I’m not sure how many of you all read the New York Times Modern Love column. I’m a fan. I’m a sucker for romance and all love stories. When I found out about its Modern Love College Essay Contest, I was beyond excited to submit. I wrote my story in one sitting. Obviously, I looked at it over a few weeks to tweak it and such, but I knew what I wanted to write as soon as I heard about the contest.
Unfortunately, my essay didn’t receive anything — not even an honorable mention. I’m still proud of it, though. It’s an assignment I really poured my heart into. It helped me move on a bit from the troubles I wrote from. My friends know this story, but I doubt they know the details the way I discuss them here. Anyway, I thought I’d share it here. It deserves to be read.
Congratulations to the winners. I’m excited to see their essays once they’re published.
PS: Happy birthday, you.
Here, There, Everywhere Except With You
This gray fall Sunday morning, I awoke up with a minor thumping in my head. “Too much wine last night,” I winced. In the usual morning routine, I squinted my eyes toward my iPhone. Some mornings greeted me with a small treat: an email or perhaps a message through Skype or WeChat, an app popular in China. This particular morning lacked luster — until I noticed the red circle floating atop my mail app.
My headache eased, and my eyes brightened at seeing his name in my inbox. It was Zach, the guy I was seeing who lived in Beijing, China. Well, “seeing” is a lie. More like “keeping in touch with” — as much as two 20-something-year-olds could be spaced more than 6,500 miles apart.
Zach didn’t always email me, so I felt the way I would when I used to cuddle Toki, my guarded blue-eyed Himalayan now-runaway cat.
But my body, chirping with delight, reacted too soon. This email wasn’t the usual “Hey sweetheart, I miss you” email. This email lacked the goofy voice I was so used to reading. It contained no “Love you until the skies clear in Beijing.” No X’s. No O’s.
Instead, the email was stacked with apologies. It stunk of the cliché “I have been thinking…” Zach was letting me go. In his words, “You mean the world to me, but for now we’re worlds apart.” Those words are etched into my memory. Forever.
I dragged myself out of bed and into the shower, a safe place to free my sorrows without a soul to hear — or so I thought. I sobbed and sobbed, worse than I have in years. The pain of heartbreak is too much to contain. It reeks of a love so vast, a love that goes from a scant seed to a towering tree in a couple of months.
I walked out the bathroom to a concerned face. “Are you OK?” asked my roommate, who also happens to be my best friend. My woes were no secret. She heard. With a whimper and a cry, I told her: I was not OK.
But Zach and I, we weren’t always worlds apart. Our story wasn’t always one of torment and loneliness, dispersed Skype calls and a 12-hour time difference.
We met about seven months earlier in sunny California. I, the typical adventure-seeking college student, decided to spend my spring semester 3,000 miles from home aka New York. California had always been the dream: golden beaches, lax marijuana laws and sexy surfer boys.
But love? Oh, no. That wasn’t part of the dream. After all, I had just spent Christmas moping over my ex-boyfriend’s indifference toward me. I was only 21 with a whole life ahead of me. I wasn’t ready for love. Then again, who is?
I met Zach in the newsroom. He was no sexy surfer boy; he was beautiful, his pale skin unscathed by the crispy California sun, his gray-blue eyes reminiscent of a foggy sky. He was mysterious and often sat in front of his computer with his ear buds in, interacting minimally with those around him — at least from what I saw.
I swooned over him day and night. I’d see him on campus and be instantly overcome with butterflies. Some days, he’d wave hello. Other days, he’d walk right past me with his black shades, jean jacket, cool-guy demeanor. Even then, I still obsessed at the thought of caressing his face or simply holding his hand.
Yet I wasn’t looking for love. New York was only four months away. What was the point of chasing him? But the thing about love is it doesn’t care whether someone’s looking for it. It doesn’t care if they’re juniors in college with decisions left to make. It could give two hoots if the man whom someone’s falling for has decided to make China his next home. So what happened? We fell in love — a sweet, one-of-a-kind love.
What started as interlocked fingers evolved into intertwined bodies. What began as trips to the movies transformed into road trips. And what was once goodhearted fun became wholehearted commitment.
For our road trip, we went skydiving in Santa Cruz. He jumped out the plane first, and I saw him shrink into a tiny black dot among the white clouds. That night, we camped at New Brighton State Beach. As we watched the campfire dance, he pulled me close.
“Why do you have to go?” Zach asked. I sat on his lap and looked into those sad blue eyes that melted my heart every time. “I don’t want to go, but I have to.” For the first time, he looked like he would cry. And for the first time, I thought perhaps he loved me too. I hadn’t yet told him I loved him. It scared me just thinking about it. I couldn’t bear the thought of telling him, saying it out loud.
So, instead, I just sat there, held him and let him hold me back. Our beers remained unfinished, but it was time for bed. “Screw the beer. I just want to lie with you,” Zach said. So to the tent we went.
My birthday fell during those few days left in California. It was my first birthday away from home — and my 21st. I was finally at a bar, legally drunk. After taking a Scooby Doo shot, I pulled Zach’s hand and led him to the dance floor. We danced to crappy Miley Cyrus and kissed among a sea of drunken college students.
At some point, we left to a different bar I can’t quite remember. But I do remember speaking to a mutual friend. He and I were chitchatting, and I spotted Zach across the room. I have no idea what this guy was talking about, but I interrupted him by pointing to Zach. “You see that guy over there? He’s the love of my life,” I drunkenly confessed. And with that, I left to join my love. By the end of the night, I was a crying mess, spilling my feelings left and right.
It wasn’t until a few days later, right outside the airport, that I told Zach I loved him. He beat me to it though. I was trying to get the words out. I was sweating and hyperventilating. He knew what was up. So he passed me a pre-written note, and as soon as I opened it, the waterworks came. “I love you too,” it read in his chicken-scratch handwriting.
Within the next hour, I was on a plane to New York.
Traveling is the thing to do nowadays. Students either study abroad or to another state like I did. People are always talking about the experience traveling brings: the wisdom, the independence. And it certainly does. I made a new place home. I learned to be without my family and best friends.
But people forget to mention that traveling can hurt too. I met people, friends and more, and then I had to leave them. It sucks. I guess that’s where the wisdom part comes in. This is my generation’s dilemma: We travel to relax or to work. Either way, it’s always an adventure — but no sane person travels to fall in love.
I didn’t and neither did Zach.
He landed a job to teach English to Chinese children. They were young, some no older than eight. One even bit him. Talk about cuteness overload.
I was the last familiar face he saw before embarking on his journey. I was living outside Seattle for a summer internship, so he came to see me. Plus, Sea-Tac Airport offers direct flights to Beijing.
When he arrived, it had been nearly two months since I last saw his face. Skype doesn’t count. On the ferry ride across Puget Sound, we awkwardly sat across from each other. I looked at him, analyzing whether anything had changed.
Zach lifted his eyebrow and gave me an all-too-familiar look. “Get over here,” he smirked. I snuggled next to him, cozying my head in between his chest and shoulder. I knew then that nothing had changed. I was where I belonged.
Within a few days and after desperate, departing “I love you’s,” he was gone. Just like that.
Neither of us wanted long distance. We wanted to be together but not if it meant being apart. So we knew that our story would, eventually, end — temporarily or permanently, we didn’t know. I still don’t. So every moment felt fleeting. We knew that the time we spent together was all we had. And neither of us could beg the other to stay — really stay — because that would be selfish. At this age, little is known. Little is certain. Young people, especially college students, are expected to invest in their education and careers, not romance.
So now, as I prepare for graduation and my impending responsibilities, I wonder what he’s up to. Is he preparing for his day as I prepare to fall asleep? Is he wearing his usual white T-shirt and brown pants? I contemplate whether he still thinks of me or if he’s found someone new. He told me he met someone, but who knows what that even means. Right?
I lie awake at night not because I worry I won’t find a job after graduation, but because I worry whether I’ll ever love another the way I loved him. I worry that no story will ever amount to our story. I’m only 21, and I worry #foreveralone will encompass my life, which is, of course, a silly thought.
I snuggle in bed and flip through old photos and reread old letters. My heart stings with regret. Maybe I hugged him too hard. Maybe I squeezed him, squeezed him right out of my life. Like my blue-eyed Toki, whom I have yet to see again, my blue-eyed Zach has run away.
Unlike Toki, Zach may come back, but who knows where I’ll be if it even matters anymore then. After all, we’re all just a bunch of kids chasing the dream – no matter where it takes us to and whomever it takes us from.
Photo by Yessenia Funes