As told at “The Moth” Story Slam in Washington, DC on February 10, 2022
We were teenagers. I was on a student trip and my group had just arrived in the Wachau Valley of Lower Austria, about an hour from Vienna, to spend a week with host families. Every girl on the bus locked their laser beams on him as he crossed the plaza. He was tall, thin, with a mop of brown hair. Soooo European looking. And the son of the family I was assigned to. He was my homestay brother.
There was an instant attraction, but we were both too shy to do anything about it.
It was a week of “awkward.”
Every car ride to go sightseeing, to the vineyards, the Roman ruins where Richard the Lionhearted was imprisoned; and to Salzburg to see Mozart’s birthplace, the tension between us deepened. He was plastered to one side of the backseat, with his hands between his knees, I was plastered to the other, pretending to gaze out the window at the countryside.
There was no talking between us, and definitely no eye contact. Not till I was about to get on the bus and that’s when we fell madly in love with each other.
For 2 years, we poured our hearts into so many letters that took TWO WEEKS each way, between New York and Austria! He bought purple stationery because my favorite color was purple. We made each other mix tapes. Every once in a while for a special treat, I would save up money from my movie theater job and blow it all just to hear his beautiful, deep voice fumble for the right words to say in English on the phone.
How were we going to be together again… study abroad!
I got into a program, paid the tuition, paid the VERY EXPENSIVE airfare, we were both so excited… Right up until about a month before I was due to leave, when he informed me that he had a girlfriend.
What was I supposed to do now?? I couldn’t just get a refund. It was just too late to change plans.
You might think that was the worst of it…
Who picked me up from the airport??? Him?? Nooooo… he sent his sister and his very tall, thin, beautiful GIRLFRIEND….
Eventually I got over it, and even though there was still tension between us, we became good friends. He got married and had kids. I got married and had cats and dogs. We became friends with each others’ spouses. We grew up. This is what we did now.
Then, my marriage ended. To clear my head, his wife invited me to come to Austria for a visit to surprise him for his birthday. Sure… that’s innocent enough, right?? We’re friends… right?
Even though we were both nearly 40, when he appeared at the door, he was still that tall, thin boy all the girls wanted. And when he melted into my arms, well….
Let me tell you… nothing will snap you out of “the feels” for the man you’re secretly still in love with like sleeping in the bunkbed of his 5 year old son. Complete with dinosaur sheets and Nemo nightlight.
Eventually, his marriage fell apart. It was the beginning of 2019, and she had been gaslighting him, cheating on him, and manipulating me, to get me take her side. Good riddance… right??
By summertime, he was no longer venting about her. He was living in his own apartment nearby, to be close to the kids. He had a new, playful energy. He was flirting with me. And since I was VERY single, I lapped that attention up like a thirsty puppy with her front paws in the water dish.
Listen, I know the rules: NEWLY DIVORCED, STRAIGHT MEN ARE NOT LOOKING FOR A RELATIONSHIP. They want to play and have sex with many. But we were friends!! FRIENDS!!
Right up until we were chatting one night, and he made a comment about how he was unlovable. I impulsively confessed that I had never stopped having feelings for him.
Oh shit… what had I done…
And then he replied. He was excited to learn that and he felt the same way!
Next thing I know, we’re talking about it, about us, about what it would be like after all this time. And of course I had to come for a visit, to see if this was a thing.
At least trying to keep my feet on the ground and consider that all this might be too soon for him, I checked in. Three decades of friendship was way more important to me than anything else. I wanted him to feel like he could tell me anything and did not want him to feel trapped or overwhelmed.
He told me he was very excited and he very much wanted this. And he kept saying that.
By November, I was smile/crying the whole way to Vienna. My mind reeled and replayed the conversations, the history, the car ride to Salzburg with the shy wall between us. This is IT!! THIRTY YEARS IN THE MAKING!! I could hardly believe we were about to see how we were as a couple!!
I vaguely noticed the onion-top cathedral spires of Austria’s landscape on final approach to the Vienna airport.
Almost instantly, we were in this romantic dynamic that was brand new, and also totally familiar. It was this incredible romance–that first kiss… the SEX! HOLY MOLY!! We laughed hard, kissed often, held hands, had long talks and tears. Every time I looked at him, he was grinning from ear to ear. His energy felt so at peace, and he felt SO RIGHT in my arms.
Still, I wanted to check in. We sat on the couch, turned toward each other and I asked, “How are you feeling about all of this?” He took my hand, looked directly into my eyes and told me that it felt amazing, it was GREAT! Old and new at the same time. Familiar but not. It was “really cool!”
We were talking about when I would come back, how long I would stay next time, I brought up getting my own place so that we could try out “dating” instead of staying together. He was excited.
It was New Year’s 2020, and I was so warm and fuzzy with the anticipation of how 2020 was going to be MY YEAR. We video chatted at his midnight, and he introduced me to his friends who were celebrating at his apartment. His friends knew I was coming back. We air-kissed our goodbyes and I went on to my own New Year’s party joyful in the warmth of this new/old relationship.
The next night, January 1, 2020, I was up kind of late, morning his time. He came online and needed to talk.
He didn’t want a romantic relationship. He didn’t feel the same way about me that I felt about him and he never did and he didn’t want me to come back to Austria.
Clearly, it was too much too soon after the divorce and he needed to feel free to date others, to have space and do his own thing. I got it. No problem. I encouraged him to take all the time he needed.
“I don’t need more time,” he corrected. He did not have the same feelings for me that I had for him.
“I see you as a sister.” OUCH…
He was sorry I had misinterpreted what had happened during my visit, but he couldn’t pretend to feel something he didn’t feel.
This conversation was all wrong. It came out of nowhere. I could accept if he had a change of heart and wanted to date others, but not that he never had feelings for me. That would mean he had lied to my face and had faked being in love. When you are in the presence of someone who’s in love with you, YOU KNOW. You don’t have to hear it, you can feel it in the air between you. Even his kids could tell how he felt. He was a man in love.
“A lie that big does not get to be a part of my life anymore,” I explained.
He was not moved. If the price of being true to himself was our friendship, that was how it would have to be.
Thirty years of friendship and love – gone.
There were a couple more useless email exchanges and then silence. I never heard from him again.