“So, second day in Lisbon, she tells you she doesn’t love you. Says she doesn’t have room for you in your life. You said it got worse every day — I don’t see how that’s possible.”
That’s Barney, my colleague here in London. He’s 22, 23. Something like that. He sits next to me in this office where I will be working for the next five weeks.
I’d come here to London at the request of my boss, but more importantly, at the request of a romantic interest — the one I’d been chasing for the better part of a year. She’d wanted me in Europe for the summer, so we could continue our romance at a slightly closer proximity. I’d just spent an awful week with her in Lisbon, which I was currently recounting to Barney.
“Oh, it does get worse,” I say. “Third day and fourth days she’s very sick. UTI. Starts treating it with cranberry pills.”
“CRANBERRY PILLS?” Barney interrupts. “Shitting cranberry pills?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Doesn’t do anything.”
“Of course it didn’t do anything, because you need to take shitting antibiotics!” he rages. A modern man, Barney. He doesn’t suffer fools.
“Yeah,” I nod. “I know. Anyways, turns out after I leave that it’s not just a UTI — it’s a kidney infection. (Which antibiotics also would have treated.) So she’s had a kidney infection literally the entire visit.”
“Is she like a fucking hippie child?” he asks. “Kind of girl who would wear a flower crown? Why the fuck is she taking cranberry pills.”
“Ehhh… kinda,” I say. “She was wearing a flower in her hair in Lisbon,” I say, drifting off in memory. Weeks later, when I pack to leave London, I will find this bougainvillea in my luggage. I won’t know what to do with it, and will, sadly, put it back in the inner-breast pocket of my jacket. Unable to let it go.
“Hey! Hey!” Barney snaps in front of my face. “Finish your fucking story.”
“Oh, right,” I say, coming out of nostalgic memory, and back to the hard reality of the thing. “Fifth day was her birthday. That one was alright. We were supposed to go to the beach but never got there. Drank a pitcher of sangria by the famous tower, you know the one. That got her talking a little. OK day.”
“Sixth day — she’s promised me we’ll talk this day. ‘Just give me a few days,’ she said. ‘Saturday, Saturday we’ll talk.’ So, Saturday: she gets a new roommate. Her other one is out of town, so the whole time I’m there she’s been trying to sublet it, you know,”
“Jesus Christ,” says Barney.
“Yeah,” I say. “I know. I was less than happy about that. She was always trying to buy a fucking washing machine too, and shit like that? Didn’t seem very present. So anyways. Sixth day, new roommate. She gives the roommate the only set of keys.”
“Noooo,” he says.
“Yup. I told her not to, but anyways, she gives away the keys to this new person she just met. Then she makes me go pick up some more furniture. Awesome. Already told her I’m not into the whole building a house thing. But anyways, whatever, we end up getting this furniture, struggling with it on the metro, right? Then — of course — we’re locked out of the apartment. Did I mention she’s still got the kidney infection?”
“Jesus Dan,” he says, shaking his head. “You did not have much luck on this trip, did you?”
“Noooo I did not,” I say. “Anyways, so we spend that night wandering around in the cold, trying to get the keys. She’s miserable. I’m annoyed. We still haven’t talked any more about what happened on Tuesday. About us. Eventually we get the fucking keys and go home. Everyone’s angry. That’s it. That’s Saturday. No talk.”
“Next day’s Sunday. Last day. She wakes up, tries to have sex with me. I just… can’t. I’m so sad, I don’t want it, you know? Sex for me is all about the emotional connection. And she’s shut that down, completely. I go to the bathroom and just cry.
“She wants to go to the beach, but I just want to get this fucking talk over with, you know? I force it, probably. Anyways, it goes from: she ends up inviting me to move in with her, to telling me she doesn’t have space for me in her life, to me telling her I was with another girl in New York. We run out of time, I gotta go catch my flight. And then I leave her a letter that says that I love her.”
There’s a beat.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Barney asks. “Really, what made you think ANY. OF. THAT. was a good idea?”
“Things did get away from me a little bit,” I admit.
“No fucking shit they got away from you,” Barney says. “Wayyyy far away.”
Then he adds: “Can I read the letter?”
I hesitate for a second, then say: “Sure. Why not?”
I have nothing left to lose.
I pass five weeks in London, alone.
Raw as could be.
I’m a traveler in my heart. But I had come to London, solely, to be closer to C.
I had told her this in Lisbon.
“I came here for you, you understand that, right?”
“It wasn’t easy to leave New York, to come here for six weeks — to disrupt everything… it was bad for my work, it screwed my colleagues over… I don’t have a home, I’ve been moving from sublet to sublet — it’s expensive. This isn’t easy, you know?!”
“You’re reminding me of myself,” she’d said, steely. “In Mozambique. And I don’t like that. It makes me want to run away.”
Run away she had.
Meanwhile, I lay alone, in London, slowly bleeding out on my single bed. It didn’t have any sheets. The previous tenant had taken them with her. I slept on the bare mattress, staining it.
It took a doctor to finally staunch the bleeding.
I had sleepwalked through a week of work; barely there. As I wrote news stories at my desk in a London office, I thought about C with the space between every word.
When the weekend finally came, the freedom hit me in the face like a shovel. I didn’t know what to do with so much space.
I bought some beers, stumbled over to the Nomad Community Gardens, where C and I had spent such a nice afternoon, last time we were in London, together. I walked past the table we had sat at. I looked at it, my chest twisted, and I kept walking.
I sat in a different corner of the gardens for a few hours: drinking hard ciders from the corner store, alone, and trying my best not to think.
I didn’t know what else to do.
Hunger eventually overcame me, and I stumbled out of the gardens in search of food. Waiting in line for a food truck near Penny Lane, I can’t help but overhear the conversation behind me. It sounds like an overly-eager first date.
“Well you’re a rock climber,” he says. “So it’s unfair, you have way better arms than I do.”
“Let me see your forearms… Holy shit!! See, it’s like a fucking rock!” he says.
“You’re a climber too!”
“Nah,” he parries. “You’re the climber. You know what you’re doing. I’m lucky you put up with me,”
“Hey now!’ she says. “I like climbing with you. I like teaching people to climb.”
Here, I smile. Teaching people to climb can be a fun experience, but it gets old. My only hint of a climbing partner in London was my boss, who I had taught to climb in Brooklyn. She liked it, but I’d been in London for a week, and she hadn’t accepted my invitations to come climbing even once.
That wasn’t going to work for me.
I turned around in the line.
“Excuse me,” I said to the startled pair. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but did I hear you talking about rock climbing?” They nodded. “I’m visiting for a few weeks, and I’m a big climber. I’ve been looking for the best place to climb in London, could you help me out?”
“Yeah, sure!” the woman jumped in. “There are really two main places: there’s Harrowall, in South London, and the Castle, in North London. There’s also Vauxwall, closer to central London—“
“Yeah, I went there the other day,” I said. “Seemed alright. The route setting was a bit iffy I thought.”
“Do you like to climb on ropes, or just boulder…?”
“Really, I’m looking for a place I can do lead climbing.”
“Yeah, you can do lead climbing at the Castle, for sure! Do you have… like, your equipment with you?”
“Yeah!” I said, enthusiastically. “I have shoes, harness, belay device and carabiner. Just lacking the rope really.”
“Oh, so you’re like: prepared.”
“Yeah, I’m going to be working a lot while I’m here, and climbing’s my release, you know? There was no way I couldn’t bring it.”
“I totally understand,” she says.
Climbers — real climbers — have an enthusiasm that’s ephemeral, instantaneous and immediately intelligible.
This woman had it — and that was the first thing to excite me since C had told me there wasn’t space for me in her life, that sun-drenched Tuesday afternoon in Lisbon.
“So,” she said, twisting her braid. “Did you find a partner?”
“No,” I said. “Not yet.”
“Well, do you want my number?” she offered.
“I would love that,” I said with a big smile. “I’m Dan.”
“Giulia!” she said, extending her hand energetically. I shook it, pleased with myself.
She gave me her number, and I promised I would text her.
The man she was with stood awkwardly to the side.
“You met this woman, in a queue?!” Barney says, outraged. “You talked to someone in public?”
“Yup,” I said. “Sur—“
“Get over here, Ellie,” Barney says, interrupting me. “Dan picked up a woman waiting in line.”
“Ah, that’s a bit weird now, isn’t it mate?” Ellie says. “Yanks, eh?”
I roll my eyes, but smile a bit.
Giulia and I are climbing within two days.
“I could definitely tell you weren’t from around here,” she said, as we tied in and got to know each other.
“You’re telling me English people don’t strike up conversation in queues?” I joked.
“No, no they don’t,” she said. “Actually, I thought we had done something wrong and you were going to tell us off.”
“You’re not from around here either, are you?” I ask her. I can’t quite place her accent.
“No!” she said. “I’m not. Although I’ve been here for six years now, so I feel like I almost belong. I can almost call myself a Londoner. I grew up in Belgium — although my parents are Italian.”
I threw my hands up in the air. “You’re fucking kidding me,” I said. “You’re Italian?”
“Yeah, haha?” she laughed a bit awkwardly. “Why?”
“It’s… nothing!” I said, turning away in an overly-dramatic fashion. “I just… had my heart broken by an Italian woman in Lisbon,” I said, elevating my voice like I was really upset. I smiled best I could, laughed. I put my hands over my heart, as if to cover the wound where the knife had entered.
“Oh wow,” Giulia said, frowning sympathetically. “That’s intense, I’m sorry.”
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s especially shitty because I came here to Europe just to be closer to her, and now I’m stuck here for five weeks, and she’s not talking to me!”
Giulia grimaced. I put on an exaggerated smile and gave a thumbs-up. I held it for a second, then let the mask fall.
“But that’s why we’re here!” I said, grabbing the climbing rope and flipping it in circles. “To forget about all that. Let’s climb some rocks.”
She’s a great climber. Isn’t afraid of anything.
Never runs away from a challenge.
We climb until they kick us out.
“Can you fucking believe it?!” I tell Barney, the next morning. “Another goddamn Italian.”
He laughs. “So, are you going to have sex with her?”
“I’m not all about sex, you know, Barney,” I say.
“Oh come on!” he says. “You just got out of a breakup. Go get some! Get on top of someone else and try your damnedest not to think about Lisbon girl!“
“Sounds like a fun time!” I say to him.
“Fun right up until the moment the crushing realization that this isn’t the woman I want to be doing this with sets in, and I realize I’m just trying to distract myself with meaningless sex which isn’t fair to me or her, at which point it’ll become just darkly, darkly tragic.”
“Exactly!” Barney rejoins, chipper.
“Probably mid-thrust,” I add.
“God dammit Dan,” he says, exploding in laughter. “You can’t say stuff like that! This is a workplace, you know?”
This is our dynamic. Smart; dark; whip-fast, and too close to truth for comfort. The truth is, Barney’s in just as dark of a place as I am. Our bosses had killed his ambitious redesign of our product, and the spark had gone out of his eyes.
“But… are you gonna sleep with her?” he asks again.
I laugh. “Maybe, man. There was that spark.”
C promises to call me that Friday evening to sort things out. She doesn’t call.
That Saturday finds me climbing with Giulia again. There, I learn she is a doctor. Newly-minted, with only a few weeks on the job. “You don’t want me taking care of you,” she says with a gentle laugh. We climb all day, and leave still wanting more of each other. She takes me out for Afghan food. We sit side by side, jammed together at a tiny communal table. Our legs touch and we can’t stop laughing. Still, the evening ends, and she sends me home in the rain. I leave smiling.
The Sunday finds me in a Shoreditch coffee shop, telling C what she did on Friday was shitty. She calls, says “There’s just not a spark,” and makes her thoroughly underwhelming exit. I call her a coward. I speak the words “I love you.” She hangs up the phone.
And that’s that — until 3:08 a.m., four days from then, when she’ll text me: “I feel awful about the way things went.”
Like all good coffee shops, this one’s also a bar.
“I’m having a bad day, and I’m gonna start drinking,” I tell the barista.
“That’s a bad idea, I think,” he says in a thick Australian accent.
“Almost certainly is,” I respond. “So whaddya got?”
He serves me a beer over his better judgement, but stays to chat with me.
I tell him my story: how I’d come to Europe for this woman, and how she’d just hung up the phone on me after saying: ‘there’s nothing that would make me want to get on a plane and fly to see you.’
“So how long’d you last out there in Lisbon before she kicked you out?” he asks.
“About two days,” I say, laughing. “I stayed five more, together with her, but I shouldn’t have, you know? I knew what I needed to know after that second day.”
“Oof,” he says. “You got me beat, but not by much. I moved here from Oz to London to be with my girl. Made it one week. After that, she tells me she’s sleeping with someone else. So I absolutely lose my shit, you know, because I knew it. I fucking knew it. I’d been bothering her about it and she was trying to hide it, just saying I was too jealous, right? Huge fight, all night — we finally calm down, you know. I’m like: ‘alright, well, you wanna at least have some breakup sex?’ and she tells me: ‘I can’t. He doesn’t want me sleeping with other people. He’s really jealous.’”
We both laugh.
“Anyways mate,” he says, “point is, you’ll be alright. Just takes some time. First two months I was here I hated it. Now though, I love the place.”
“Yeah, I know,” I say. “I’m just here for a few weeks, though. But London seems like a pretty good place to be miserable, right?”
We glance out the windows. It’s grey and dreary outside: stereotypical London.
“You got any friends here in London?” the bartender asks. “Hit them up.”
“That’s good advice, mate.” I say. I order another beer, open my phone. I open WhatsApp. C sits atop my chat list: her contact adorned with an Italian flag and a red heart. I swipe it away, hiding her.
I scroll down one chat, find Giulia. Another Italian flag. I laugh, a little, to myself. “I just can’t stop meeting Italians, mate,” I say to the bartender, idly. “Must be something about me.”
I text Giulia.
“I’m having a rough day,” I say. “How’s your body feeling?”
“Everything is so sore…” she responds.
We exchange a few vaguely flirty messages. She asks if I managed to make anything of my Sunday.
“I’m drinking away my sadness at a coffee shop in Shoreditch,” I respond. “So this day still has the potential to become very good or very bad haha”
“Hahah well then, if you get a say in it, it will certainly be a good day!” she says.
I drop her a few more messages as the alcohol grabs hold. Luckily, I have the good sense to abandon the conversation before I drop too far into the hole. I mope with the Aussie bartender for a while, before leaving to go sit alone and think. A few hours later, I shake myself out of it and go home. I make myself a cup of hot chocolate.
I follow up with Giulia: “Safely emerged from the other side of the sad day-drinking bout… hot chocolate is much better. sorry for bothering.” I send her a photo of the Harry Potter mug I’m drinking from.
“Well done!” she says. “Would you consider yourself a Slytherin, then?” she asks.
“Noooo!” I say, outraged.
“I would have thought you more of a Gryffindor anyways,” she says.
“These days I think so,” I say. “I do far too much reckless shit to be a Ravenclaw”
“Haha I believe that” she responds, instantly.
“Next time we go climbing, I’ll tell you about the time I ruptured my spleen,” I say.
“Oh damn… was that your near death experience?” she asks.
No spoilers, I say, with an upside-down smiley.
Alright, alright she says.
“Speaking of which… reckon you’ll be recovered by Wednesday?” she asks me.
“I’m climbing with my boss on Monday, I think,” I shoot back. “So Wednesday with you will be perfect!”
“Sounds good,” she snaps back. “I don’t think I’ll have time to get a rope Amazon delivered by then… I’ll see if I have time to pass by a store.”
“Your dedication to this belaytionship warms my (recently) cold dead heart,” I tell her. “Lead climbing would be great.”
“Haha I am doing my best,” she says. She follows it up:
“Also.. If you feel cold and dead inside… its not love you need, just a hot cup of tea made by a friendly face.”
I don’t think anyone’s ever said anything nicer to me in my entire life.
Monday finds me and Barney, back together again, chatting shit on my love life.
“Who drinks alone?” Barney asks, incredulous. “Are you really that much of a cliche?”
“Well,” I say, justifying, “the bartender was hanging out with me. So really, yeah — I guess I am cliche, day-drinking alone, talking to the bartender because I haven’t got anyone else. Like some shit out of a bad movie, isn’t it??”
“Jeee-sus Dan,” Barney says, elongating the name for effect. “You are painting a dire picture here.”
“Well you never accept my offers to go out,” I say. “What do you expect me to do?”
“I expect you to man up and do Giulia,” he says. “Haven’t I made that clear??”
I laugh. “Not sure that’s what’s happening there,” I say.
“So things are done for good with Lisbon girl?” he asks.
“Yeah, I think so,” I say.
“That’s a shame,” he says. “I’m sorry. Maybe next time, don’t write a fucking letter?”
I give him two fingers, the British equivalent to throwing the bird.
“No one does that,” he says, dismissively.
The next time I see Giulia, we meet at a different climbing gym. The Arch, in southern London. It’s closing, and she wants to say goodbye to one of her med-school haunts.
It’s a cool space: industrial and hip and full of community. I would have haunted it, too.
We climb, casually, trying problems here and there. Mostly though, we chat. It’s late in the evening, and the place begins to empty out.
I lay on a crash pad, watching Giulia run laps on the circuit board. I’d fallen off halfway through, dropping three meters onto the huge mats below. I’d rolled out of the way and never gotten up. It was comfy, and the view was pretty good. Plus, my spleen kind of hurt after the fall. It hurt most days, in London.
“Yeah I spent four days in the hospital when I did it,” I tell Giulia. She’s come down from the climbing wall, collapsed next to me on the mats. We lay side-by-side in the mostly-empty gym, our heads turned to look into each other’s eyes. “Two days ICU, two days surgical unit. But I still have my spleen. They didn’t remove it. Just kind of kept me immobilized and let it heal on its own.”
“That’s good!” she says. “You kind of need your spleen. It causes a lot problems if you don’t have one.”
“Yeah I’m happy to have it. It’s kind of funny though, I can feel I it now,” I say. “I know exactly where it is. It’s kind of like a pilot light for my body. It hurts when I’m not sleeping enough, I’m drinking too much, or when I’m really stressed.”
In London, alone, I’m exhibiting all three of these behaviors.
“Really?” she says, curious. “That’s fascinating. I wonder if it’s enlarged?”
“Dunno,” I say, still laying on the ground. “You’re the doctor. Wanna check it out?”
“Can I?!” she says, her eyes lighting up. She hops up onto her knees, and waddles over to my side.
I laugh, and pull up my shirt to reveal my abdomen.
She cracks her knuckles, puts her hands together, and starts pressing softly on the lower-left side of my stomach, feeling my internal organs. It’s a strangely intimate moment.
“Don’t ever tell another doctor that you have a damaged spleen,” she tells me as she pokes around on my bare stomach. “When we were doing our residencies we had to do exams like this, but it’s a pretty rare thing to find a person with an enlarged spleen. So whenever we had someone in the hospital, there’d be a line out the door of residents wanting to have a look,” she says, smiling.
“And here, one’s delivered directly to you,” I joke. “Che fortuna, no?”
“D’accordo,” she indulges me, in Italian. “I’m lucky you wanted barbecue that day.”
She makes me breathe in, breathe out. Checks a few more things. “Well, it’s definitely still there,” she says with a shrug and smile. She pulls my shirt down.
Even though she’s just been poking at it, somehow, I feel better.
“So, what’s your plan when the company goes under?” Barney asks me.
“Well, I say, my plan was to save money until we ran out of money, then move to Portugal,” I said.
“Yeah, that would have been a really great plan,” Barney says. “Really good plan.”
“It was a great plan,” I say.
“You really fucked up there,” he says. “Why did you write a goddamn letter?” He can’t get over it.
“Fuck off,” I say.
“Just imagine: you could have just been coasting away, keeping your mouth shut and happily ignoring the problems.”
“Yeah,” I respond. “Instead, now, I have to deal with your unhelpful ass every day.”
“How does it feel to know you ruined your only chance for happiness because you couldn’t keep your fucking mouth shut?” he asks. “To imagine her, off with some other woman; to know, you’ve ruined everything, just because you had to te—“
“That’s enough, man.” I say. “There’s a fucking line. And you’re well past it.”
Barney’s comments hit close to home because I do have regrets. Although in my head I know a person who doesn’t love you can’t be convinced to do so, my heart still feels that if I had just been slightly more subtle, maybe things would have worked out fine. This is the argument C has chosen to make: I’m angry you dumped all these feelings on me, she says.
“No, fuck that though,” my sister says to me, on the telephone. “You already told her how you felt. She can’t be mad about that. That’s not right. She can’t ask you to keep holding that in. Of course it was going to come out all at once like that.”
My friends from all across the world are reaching out to me:
“Awww, you’re posting emo pics on Instagram. I’m sorry :(” “I know what will make you feel better: come back to Colorado!” “She’s a stupid bitch (no offense).” “Hey, I know we’ve never met in real life but I’ve been following you online for a while now and I have to ask: are you ok?”
Some are more empathetic than others.
“Yeah man, you’re definitely going to regret that for the rest of your life,” my British friend Harry says, immediately after my story. He’s taken the train to London to come see me. I laugh. “You’re a mother-fucker, Harry,” I say.
“Maybe after a few years,” he says. “Or maybe after a divorce. I have an uncle, had a story just like that. He got shot down, went on married someone else, divorced, and he reconnected with the girl after the divorce. They’ve been together for like seven years now.”
“Well I’m glad we’re both heartbroken,” he tells me. “That means we can both get sloppy drunk and emotional without being a burden for each other.”
Later, sloppy drunk and emotional, he tells me: “I think we’ll be great friends for the rest of our lives. And we won’t see each other often, but we’ll get together like this once or twice a year and always have a cracking time. And that makes me very, very happy.”
“Me too, pal,” I say. “But you’re still a bastard for these tequila shots.”
“Oh don’t be a pussy,” he says, knocking his back. He licks the salt off my hand instead of his own.
He might not seem it, but Harry’s empathetic as hell.
I’m glad to have him on my side.
My time in London passes quick. It’s also, somehow, excruciatingly slow.
I wait, every day, for an apology, an invitation, an explanation.
It never comes, of course. And before I know it, it is over.
And it’s not C I’m saying goodbye to.
Giulia and I say our goodbyes over brunch.
I tell my colleagues I’m taking a long lunch.
I’ll probably be gone for like two hours, I say.
What? They ask, shocked. We have work to do, they say.
Giulia, Barney mouths to the room, obviously.
“Good luck buddy,” he says. “Last chance. Seal the deal.”
I flip him off with both hands as I walk backwards out the door.
Giulia has invited me to a fancy brunch place. It is photogenic, hip, and expensive. I order a yoghurt, she orders poached eggs. We get coffees — real, English coffees, not that Italian garbage, I joke with her. We smile. She laughs. I see a warmness in her. I will miss the sound of her voice, I know. That accent, so unknowable. That odd, cheerful accent that turned out to be Italian. That friendly face.
If you feel cold and dead inside… its not love you need, just a hot cup of tea made by a friendly face.
My chest twisted. I didn’t want to go.
“There’s a ping-pong table downstairs!” she said, excitedly. “We have to check it out before we leave!”
So, middle of a workday, we went into the basement of this bar, and played ping-pong.
She smiled. She looked beautiful. We laughed, and played a friendly match.
“My dad’s a ping-pong pro,” she said.
He must not have taught her all that well, though, because I beat her in the end.
“That’s what I was saying,” she says with a sigh. “I was never good enough to play with my dad. He kinda gave up on me.”
We are alone in the ping-pong room. I can feel the clock ticking on us.
I think about kissing her.
I can’t shake the feeling of something wonderful slipping through my fingertips.
With a great effort, I choose to let it go.
We walk out of the restaurant. London is bright and sunny; a gift just for us.
We walk a few blocks together, towards my office. She needs to go one way, to the hospital. I need to go another, towards home. We stop on a street corner, turn towards each other. I look at her, she looks at me.
“This is you,” I say, lamely.
We hug; a long one, full of meaning.
“I just want to say thanks,” I tell her, my voice shakey. “You have no idea how important you were to me this trip. You really saved my life,” I say.
She blushes. “You really brightened my summer too,” she says. “And I hope your heart feels better soon.”
“Just a hot cup of tea and a friendly face,” I say, “right?”
“Right!” she says, beaming.
And like that, she’s gone.
I walk back to the office, sit down next to Barney, and feel on the verge of tears.
“That hurt more than I expected,” I say to him.
“That’s the worst part about traveling,” I say. “You meet all these amazing people… and then you have to let them go.”
“Like us, eh Dan?” he jokes.
“I won’t miss you fuckers,” I say, smiling, weakly.