realized that this woman in front of me was what I wanted.
My search was over. I’d found “her”, and all I had to do was accept it, accept her. I didn’t want to keep playing games, thinking about other women, “keeping options open” or something like I’d been mentally trying to do, as a means of keeping from committing to her. I was terrified of that because I was terrified of commitment. I was terrified of loving her. But, I was already in love, and I already knew that this was different, more realistic, more possible than anything else I’d ever experienced. I finally just gave in. And you know what? She was there, crazy about me, in love with me, ready to be my partner.
Fast forward again, and we find ourselves at the beginning of this chapter.
“Let’s make a list…”
I guess I wasn’t the only one with reservations or fears. I know her. She’s afraid of pain. Terrified of it, to the point where she would freeze and refuse to move if she thought that stepping on something might cause her physical pain because she slipped.
Gun to my head – “Why couldn’t she do it?”
I’d say that even though she had decided I was the one for her and that she wanted to marry me, she was afraid it wouldn’t work. So was I, it seems. (That’s the worst part of a self-fulfilling prophecy – if you just didn’t make the damned thing, it won’t happen.) I guess we made our fears come true. If only we could do the same with our dreams…
It wasn’t all good.
No relationship ever is, and if anyone ever tells you that it is, they’re lying. But the good was better than the bad, and there was more of it than things that made me want to stay away or leave. We had fights. Dear God in heaven – did we have fights. Try dating a Latina without having one. Go ahead.
She would set me up for failure, and I would close myself off emotionally and leave her out in the cold wondering what happened. One time she actually lured me into a false sense of security after an argument, and we went to bed with me thinking that we were all good. I woke up and rolled over and kissed her cheek to say good morning and wake her up, and she pulled away. The first thing out of her mouth was a stinging comment that she’d been holding in since the night before. She was so good with those. They were her weapon of choice. This one made me angrier than I’d ever been with her. I never scream when I’m angry. I used to, as a teen. But then I had to do a lot of anger counseling, because when a big, angry man starts screaming, there tends to be cause for alarm.
Part of me thinks that she wanted to get that reaction from me. She wanted a dose of that latino machismo that I was lacking. She wanted to get a visceral reaction from me. But when it happened, and she could see that I was holding back the urge to pick things up and smash them, she realized it wasn’t what she wanted. I slammed the door to her room as I left her standing in the middle of it, shocked but with a look on her face of complete understanding that she’d made a huge mistake. When I calmed down a half an hour later and went back, I couldn’t even finish my apology for my outburst before she threw herself on me, crying, kissing me, asking for my forgiveness. All I could do was beg for her mercy, too, for acting out like such a child.
The fights, arguments, and problems decreased in frequency, and the good times increased.
The look on her face when she opened her dorm room door to see me the night that I went to surprise her because she’d been stressing over her thesis…
I’d been sitting in a bar with my friends and she wasn’t able to join. I looked around at everyone and just went “Sorry folks, but she’s sad and anxious, and I want to cheer her up.” With that I hopped in a cab. I’ll never forget the pure joy and surprise in her eyes when she opened the door and saw me, knowing that instead of being with them, I chose to sit with her and just watch her work. It was that same goofy smile while watching her work on her thesis that I had 4 months later, the last night I ever saw her in person, when she was responding to a work email in her apartment before I left to go back to Israel the next morning. “You just love watching me work, eh?” She smiled as she glanced at me from the corner of her eye while she sat on her bed, legs crossed, laptop on her mini table on the blankets in front of her. For some reason, whenever I watched her, I just stared at her, smiling. She could be doing the most mundane of tasks, but I was completely enamored with everything about her in those moments.
They say that love conquers all…
Well, I wish it were true. There’s a point where love just can’t do the heavy lifting alone, anymore. I hit that damned point, the one that everyone has. That point of no return. For some people it’s communication. For others it’s lifestyle and choices. For me it was “choose me above the other things, please.” This is the first time I’ve ever admitted that. It might have gone differently if I’d told her that before all of this. I might be writing a memoir about how my life is full of sunshine, rainbows, and a caring, selfless, beautiful wife, instead of writing about how even when everything that I touch turns to ash, I still think life is worth the living.
I’ve got a long history in love of being the second choice. I’ve been the runner-up and consolation prize too many times to count. Another woman I “dated” since her put it this way to me:
“They weren’t telling you that you were their second choice, they were telling you that it could have gone a different way, but they were happy that it didn’t!” This statement was made when I found out she was cheating on her boyfriend with me.
Yet another toxic relationship, this time jumped into so willingly because I was alone and hurting after…
She chose her career. I can’t even blame her. She would probably punch me in the throat if I said it out loud to her. She’s probably sure that it isn’t what she did. But that’s what it felt like, and in matters of the heart, what we feel is more powerful than what it “is”. When I told her it was done, and I couldn’t do it anymore, she offered me everything that I wanted before that moment. “I’ll come to Tel Aviv during my Spring Festival vacation and visit. We can work it out. But I’m not coming as a friend, it’ll be as your girlfriend and we will make it work”. I told her no. It should have been the hardest thing that I’ve ever done. But that’s the thing about when the switch flips- its permanent and all-powerful. Saying “yes” would have been as difficult as bending iron, so saying “no” was actually quite easy, in contrast. I was hurting, so badly. I’ve never hurt as badly as I did then.
Sure, it’s been over a year since we broke up…
It’s been over a year and a half since I’ve seen her in person! But I did what I do best when faced with serious pain: I denied, detached, and distracted myself. It’s been more than a year, and I’ve only recently admitted to myself how badly this fucked me up. It feels so fresh because it is. I never let myself deal with these emotions. I never recognized that saying “No, don’t come, it’s over” was permanent. I had hoped that I’d see her again. I’d hoped that we’d have one of those “movie-ending” love stories, where we would run into each other’s arms and then the music would start and the credits would roll.
She told me once about how her mom and dad got divorced and her mom met her current partner again, someone who carried a flame for her for 20 some odd years after they broke up. I told her how my parents split up and my mom moved out of the country, only to randomly meet up again when my dad recognized her voice as the operator he was talking to at the switch board. We reassured each other with these stories that if anything ever happened to us because of time and space, and we would still have possibilities. We would still have a future.
That was before I hurt so badly, and acted out. In the end I was so petty and mean, just to get her to go away and leave me some space, that I created a rift that won’t ever close. I said and did things that probably caused a flip to switch in her head, too.
I have tried talking to her on several occasions. It’s become evident that she doesn’t still feel like we could have that story-book ending that our parents got. My reason for thinking this? The way that most recently she replied to a request to see her with “I absolutely do not want to see you”. I had hoped that one day I’d forgive her for breaking my heart, for not making that damned list… Now I have, but in the meantime I pushed her too far away to ever come back.
“Enough with the damned list, Sean!”
A mutual friend screamed this at me when I finally talked about things for the first time in over a year. I couldn’t let it go, though. It was the physical representation of a future together. It was something to give me hope.
We were supposed to do it, and then on one of our many video calls in a week, share and discuss, so we could make a plan. She asked for a few days because she wanted to think and prepare, and to make sure it was a good effort. And she was really busy with work. I agreed because it was a reasonable request, and frankly, it was her idea in the first place. We still talked every day, all day. Notes and messages back and forth. We were playing Pictionary through an app together. When she got out of work, while I was still teaching classes (because of the time difference) she would bombard me with voice messages to tell me all about her day. I loved it. We were still in as much communication as ever.
But the list conversation didn’t come that week.
It didn’t come the next week, either. I mentioned it, and she told me that she’d been so busy, and it was a big and important thing, and she wanted to get it right, and then have enough time to sit with me seriously and have the big discussion about the rest of our lives.
Another week passed.
Why didn’t you make the damned list?
And another week. Dozens of conversations about life, work, and all the mundane things we talk to our partners about on a daily basis. I made my list. I wrote it down. I brought it to some of the conversations and video chats to show her that I did it, that I was serious. She apologized because she knew she was the one who had come up with the fucking idea, and yet she wasn’t doing anything about it.
At some point, despair set in. I knew we weren’t perfect. Just go back a few minutes and read about our fights. The way I would shut her out. The way she would throw those verbal jabs at me and sting me so badly. Those things got better, but they never went away. I knew that, in a perfect situation, we would have had a lot of work to do, both uniquely to us, as well as the things that every couple has to do to get along and stay together. But that was in a perfect world. In this one, we hadn’t seen each other in months. We hadn’t embraced, kissed, cuddled. We hadn’t been able to whisper those things that lovers say to each other to reassure the other that they’re wanted, desired, and cared for. We had a digital intimacy in a modern world, but that wasn’t going to cut it for much longer. Not without a common goal, not without a plan. And she kept not holding up her end.
*Click* The switch flipped…
The problem is that I’m not sure she’ll ever let me be anything but a memory. And now I have to live with that.
If there’s anything that I am really, truly sorry for, it’s this:
She made that attempt too late, and had to deal with the pain that came from it. I know how she hates and fears pain, and yet she risked it all in that moment to try, and I was the cause of the pain she felt after taking that risk. It was only after I ended things that she threw caution to the wind and dove in.
I remember telling my roommate as we sat on the couch that night talking about it that as much as I wanted to believe her, to say OK, let’s do it, that “there’s a literal fucking stage of grief called bargaining.” I wanted to believe it was sincere and true, but I know what the brain does to us when we are sad and the loneliness hits. I figured if it had been true, it would have happened before I dumped her.
Maybe I’m just a damned fool.
I went back to China, recently. In a lot of ways it was a closing verse of a 5 year long poem. In a lot of ways, it was a reminder of the insanity that can lay ahead. It definitely made me pensive and introspective. It reignited a fire that had burned very, very low. But it also reminded me of her, and what I had given up on the chance that I took. I had wanted to make a go of a life in Israel since I first landed there. And I did. The thing is, it didn’t work out how I wanted it to, at all. I doubled down on being stupid, in a lot of ways. I threw myself into it, even when I knew it wasn’t working. I do love gambling… and I put it all on the line on this bet. Guess what? I lost it all.
I should have packed my things and went back to Guiyang!
I should have ended the teaching year as soon as I realized I was sitting around, basically useless after Passover. I should have booked a flight to see her the day I got the lego “12” figure she made to commemorate our one-year anniversary in the mail. I should have gone back to her to surprise her and show her I wasn’t going anywhere, to see that same smile I saw when she opened that dorm room door and saw me there while she was freaking out about writing her thesis. I should have…I should have…
The minute she offered to come to Tel Aviv and find a way to make it work, I shouldn’t have become the coward who shut her out because he was reeling from rejection. But, hindsight is 20/20. I can’t undo what’s been done. I shouldn’t have let the rejections and pains of the past influence what was right in front of me. I shouldn’t have been so damned stubborn. I shouldn’t have ignored the pain I was causing her, just to alleviate my own.
I shouldn’t have failed, so fucking miserably, at love.
But that fucking cliche is completely true, it turns out. I’d rather have had her love than never know what I was missing. She still haunts my dreams. I still hear her laugh in the hallways of my memory. In even my least nostalgic moments I can clearly hear her call me “Papi” and feel the way she would make me blush. But if you offered to let me go back and undo it all so that I’d never have to deal with this, if you gave me the option to erase those memories, to make it never have happened- I’d politely tell you to go fuck yourself.
At the end of all of this, I can still say that I’d rather have failed this greatly, and in such a spectacular fashion, than never have done it at all.
Sure, I lost the love of my life.
I had a big dream, and I chased it but it stayed out of my grasp, just out of reach. I thought I could have it all. I thought I could go and conquer the world and see foreign lands and wander the continents, as well as meet and fall in love with an amazing woman and have a romance for the ages. I tried to make those things happen. At the time of this writing, I’m back in Rochester, Michigan, sitting alone at 04:00 writing parts of a memoir in an abandoned diner. Nobody is around but a waitress who occasionally stops by with coffee. Part of me wants to feel miserable and depressed. As I think back about these past few years and about her and what wasn’t to be, I’ve had to hold back the occasional tear. I’ve had to choke down memories and feelings that I never let come up.
But I also have to give myself credit for how wonderfully I’ve managed to fail. I might not have gotten what I wanted, but, my God, did I get a good life, one that’s better than anything I could have imagined. I’ve got friends around the globe that love me. I’ve got stories for days about experiences that actually happened to me, that most people could only dream of. I’ve got the sense of wonder and awe of standing on top of mountains and realizing, in my soul, what a speck of dust I am in this universe. I’ve got the conversations and heart-to-hearts I’ve had with people of every race, color, creed and religion that you can imagine. I’ve got a life most people never think is possible, and even if it ended today, I can honestly say that it’s been the best adventure that I ever could have hoped for.
And it all started because I began wandering for the sake of seeing where my path would take me, often stumbling along the way and making mistakes. . Just keep failing forward. That’s all you have to do. Just take the next risk, and forget about the option of failure.
As for me, it seems that I’m only truly happy when I’m on the road, and writing. I think it’s time that I plan out the next adventure, and get up and go. There’s a whole lot of life I still have yet to live. As for my happiness, the last times that I felt it, truly felt it, were when I was on the road and with friends and family trekking along in search of adventure. If I want happiness, I think the best thing to do is to go and look for it where I last had it. If it’s not still there, at least it’s as good a starting point as any to begin the search anew. That’s why I went back to Guiyang. That’s what brought her to the forefront of my mind, now. That’s why I’ll be on the road again, soon.
But Sean! What about her!?
Wonderful question. If there’s anything I’ve learned through accidentally living this long, it’s that you never can tell what the fuck is around the next corner. Maybe she’s completely moved on, and we are destined to be fond, and distant, memories to each other. Maybe my brain will finally stop teasing me with “what ifs” and I’ll let that chapter be complete. Maybe I’ll get a call one day out of the blue saying “You’re back in China? I’ve been thinking about you. We should meet…”
Probably not. And to be honest, if I did, I’d probably just fuck it up.
But hey, that might just be exactly what I need to do.