My final weekend in Europe.
I’d imagined I would spend it somewhere romantic with C. A sixth country. Somewhere new; somewhere that could be ours. Some use for all that money I had saved, after months of living simply in New York and London. I would buy her ticket, I had told her in Lisbon.
“Be present!!” she’d told me in response, before spending the afternoon shopping for a washing machine and pointedly ignoring the yawning tension between us.
“I have three weekends left in Europe,” I’d told her on the phone. “Come meet me somewhere. Let’s not let things end the way they did.”
“I’ll think about it,” she said.
I hung up, went to bed with a smile on my face.
The next a.m., I woke up to a text: I don’t quite understand the point of the request. My answer is still no.
So I went to Brussels to see an old fling.
Someone much better at ‘keeping things light.’
I arrive on Yvonne’s doorstep at 11:30 p.m., wearing a coat and carrying nothing but my laptop bag. I got the bag three years ago, in Bali, from a wonderful woman who I will remember forever. It fits my computer, a change of underwear, and a toothbrush.
“Traveling light as usual, I see,” Yvonne says, with a smile.
She invites me up to her flat. It’s beautiful: one bedroom, a living area, and a small kitchen. Tastefully decorated; understated; homey.
I drop my bag off, and we go out for a beer.
“It’s so refreshing to be in a city that doesn’t close down at midnight!” I say.
“This is Europe,” she says, proudly. “Not the UK.”
“Yeah, I know,” I respond with a look.
“Oh Dan,” she says, with a hug. “It’s good to see you.”
Yvonne’s blonde, German, and an irrepressible extrovert. She talks, almost unstoppably. A font of conversation, anecdotes, loosely related stories; she has little place for silence. A European studies major, just like C.
Yvonne had just moved to Brussels to begin work with the EU — “the Union”, as she seemed to be in the habit of calling it. Perhaps this is how it’s normally called. I wouldn’t know.
I’m not European.
“So tell me all about C,” Yvonne says to me. “What happened? Or am I going to have to wait and read about it on your blog?” she says, poking fun.
She’s a gossip — she likes to dig, even at the most intimate moments. She’s guarded around me, because she knows I’m a gossip too, and I like to write.
She spends my visit extracting information from me.
As usual, I learn little of her.
Things stay light.
I tell her my sad story, of love found and love lost.
I am shattered, and she can see it.
“You seem to always run into me when I am heartbroken,” I tell her, with a wan smile. We are drowning our sorrows in pizza and wine at a nice Italian restaurant. “I had really hoped she would tell me not to take the job in New York,” I say. “We were both free; we could have made something together.” I stare glumly at table.
“No girl would do that though, Dan!” Yvonne says, exasperated. She’s often exasperated with me. Her background is different, her goals are different, her way of seeing the world is different from mine. This trip had reminded me of those facts; often, and loudly.
“No girl would tell you not to take a job to go be with her. Even if she wanted to.”
“The type of girl I want to be with would,” I say, defiant. “Life’s not all about work, you know.”
“Yeah, but Dan,” she says, shaking her head. “No one would do this.”
“You Germans,” I say. “Always too sensible.”
“Italians,” she snaps back. “Way too dramatic.”
It’s a sign of our friendship that she doesn’t make an anti-American comment. Both C and Yvonne aren’t too fond of Americans. She is merciful to pass on the opportunity.
“You really don’t know why this happened, do you?” she asks me, further on in the conversation.
“No,” I say, frankly. “I don’t know why and I don’t think I’ll ever know why.”
“Maybe she decided she prefers girls…” Yvonne speculates. “It sounds like there’s something we don’t know. Because that’s not a normal thing, to invite you to meet her family and then run away like that! Who does that??”
“I think she just wanted to play in Portugal,” I say. “Kind of fair that comes around on me, considering I left my last girlfriend to go travel,” I say with a self-deprecating laugh. We each eat some of our pizza. “I understand wanting to experience a place,” I say. “I do. I just wish she would have had the balls to talk to me. I don’t think I had one honest conversation with her, ever. Not even the last one.”
“I don’t know,” Yvonne says. “Maybe she just didn’t realize things, maybe you scared her off… I think you know this already,” she says, “but you can be a bit intense.”
C had told me the same, in Lisbon.
“You can be a bit intense! I don’t know how to handle it sometimes.”
I’m sorry, I’d said, but you have to be intense sometimes in this life. Especially when you want me to move to a foreign country.
I will, I’d said. But I need a bit more of a sign from you.
And I’m sorry, she’d said, but I can’t do that right now.
“I knew you were going to put my back against the wall on this visit,” she said.
But she still hadn’t bothered to prepare any answers.
“No one really does such romantic things,” Yvonne tells me, later. We are outside the Palace of Justice, sitting in lawn chairs, listening to live music while we watch the sun set over Brussels, a capital of European culture. We are drinking beers and listening to beautiful music, sung in English with a strong French accent. It’s a perfectly romantic scene, but there isn’t a hint of a spark between us.
Is this what it felt like for C when we were together? I wonder to myself. That’s what she had told me on the phone: there’s no spark. But it couldn’t have been. I know it. I am only with Yvonne for a weekend, and I can’t wait to leave. Our fundamental incompatibilities have been grinding against each other, loudly and obviously, for the entire visit. That’s never how it felt with C. And even as I think about it more, I know: she couldn’t have felt like this. She wouldn’t have continued texting me, calling me, and inviting me to share her life if this was how she felt. There was a spark. She has simply chosen to try and ignore it.
That’s fair, of course. Long-distance isn’t easy.
“Like in the American movies. No one would bring a huge bunch of flowers to a first date,” Yvonne says. The singer finishes his song, and everyone around us claps. “What’s the most romantic thing you’ve ever done?” she asks me.
“Do I seem like a romantic to you?” I ask her.
“Yeah, you seem like the type to do something like that,” she says. “Except no one really does crazy big gestures like that. Like the boombox outside the window. It’s not real! Love like that doesn’t exist.”
We sit for a moment and listen to the guitarist play Bob Dylan.
“The most romantic thing I’ve ever done is get on a plane to go see about a girl in Budapest,” I say. “And then another one, to Italy, to meet her family.”
With a French accent, the guitarist croons: “I got her out of a jam I guess, but I used a little too much force // We drove that car as far as we could, abandoned it out West // we split up on a dark summer’s night, both agreeing it was best”
“You got on a plane, I guess…” Yvonne says. “But that’s not really like… you know… it’s different.”
I didn’t have much fight in me. I gave a tiny half-shrug, drank my Leffe.
“It felt big to me.”