There were signs it might not work out. My mother thought it was a good idea, for one. “I just think you need closure, honey,” she said with the maternal instincts of that female tiger who abandoned her cubs to be raised by a golden retriever. Then she dropped me off at the rental car place.
It amazes me now to think that there was something as rational as a plan for something as irrational as what I was about to do. But the plan was for me to drive across three states to profess my undying love for the man I had been engaged to nearly five years earlier. For some, his breaking it off, plus five years of distance, plus not one single piece of evidence to support that this person was comfortable being in the same state as me, might equal closure. But math was never my strong point.
There was also the card he had given me on my first birthday after the break-up. I had opened the envelope with an anticipatory hope that embarrasses me now to even think about. Where I expected a handwritten note on a blank card like the ones I had saved from when we were together, I found a glossy Hallmark card. There was a cow on the front, wearing a sombrero. On the inside it said, “I hope your birthday is moo-ey bueno.” This, in retrospect, should have told me everything I needed to know.
It should be noted that this man had no idea I was coming. I had tried to plan a visit by being polite and giving him warning just six months earlier. He had responded quite plainly, “My wounds have healed and I am not going to revisit them.” Which I, of course, interpreted as: I sit in the window every day reading Emerson and wondering: How much of life is lost in waiting?
But I had to be sure.
To add insult to injury and two hours to my drive, I had to attend my cousin’s baby shower the same day. As if it isn’t difficult enough to pick what you are going to wear to ambush your ex-fiancée, and to leave, quite possibly, the last impression he will ever have of you, my outfit also had to be suitable for a baby shower. I opted for a 1930’s shirtdress that was off white with green flowers on it and a pair of dainty vintage pumps with an ankle strap. I even curled my hair. It pains me now to think of the hope, the optimism, the absolute distancing myself from reality that went into every single lift of the elbow, every single roll of a curler.
The shower was held in a tearoom just off the town square in one of those small Georgia towns where everything is just off the town square. Guests were required to pick an old fashioned hat off a nail in the wall and wear it for the duration. I chose a nice green felt number with a feather in it that made me look like a cross between the old lady in Driving Miss Daisy and Crocodile Dundee. You know it’s a good day when sipping tea in a hat with a feather in it and having a distant aunt tell you that because you aren’t pregnant or engaged, you should throw yourself a “Power Shower,” is the least humiliating thing you will do.
Just as the last member of the plush circus was loaded into my cousin’s SUV so that it resembled Noah’s Ark, the sky opened up in appreciation. Rain and thunder and wind and lightning. Some might take this as a sign and reconsider. Not me. I may have been delusional, but I was not a quitter.
It was a five-hour drive each way. Five hours. Over mountains. In the pouring rain and some light to moderate hail. I may or may not have spent at least one third of my journey fantasizing scenes resembling Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook. I imagined he had grown a beard and built our dream house in my absence. Our reunion would surely involve swans and impeccably tailored clothes. We already had the rain. If things went well, I would end up flushed, with tousled hair, wearing nothing but a red blanket. If things went badly…funny, I didn’t spend nearly enough time considering what might happen if things went badly.
As I got closer and as the hail got larger, the gravity of what I was doing began to set in. I got an uneasy feeling in my stomach that I quickly realized was not the jovial butterflies that sometimes flutter in waving the flag of love. It was more like a swarm of killer bees carrying the skull and crossbones found on pirate ships. I ignored them. Just as I ignored the hail and the wind and the cow in the sombrero. Just as I ignored, five years earlier, the sinking feeling that we were not ready to get married. I ignored it all and I just kept driving, until I found myself outside of his house.
My only saving grace, as I turned the car off, was that I was not so crazy as to not realize how crazy I seemed. I was fully aware. I comforted myself with the thought that Glen Close’s character in Fatal Attraction never thought to herself, “Well, if I do that thing I’m thinking about with the rabbit, I’m a little worried what people might say.”
I had seen Law & Order and I knew that there is a limit to the amount of time you can spend in a car outside of someone’s house before the neighbors get suspicious. So I tried to think fast. I remembered the seven years we had spent together. They had since been washed in that particularly rosy shade of pink that comes after someone has let you go; very gently, sure, but let you go just the same.
We had met our first week at college and were best friends for three years. We were friends until, one day, he looked at me in that very unassuming way that he has, and told me I looked pretty with my hair down. I started wearing my hair down all the time. Not long after, because I was the outgoing one, the pushy one, the one who would choose New York over the South, I had marched into his room and found him at his desk, his soft blue eyes intent on an economics book. It was the afternoon and I had come with sushi from our favorite place. I told him why I had been wearing my hair down so much lately, and asked if he felt the same way. He confessed that he did feel the same way; that he had always felt the same way. I sat on his lap in his creaky desk chair and we kissed. Then we ate our sushi.
This memory brought me back to the moment, to the car parked in front of his house, nearly ten years later, because I had actually considered bringing him sushi. So that if I couldn’t get the words out, he would know, right away, why I had come. Now, I have to thank the powers that be, for the rain or the wind or whatever it was that changed my mind about the sushi. Because the only thing weirder than showing up at your ex-fiancée’s house after five years, is showing up at your ex-fiancée’s house after five years with a dragon roll and miso soup.
After college, we had moved to Charleston, South Carolina where we lived together for three years. We rented an old cinder block duplex just over the bridge from downtown and painted our tiny kitchen bright red. I remember the first night we spent there. We didn’t have our furniture yet, so we made a pallet on the floor in the bedroom. As empty as the whole place was, it felt so full of promise. We had talked about New York when we graduated, but we had more than talked about getting a dog. A hyperactive black lab named Riley who we both fell in love with. And Charleston was more her pace. It was that rare and fleeting time in one’s life when it is perfectly acceptable to choose where you will live based on a puppy. So we lived five minutes from the beach, where we walked her together in the evenings. Our first Christmas there, we took pictures of her tangled up in colored lights.
One of our last winters together, we bought tickets to Florence, Italy on a whim. All of my friends were certain that he would propose to me there. I now know that there is a certain stage in a relationship where if the two of you step foot on a plane together, your female friends will insist that you are getting engaged. That sometimes it will even be true. But at the time, I told them they were wrong. We had talked about it. We had agreed we were not ready.
On our fourth night in Florence, he left the dinner table and came back wearing a tuxedo. I was seated in a chair by the window overlooking the Arno. The lights of the Ponte Vecchio shone in the distance. I had ordered a lamb shank, and would later use this detail as proof that I really had no idea what was coming. Because what woman in her right mind, knowing she is about to be proposed to, orders a giant hunk of meat on a bone?
When he returned to the table, I hardly noticed the tuxedo. All I could see were the beautiful flowers. They are still the most beautiful flowers I have ever seen. Poppies and berries, with bright reds and purples and deep greens. And even with the man I loved standing in front of me in a tuxedo, I couldn’t process more than the flowers. Until he knelt before me, and now the entire restaurant, including me, knew exactly what was happening. He said that nothing would make him happier than to be my husband. Then, in that very unassuming way that he has, he asked me to marry him. And I did what any woman with a lamb shank and a view of the Arno would do when presented with such a query from a man she happens to love deeply. I said yes.
He gave me a simple band dotted with cubic zirconia that he had bought at Money Man Pawn for $24. He called it a “bubble gum” ring; a placeholder until we could pick the perfect one together. It was too big and, afraid it might slip away, we had it sized by a fancy jeweler on the Ponte Vecchio the next day. On our way out, we laughed because they thought it was real.
We planned to get married the following fall. We bought a house just around the corner from our duplex. It was a little blue house with a big back yard and a white picket fence smothered in jasmine. We spent our nights hanging sheet rock, picking paint colors, and laying hardwood floors. We set a date for late September and planned to marry beside a lake between green mountains. I picked a dress. It was all lace with cap sleeves and a sweetheart neckline. The back was open, save the slightest bit of lace across the top to hold it all together. We hired a wedding planner, a caterer, and a band.
But as it got closer and as the guest list got bigger, the gravity of what I was doing began to set in. I was only twenty-four. I had always wanted to live in New York. I wanted to have a career. To work for a magazine. To be a writer. He built houses and worked for his father. Neither of which were possible in New York. He entertained the idea and there was a time I thought we might get married and go together, that everything would work itself out.
But one Sunday afternoon in February, almost exactly one year after he’d proposed, he told me that I needed to go. Alone. Just two weeks before was Valentine’s Day and he had given me flowers twice. He had planned to go to the store and get stuff to make my favorite meal from a restaurant we loved in Florence. Rigatoni and a pecorino and pear salad. I told him that was sweet, but we didn’t need to do anything fancy. That we had everything we needed to make a pot of chili. Now he was telling me that maybe he had pushed everything too quickly and that we were not ready to get married. But there was still leftover chili in the freezer. He said that we did not want the same things. The flowers hadn’t lasted that long. Maybe, he said, we were not right for each other at all.
I remember Riley’s claws on the newly laid hardwood floors, crawling under the bed to hide as he told me to pack my things. He left and went to an old hotel just down the street. I begged him to come back and we spent our last night together in our little blue house, curled into one another as if we held on tightly enough, it all might stick.
The morning came and he had not changed his mind. He said I needed to find some place to go. He said there are some things you just can’t force, or there will be cracks. I packed everything and moved out that day. I left my bubble gum ring on the kitchen table next to a pile of laundry with a plain white card that said, “I love you.”
I spent the next few months with a friend working part-time at a jewelry store, part-time at an art gallery, and full-time at trying to get him to change his mind. I tried to convince him that I knew what was important. That I didn’t need to go to New York, that I just needed him, that I was ready. But it is nearly impossible to convince another of something you are not sure of yourself. And as it became clear that he would not waver, I packed everything I owned into a rented mini-van and drove to New York City.
I arrived with the same sense of hope, possibility and utter fear I had on this day, as I sat in the car outside of his house. But I now knew that I did need New York. That had I never gone, it would have always been Xanadu, and any alternate life would have paled in comparison. Had I never landed my dream job at a magazine, that subsequently folded; had I never struggled to pay for my own tiny studio on a tree lined street in the West Village; had I never trekked up five flights of stairs with a week’s worth of groceries for one, I would have resented it. And as I came to know this over the years, I romanticized that maybe he had known all along. I thought that maybe he was doing that if you love something let it go thing I had always read about and seen in movies. I wondered. And now, on this rainy day five years later, that question finally stood to be answered.
As I sat there in my rental car, trying to think of the best course of action, I considered the unthinkable, rational, and totally unromantic notion that maybe I should just call him. Then something happened. Something that dispelled any hint of rational thought immediately. I saw my dog. She had come from the house and, yes, she was connected to him by a leash, but just like the flowers, all I really saw was my dog. I lost all ability to think clearly. I jumped out of the car as if it was five years earlier and I had just run to the grocery store to get eggs.
It should be said that Riley was very happy to see me. It was still raining and I was about twenty yards away, as they descended on what I presumed to be their regular Sunday afternoon stroll. The one where 51 times a year, their estranged ex-fiancée and deadbeat dog mom does not show up.
Riley’s excitement was palpable. I have read before that dogs have no sense of time, so in her world, it is quite possible that it was five years earlier and that I had just run to the grocery store to get eggs. I was strangely comforted by this. As increasingly excited as Riley became, the man I almost married still did not recognize me. And why would he? Because, really, what were the chances? To him, I was just a stranger, albeit a highly overdressed one. But soon enough, Riley came running towards me. For better or for worse, he was attached to her, and as they got closer, he figured it out.
He looked at me, stupefied. I was busy kissing the dog on the mouth.
“Liz? What are you doing here?”
That, I couldn’t help but think to myself, was a very good question. I became very self-conscious of what I was, in fact, doing there, and, strangely, of how overdressed I was. This was the first thing I felt the need to explain.
“I went to a baby shower,” I told him, looking down at the ankle straps on my dainty heels, which suddenly felt ridiculous in the rain, on this particular mountain.
“That’s why I’m so dressed up.”
He looked at me, exactly as confused as he should have been, and we embraced awkwardly. Riley, because time is of no essence, lost all of the excitement she had felt just two minutes before, and now, it seemed, had other business to attend to. Business that definitely did not factor in to the Nicholas Sparks scenario. As he worked to understand what I could possibly be doing there without my offering anything more than a defense of wardrobe choice, Riley promptly went to the bathroom.
“Did you drive here?” He still looked as if he’d seen a ghost. The fog and the rain and the flowing white nature of my dress probably didn’t help, and I have to give him credit. He still managed to open with two very valid questions.
“From New York? Ha! No!” I said this just how I meant it, as if that would have been ridiculous.
“Just from Atlanta.” He stared. Riley finished her business. I began to recognize the look on his face, and in his soft blue eyes, as concern.
“Is everything okay?” he asked me. This was the only time our eyes really met, and they rested there for a while, in the way that an old zipper always gets stuck in the same place.
“Yeah,” I told him, “Everything is okay. I just need to talk to you.”
We walked into his house and I was overcome with a strange feeling that was something like relief. I had imagined horrible things when I thought about this place over the years. Maybe just to torture myself, I had created a sort of bachelor Grey Gardens in my mind. I half expected a disheveled Drew Barrymore to emerge with an old can of cat food. But I was pleasantly surprised. It was spotless. There were photos of friends and family I recognized in silver frames I did not. There was art on the wall that we had never gotten around to hanging. There were, gratefully, no signs of another woman. A glance through the bedroom door showed that in the place of the rickety antique full-sized bed we used to share, there was a nice new king.
He pointed towards a red sofa I had never seen before, and I sat down. Riley, as if she knew what was coming, retreated beneath the bed, and the familiar sound of her claws on the hardwood brought the tears I had been fighting so hard. And they just kept coming.
As I looked around, I realized this was the only thing that could possibly be worse than the Grey Gardens situation. This was the me sitting on his sofa sobbing situation. It was suddenly and cruelly clear. He was doing fine. He had moved on. To a new red sofa and silver picture frames. I was still wearing a jacket his parents had given me one Christmas. And I had just driven across three states.
“I don’t really know what I’m doing here.” I said. Even as I spoke, I struggled, as I often had, to reconcile my absolute certainty that I loved him, with the sinking feeling that something wasn’t right.
“I still think about you all the time. I know that I still love you. I just don’t know what that means.”
He was sitting on the next sofa over.
“I know this must seem weird. But even after all this time, I still miss you. I can’t imagine the rest of my life without you.”
He was quiet and resting his face in his hands now. I tried to really see him. He looked mostly the same, though his light brown hair was shorter and missing the longer pieces that once waved behind his ears. I used to call them wings. He was still handsome in the way that he has always been; attractive in a way that is not completely obvious, so that with appreciation comes a certain sense of superiority; the distinct feeling of having discovered something and now, suddenly, of having lost it.
Finally, he spoke. “Liz, you know, I’m not sure we were ever really good together. Maybe we were always just best friends.”
And that was all it took. That and the long drive, and the hail, and the separate sofas, and the overwhelming sense that we had become strangers. Suddenly, finally, and far too late, some sort of self-preservation mechanism kicked in. I stood up and started walking towards the door. Riley sensed motion and came out from under the bed.
“I am just going to go,” I said.
“Please stay, we can talk.”
“No,” I was crying even harder now and I wished I was more like Glen Close. But I knew exactly how I looked. And the only thing worse was how I felt.
“I didn’t come here to convince you of anything. I came here because I thought maybe you would just know. And you don’t. And that’s okay.”
We said goodbye, and he hugged me. I kissed Riley on the top of the head, and went back into the rain. I got back into the rental car, and drove back down the mountain. The light to moderate hail was now heavy and excessive. It didn’t stop for five hours.
My mom was waiting up with a cup of tea. My eyes were swollen shut from the tears, but I could see that she was sorry.
“I just thought you needed closure, honey,” she said just softly enough to make me think that tiger mom might have known a thing or two.
“I had to be sure,” I told her.
And now, finally, I was.