We were lying in bed about a week after wheels-down from the honeymoon, and she was still gushing about it — the food, the weather, the service; the cool bartender.
She was curled into my right arm, her hand tracing lazy figure eights on my chest. A bottle of Firefly vodka sat half-empty on the nightstand.
I was happy. Under the covers the world made sense. Outside of their protective rustle, it was a different story.
As this was my third (at least) trip down hearing about the wedding and honeymoon, my mind drifted off.
I hadn’t been at either, and I wanted to change the subject.
I had spent the weekend she got married in a drunken haze; the two weeks she was gone living for the one email she was able to send each day from St. Maarten. I lived for that thing, the affirming small (1) announcing its arrival on Gmail.
In our little Gmail world she was Francesca, I was Paolo. The Divine Comedy playing out in the real world.
She wrote when she could. And each night she’d crawl into a big tub with her phone, while her new husband puttered around cluelessly in the $1,000-a-night honeymoon suite, and add to a serial composition she was secretly writing to me, via the notes app on the phone.
She sent it to me on a Friday night, after she landed in Atlanta on her way back to New York. It was the nicest, sweetest thing anyone ever wrote me. I memorized it.
“I’m married now, and that can’t change,” she wrote. “But neither will that stop me from wanting to be with you,” she added.
“What does it all mean?” the last line asked.
I had no idea what it meant, but I knew time was up in the hourly hotel we were lying in. She had to get back to her husband. Me to my life.
We never doubted the morality of our situation. We knew. Neither of us ever thought we’d be in it. But we were.
It could have — should have — needed to — just…. end.
But it didn’t. Her hold over my heart was absolute. And having found each other, having taken the first, awful forbidden step, we simply didn’t want it to end.
We eventually graduated from the dive hotels to a nice hotel, where we’d spend hours soaking together watching old movies and talking. Her curiosity and intelligence were limitless. She taught me how to say I love you in Tagalog.
The hotel became suites in Oahu, an AirB&B condo in Maui, a beach-front cottage in Florida. We lived for Jetsetter deals, flip flops, her blue bikini, my sandy gray hair and board shorts. Her crooked, white smile always in perfect contrast to her brown skin.
We just kept going. And always stealing time, man.
Just stealing whatever time we could to be together. Any excuse. To talk to each other, touch each other, laugh with each other, fight with each other. Fuck each other.
My lover, my confidant, my best friend, my partner, my antagonist, my inspiration, my muse. She was all of that to me.
The more miles we travelled, the farther away we grew from our families, our “real lives” as she called it, until for both of us what was left was just us. This life we had carved out inch by inch, leaving a trail of brokenness, questions and pain in our wake.
She was the millennial, the pragmatist who co-existed with equal parts fear and admiration for authority. I was the rebel, the dreamer, the writer.
And we were the cliché, the couple you see and shake your head at. But also maybe secretly admire for having the guts to be together. Striding into Morton’s or Mori Moto’s, or Denino’s, we’d turn every head. She pretended not to notice, I pretended not to care.
What are you doing? I asked one day on Gmail. A pause before the comforting (1) appears. Looking up May to December romances, she said.
I smiled broadly into the small screen: What have you learned about them?
Another pause. Another (1). Well, and now she spaces out the letters: The Sex is Unbelievable! Smiley faces followed the exclamation point. An image of lying next to her — down deep under the big comforter, feet entwined — wondering how I got so lucky. Now I was really smiling. Dear God, she makes me happy, I was thinking.
Your body. The way it fits mine and mine fits yours. This is like nothing I thought possible. Your perfectly imperfect smile and the wonderful way you scream in my ear. Never. Never, ever, ever before, you say, still short of breath, eyes aglow, until your words fail and my arms draw you close.
The love, the sheer passion we shared, was born out of both our forbidden affair and the meeting of our souls. We told ourselves that we had found each other, despite what life and society dictated. And we were proud that we had dared to take the steps we did, instead of simply wishing for something in our “next life.”
So the pain of the break-up, when it came, when our next life became our real life, was that much harder, that much more permanent for me. I had given up everything for her. The conscious bet I had silently made on her was lost. I had been wrong, about her, about our future, about everything, and I paid a steep price for it.
Alfred Lord Tennyson once famously wrote that it’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all. And I had always believed that.