Enrique was married, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when he dumped me. But I was stunned — and hurt. Nursing my heartbreak, I sat down too hard and shattered the toilet seat.
“It broke under the weight of my self-pity,” I told my friends, grateful to have a funny story to tell. My life could be more screwball comedy than dreary drama. I had known it was going to come to this, so why did I feel so awful?
His marriage was our biggest obstacle but not the only one. He lived in Buenos Aires; I was there temporarily on a grant. He was a Gen-Xer; I was a millennial, and 14 years younger. I was a serial monogamist; he said his marriage was “in crisis.”
I was studying psychoanalysis, but it didn’t take any particular expertise to hear that line as simply a married man’s desire to get into my pants.
Besides, I had met his wife, and she was wonderful — cooler than I could ever hope to be but still warm, witty and a hell of an artist. I had seen him put his arm tenderly around her as they walked away. Six months earlier, I would have taken that as a deal-breaker and stayed away, unable to imagine a scenario where I wasn’t the villain. But living in Argentina had upended my certainties about the plots of love stories.
Back in New York, I was “good” at dating. I recognized red flags, understood motives, knew how to say what I wanted, knew when to run. Sure, I had been single for years, but I was a woman who knew what’s what when it came to romance.
Not in Argentina, where my dates all seemed to be hunting for the Wild American Girl, an exotic, liberated species. They would push me up against the critical theory books on my desk and whisper, “I love how savage you are.”
The realization that they weren’t genuinely interested in me was painful, but at least I was getting a few anecdotes to share with my friends, a beginning and an end with none of the tedious waiting that comes in the middle. I narrated my life as a befuddled participant, swept along into ever-wilder situations.
And then Enrique showed up, his desire for me as plain as his wedding ring. He was so transparent about it that I figured he must be an old hand at cheating. Lonely and frustrated, I thought: What the hell. Cap off my year abroad with a stint as the adulterous flavor-of-the-month. He would handle me passionately but distantly. It would end when I boarded the plane home, just one more story. My friends would giggle, scandalized. It would be like one of those French novels, or like “Eat Pray Love.” (At the time, I had read neither French novels nor “Eat Pray Love.”)
We made our first kiss inevitable by moving our meetings from academic symposiums to cafes to my apartment. But that initial touch of his lips, halting and soft, sent shock waves down my spine. The response of my killjoy brain was to scream: “Oh no, this rush is way more than a fling warrants.” And: “Oh no, Enrique is shaking.”
“I haven’t kissed anyone except Paola since we got together,” he said.
So much for my imagined Lothario. It turned out his marriage was in crisis; he and Paola had been re-evaluating their relationship for months, spending half the year apart as they tried to figure out their next steps.
The shallow story I thought we were in unraveled as he handled me with the same tenderness I’d seen him use with her. I was used to treading carefully, avoiding being needy or overwhelming. But whenever I worried that I had said too much about how I felt, Enrique would ask for more. After hearing tales of my misadventures dating Argentines, he began exploring our cultural differences, at one point asking if he should watch “Girls” to understand my millennial worldview.
I said “No,” but found myself reading plays he’d written to try to better understand him.
The affair continued with us alternately giddy and terrified. We wrote each other bad poetry, chatted late at night. Paola got wise to the situation in a matter of weeks and helped him find a new apartment.
It wasn’t until he dumped me that I realized how completely I’d lost the thread. It had been six months since our first kiss, three since he moved out of their shared apartment, two since I had returned to New York. All that time, I had let myself see possibility instead of catastrophe at the end of our rainbow.
It had been a foolish, crazy choice — but an honest one. I was sure he’d been honest, too. I didn’t worry that it had all been a game to him, that I’d been tricked into falling in love by anything other than my own damned heart.
His marriage was over. He said he needed time to mourn its ending, to find himself. But I couldn’t shake the thought that if we had met a year later, he would have been fine with me hanging around while his grief ran its course. Our affair had been a symptom of the end of his marriage, not the cause. To let go of what we had found together because it happened at the wrong time — that just seemed like the silliest, saddest story possible.
So, 10 days after he ended things, I emailed him. It was not a move the earlier version of me — the certain one, who knew what’s what — would have approved of. But I had left that person behind. Maybe I’d spent too long playing the bumbler in Argentina. Or maybe I was no longer willing to trade the best company I’d ever had for the cold comfort of having made the safe choice.
The story I told in that email was unflattering. It provided no witticisms with which to regale my friends. It boiled down to this: If you want, I can wait for you.
The next day, he wrote: “It will take a long time.”
Waiting makes for a bad story. Waiting does not keep your friends entertained over drinks. But six months after leaving Buenos Aires, I got on the plane that brought me back to Enrique. I was either taking the first step toward the rest of my life or going all-in on a doomed bet — and I might not know which for a long time.
Our breakup had been short-lived, but it changed the way we moved through our relationship. Our love became a story that Enrique and I were telling each other day by day. I couldn’t pretend he was just my bad-idea fling; he couldn’t pretend I was just a Band-Aid placed over the loss of his marriage.
Our exploration of each other moved to deeper questions: How did we handle anger? How did we handle jealousy? He delighted in my insistence on scheduling sex instead of waiting for the mood to strike. I was amazed at how he took my jealousy of Paola, when it surfaced, as something natural and nonthreatening. Being stuck in limbo as he processed the end of his marriage was sometimes difficult for us, but we were making our own history. A year went by, and another.
Did it mean a happy ending for us when Paola told Enrique she had moved in with her boyfriend? Or when she suggested it was time for them to divorce, three years into their separation? What did it mean when the inflection points started feeling more like beginnings than endings? The night I proposed. Our wedding. The birth of our son.
Beginnings and endings make good stories. But 10 years on, most of our days are just the middle: breakfast then work, toddler bath and an hour stolen from sleep for us to collapse on the couch with each other. We’re thick in the part of the tale that gets left out in the final telling, delighting in it together.
I know this story can’t end in the middle, though, so I’ll finish with a memory from late 2020 that felt, even then, like a kind of destiny: Enrique, our son Elías, Paola and I sit on a picnic blanket in a park in Buenos Aires. Paola is sketching Enrique, as she did so many times during their marriage. Elías is getting his first taste of Panettone. Later we will feed the giant carp in the pond. Paola will bike home, and Enrique and I will load our son into his car seat.
But for now, we talk about nothing. We breathe in the late spring air, not yet heavy with Buenos Aires’s summer humidity. The new year is coming, promising a change. We wait, together.