A week after I deleted the last of George's emails, his smiling, bearded face appeared in my Facebook timeline. It was an article about how he'd spent a year as a world-traveling web developer. My stomach shrank.
That year was the year we'd spent apart; he circumnavigated the world, and I stayed in Portland, waiting for him. Five continents, 18 countries, and so many airports. I'm not in his version of that year, and my absence rankles me. It shouldn't — I knew what happened next — but all the same, I read those paragraphs and thought, did our story even matter to him?
I met George online, and we took to one another immediately. Our first messages were playful and quirky. We had time to spend together, and our long walks turned slowly to overnights. I had no bed, so we slept in an orange backpacking tent I'd pitched in my room. I remember wrapping my arms around him as though he were an anchor — and he was, in a way. Everything in my life was changing, except for George.
Things weren't smooth, though. We broke up twice, tried to stay friends, and failed at starting other relationships. I couldn't shake him, and no matter what was happening elsewhere in my life, I kept going back to the stability and love he offered me.
Of course, by the time I was ready to get serious, he'd made other plans.
George's travel agency sold plane tickets in packs of eight for flights that headed progressively east. When I got ahold of him to tell him I was ready for more, he was in Peru, on a spotty Skype connection.
"I want to try it again," I said.
"Are you sure?" I could hear the smile in his voice.
I was sure.
I walked through the Park Blocks with an earth-cracking grin on my face, Justin Timberlake on my headphones. I didn't stop to consider what I'd just signed up for: a sexless, long-distance relationship of a year or more. We loved each other — wasn't that enough?
He came home for a few days in March, and it was everything I'd hoped for. I drove him to the airport when it was time for the next leg of his trip, and we sat in short-term parking for almost an hour, holding hands, while he tried to decide whether or not he could leave me again.
"You have to go," I told him. It hurt to say the words, but I knew what this project meant to him, and I knew he'd come to resent me if I asked him to stay. I promised I would wait until he came back. I said that he could trust me, and that I was all in this time, that I would prove it to him, every day we were together or apart. He kissed my eyelids, my cheeks. He told me, "You are my home."
I was lonely while George was in Iceland. He stayed at an artist's retreat while, back in Portland, I pined. I stopped touching other men, even refraining from hugging my male friends. My body ached in a way that was new and horrible.
To try and get out of myself, I started running. I woke up alone every morning, rolled over, and laced up my shoes. I'd never been more aware of spring, of flowers and bees and people kissing on street corners.
When he went to Paris, I told him I wished I was there, and he sent me a link to an article about the marriage laws in France. He said that it was beyond his means to bring me to him, but that he was seriously considering our future and that, after all we'd put each other through, a lifelong commitment felt like the next natural step.
Over the next weeks, as he made his way through Europe and south toward Africa, he told me a story about us: what was next, the wedding he imagined, the ring he wanted to make for me. This story would become the thread that kept me going on the hard days.
By the time he got to Africa, I was running more than 50 miles a week. We couldn't talk or Skype most days, and as his Wi-Fi spots became few and far between, I had to be content with emails.
"I want to feel connected more to you," I wrote, and he responded with pages of love letters, a package of spices from Zanzibar, a description of his grandfather's solid-gold signet ring. We talked about eloping, meeting up in Hong Kong or Istanbul to exchange vows in front of a justice of the peace. It seemed like the farther he got from Portland and me, the more whimsical the fantasy was. I looked up white dresses, etiquette for informing your family that you'd eloped. He wanted to marry me — why else would he talk this way?
He sent me tiny clay elephants from Nairobi, and I lined them up on my bookshelf. I visited his parents on the weekends. When I got a new bed, I sent him a photo of it, with an empty spot for him next to me. I was the perfect internet girlfriend, always available to him, quick to text back. I meant it, too.
There was a special place on the riverbank that I rode to almost daily. Once, George and I had seen a family of deer swimming across the Willamette and stopped our bikes in that exact spot. When I went there, I looked for the pale, leaf-shaped ears of those deer, and I felt the presence of George.
Two days after he arrived in Istanbul, I was hit by a car. I called George from the ER, hoping that his Skype number would connect.
"I need you," I said in a message. "Please come home."
The doctor who examined me said it was a good thing I was exercising so much. Without my extra inch of abdominal muscle, my body wouldn't have held together. I had two CT scans, X-rays on my exploded left elbow, an IV bag of morphine. I lay on the padded gurney, wishing George was there to hold my hand.
Within an hour, I got an email. He wasn't coming; he didn't want to miss out on the Hagia Sophia, Constantinople, the Black Sea. He didn't appreciate my neediness or my anger when I realized he wouldn't change his plans.
At home, my sheets were rumpled, and I couldn't make my bed with only one working arm. I couldn't bathe one-handed or open a jar. It occurred to me that the person I'd chosen as my partner was not as serious about me as he'd led me to believe.
None of this was in his article, of course. Turkey, it says, is when he hit his stride: the high point of the trip. He sent me images of the mosaics he saw, and every tiny stone lodged in my heart like a shard of glass.
I healed slowly. I couldn't run; the scans showed deep bruising and internal damage through my abdomen. I tried to get used to living in a body that couldn't do whatever I wanted.
We made plans to meet in December on the north shore of Honolulu. I counted down the days, bought a polka-dotted bikini, and got my nails done. I sent him selfies of my smiling face, the rest of me carefully obscured. I told him I couldn't wait.
The manicurist held my hands and asked if I was engaged.
"Not yet," I said, foolishly. In my mind, the proposal was my reward for enduring a demanding, draining year. I ignored the red flags. It was critical that I believe the story George told me: otherwise, what was the point?
I boarded the plane, determined that I would be coming home with a ring on my finger.
As soon as I saw him, however, I knew I was mistaken.
My perspective shifted sickeningly. I wasn't his dream girl; I could tell by the way he sized me up. Yes, I'd gained weight. My body still hurt. I couldn't walk as far as when we first met. In person, I was prickly, less than my most compassionate self.
In the photos I took of us during that vacation, my smile dimmed as the days went on. I came to terms with the fact that George, who I'd dedicated a year of my life to, didn't love me in person the way he loved me in theory.
At dinner, I asked, "So, do you want to get married?"
"It's a yes or no question."
I pushed my lamb shank around on my plate. "To me? Or at all?"
He thought for a moment. "At all."
He'd built me a castle in the air. As beautiful as it was, it wasn't enough. I needed more — I was more — than a fantasy. He wanted a girlfriend who fit conveniently in his pocket, on a screen. I wasn't that person and never would be.
Without George, what was my year? Excising him, I am left with a pretty good story. I ran. I built better relationships, learned to be emotionally self-sufficient. I absorbed and survived the impact of a Ford Fiesta. I learned to find love everywhere — the kind that didn't demand that I be perfect. I did one nice thing for myself every day.
If George had proposed, I would have missed out on all the adventures that have come my way since 2013. I don't regret leaving the bright, inconstant spotlight he shone on me.
Today, I'm not trying to be travel-sized: I'm a whole person, unlimited, free.