Photo: Jenny Kristina Nilsson
Charleston / Florence
“I’ll be back around Christmas,” he tells me over the phone.
Sean is in a cab, on his way to the airport. He’s leaving the United States to live in Florence, Italy, for one year. My boyfriend is an artist, and where better to develop his incredible talent for painting than in one of the most aesthetically inspiring cities in the world?
But it’s my freshman year of college, and my boyfriend of three months is flying across the Atlantic Ocean to study abroad for an entire fucking year.
“I already have a Christmas gift for you,” I tell him. “I saw it the other day, and thought of you instantly.”
He sighs. “Oh, please don’t say it’s one of those oversized books about Van Gogh.”
That’s exactly what it is.
Van Gogh is Sean’s favorite artist. The book was on sale for $5. I’d seen it while exploring Downtown Charleston the day he left, in a dusty bookshop on King Street. I’m sentimental like that — if I come across something that reminds me of a person, I always buy it for them.
We tell each other it’ll work out, that we’ll be romantic and write letters to each other, that I’ll fly to Europe for Spring Break and we’ll meet in Nice and explore the French Riviera together, and he’ll paint me and that everything will be better after a year.
Except that it’s really hard to stay together when you’re miles apart. The weekly phone calls, the surprise care packages, and the wax-sealed letters sent between Sean and me decrease to an afterthought as college catches up with me. Charleston’s balmy weather unleashes the city’s natural energy. I float between frat parties, to beer-scented sports bars, to sleeping on the disgusting floors of the all-boys dorm, and finally ending up in the bed of an Argentinian exchange student.
I cheat on Sean a month after he’s left the United States. He doesn’t know it; I make up some lie about how “this long-distance thing” is too difficult and that college is over-stimulating, that a year is a really long time to be away from each other and that it would be better if we started seeing other people.
He doesn’t speak, at first. The traffic of Florence buzzes in the background. I try to visualize his surroundings, this beautiful place that everyone describes Florence as, but my selfishness overwhelms me.
“To be honest, I saw it coming,” he admits. “And I understand.”
Ghana / Washington
Josh and I began dating during my junior year at college. He said he loved me after one month; I said I needed more time, but after a while, I began to say it back, just because he said it so often. I figured, “This is how love works.” But it never felt 100% right.
He’s a sweet guy, but too dependent. “I tore my ACL again this week,” he tells me, over the single mobile phone shared between myself and ten other volunteers I’ve traveled to Ghana with. “I’ll be holed up in bed for at least another week. I miss you so much, it’s crazy.”
“I miss you too,” I tell him, rubbing my fatigued eyes. It’s midnight in Ghana, 8pm in Washington, DC. We don’t have internet in my village, and if we want to stay in touch with our friends, families, and significant others, we are at the mercy of their schedules back home.
“But you can’t call me every day,” I try to explain. I know he’s lonely. I know he’s depressed because he was fired from his summer job at the ice cream shop for calling his manager a “fucktard.” I know that I am the one stable thing in his life and it’s incredibly hard for me to be so far away from him, physically and emotionally.
But I’m in West Africa. I’m sore from churning palm nuts into blood-red oil. I’m confused by feelings of white privilege and my role as a micro-enterprise volunteer. Even walking from our village to the market in Hohoe is exhausting; the atmosphere is so humid, so thick, you can taste the air. Taking cold showers has become therapeutic.
“What do you mean, I can’t call you every day?” his voice is panicked. “I miss you. I love you. It sucks that you’re not here.”
“You can’t call me every day,” I repeat. “Because I don’t want you to. Because I am very busy and I’m learning so much about myself and it’s not fair to the others, if you call me every day.”
I like Josh, I really do. But Ghana is changing me. I’m becoming more self-sufficient. I’m learning how to take care of others and the environment around me. Just because I’m Josh’s girlfriend does not mean I’m a free psychologist — most times I comply with his whining, but when people in my village are dying from malaria, and the electricity gets shut off every other day because there’s a drought around Lake Volta, things get put into perspective.
Josh’s problems seem insignificant compared to my friend Erika, who has a severe tooth infection that will never be healed because she can’t afford to see a dentist.
One day, I wake up, and I know something. Ghana has taught me something, literally overnight. Inspired from this lucid dream, I say out loud,
“I’m not in love with Josh anymore.”
Because I was never in love with him to begin with.
Prague / Charleston
“So I’ll see you in four months then?”
“Yeah,” Michael tells me. “Yeah, it’ll go by quick. It’s going to be over before you know it.”
What I don’t say: After doing field research on Czech fashion culture in Prague for four months, I’m pretty sure I’ll never want it to be over. I won’t want to return home during the throes of a recession. I won’t want to be in a place where I don’t know what my purpose for being there is.
Michael and I are doomed from the start. I’m the second woman he’s ever dated, am ten years his junior (we can’t even go out for drinks because I’m only 20), and we begin our relationship two months before I leave for Europe. We are crazy about each other, but it’s not enough.
We break up during finals week, three months after my arrival in Prague.
“I didn’t want to say it,” Sarah, my program coordinator in the Czech Republic says to me when she hears the news. “But I knew you two wouldn’t last. Not to be mean or anything, but relationships on the road? They never work out.”
Four months in Prague turn into a year and a half. I am consumed by Czech culture; living, working, and traveling throughout Europe arouses and excites me in a way no man ever could. It’s about being independent and empowered. It’s about making my own decisions and being free of consequence based on someone else’s emotions.
Even if I’d gone back to the United States the day after my academic program was over, Michael and I would not be together today. He was never moving to New York, my base, and I was never moving back to Charleston, where he owned an unsellable home in an unsellable real-estate market.
You have to mean something to someone. You have to have a reason to come back. You have to have a reason to go. I wasn’t willing to come back, and Michael wasn’t willing to be wherever I was.
And that was it.