Most of my romantic life is comprised of heartache over my own shortcomings; contriving situations whereby a girl who loves me is pushed away. I hide from them, leave them alone in the relationship, and only later come to comprehend how much I care. At this point, I find myself surprised that they’ve realised they’re too good for my bullshit and move on with someone who doesn’t come with my up and down complexities.
I spend a strangely prolonged amount of time yearning for them, placing the memories good and bad on venerable pedestals, crying on the barely there shoulder of the past, analysing what was, speculating on what could have been and all the other pretty knives-turned-inwards melancholy, even romanticising the beauty of the original breakdown, but only ever once they’re gone.
I know what I’m doing is wrong. I carry on anyway.
The last girl, from forever ago, flew away and never returned. Still, over a year on, she occupied me. The act of remembering her was like slow dancing with a skeleton; you’d do anything to dig out the memories and spend forever with the dazed smile of those with the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind, but the box inside you is locked and you don’t know what, who or where the key is. So you just let it wash over you, tell yourself the pain has shaped you to be a better version of yourself, and hope and hope and hope that it’s true.
When seeking understanding of why this hopeless seed refused to yield, I came across a term called ‘ambiguous loss’. It’s how psychologists differentiate a death that doesn’t involve a body, like a terminated pregnancy or years-gone missing family member, or a spouse who descends into dementia while still alive. It complicates, confuses and extends the process of grieving, lacking understanding, closure or resolution.
Understanding the term didn’t make it much more bearable – knowing you’re ‘not alone’ doesn’t always make you less alone – but it at least gave me context and the desire to ensure future breaks are clean and concise, preferably with four or five dimensions of high-definition clarity.
And yet I was threatening to experience another ‘ambiguous loss’ situation here in the Philippines. On a much smaller scale, of course, but the potential precedent and cumulative effect seemed to magnify matters. We seemed to be having a fight neither of us knew the origins of. I can deal with reasons, even if they’re not to my liking, but mysteries leave the questions and ‘what ifs’ that swirl around your pillow, keeping you awake as dawn creeps closer.
Instinct said I wanted more, but also said I didn’t know how. I’ve been accused of being someone who only likes beginnings and not what happens next, hence my fleeting nature, but I still liked and wanted this. I missed her soon after she left that day, but wasn’t sure if that was some form of Stockholm Syndrome (her assessment, terribly worthy of consideration) or coming from somewhere more genuine.
The question of leaving briefly crossed my mind, but only as a means of avoiding the humiliation of being left. I wrestled that idea away and tried to conceive of ways to revitalise us, feeling a curious need to fight for a ten-day-old romance.
When she returns that evening, we’re still pulseless. The way she used to move, gliding elegance interrupted by kinetic, gleeful bursts as she ignited with a story or a laugh, no longer carries the latter aspect. The inevitably of the coming ending is at the edge of every thought and interaction, it’s just a matter of who pulls the trigger first. We wander the streets, trying not to acknowledge the barren streak between us, searching for something light to say just to prevent the awkwardness. Knowing I never will, I almost want her to draw her pistol.
And then, miraculously, a lifeboat. It sails in in the shape of a friend from Boracay who we unexpectedly bump into on the streets. We can barely mask our desperation as we invite her to join us for dinner.
She does, and is probably confused by the attention. We’re both talking directly to her, barely exchanging a glance at each other. Every question heads her way, our eyes dancing with interest at our unwitting saviour. In the process of this, the lines of communication between my prime interest and I gradually thaw out, revealing the green beneath the snow. We find ourselves accidentally laughing at the same things, having the same input on certain topics, and soon this coalesces into us talking to each other in the same energetic spirit.
It releases the unknown, dead tension between us. The lights are on again, our reunion carrying the urgency of an epiphany as we exit our brief winter.
Alone again, our recovered spark doesn’t just remain but stokes a fire. The fun floods back to us, even without company, all carefree and instinctive as it always should be, snapping from the doldrums of “too much, too soon” to the blur of too much is never enough.
We soon dive deeper than we’d ever delved. It feels like everything that came before was just ripples and rivulets; it’s an ocean now as I discover all this beauty wrapped up in the ribbons of her heart, in some ways like I’ve stumbled into an exclusive preview of a museum exhibition, the ceiling yawning skywards, my footsteps echoing as spellbinding art cascades down the walls, the illuminations of her.
As we dodge puddles and mopeds while roaming the streets, take pause in restaurants, gaze at sunsets and steal moments on the beach at night as music from the bars overlaps with the waves at our feet, we continue.
She tells me about the decent lies she used to tell her parents to facilitate various escapes from home, takes obscenely large bites of our shared falafel to match mine and apologises for rambling while I’d quietly hope she’ll continue. I tell her about the versions of myself on the basis on several specific decisions and she completes that thought for me by suggesting the versions of you other people have, no matter how briefly or permanently they entered your sphere, are equally valid and true.
Each day would carry a fixation on something – a thought, a friend, a topic – that she would bring up out of nowhere every few hours. Her speech would gather momentum, the rhythm increasing in time with her excitement. She’d deflect a question and then answer it, without warning, an hour later, meaning we were usually having three separate conversations at any one time, all carried out at different speeds as if in some strange motorway metaphor.
When the door closes, more so. Tangled in the sheets, the darkness, each other, we talk endlessly, laying our souls down between us and allow the other to inspect at length. Her presence and kindness liberates my suppressed materials, makes them real and empathetic, drawing me closer to things I’m yet to learn about myself. I tell her my secrets, she makes them fly.
It feels like we’re talking about the stars even when we’re not. It sounds obscenely sentimental, it is in fact, but no less true for it; I remember that being the exact thought I had in mind when the conversation came up for air at one point, just how accurate and pure the assessment sounded in my mind. It’s all comets and constellations while she’s make-up free in cut-up clothes, interstellar instants somehow weaving through times when I’m talking about Djibouti and she’s wearing the crossed-eyed face that’s somehow amplified by its subtlety and my accent slips to Russian and we’re laughing again and we’ve forgotten what we were talking about but it was probably pretty good.
I keep waiting for a reflexive wave of cynicism to swell in me, drown out the thoughts, corrupt the feelings, but it never comes. There’s somehow a sense of nostalgia for moments I’m already living, but it’s a feeling I hold away from myself so I can explore every scintillating little particle of it now.
At times the limits of skin and bone would intercept. It just wasn’t physically possible to be close enough in those moments.
In the coming days it goes on to filter into public life, what had been an open secret just open now. We try to hide it, I even semi-ironically suggest temporarily “consciously uncoupling” before a boat trip with friends, but we fail because it’s too pressing to let precious hours slip by. Barely restrained, we fall into the kind of public displays of affection we both hate.
I was lost in her, even to the extent that we’d go out and the presence of friends I genuinely liked was an inconvenience. A bit much, really, given it was just an evanescent romantic interlude from the singular road, and completely foreign to my usual nature, but every moment is so charged with the impossibility of it ever going anywhere.
And yet, after a very specific yet indistinguishable point, that freedom crafts the paradox. It opens you up, takes you deeper, faster, so much so, and ironically leads you back to the start. While distracted by her presence, the statement has morphed into a question; “could this go anywhere?”
It’s a question I chastise myself for. I know better than to allow it to form, but there it glows. No matter, it’s a question I’ll bury anyway. If it did mean anything, our respective stubbornness and the selfishness will have their time; we’re both equipped to pretend that it didn’t.
On the beach one day, I see another girl I recognise. She’s Swedish, and having met her just after Christmas I’d made vague plans to meet her here in El Nido to conduct a ‘love experiment’. It related to an article my brother showed me towards a decade ago, one I rediscovered a few months before leaving England for this trip.
Simply, in 1996, Dr. Arthur Aron conducted a study whereby he placed groups of two heterosexual people of the opposite gender in a room together and asked them to move through thirty-six increasingly personal questions before staring into each other’s eyes for four minutes. Six months later, one of the couples got married and invited the rest of the case study to the wedding.
There are various tales of people copying down the questions and doing the experiment themselves online. It seemed like a worthy bandwagon to jump on.
The plans with the Swedish girl were, at the time, pressing and vital. Having last read the article in August, I’d let it drift to the back of my mind so I wouldn’t be able to remember the questions and could therefore preserve the purity of my answers. I was intending to write about it, too, but then, this. I’d forgotten about those plans completely, and instead of approaching her that day on the beach, I just return to the current company without a second thought.
Instead, I conduct the experiment with the girl who matters on our penultimate night together.
Since the experiment is designed to take place between two strangers, the majority is rendered erroneous. It’s mostly just confirmation of how well we already know each other, but there were some fun details I might have missed otherwise; she told me about her treasured memory of playing Mary in her nativity play, which we laughed about as I played Joseph in mine. I told her I don’t think anything is too serious to be joked about, she told me about her cruelly unsuccessful dream of getting to wear a tutu on stage, I told her that if I could wake up tomorrow having gained one quality, I’d be able to sing.
On the less frivolous side, I said something loaded about us both “feeling conflicted about whether or not we wanted to see each other again” in response to ‘things we have in common’ which hung there for a while, and she told me about her relationship with her mother.
Applying science to love clearly has its credentials, it’s all chemicals and dopamine after all, but we’d already established our own unique rhythm and patterns, something those questions mostly just served to put on pause. Parts were fun, but we mostly just wanted it to be over, perhaps, in addition to the interruption, because it was tinged with a sense of finality and the reality we were soon to part.
Walking home, we remember the final part of the equation: staring into each other’s eyes for four minutes.
The most obvious issue is where, since we’d reverted back to staying in hostel dorm rooms (ironically the day after our spark returned), but having come this far, we go ahead anyway.
As seven strangers sleep in the darkness, she turns on her phone’s torch light and jams it into the slats of the bunk above us.
We settle, as close as the eyes are still able to focus, then begin.
There’s something about how eye contact can be simultaneously so vulnerable and invasive. We’d had practice in the shape of comfortably lingering looks at times over the past couple of weeks, but never like this. After overriding the initial instinct to look away, I drop my guard. I know she’s exploring the flecks of red and gold in mine, and I wonder whether see currently sees them as green or blue, the different iterations she says they drift between.
I gaze back at hers, knowing she dislikes them but unable to comprehend how she could be so blind to their own beauty.
Without an alarm to mark the end of the allotted four minutes, time becomes a distant concept. What must be minutes pass in a second, but that minute somehow comprises of individual seconds that last for minutes.
I feel a welcome warmth move up my spine and out towards my shoulders, an exhilaration, a silent roar. Something so simple yet so naked, so poetic. It carries the thrill of the teenager who gets a knock on his bedroom window late at night and then looks up to see it’s the girl he’d just woken from dreaming about.
I study the oscillations. The delicate assuredness. The fluidity. The way her pupils dilate, fading in and out like a radio losing its signal, like they’re breathing almost. A communication is taking place, so close yet so vague, as if her eyes are speaking words in a foreign language I can’t quite grasp; the sounds familiar, the meanings elusive.
Most poignantly, you reflect her. Everything you see, she’s seeing in you, too. You’re watching yourself be truly seen. Maybe she feels the lightness rush through her, too, and then settles in to marvel at the simple wonder of connection.
It saw the experiment snatch vivid meaning from the jaws of insignificance. It felt like we were the only people awake in the universe.
It’s the stillest anyone’s ever been as they soared.
Thirty or so hours later, we reach our inevitable conclusion. She’s heading back south, I’m forging on north. I resist urges to invite her with me or to change my plans to remain parallel with her. It feels like the right time to go anyway, given she’s going home imminently. Why give yourself time to develop more feelings for someone you’ll definitely have to part with days later anyway? I embrace the softer collision.
It’s around six in the morning and I’m beyond drowsy, confused about whether I’m still dreaming or not as she says goodbye. She leaves the room, the door closes, and the reality shocks me awake.
After five seconds of staring at the door, I say “fuck” aloud. I allow a wry smile at myself for doing such a thing, then I move. Packing, escaping the ember-scattered room, boarding a boat, sailing away, staring back at the fading island as if in the final frames of a coming-of-age film. There should be music, I think. A rousing, rising score. Explosions In The Sky, Ludovico Einaudi, something with strings, maybe.
But there isn’t because it’s real life. And I prefer it, because nothing’s more beautiful than the things you can touch.
When you realise you’ve been with someone more or less 24/7 for a few weeks, their sudden absence feels peculiar, like you’ve been stripped of a limb. Still you, of course, but like a house without furniture, a school corridor in the summer holidays or London Underground early on a Sunday morning, being you feels a little foreign. Luckily, it’s fleeting. The hollowness of her absence, temporarily so conspicuous it glows like a neon sign, fades, thick traces of longing overridden by the discovery of new places, new things, the race to the bottom of the next drink.
I usually find, as you might have noticed, that the ending of a relationship takes away a lot more than it ever managed to give. This was a unique and most welcome reversal.
I used to have this thing about not sharing parts of myself with a new romantic interest that I’d shared with those that came before, convinced that doing so would dilute and taint sacred moments of old relationships. Consequently, certain films, music, thoughts, jokes, interests and more would remain off-limits, suspended in the past with ex-flames.
It was a theory as well intentioned as it was badly conceived.
I ceased to care about this damaging concept – how fragmented you’d become if you kept that up and had just a few relationships – and instead of being muted and neutered by the past, reclaimed some of my little, vital pieces from those dusty, abandoned avenues. It wasn’t something consciously addressed, just a liberation that happened while lost and found in brand new eyes.
I also realised I hadn’t thought about the girl who flew away for two weeks. On the rare occasions when I have since, it doesn’t possess the sting of old.
I came to understand that it wasn’t even the person, as wonderful as they are, that I’d been missing all along, it’s just when you’re lonely and think of when you last weren’t, it’s her image projected. You get tricked by your own emotions; let your mind give a face and body to something that doesn’t have one. In hindsight, it’s just a hologram.
Even though you were probably never right for each other, through the rose-tinted lenses of retrospect, all the red flags just look like flags. Because memory is malleable, an instrument designed to edit and disguise the bad notes in post-production.
It’s science. I’ve read studies that show each time we remember we’e actually just recalling the last time we remembered. It allows gradual changes to the memory each time you fondly recall, minor distortions that accumulate, like an invisible current beneath the water’s surface pulling you further from the truth each time, a game of ‘Chinese Whispers’ unknowingly played alone.
This epiphany, or at least finally drawing the connection between the various threads, was the locked box inside me. It turns out the key to it was a foreign girl in a foreign place in the shadow of palm trees, a pretty haze of last minutes, lost evenings and enchanting little feelings.
It’s an incredible thing, to gain sudden perspective on something you were for so long lost in the maze of, something that felt so permanent. The feeling you had only a few months previous feels like it belongs to a stranger. I suppose that’s the point; you can’t control your emotions. If we could, the world would be much simpler place, and amazingly boring to boot.
Having been blinded by hindsight for so long, a girl from the land of the long white cloud took those sunglasses off me. It’s nice to see all the colours again.
With regards to her, to be in a place where you can allow yourself to miss someone positively, without shame or guilt, is a blessing. I’ll listen to her music and read her poems and think of her, but with a smile rather than an ache; joyful memories of a beautiful time with an impossibly beautiful person.
I don’t know whether I’ll see her again. As small as it is, the world’s a big place, too, and people have a tendency to get lost out there. The simple truth is our paths may never align again, as much as we may hope they do.
For now, I’ll set those thoughts free. You can remain spliced between reality and presumptuous visions of her, with you, on the road or wherever one of you call home, or just remain immediate; propelled, robust and all the other things that attracted her to you in the first place.
It’s a no brainer.
Yesterday is a constraint disguised as comfort. So you pour forward; a knowing nod to good times gone, a warm embrace for the chaos ahead.
Less waiting for sunsets, more chasing sunrise.
She’d like that. I do, too.