Three Trips, Three Steps Closer to a Breakup
Max worked at a record label, and I worked in book publishing, and this is why people in the arts should not be trusted with complex equations.
At first, everything was wonderful. We slept late, bought each other thoughtful gifts, met each other s parents. At night, we went to shows for his bands or book parties for my authors, each of us gamely tolerating the rivers of unknown names and acronyms that flowed through the conversations. But by six months in, it was clear I was more invested. It was also clear neither of us wanted to address it.
Most people in our situation buy plants or adopt animals or watch fiendish amounts of television. We bought plane tickets. Each time the opportunity arose for one of us to get out of town, the other followed, hoping that the change of scenery would change our dynamic. Yet each trip had the inverse effect: pushing us farther apart. So, why would I continue to get on a subway with this person, never mind board an airplane?
I m so glad you asked.
First came Los Angeles. This was at a time when I was at the edge of illiteracy with L.A., and Max was at the edge of fluency. His attitude seemed to be, It sure is brighter here.
Mine was something like, Seventy-two suburbs in search of a city.
He booked us into the Le Parc Suite Hotel in West Hollywood, because of its proximity to the Troubadour, where one of his bands was playing. My only salient memory of the hotel is of standing in front of the bathroom mirror. We were getting ready to go to a birthday party at the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel, when Max appeared, looking me up and down as he had never done before. People don t dress up in L.A., he said.
I know, I said, looking down at my skirt and heels. It s not like I haven t been here.
But I hadn t. Not really. I had not yet stayed in homes that I now know as well as my own or shared banter with a studio security guard or sat in traffic and told friends what to order without looking at the menu. I had a good hunch that Venice was only accessible by boat.
Walking into the party wearing Chuck Taylors, I felt miscast in a play about a little girl trying to fit in. Was I competing with the memory of his former girlfriend or a whole city? Why compete with either?
It didn t help when we ran into her best friend, and Max looked as if he d swallowed a boulder. It helped less when I ripped the side mirror off the rental car exiting a parking garage. After a meeting the next day, I got so lost, I pulled off Santa Monica Boulevard and started weeping. Maybe I would just live here now. In this car. On this corner. No friends, no love life, no career. Just these four doors and a bottle of Poland Spring.
I confessed to Max that Los Angeles was making me feel unmoored and uncool. And by Los Angeles, I meant him. But this vulnerability fell on deaf ears. It s not that Max wasn t a good guy; he was a very good guy. It s that the framework of Los Angeles seemed to exacerbate whatever wasn t working in our relationship in New York. In theory, the nice thing about travel is that you never have to wonder if the feeling between you and the place you are visiting is mutual. But in practice, sentiment and scenery get muddled. This is why some people wind up with a surprising affection for Buffalo, and total disdain for Barcelona.
That night, we watched the band in silence. After the show, Max asked me what I thought. I grumpily informed him it was the kind of music I might listen to while doing something else, like reading, or cleaning, or listening to better music. We slept along opposite edges of the bed. Never had I felt so distant from a person so close to me. I fell asleep certain that Los Angeles had done us in.
Instead, we chalked it up to the trickery of the West.
In retrospect, Los Angeles was a masochistic first trip. So, for New Year s, we repacked our hopes and our sunglasses and headed to San Juan, P.R. Determined to prove my worth via my travel acumen, I sunk my teeth in. I had been there before, having gone midnight kayaking in the phosphorescent bays, and having found it to be transformative. I acquired a Puerto Rican flag bikini that was 70 percent polyester and 30 percent trying too hard. I picked the hotel, and made us a reservation at a restaurant in a converted mansion. But neither Max nor the couple who joined us felt much like kayaking through a rain forest full of mosquitoes. The bikini, meanwhile, gave me a rash, the restaurant turned out to be phenomenally expensive and the hotel featured a rooftop club thumping its music right through our ceiling. It was like sleeping in the heart of a jogging giant.
On the beach on our last day, Max received a call from one of his singers, who had gotten engaged to an actress. The couple had met after Max and I got together. I don t make a habit of idealizing celebrity marriages, but upon hearing the news I felt the need to take an overtly dramatic walk, so that I might gaze upon the bigness of the ocean and lecture myself about the perils of jealousy. If the tropics couldn t make a couple out of us, what could? Travel is supposed to be taxing. Vacation itself the being there is not. The same with relationships: The work they require should be because you and your partner have different approaches to existing in a new place. It should not be because one of you refuses to leave the house.
By the time we got to the airport, I had reverted to an embarrassingly na ve and inept version of myself. At the gate, Max turned to me and asked where my luggage had gone. I ran back to the ticket counter, where I had left my bag; an old woman was leaning on it, yelling at a T.S.A. agent. I gently wheeled it out from under her elbow. It is impossible to overstate how out of character this was. I have missed exactly one flight in my life, and it was because I mixed up the departure and arrival times. I don t run late. I don t leave phone chargers in hotel rooms. Given the chance, I m pretty sure I could figure out how to circumnavigate the globe in 22 and a half hours. But with Max, I was perpetually out of place.
Should we just do this? I asked, exasperated and sad. I thought it might mitigate the pain if we ripped off the Band-Aid outside the Continental United States. I was the one in love; certainly, I couldn t be expected to do it. But by then, the boarding process (as though it s a metamorphosis) had begun. Max grabbed my bag. Only a monster breaks up with someone on an airplane.
Perhaps if we had gone to Reykjavik, Iceland, that would have expedited things. Cold locales force you to deal with what s in front of you. They don t demand that you slather yourself with positive thinking. Instead, like geniuses, we left for a weekend in Miami. I was coming from Maine, and there are no direct flights from Maine to Miami (a great disservice to the people of Maine). A storm grounded me in Philadelphia for four hours. When I arrived at the Standard in Miami Beach, exhausted, hungry and frizzy, I found Max sprawled on our bed, looking frightened after receiving a series of expletive-laced texts from me about my delay. But good news! He had made us dinner reservations at Prime 112.
Prime 112 is a steakhouse. I haven t eaten meat since I was a teenager. But, fine, I thought. O.K. Let s go to the cow factory. Since Miami turned out to be our last trip together, you would think I would remember more of it. But this is how the world ends: with a whimper. I remember going to the Raleigh Hotel and drinking mojitos, something I have done both before and since with greater joy. I remember going to an art exhibit that was closed when we arrived. I remember Max test-running his us talk on a boardwalk. During a lull, he said, Nice place to visit, but you wouldn t want to live here, you know? And I remember genuinely not knowing if he meant Miami or us.
He ended it in New York. It hurt. Pointing out the elephant in the room doesn t mean everything doesn t get broken pushing the elephant out of the room. For a long time, I couldn t so much as think of the places we had been. He took my favorite picture of me in San Juan, wearing a white dress and walking up a cobblestone alley surrounded by pastel houses. When I looked at the photo, all I saw was how far away he d have to have been in order to take it. But then years passed and time redrew the map. I went to shows at the Troubadour. I booked Prime 112 for a friend s bachelorette party. Plenty of fish and vegetable options. Max moved to Los Angeles, where he met his wife. The singer and the actress who had triggered my jealousy got divorced.
A few months ago, I saw Max at the wedding of a mutual friend. I watched him make small talk with my boyfriend, both of them laughing and chatting away, as if it weren t the craziest thing that had ever happened. But, of course, it wasn t. Max and I are a specific variety of old friends: ones who went to many of the wrong places at the wrong time.
On our way out, I told my boyfriend about our trips, marveling anew at what disasters they were. I struggled to remember the name of that restaurant in San Juan, eventually deciding that I didn t want to remember. Some places, like some people, are meant to be left behind. It doesn t mean you bear them ill will. If anything, it s the reverse. The next time you stumble on a familiar cafe or street corner somewhere, take a moment to pay tribute to these landmarks of relationships past. After all, you are one of two tourists in the whole world who will ever know they are there.