When I was a little girl, I was very close to my cousin Elaina. We were only a year off in age, and naturally liked similar things. We grew up on the same Disney films that all girls do. The ones where the princes save the princesses, and they fall madly in love.
As we got older, we started reenacting our own love stories. We would plan elaborate weddings with barbie dolls, dressing them especially for the occasion- but not before concocting the love story that brought them together.
When we were old enough to chuck the barbies aside, we moved on to the PG-13 stuff. Chick-flicks, my parents would call them, as we carried them to the cashier at Blockbuster to check out. We’d paint each other’s nails and knock them out like it was a sport. The films fueled the fantasies of our own futures, whether it was a corny rom-com or a tragedy. We drooled over the men that swooped in to save the day.
I would just die for a love like that, Elaina had said one night, after we finished a reenactment of Romeo & Juliet, featuring Leonardo DiCaprio. Sure, it was tasteless thing to say, looking back. But I remember thinking I felt the very same way.
I knew back then that I was destined to fall in love, have a beautiful wedding, and a romance for the ages. I knew that I would someday find the Noah Calhoun to my Allie, professing his love to me in the pouring rain.
Elaina and I grew up. Being older taught us that we had much less in common than we thought, and we grew apart- as many childhood friends do. She found her romance in a man named Phillip. They met in college. She had a big wedding. It was a destination wedding in Italy that I didn’t attend, but I saw the pictures. She wore a ballgown, fit for one of the princesses in the films we once swooned over. She moved into a house in the suburbs, and they were trying for children, the last I heard.
I was not as fortunate.
I did have Henry. We met in a bar. I’d gone there after a grueling day at the office to drink away my sorrows. He was slumped in the stool beside me, maybe even for hours. We didn’t notice each other, nor acknowledge each other until we were well inebriated. Once we did, we started chatting and bonded quickly. Quickly enough for me to go home with him that night. Quickly enough for a one-night stand to become two, three, a month, then three years.
He wasn’t a Philip, but things were comfortable enough. He was hardworking. He kissed me on the cheek every morning before he left. He never raised his voice. He was a quiet man overall, really. Sometimes I wondered if he really loved me because he didn’t voice it enough.
“What do you need Emily?” He asked too many times.
I didn’t know the answer. He started saying he loved me more, thinking I just needed to hear it, but that didn’t absolve me of the other voice- the one in my head that told me he wasn’t the one. Our problems were deeper than a case of mismatched love languages.
I suppose my love language was passion. I wanted a push-me-against-the-wall-and-kiss-me-after-being-apart-for-too-long kind of love. I wanted the cute story of how we met, that we would tell our grandchildren. I wanted the chase through the airport. The dancing in the kitchen. The nights where we don’t sleep at all, just appreciating each other, connecting body and soul, poring over life. Something.
Our routine over the years became exhausting. He would come home, stinking of a long day at work. After he’d showered and I’d made dinner, we’d turn on a mindless television show and slump into the spots our bodies had dented in the sofa.
Eventually, we rented a house together. It was an upgrade from our tiny apartment, where cigarette smoke from the tenants upstairs leaked from the vents. I remember thinking, we’re moving up in the world. We’re making progress. But then we slipped into the same mundane routine behind different walls.
My attempts to improve our romantic life were futile. It was like poking a bear with a stick. He’d get aroused and defensive. Then he would curl back up for another season of ignorance.
Finally, I spit the words at him that had been brewing for months.
“We should break up.”
“Why?” He asked. The tinge of genuine confusion in his tone only made me angrier. As if I hadn’t voiced my concerns time and time again. As if this was unwarranted and unexpected.
Instead of hopping on the merry-go-round that was our arguments, that always ended in him saying things would change, and me succumbing to it due to exhaustion; this time I did something very different. This time I laid it out simple and plain: “I’m not happy. I’m done.”
Of course, he still pleaded. He told me he’d planned on marrying me, that he’d only been waiting to be more financially stable. He wanted me to be his wife. What kind of marriage would that be? One lacking passion, for starters.
I read an article in cosmopolitan once. It said that couples who are more sexually active have happier marriages. It said to maintain the spark. It was science. What if there never was a spark? How could we maintain a thing that was never there to begin with?
Scientifically, we were doomed.
Emotionally, I’d checked out.
He had plenty of chances over the years to change. Those words, I’ll change, meant nothing to me anymore. They didn’t bring the hope that they’d once brought. They only brought a sinking in my chest, similar to a boxer being shoved into the ring for the next round, after having just lost a string of matches: Here we go again.
They were words with no meaning. Words with no meaning are just noise. I let the noise of his begging filter from one ear and out the other, then I packed my backs and removed myself from his life.
I felt empowered and invigorated. I was on my way to my destiny to find my greatest romance.
At first, I strayed from online dating. I wanted it to come naturally- a meet-cute in a cafe or elevator. But months came and went, and I grew impatient.
After all, a girl from high school had met her husband online. She raved about it constantly, how they were soulmates, and how perfect her life had become since their first date. Oh, how her posts sparked a flame of jealousy in me. And it tendered into a fire when they announced they would be having their first child. A little girl. A blessing, she called it. Perhaps the fiery emotions were a sign, I decided, an arrow pointing in the right direction. I created a profile.
First came Matt. From his profile, I gathered he worked in construction, had a niece that he loved like his own, and was looking for something serious. Hardworking and not looking for a one-night stand? He was the perfect package, it seemed. Through conversation, I gathered that he had a sense of humor, was eager to meet, and thought I was too good to be true. Could he be my Jack Dawson, rough around the edges, but sweet and amorous at the core? I could be his Rose, elegant and willing. We could go without the drama and tragedy, of course, but the premise was promising.
He insisted we met for drinks, and I obliged. We met at a bar he picked on the corner of a shopping plaza. Several letters on the sign out front had sizzled out. But there was a poster on the door that said they that did karaoke on Thursday nights. I could hear it from the pavement, the off-key slurring of a drunken woman. It would continue throughout our meeting in different forms. I had to compete with the singing for him to hear me, becoming irritated each time he asked me to repeat myself. I had a hoarse throat at the end of the date, a combination of yelling and the cigarette smoke that had hit me in the face when I’d walked in the door.
When I told him I was leaving, we didn’t exchange numbers. We didn’t hug. He simply said it had been nice to meet me. I didn’t say it back. He remained at the high-top table, guzzling a cheap beer, and I knew he probably wouldn’t remember our date by the end of the night.
There were others.
A dinner date with an engineer. He was very self-important, going on about his career and background. By the time we took the check, I realized he hadn’t asked me a single question about myself. I don’t think he noticed. He called after, telling me how wonderful I’d been and asking for a second. He thought I was wonderful, and he didn’t know a thing about me, which told me he was either a liar or delusional. I wouldn’t stick around to find out which one.
Then there was Calvin, who took me to the gardens. Our conversations became intimate. It felt right. He must have felt the same, because he sat me down on a bench in the rose garden and told me he had a confession to make. I just like you so much, it doesn’t feel right keeping it from you. I remember my heart fluttered with excitement. He liked me. He trusted me with his secrets.
His secret was that he’d just been released from prison for sexual assault. It was only because of her age, it was consensual, he assured me.
After that I deleted the apps. I accepted that I couldn’t force it. It would come when it was ready. While I accepted it, the frustration ate at me. What was I doing wrong? Was I asking for too much? I didn’t need fireworks going off in the background while he kissed me for the first time. I just wanted to feel it.
It was Valentine’s Day. The most romantic day of the year, and I’d be spending it alone for the first time in four years.
I decided to get a pizza from a shop called Tony’s downtown. They only did New York style pizzas, so I wouldn’t have to worry about them attempting some heart shaped dough in commemoration of the day.
A gray fog loomed over the city. It started as drizzle, light as a mist. But as the clouds darkened, the droplets thickened. They were angry, pelting down on anyone who dared to venture out. I couldn’t help but feel grateful that the spirits of the couples going out to celebrate might be dampened by the weather.
I placed my order at Tony’s, one of their smallest pepperonis. I paid with credit and turned from the checkout counter, and there he was.
Henry was chatting animatedly to a woman who nodded in approval. Whether it was fate, or he simply felt me staring, he stopped and turned to look directly at me.
“Emily? Wow, hi! Happy Valentines!”
A warmness started in my chest and trickled down to my toes. “Happy Valentines,” I reciprocated.
That warmness instantly was replaced by ice cold at his next words: “This is my fiancé, Taylor.”
The woman next to him beamed, “Hello! Lovely to meet you.” She waved a sparkling diamond in my face, intentional or not. Her tone was genuine enough. She must be an actress. She certainly had the looks for it.
“Order for pickup, for Henry!” Someone called in the distance.
“Oh, that’s us! Nice seeing you. Truly.” Henry approached the counter to take his order, and then they were gone.
Mine came immediately after. A single box. I held it in both hands as I trailed out of the store behind them.
He hasn’t changed, I thought, grabbing her takeout pizza on valentines.
The rain splattered on my cardboard box, altering its color as I watched them.
He didn’t embrace her and kiss her in the downpour. In fact, they dodged the raindrops as if they were made of lava.
She opened the door for herself before sliding into the passenger seat of his car.
But it was something else on my mind, long after I’d returned to my apartment, entertaining the slice of uneaten pizza and a half empty bottle of wine that decorated my coffee table.
She was smiling.