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I am not ordinarily the kind of woman who does reckless things. Or even particularly spontaneous things. I value order, structure, and careful planning.
And yet there I was, offering the customs official my most charming smile as I explained that I wanted to enter the country to visit my boyfriend. Yes, I had flown six-plus hours for a single weekend visit. No, he didn’t know that I was coming — it was a surprise. The last part was true; what I left out was that the man I was traveling toward was no longer my boyfriend.
Ten months earlier, a chance encounter in a city neither of us lived in had led to a night of talking until the sun came up and a flurry of daily emails after we returned to our respective homes. Six weeks later we met up again (he traveled frequently, to destinations that could usually be reached through a short-haul flight for me) and our connection was undeniable.
For almost a year, we met in a different locale every few months. It sometimes felt like a glamorous fantasy: “Why yes, I am jetting off again to spend the next three days tangled up in hotel linens . . .”
The rest of the time we struggled with all the standard challenges of a long-distance relationship, compounded by the fact that we never had an initial period of stability to ground our relationship in.
Still, he touched places in my heart that I hadn’t even known were there. While he had a job and a close-knit family that made it difficult for him to imagine uprooting his life, I was in a transitional period in my career, and it didn’t seem impossible that I might be able to relocate in the future.
And then, in the way that it can, the relationship started to slowly, almost invisibly, unravel. We misunderstood things that we tried to communicate, and annoyances turned into more serious doubts about our compatibility.
Was I myself when I was with him? I wondered. Did he even know anything about me? Could we build a life that was more complex than a vacation?
Two days before what was to be our final trip, I went to a yoga class and as I lay on my mat, listening to the instructor’s soothing voice urging us to quiet our minds, tears streamed down my face. Trying to focus my emotions into some sort of meditation, I repeated "Please let it be okay" as my mantra, channeling all my energy into willing myself to find a way to make it work.
Surprisingly, I thought I succeeded: While we were away, I initiated two separate conversations in which I challenged myself to be honest and communicate what I needed from the relationship. At the top of my list was visiting him in his hometown: I wanted to see the details of the life he had told me about, and the one that I wondered if I could share.
Although he said little, he listened attentively, and I flew home with a sense of renewed optimism and a tentative plan for scheduling dates to visit him in two months’ time.
Then, three days after I returned home, he sent me an email telling me that he had thought more about our conversation and felt that we should break up. My worries about whether our current relationship was allowing us to really know each other made him feel that I didn’t trust him, or have faith in his feelings for me.
Reading the email on my office laptop, I went numb. I picked up the phone and dialed his number; it went to voicemail, and I recorded my message in an eerily flat voice: “Can we please talk? I don’t understand what’s happening.”
He texted back almost immediately, saying that he was too emotional to talk but that he would try to call the following day.
Funnily enough, what sent a wave of panic coursing over me was not the knowledge that the relationship had ended, but the possibility that I might never have the chance to have a conversation about what had changed. The thought of that was more than I could bear.
Almost without thinking, I opened my browser and started searching flights for the following evening. Before I punched in my credit card information, I made two phone calls. One was to a close friend, the other to my aunt and godmother. I started both the same way: “I’m going to do something crazy, and I need you to support me.”
Both did, albeit cautiously. As she drove me to the airport the following day, my aunt asked gently, “What is it you think you’ll gain from this?” She worried, I think, that I was chasing a dream of winning him back with a grand romantic gesture. My answer to her was, “I need to understand.”
That need carried me through a dazed plane ride; once I landed, I sat at the airport, wondering what the best time to arrive at his apartment would be. I hadn’t formulated a plan for what I would do if he wasn’t at home; time had contracted down to moments that I focused on with perfect intensity, one after the other, not daring to think ahead. I acted on complete intuition: When I finally hailed a cab and gave his address, it was because it suddenly felt like the time to do so.
My instinct was mostly right: His roommate was home and let me in, and I phoned my ex to give him some warning that I would be there. I was hesitant about the potential invasiveness of being in his personal space and promised that I would leave if he wanted me to.
Fortunately, perhaps out of his own need for some kind of closure, he was calm and as we sat talking in his living room for the next several hours, it struck me that for two people ending a relationship we were remarkably composed.
The details of that conversation don’t matter too much: We said all the things that two people who love each other but fundamentally aren’t equipped to be each other’s partners will say as they do the heartbreaking work of trying to reconcile what can’t be reconciled: Yes I love you — no, we can’t be together.
He, too, asked me why I had come and I answered honestly: Because otherwise I might have regretted it for the rest of my life. That is the reason why I went, rash and risky as it may seem: Because the alternative would have been worse, just as not having known him would have been immeasurably worse than knowing him and separating from him.
This experience ranks as one of the very few times I acted with complete clarity and no self-doubt, and although it came from a place of pain, I think I will forever treasure the feeling of knowing exactly what I had to do, and I hope that I can learn to tap into that more.
I also learned something profound about compassion: When people are hurt, they behave in unpredictable ways. I understood this rationally, but I hadn’t had much opportunity to really live it. The fact that when I did something “crazy,” the people who I truly cared about took the time to understand why I was acting the way that I did means more to me than I can say.
And next time someone launches into a story about their crazy ex, I know that there’s another side to that story. Sometimes the most reckless choices sometimes bring the most peace.