I’ve been back in the United States for a little more than a year now.
In these 12-plus months I have made a conscious choice to put down roots, to “bloom where I’m planted” – signing an apartment lease and buying furniture, dating someone who lives on the same CTA and Metra line as me, securing work and allowing myself to become “a fixture” there.
And yet, at least once a week I am greeted with “You’re here?!” or “How long are you stateside?” or “Where do you live anyway?”
The words reflect a life I’d always dreamed of – the bon vivant flitting from gorgeous here to glamorous there – and at times make it difficult to be where my feet are, here in Chicago.
Especially when Facebook reminds me that last year “On This Day” I was staying in a castle in Girona at a writers retreat; that the year before I was riding a rented bike to the beach in Valencia and sharing paella with new friends; and the year before that, I was volunteering at a chocolate festival in Umbria.
Especially when the second of two new bed pillows I recently purchased now goes unused, and I am no longer certain who will sit at my side next week when I see Patti Smith at The Music Box Theatre – an early birthday gift to myself.
Life on the other side of the Atlantic always sounds sexy — in these moments sexier still. The questions about my being here now – in Chicago — feel like a kitten rubbing its insistent head against my naked leg.
That is, until Monday at 4 pm — the day after the Chicago Marathon when T. gingerly walks into my massage room.
She and I started working together about a month ago, when a chronically tight hamstring had her questioning her ability to complete the 26.2 mile run – her first.
It was one of those easy, graceful connections where few words were necessary and those we did exchange were about our connections to Africa — my weeks in Kigali, her years in Nairobi, yellow jerrycans and her fundraising efforts to provide clean water there.
“Well?” I ask, hopefully, my voice upticking at the end of the second “L.”
Her mouth curls into a smile and she pulls a medal out of her bag.
“I did it!” she says.“Can we take a selfie? I never take selfies …”
Neither statement surprises me. I nod and say, “of course.”
Meanwhile, T. hands me the medal as she pulls her phone out of her bag.
“I think you should wear it,” she says.
I feel silly. It is her medal, her marathon. But she insists she couldn’t have done it without me. I slip the red ribbon over my head and hold the medal between our faces.
“I appreciate you,” she says.
“And I, you.”
The moment is a gift, the present of being present, knowing that being where my feet are has allowed hers to carry her 26.2 miles. I feel my roots begin to twist up and gnarl under the earth, finding their place … on this side of the Atlantic.
It is four weeks today since I left Paris. It feels like forever ago.
Not for the reasons most people think. Not because I love Paris, have dreamed of living there for as long as I can remember (even before I had ever visited), and occasionally wake up with French words on my lips – even though I don’t speak the language. Not because a reiki practitioner once told me I have “agreements” with Paris. (I still don’t know exactly what that means.) Although all of that is true.
Quite simply, I left my heart there … and I miss it, and him and what we shared.
What was meant to be 14 days together, zipping up to Normandy on his motorbike (“It will be like our honeymoon,” he said.) was goodbye instead.
I never saw it coming.
We met in October, on my way home from a writer’s retreat in Girona, Spain. It was, as my friend Michelle likes to say, “A romance for the ages.”
We found one another in a church basement – the kind where we both learned how to get and stay sober a number of years earlier – on his birthday, the day before mine. What began as coffee led to a meandering walk through Paris — sharing our stories, and a piece of cake — and ended with three knee-buckling kisses at the Bastille roundabout, my salmon-colored wool and silk scarf blowing in the breeze. One for his birthday, one for mine, and one to “tide me over” until we saw one another again in two days. The stuff of Hollywood movies.
Four days later, my last in Paris, he told me he loved me, and that he was in love with me.
“Is that crazy” he asked over a steaming bucket of mussels and live accordion music that wafted up the stairs.
“Yes,” I replied. “But I get it.”
He also told me he didn’t want to think about me every day, that he didn’t want to know how I took my coffee.
“But you already know how I take my coffee,” I said, smiling.
We agreed that we wanted to continue getting to know one another and that neither of us knew exactly what that meant. The next morning, boarding a plane back to the United States, I received a text, “Still love you, babe.”
Later that week, during the first of many marathon phone calls, he asked if I would come back in the spring. I said yes without hesitation and purchased a non-stop return ticket from Chicago to Paris for $500 the following day. I had never paid so little to fly to to Europe and chose to see it as a sign — a nod from God.
We spent the next six months writing long emails and sexy Facebook messages, talking on the phone for hours and eventually Skyping. What joy it was to finally see one another again.
I felt like I had met my twin. Funny enough, one of the last things he said to me was, “I met myself when I met you.” That was four weeks ago, when we said goodbye.
One month earlier, I had received an email, “I have some difficult news …” he wrote.
His son’s mother had asked once again if they might get back together. This time she said “all the right things.” This time, it was he who didn’t hesitate to say yes.
Brokenhearted would be an understatement.
Ten days later we Skyped and I asked if I might see him in Paris … to say goodbye.
“You’re still coming?” he asked, visibly surprised.
“My ticket is non-refundable. I’m going on to Barcelona, but I’m still flying in and out of Paris.
“Can I see you? To say goodbye?”
He agreed, and so we did. And when we did, he reminded me that his nine-year-old son lives in Paris … so he lives in Paris.
I knew he had certain ideas about the family he wanted – what it looked like – and believed he was healing some childhood wounds by giving his son what he had wanted most, stability and love, and the picture of family that he himself craved.
“I’m portable,” I said, reminding him I had said this all along.
He said I wouldn’t like living in Paris. (I disagreed.) That it is extraordinarily hard to get work there as a non-Parisian, even teaching English. That he never wanted a long-distance relationship.
He also said that we were “magic,” that I was his “vacation” and his “fantasy.”
What he didn’t say was, “Move in, lean in … we’ll figure it out.”
And so, with seemingly no other choice, I dropped the rope.
The day I had asked if I could see him in Paris, he asked if we might still be friends. “This,” he said, gesturing heart-to-heart, “I’ll miss this.” I said probably one day, but that I would need time — brave words that fell apart once on the other side of the Atlantic, when I hopefully asked, “Will we stay in touch?” even though I had been the one to ask for space after our goodbye.
“I don’t think so … I’d prefer not to,” he said. “I want you to go back to Chicago and write to me and tell me you found a man there who can give you a real relationship.”
I was crushed. Writing these words now, my heart aches.
But a funny thing happened when I returned to the United States, something that had never happened after a breakup before — I respected his wishes.
We agreed I would let him know when I arrived home and that I would send some of my writing to him – musings about our time together. I did both and he responded warmly, but without opening any doors. “I’m not ready to read this just yet, but it’s good to know it’s here” he wrote, and thanked me for sending. Seems this ending is difficult for him too.
Now there’s nothing left to do but grieve.
I’ve never had a clean break before.
In my 20s, breakups included language like, “Of course we’ll be friends,” which seemed to mean something entirely different to my former partners than to me, which looked like me acting as if nothing had changed, except for the addition of some teary, “I miss you’s” and “Are you sure’s?” In the end my ex’s usually had to push me away, it seemed the only way I could give time and space apart.
Since my divorce five years ago, I’ve had only one other relationship, which only sort-of ended when I moved to Madrid in 2015. We spent my year abroad in a liminal space which, while not exactly ideal or exactly what I wanted, seemed to suit me on some level. It was never entirely over until I moved back to the United States last July.
So this is new, this clean-break thing, and here’s the rub – it still hurts like hell. There’s nothing to do, nothing to be done. This clean break means there’s no drama around calling or not calling, writing or not writing, dissecting every bit of conversation. The not-clean-break means I can feel like I’m still in something. There’s some kind of crazy hope, but with this there is none.
Just memories. And sadness.
Yes … I have days where I’m not really sure we’re done. Others say that about us too. But I know, at least for now, we are.
Michelle was right. I did have a romance for the ages … and I haven’t even shared a tenth of it. I haven’t written publicly about it at all, until now. It was tender and private and new. It was ours. It still is. But it is my story too and I am a storyteller.
Last night I listened to a TED Talk by Anne Lamott. In it, she said, “You’re going to feel like hell if you wake up someday and you never wrote the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves of your own heart, your stories, memories, visions and songs – your truth, your version of things – in you own voice. That’s really all you have to offer us, and that’s also why you were born.”
It was those words that inspired me to write. That, a fire in my belly, and the memory of blogging about every other romance gone astray since my divorce. Sharing my story and opening it for conversation had felt both vulnerable and healing. There is something about speaking one’s truth, being witnessed, and hearing, “me too.”
It’s what we do in those church basements where he and I got sober and where we keep going so we can stay sober. As my friend Bob likes to say, “A problem shared is cut in two.” If that is so, then posting this hits it with a sledgehammer – cracks it right open sending sharp little shards in every direction that I will be picking up off the floor for months to come, even when I’m certain I’ve vacuumed them all up. The sun will hit the hardwood in a certain way and I’ll find another little piece.
I guess that’s what great love does – cracks us right open and destroys us. I hate it. And I wouldn’t change a single thing.
I cannot remember the last time I was carded. My friend Debbie reminds me that I don’t drink, so I am not often in bars. So my lack of recent experience with carding shouldn’t be a surprise.
But I am in a bar tonight –the night before Valentine’s Day. I have been “invited” for the final performance of “Solo in the Second City” – a live lit(erature) series about the nature of relationships. Artist Date 61.
I wish I would have known about this sooner, but I didn’t. And the only reason I know about it at all is because I participated in my first ever live lit event last week – Story Club, a monthly event featuring three invited storytellers, and three audience members whose names have been pulled from a hat. Except it’s not a hat, it’s a monkey carved out of a coconut with the words, “Have Fun” scrawled on it.
It is the winter of the Arctic Vortex in Chicago and only three people have put their names in the monkey. This is seemingly unheard of. I am one of them.
I climb up on to the stage, pull on my “cheaters” and read an extended version of my blog post “I Love You.” “Thank You.” About me and my divorce buddy. About walking through hell together. And learning to walk on my own. It is tender and raw and real. I feel like I have earned my place on this stage. It feels amazing.
I am followed by Carly Oishi, a featured writer. She weaves together three stories of love and loss. I am riveted. She is speaking my heart even though I do not recall her exact words.
At the end of the evening, I approach her and introduce myself. I tell her I like her piece. She tells me she likes mine and invites me to “Solo in the Second City.” I mention it to Debbie and we agree we will go.
And so I am here, at Beauty Bar, sitting on a low bench surrounded by 1950s hairdryer chairs, listening to stories of breakups and broken hearts.
One woman reads about watching relationships bloom and wither. But only watching. She has closed her heart off. Closed herself off. I know there is more because I am overwhelmed with feeling and identification, but I cannot access it.
Another reads, perhaps more accurately shouts, about when a man drops off the face of the earth without a word. Not a peep. A text. A fuck off. Nothing. She talks about body parts that are usually covered up meeting other body parts that are usually covered up. About giving someone VIP access to that place where her children were born from. She says it is a big deal.
It is a big deal. To give someone VIP access to that place. To literally let someone inside of you. For so many years I did not think so. There was no velvet rope. No line to enter. At least to my mind’s eye. And each and every one who came (no pun intended) was given an all access pass. Once upon a time. Now single again after 15 years coupled, and solo in the Second City, I can play it differently. I can have a different experience.
I am humbled by her cautionary tale of pain. For taking me back to how it was. And showing me how it still can be. How I can be.
Carly, the co-producer of the series, is the last to read. It is the story I heard last week. But this time I can hold on to the words. At least some of them. The part about love and how you will do anything for it. To taste it. To experience it. To feel it if only for a moment.
Yes. That is how I feel. How I have been ashamed to feel. The message I can discern from the noise and static surrounding me post-divorce is “You don’t need it.” “You shouldn’t want it.” “You need to learn to be alone.”
I know how to be alone.
I go to the opera alone. Dance performances alone. Art shows alone.
I live alone.
I work and dance and write. I have a large and diverse cast of characters I call friends.
I love my life.
And yes, I want love. That kind of love.
Hearing Carly’s words I feel somehow lighter. Less burdened by my desires. Free to let go of this misplaced shame.
I tell her so after the show. That I am grateful for permission to want love. She is visibly moved.
I remind her we have met and she admits she didn’t realize I live in Chicago. “So you ‘do this’?’ Write? Tell stories,” she asks.
“Yes,” I say.
She smiles and tell me she is putting together a story-telling series of all women, and asks if I would be interested in reading my work.
I smile back and give her the only appropriate answer – “I would love to.”