“I’ve enjoyed your articles,” Nick said to me, “the next one’s going to be about me, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I replied with a smile, “sorry.” We were having cocktails in Central London, three days ago. He finally moved here from Mexico, three years after we planned to move here together.
“I figured,” he said, grinning as he sipped a bright pink drink, garnished with a flaccid mint leaf. “I hope I can convince you to be kind.”
“And,” he added, “you’re writing about me back when I was an asshole.”
Mexico, November 2008
I was still wriggling out of a violent relationship when Nick whisked me away in his car, to one of the many mountains that surround Cuernavaca.
We didn’t cheat, at least not with lips or hands. As we watched the city lights below, glowing under darkness and smog, his girlfriend called him to screech the many variations of ‘bastard’. My boyfriend was at home, no doubt stabbing an Erica-effigy. We didn’t care. We linked fingers and stared in silence, the air thick with unspoken thoughts.
At 4am he began to drive me home. At 04:02 he skidded to a halt at the side of the highway, and announced,
“I have a problem.”
“It’s just – not a big deal, but – actually it is – because – don’t read too much into this, but – I’m in love with you – so – there that is – I’ll just take you home now, and…yeah. Break up with him.”
That’s what I love in a man. Eloquence.
For the first week, we didn’t sleep. We stayed up all night with each other, became so tired we could barely teach. Our English classes became evenings of laughter and jokes, like interactive stand-up acts. I lost 14 pounds because I couldn’t concentrate long enough to eat more than a few mouthfuls. Also, you can’t eat a meal when you’re springing about like Tigger on Prozac. It gets everywhere.
We moved in together right away, a brick-ceilinged flat with bright blue walls and a pool
outside. We cooked together and danced without music, like a photo shoot for the perfect romance. We took pictures of ourselves as if our relationship was a newborn baby, made scrapbooks with photos and drawings and love letters, our childlike attempt to capture moments that were, like any other, gone.
Recalling my relationship with Nick is like trying to remember the details of a party through a steaming hangover. I remember laughing a lot, elation, and feeling special. Like tripping hippies, we talked for hours about how amazing we felt, how beautiful the other was; never about anything we believed or wanted in life. We said “I love you” but could never say why.
I think his mother quietly wanted me gone. Perhaps because my plans were to take her son to England, perhaps because I made a baby-shaking joke at Mothers’ Day lunch. It was a risky joke, I admit. Suffice to say, it did not land.
As with any other drug, pure pleasure was soon balanced with equal parts pain. Eventually it was two parts pain, two parts anxiety, two parts numbness and four parts photos. One day, instead of twirling me around the kitchen, he pulled up a chair and said “You cook. I’ll watch.” He never cooked with me again.
I was bored of Mexico – the catcalls, the corruption, the constant threat of kidnap. I started saving money in secret. Not for a flight home, I told myself. Just for a rainy day. I was bored of Nick too, bored of going to the sodding cinema, exasperated that he’d been fired four months ago and was still on the couch, desperate for him to turn back into the funny, sweet, intelligent boy I’d invented in my head.
But he didn’t. It ended, abruptly, apathetically, on an August Sunday morning.
He said we might get back together in a couple of months, in England. I took this shred of hope, screwed it up into a ball, and stored it in my kidney to be cut out on the NHS.
I packed. He was staring at the TV in his parents’ living room. I tiptoed to avoid an empty goodbye hug, and silently slipped out of the house, convinced I’d left bigger holes in the lives of fellow bus passengers than I was leaving here.
The sky had been welling up all day. It burst as soon as the latch clicked shut, soaking me in seconds.
Mexico, late August, 2009
“I planned to be a real person once,” I thought, as I prepared to give a phonetics class at our school atop a steep, lush hillside.
In my third year of university, career paths had formed in my mind. Then my friend committed suicide and my plans went blank. I booked a flight to Mexico. Now here I was, two years later. Cut up again, in a brand new mess.
Ten minutes before class, I was sucking on a paper cut as my phone rang. Him again. Chatting away, breezily.
“Oh by the way,” he said, “I’m not going to England anymore. I got a scholarship to a US uni.”
Something smashed inside my chest, like a baseball through a vase.
“Ah,” I thought as I dropped the phone, “I am losing him, then.”
I headed for the door.“I see,” I thought as I stumbled down the steps, “he really doesn’t care.”
I ran downhill towards the waterfall.“I understand,” I thought as I clutched at the wall, “this is what being broken is.”
I checked the time. Class in three minutes. I laughed and wiped my eyes. Silly girl. Moving to Mexico to get away from home. Falling in love to justify staying. Losing everything. Running down a hill in flip flops.
We are never so helplessly unhappy as when we lose love, said Sigmund Freud. The old pervert was right for once.
I took a deep breath, put my face into a smile, and started to climb the hill.
London, October 2009
Back in London, no one noticed I was a shell. No one called me Shelly. They didn’t see me as a failure for coming home. They saw a second language and a tan.
I met Dion, an old boyfriend from university, for coffee. I brushed over his texts and didn’t notice the way he looked at me. We met again, and again, until we kissed in the blurry rush of Piccadilly Circus. He ran his fingers through my hair and held me as if I might break. I almost pulled away, still stinging all over from wasting myself on men who were violent, careless and cruel.
Dion would spend the next year picking up the pieces, and getting me to accept I now lived in – shudder – England. I would spend the year behaving like a toddler who didn’t want to put on her coat. But in the end, despite the absence of cooperation or Krazy Glue, the persistent bastard would manage to fix me.
I’m talking to you now, reader. If you wake up to find your life abroad is shit, leave it. Leave it like you’d leave a crappy party or a too-loud bar. You haven’t failed at Being Abroad. You’ve just finished.
The kiss ended, and we held each other, smiling. Finally, he spoke.
“I really, really…need to pee.”
When it comes to home romance, even one you re-ignite years later, the moment you do is rarely spectacular.