Of all chance occurrences, you meet in the airport.
After a frantic dash through security, you miraculously arrive half an hour before your plane is scheduled to depart. Winded, luggage in hand, you are breathing a sigh of relief. Amidst the bustle of the crowded gate, all pressure evaporates, and you take an open seat next to a stranger.
His name is Matthias, and he wasn’t handsome—at least, not in the traditional sense. Rough-and-tumble hair, too-wide cheekbones, a touch of asymmetricality slanting his features. His skin is tanned, like raw leather burnished in the sun, and you think he looks a bit rogue, maybe a surfer in a past life.
He was originally from Belgium, but he was flying to Berlin. He liked people-watching, hated boarding small planes, and wished generic airline wine was colder and more palatable. His speech was simple, barely accented — not too polished at the edges. Whenever he talked about himself, he had this habit of looking downwards, peering at his wingtip brogues through long, flickering lashes.
He’s humble, you thought. And quiet, and polite. And all this gave him an air of mystery, bringing his rugged good looks to life.
You parted amicably, and in your opinion, far too soon. After you boarded your flight to Brussels, you order white wine (served in a flimsy plastic cup, stale with refrigerated chill), and you sip it with sardonic amusement as you peer through the window. Right before landing in Belgium, you marvel at the setting sun’s Midas touch. How easily it washes the heavens in gold.
It reminds you, somehow, of Matthias. You imagine him surfing on the wing of the plane, cutting effortlessly through the clouds.
The second time your lives cross, you are walking down 45th and 7th when you feel a light tap on your shoulder.
When you turn and see Matthias again, you hardly know how to react. Two years had passed and yet he sported that same burnished tan, his glance searching and a little uncertain until you beamed in recognition. What were the chances, really? He had just moved from Europe to the states — switched jobs, needed a change of pace — and thought you looked uncannily familiar.
He asks you to coffee, and you are flattered to accept.
Over $4 macchiatos, you talk about the impossible odds of meeting again, about your budding career in fashion, about the picturesque charm of Brussels, and about how apartment hunting in New York City is a bitch to break into. For the first time, you notice something boyish about his slight, rugged smile—a hint of adventurous spirit glimmering under a hard exterior.
Between the four walls of that artisanal café, formalities collapse. By the end of your first date, you feel safe with him, like you have known him for a long time. You give him your number, and when he tells you he should probably start walking back to his hotel, you fib and say you’re heading in that direction, too. “Which address?” he asks. Yours, you grin.
In his hotel room that afternoon, the sun filtered dreamily through the blinds. In matters of love he was patient and roguish, singular and intense. Being with him feels like the slowest of surrenders, the kind you want to relive over and over again.
You wouldn’t have expected this side of him, but you like what you see. He had this manner of scooping you into his arms when you were least expecting it, breathless with laughter, doubled up and squealing in his king-sized bed. For a few seconds you tussle against him playfully, coquettishly, pretending to break free. But he pulls you in and caresses you, holding you tightly until you are still again.
Drinks that summer were sweeter than you remembered, suffused with nostalgia, imbibed in the hazy diffused glow of a million city lights. You are young and immortal and living in Manhattan. You are drunk on possibility, and nothing in the world can bring you down.
On a rooftop bar by the marina, Matthias is toying with his mojito, puckering his mouth at the lime. It’s a friend’s party and you are trying hard not to look at him, but he feels the tingling warmth of your stolen glances anyway and when your friends are not looking, he pulls you aside for a kiss.
You feel the warmth of his hand so steady and firm on the small of your back, the citrus and sugar still stinging on his lips. You kiss him back so deeply that your soul fades into the summer night, and all of time melts away as you think, I could stay like this for the rest of my life.
When you are alone, you are so happy that you think your heart may break.
You feel like Marilyn Monroe, wearing lip gloss and heels every day, spritzing Chanel no. 5 even on your way to the gym. You sing Celine Dion in the shower so unabashedly that your roommate tells you to tone it down, but you don’t care because your heart will go on. You start planning things to do in the city, things you’ve always wanted to do with someone else.
Time comes and goes in waves, swelling into a crescendo every time you see Matthias. You love every single thing about him, even the little things that no one else would notice. Like the way his hand circles back to yours whenever he was absent-minded. Or the way he always checks his surroundings with such a careful, sweeping glance. Or the way he looks at you so seriously when he says, you look nice today—as if he would never have a chance to tell you again.
You also share little things with him, things no one else knows about you. You tell him about your secret love of applesauce and your irrational fear of falling and how, when you were fourteen, you thought you wanted to be a professional ballerina. (That was, of course, before you fractured your fibula on a poorly landed grand jeté, putting your pointe shoes in the closet forever).
You tell him about your occasional insomnia and your immense fondness for rain, and how, one of these days (when you finally muster up the courage), you want to move to Paris, leaving behind the life you once knew. And it was comforting, so comforting, to have someone to confide in. Because whatever your secrets, whatever your fears—whatever you told him—he would always listen.
He listens so well that you hardly notice how rarely he shares anything about himself. At least, not anything particularly personal, or important. The distance doesn’t seem unnatural, though, because it was how you had always known him. It was how he had always been.
One night in his apartment, you finally say the three words you’ve wanted to say for ages, the words that have been ringing around in your head all this time. You say them because you are an optimist. Had you been a pessimist, you would have reconsidered.
It comes out in a rush, not as confident as you would have liked. Your voice sounds smaller than you expected—softer, barely audible, not quite your own. You didn’t really plan to tell him tonight, but your heart has felt so full for so long that you couldn’t keep quiet any longer.
He looks at you, not unkindly, not as if he were surprised, but as if it were inevitable. Or rather, unoriginal. A compliment he had heard before and was reluctant to accept again. He kisses you gently on the forehead, but says nothing in return.
You stare at the edge of his profile as he drifts off to sleep, counting the seconds it takes for his breath to taper off into rhythmic oblivion.
Privately, his lack of response gnaws at you, scrabbling frantically like an animal. You bite your tongue so hard you taste blood, trying to calm down as your heart races wildly out of your chest. But something hot and dark and wordless settles deep inside you, and you are powerless to stop the tears from streaming down your face.
In the morning, you feel too humiliated to bring it up again.
You see Matthias less and less in the coming weeks, and when you do, he is far less attentive than before.
When you ask him where he’s been, he avoids the question, explaining that he has a tendency to come and go. He is restless, he tells you. He doesn’t like to be pinned down. Besides, it’s a big city, and he’s still getting his bearings. Did you honestly expect him to just stand still?
You feel despair unfurling fast, like your parachute has ripped on a free-fall jump.
It’s fine, you think. You knew right away that he was a free spirit, that he was different from everybody else. That’s what you liked about him, anyway. You don’t want to change him, and you don’t want to have the “what are we” talk—this is New York, you are both adults. So you downplay your concern instead, as if it didn’t matter to you at all.
But your nonchalance works less well than you think. Your birthday is coming up in a month, and try as you might, you cannot imagine spending it without him. So you give him the date, and the time, and the address, and you say, please don’t forget.
You are sitting by the window of a newly-opened bistro on Madison Avenue, the setting sun illuminating his face so nicely as he noncommittally takes a bite out of his steak tartare. “I won’t,” he tells you. He meets your eyes earnestly and smiles, somehow righting your universe once again.
But in the throes of your relief, you briefly catch him glancing down dully at his plate—grimacing a bit, as if the food had not been prepared the way he had expected.
Back on the rooftop, the stars come out. Today is your birthday and you are wearing black, an expensive little number that hugs your body in all the right places.
Your friends had all clamored to take you out, but you couldn’t, you explained, you had a date, a dinner reservation with Matthias, and they knew from the way that you lingered on his name that no amount of convincing was going to change your mind.
It took you ages to book a reservation here, and now here you are, shivering a little from the anticipation. Despite a tiny voice in your head piping up with your deepest inner fears, you think of how close you two have gotten, how happy he makes you feel. You think of how handsome he will look, how the evening will be unforgettable.
And then you wait, and you wait, and you wait and wait and wait and finally you call him to ask, are you on your way. But your call goes straight to voicemail, and anyway his voicemail is full and no longer accepting new messages.
You order ahead of time because the kitchen is closing—What if he was stuck in traffic, and his phone had died?—and soon enough the salmon arrives, garnished with lemon and garlic and seared on both sides, just the way he prefers. You order wine, too, the expensive kind (2010, Napa Valley, Sauvignon Blanc); it comes chilled in a silver bucket of ice. You remember, with a smile, the cheap airline wine he had joked about all those years ago.
All around you the diners look beautiful in cocktail dresses and Armani suits. The women laugh and the conversation scintillates and the band plays a jazzy rendition of Autumn Leaves; the stars shimmer arrestingly overhead and the view captivates even the most cynical Manhattanite. And you notice none of this, because you keep glancing at the entrance.
Hours pass. You finish the bottle; your dinner is cold. The waiter asks if everything is alright. You nod ever-so-tersely, swaying slightly in your seat. You ask, finally, for the check.
You are signing your name in a shaking, illegible hand, and you don’t remember the rest. Only that for all birthdays thereafter, you can never touch salmon or sauvignon blanc ever again.
For a while, life is hell.
You wake up every morning and see a stranger in the mirror. For the life of you, you can’t admit what’s wrong. You act like nothing happened, but your friends know better. (It’s not terribly difficult to deduce, you do wear dark sunglasses in December. Indoors. Every day.)
You buy alcohol to feel something; you buy sleeping pills to feel nothing. One night you take half a bottle of Ambien with wine, and you sleep so deeply you dream that you have died. When you finally wake up, still drawing breath, you feel nothing but disappointment.
When you are alone, you think about exactly where you want him. You close your eyes and he’s there—there. Retracing your steps, you wonder how it all went downhill. And though it kills you to do so, you dream. You dream of the way he held you, you dream that he had wanted you back. You dream that he is surfing on sun-burnt clouds, far above the world you once knew.
You craft a long, careful text, then delete it. You try again. You end up deleting his number and hurling your phone at the wall. The cracks spiderweb your screen for the next four months, looking as broken as you feel, occasionally splintering into your fingers. You do not care nearly enough to get it fixed.
You cannot stop watching the snow tumble in ever-tighter circles, wondering how chance brings people together only to rip them apart.
Time heals all wounds, they told you.
For the first time, you believe it. It is April, you are better, life is better, you have regained the confidence you had lost. The pigeons strut lazily on overheated asphalt, the sidewalk bustles with the weight of a thousand pedestrians, and you are walking with a rarefied spring in your step when all of a sudden you see him again.
You catch only a passing glimpse of him, sitting by the floor-to-ceiling window of a tiny pâtisserie. He is wearing white chinos and a Monaco blue oxford shirt, his right ankle crossed leisurely over his knee.
He doesn’t notice you at first, and if you could have moved heaven and earth to keep walking, you would have done so. But you forget yourself entirely as you stop in front of the glass.
The warmth of the smile that you once knew so well fades slightly when he raises his eyes to you. And for the first time, you notice that he is with someone else. Another girl, with pretty green eyes. His fingers rest lightly on her wrist, the way they rested on yours so long ago.
You imagine him taking your heart in his hands, still warm and beating from the cavity in your chest, and plunging a carving knife into the aortic valve. You can feel it already, the gasping wound, your blood spurting in red rivulets. Un couteau dans le coeur, as the French would say.
You back away abruptly before he can get up, but he gets up anyway. Maybe it’s the look on your face. He leaves the bakery and tries to stop you, but you are running now, running through the streets of New York.
Running before he can scoop you into his arms like you so desperately want him to, before he can tell you, I’m sorry, before he can hold you tightly until you are still again.
But after another block, you start to slow. After a while, it dawns on you that he didn’t follow you, after all.
The crowd peters out, and you are alone.
Life in Paris is like sunshine on a rainy day.
The pace is slower, more intentional. Less of the pressure to do something, be someone so omnipresent in New York — more of the freedom to live as you wish. The culture is deeper, infused with quiet subtleties: a sharp attention to detail, a modest sense of restraint. And you are pleased, finding that your quixotic ideals of Paris were not too far off the mark.
As you slip into the warmth, the formalities, the unwritten rules of Parisian society, the attitude of chic effortlessness you once admired from afar, you find yourself dating someone else now, someone new. You promise yourself that this time will be different, that nothing will hurt you quite so much again. But every once in a while you see something — a salt rimmed glass, a flash of burnished copper — and you’re upset for no reason, no reason at all.
C’est la vie.