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When I first saw Sasha, he had his back to me, facing the bar. I hadn’t even seen his face yet, and still it was like a neon light flashed above his head saying “This is the one.”
The attraction was mutual. For all my bravado, I was, and still am, shy and awkward around people I like, but he was the one who approached me in the club. He asked if we had met before and I teased him for his lame chat-up line. A week later in a drunken stupor, I went up and kissed him. He came back to my dorm room and didn’t leave for three days.
We lay in bed together and I hadn’t felt so excited to be with someone while still feeling so comfortable. We were strangers, but the connection was there.
I turned over and looked him in the eye.
“Don’t get attached to me, I’m leaving the country in six months,” I said. It was hard to say this without peppering my words with emotion because this is not where I wanted the story to end.
You see, I was in the final slog of my masters at my university in England and already accepted a PhD position offered in Madrid, Spain.
Sasha nodded, brushed my face with his hand. He said had no expectations and kissed me, and I learned to relax. He was a beautiful guy who was mine in body at least for the next six months and I could be myself without risk.
When I moved to Spain, it was hard at first. He spent the summer at his mother’s place in the French Pyrenees and impulsively took a bus down to Madrid to stay with me for the week. When he arrived, it was the original honeymoon period all over again. We discovered the city together, strolling the tree-lined Paseo de Recoletos, finding beautiful details in the buildings and eating fried squid and jamón washed down with Rioja. I saw Picasso’s Guernica for the first time ever with him by my side along with my favourite Dalí paintings. Even though it would take me a year for me to admit it in a musty sherry bar, I had fallen in love with him.
We decided to give it a go. Long distance be damned, we could do this. Didn’t love conquer all?
Our first break-up happened a year after I moved to Spain. Despite all his good qualities, Sasha’s depression was hard for me to live with. He drank excessively, and had the bad habit of sabotaging his own life. I had enough of the late night messaging and calls where he told me to go away. It became heavier to live with the poor decisions he made professionally, physically (by putting himself in dangerous situations) and with me, even though they were his mistakes to make.
He shut me out more than once, and eventually I told him it had to stop. I didn’t want anyone else, but casually dated others and we stayed in touch as friends. Then one day, my flight to London was delayed by three hours around Christmas and I missed my train home. He lived nearby and came to get me.
We stood awkwardly in the kitchen as he made a cup of tea. I told him I was OK sleeping on the couch, but within moments that electrical pull dragged me back in and we were passionately making out on the kitchen counter.
Every time I saw Sasha, which was maybe two to three times a year, it was like meeting a new lover. We were always awkward in the first few minutes. Kissing like we were doing so for the first time, finding the position in which we could lock our lips so that it felt familiar. Feeling the adrenaline rush that comes with someone new, only this time he was my partner, the one I had been with for years. We learned to live and love intensely, making each moment count. But the relationship was far from perfect.
We opted to have an open relationship to meet our own sexual needs. Sleeping with other people or casual dating was OK as long as we were careful, but the moment either of us fell for another person we’d need to reconsider the situation. This made life easier, since it meant our relationship didn’t stop us from having the excitement and thrills that came with single life.
Ultimately, the problems we had weren’t about loving each other or even about infidelity. They were about not being there in the bad times. I had a nervous breakdown during my PhD, but it was my friends who were in Madrid and my Dutch therapist who picked up the pieces and dropped everything to be with me in the moments I felt suicidal. He wanted to be there, but couldn’t.
I wasn’t there when he flat-shared with a male prostitute who turned out to be an addict. I wasn’t there when his flatmate threatened him with a knife. I wasn’t there when he had an accident on his bike and lay unconscious in a country road with a collapsed lung for hours until a local farmer found him.
Still, we managed to make our arrangement work for seven years, with him in the UK, me in Spain. The wonders of the Internet certainly helped us stay together. We would chat endlessly on MSN messenger in the days before Facebook, and then there was Skype, a radical invention where we could see each other through a grainy webcam that would frequently freeze. Emails helped. We flicked back and forth sharing trivial pieces of information most couples take for granted about our day or our week.
The times we met up in Madrid and in the UK were special occasions. We'd live life intensely, go back to our respective homes with enough memories to keep us going and the hope, the lust, to see each other again.
We, of course, had dreams of being in the same place at the same time. We met in France a few times, either at his mother's place in the Pyrenees or in Paris. Our fantasy was to experience the bohemian cliché in a bedsit on the Left Bank, living in sin and having lots of cats. A beautiful dream, but this inconvenient thing called real life had other ideas.
I changed careers and found myself on a whole new trajectory, one that would take me further away, rather than closer to him. The end began when I got an internship at a newspaper in Tbilisi, Georgia, and he scored a volunteer position rebuilding a castle in the Czech Republic. It provided a place to sleep and food to eat, even though he was sleeping on straw in a ruined barn.
On his way to the Czech Republic, he met a German girl he clicked with. It seemed like a one night stand he enjoyed en route, but a month into his volunteering he decided to return to Germany and move in with her. She gave him a place to stay and he found a job. Within a month, he was in a relationship with her that was getting more and more serious. She could give him what he needed, I couldn’t. I let him go with love.
Today he lives in Germany, and I live in Hungary. Even though we are no longer a couple, he is my best friend. I do not regret a single moment of our long distance relationship. It was a beautiful and wonderful time. I’ll always love him, but sometimes you need to let go. I’m just happy there is someone there for him to be with in the good and the bad times.