She wore a flowered dress and when she bent down to kiss me her hazel curls brushed against my cheeks. Her soap left a lavender aura, but regardless of what soap she used she always held the fragrance of flowers, at least for me. I was in love with her. It came upon me slowly, sometime in Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan when we were talking every day. For a while I resisted it, but I was too tired for that anymore. When I landed stateside, I took the first opportunity to see her again.
“How was the walk?” I asked as she sat down.
“I saw your text. Do you still want to go to Bar Á Vin?”
“Yeah, I thought you had your phone off so I came here, but they don’t serve food here anyway.”
I passed her my beer. She took a sip then passed it back. After we finished I picked up the bottle of Syrah I’d bought earlier and we walked down the street. State Street was one of the busier roads in New Haven, but classes hadn’t started yet and it was a Tuesday so it was quiet. Chatter from the few open restaurants carried clearly through the air.
“Have you been there before?” I asked. “It looked nice.”
“A few times, but only for drinks. A wine or a cocktail. Maybe three times. Do you think there’s seating outside?”
“I had a table earlier, but it was crowded.”
“Maybe they have a garden.”
When we arrived the outdoor tables were all taken. I asked a waitress if they had a garden or if someone would be leaving soon, but they didn’t, and they wouldn’t be. So we sat next door, at a restaurant with less vibrancy.
I ordered a beer and a burger. She ordered a riesling and a tomato and bean salad.
While we waited we talked about nothing.
“Yeah, back in Kyrgyzstan I was watching a lot of Masterclasses. My mom got me a subscription for my birthday.”
“Oh, that’s right. For the poetry, right? That’s such a thoughtful gift. Isn’t it expensive?”
“A few hundred a year. Three or four hundred I think.”
“Did you take the poetry class?”
“Yeah, it was okay, don’t feel like I learned much from it honestly.”
“I used to get an advertisement for a Masterclass with a woman with glasses and white hair. Dana always jokes that I look like her.”
I laughed. “Jane Goodall? I could see that.”
“I don’t think it was her. It’s for a writing class.”
“I’m not sure who it is, but she really does look like an older version of me. How does it work though? The classes are long, aren’t they?”
“It depends. There are two formats, I think. Some of the classes are only forty minutes or so, but other ones are longer, maybe six or seven hours. I took a cinematography class from your boy Werner Herzog which was six hours.”
She rolled her head in a bit of a swoon at the mention of Herzog. “He is so great.”
“He really is. I remember him talking about this one shot in particular, it was a super slow zoom out of a penguin walking alone in Antarctica.”
“Oh yes! What is that movie called again?”
“I can’t remember. But the shot was maybe a minute or two and he was saying how he doesn’t like to use any sort of convention when it comes to editing, just feel.”
“Encounters at the End of the World!” she said, in a burst of insight. “What an amazing movie. So beautiful.”
She clutched a hand to her chest as though she were holding the movie itself.
She was incredibly discerning, so when she liked something it would radiate off her as though her soul was burning a bright white gold. And when this happened, when something struck her, the best place to be was right before her. The radiance washed over you and even if you didn’t understand it, it said something beautiful about her depths.
“He uses shots like that later in his movies,” she said. “After the viewer has the details of the story. It lets all the complexities of the subject sink in. It’s like being bored, when you let the unconscious mind work things out. He’s doing the same thing with his camera.”
“It’s clever. He seems so laid back in the class, but you can tell he pays attention to every detail.
“What other classes did you take?”
“I took one on fashion from Tan France.”
“Tan France?” she said, imitating my Jersey accent.
“Yeah, the Pakistani guy from Queer Eye. He’s great.”
“Did you learn anything from it?”
“Not really.” I laughed. “But it was interesting enough.”
The conversation paused.
“So we’re good like this, right?”
“Yeah, sure,” I said without thinking.
Quiet came again. With her one question, a tension spread around us like a fog. I brought up some mundane topic to keep the conversation going, but I was thinking about what I said earlier when we were laid in bed.
Take a chance. Maybe it won’t work.
She hadn’t said anything after I said that, but she kissed me and we made love. I thought that meant she was taking the chance. I thought my last-ditch effort had won her over, but now I wasn’t sure.
After we paid and left, we were holding hands at the corner waiting for the light to change.
“What did you mean back there? By good like this?”
“I mean we’re just going to enjoy these next few days, right?”
“And that’s it?”
The light changed and we crossed the street. She was thinking.
“You see how I am here, Tom. I have to teach soon. I have the Ph.D. You know how seriously I’m taking my practices, how much I’m trying to stay in the moment. I don’t want to look at my phone. I don’t even respond to my family sometimes…”
She continued on, but my mind faded to black and I couldn’t hear her until something struck a nerve.
“After seven months, when you’re finished walking, you can contact me.”
“No,” I said quickly. “No, no, no. I’m the one who came here to tell you I want to be with you.”
“Okay. I misunderstood.”
“I’m the one with the stronger feelings. It’s up to you whether you want to be with me.”
We were silent after that. But after a few blocks, I became fixated on the image of the half-used box of condoms in her nightstand.
“You slept with someone, right?”
“Yes. Three times.”
“It was only sexual. And it was after we talked about it. We agreed to tell each other if we had feelings for someone else. That’s what we agreed upon.”
“I know. It’s fine. It doesn’t matter.”
We continued holding hands and I didn’t care that she had been with someone else. We were never dating.
“Have you slept with anyone?” she asked.
“No. And I could have.”
It was an unnecessary addition, but true.
“I guess we’re just in different places,” I said.
When we got back to her apartment we made love again, but this time I felt sick afterward. I got up straight away, went to the bathroom, and reluctantly came back to her. She laid her head on my shoulder and put her arm over me.
I needed to believe what she’d been saying all day.
She didn’t want to be with me.
That afternoon I’d given her an ultimatum. “I have to go one way or the other,” I said. “I can’t keep doing this in-between. I want to be with you. I think you’re great and I don’t want to be with anyone else. But we’re either together or we have to stop talking. The in-between is too painful for me when I’m out there on my own. I want someone to rely on and I want that someone to be you.”
She was so happy when I confessed this. She pulled me in to kiss her. We kissed for a while and when I pulled back, I said, “So what do you think?”
She withdrew, and I fell onto my back.
“Can we talk in seven months when you’ve finished the walk?” she said, leaning over me.
“We have to go one way or the other. It’s too painful for me.”
“Well, I have until Friday morning to think about it, right?”
“Sure,” I said meekly. My heart sunk, but it was a big ask, so I’d try to be patient.
A few hours later, while we were laid beneath a tree atop East Rock, she said she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t give me what I wanted. She didn’t want to be relied on.
I didn’t hear her though, not really. I wanted to be with her, so even though I walked away at first, when we were headed back to her apartment I pulled her to me and we put our arms around each other.
“This is going to be a tough seven months,” I said.
What a stupid thing to say.
When we got back to her apartment and talked for an hour about how we felt about each other, I realized over and over that she would make no concessions.
The best she could do was hold my cheeks and say, “I care for you a lot and I’m really happy you’re here right now.”
There was no future for her, or maybe there was and I wasn’t in it.
Either way, I felt sick laying in bed with her that night. I couldn’t sleep well, and at one a.m., in a wave of jealousy, I questioned her about the condoms and why she’d suddenly started birth control. She went over the details patiently and I felt like a fool for getting upset.
“One thing you can count on me for,” she said, “is brutal honesty.”
And that was true, I believed every word she said, only sometimes it took a while for the truth to sink in.
“Why don’t you go for a walk?”
I went out under the shadow of a new moon. While I walked, I thought of what she said to me during our deep talk about each other.
She said, “There’s a Buddhist saying, something like; I love the apple even though the apple doesn’t love me back.”
I understood what she meant, but I wasn’t a monk. I hadn’t transcended my emotions. And I did care if the apple loved me back. I couldn’t go two more days pretending I didn’t.
I fell asleep on the sofa downstairs. At three a.m. she called me, worried. I went back upstairs and fell asleep. When I woke at seven, I packed my things.
Two days after that I was in Seattle again. When I was reunited with Savannah, I cried.
On the third day, Savannah and I went for a walk at dawn and I realized something which made me feel better.
Since twenty-two, I’d been shielding The World Walk from love. After ending things with my college girlfriend, lest it distract me from my goal of walking around the world, I never allowed myself to approach feeling that way about anyone. But during the five days in New Haven, before I gave the ultimatum, I had loved freely. It was the first time in ten years that I let myself feel and express the full extent of my emotions.
And thinking of those five days, how at peace I was, how natural it felt to give and love fully, I felt immense gratitude. Those five days were perhaps better than any five days I had while walking around the world.
They set me free. I didn’t get the answer I wanted, but I had an answer. I had been honest and now I could move on. I’d be able to walk the last leg of my journey free of the in-between.