Dear Young Dumb Self,
I was in Ireland for two reasons: to present a paper at a conference, and to make out with a handsome stranger. Or at least talk to one. Or at least make eye contact with one, and then spend years ascribing gravitas to a single delicious moment.
The paper was the easy part. I was pursuing a degree that felt transparently meaningless, so I tried to give my life (and my tuition payments) purpose by applying—and very, very occasionally being accepted—to highbrow academic conferences. Once there, I’d stand trembling before a crowd of true scholars, hoping they would forgive both my armpit sweat and whatever fraudulent claim I made on their turf. In Dublin, I delivered a lazy thesis (“Something Something and the Irish Diaspora"), claimed my per diem before they could detect the fraudulence, and slipped away like a preteen shoplifter with her fist closed around three tubes of watermelon lip gloss.
Once the escape was complete, and once I had somewhat curtailed the damage wrought on my hair by the Irish humidity, I focused on my second objective.
Everyone had told me to go to the Temple Bar area. I get why. Frothing with tourists and Guinness, mummified in strings of fairy lights, pulsing with live music. A girl—including a Canadian girl with a horror show for hair—doesn’t even have to try. Men in every direction. Draped over each other, corkscrewing each other’s nipples, egging each other on. If you were in it for a quick flirtation and a free dink or two, Temple Bar was your sandbox. But I wanted more. I wanted substance, even if it only lasted for ten glorious seconds. I wanted a loaded glance. I wanted sobering eye contact. I wanted someone to look at me, look pointedly at the empty seat next to him, then look back at me. I wanted a scene from Felicity, but all grown up. And international.
That was hard to find. I felt disoriented and alone. It was close to Halloween, and it was Ireland, which created a weird mashup of St. Patrick’s Day and Zombie Apocalypse. Dublin was hosting a marathon that weekend which drew a lot of fit people but, unfortunately, they were not my kind of fit. Slim, show-offy American track stars demanding the worst songs imaginable from the cover band (your Dropkick Murphys request is not as clever as you think). One guy did offer to buy me a drink, which was great, but he returned with a White Russian, which was revolting. I could see where the night was heading. Nowhere.
Oh, well. I had my life in Montreal waiting for me. It didn’t look so bad from an ocean away. I could still extract hope from the stumbling heartsick elegy I was gradually composing at home, one horrendous mistake at a time. That would have to do.
I elbowed towards the bar to settle my tab. That’s when it happened. The handsome man standing next to me fell immediately, helplessly in love with what he saw, simultaneously understanding and accepting that his life would never be the same. We are married to this day and live on sheep farm with a menagerie of children in matching Aran sweaters who are among the fourteen remaining people that speak genuine Gaelic.
(If you’re one of the three strangers who visit this site, please stop reading now. You’ve learned all you need to know about me. My life is a gauzy Maeve Binchy fever-dream in which I long for nothing.)
(For the rest of you, all I can say is: this story does not end well. It doesn’t end particularly badly, either. If this story were a party prop, it would be a balloon with an undiscoverable but noisy leak: bright and promising at first, gradually hemorrhaging air until everyone’s glad when it’s thrown out.)
But anyway. Back to the bar.
Hard as it is to believe, the man standing next to me did not, in fact, fall instantly in love. But he did feel bored or drunk enough to prop one elbow on the rail and shatter my heart with a barely-sober “Hiiiiiiii.”
He was tall. Shaved head, black t-shirt, something attractive and chiseled going on around his jaw. His grin communicated that he was a man and I was a woman and we were standing next to each other, so...?
I felt an anemic beam of hope filtering through the dust.
Turns out he was Austrian, not Irish, and (it gets better) that his name was fucking Wolfgang. We found a booth where we shout-talked our story to each other. His held many appeasing surprises. He was a martial artist! He ran a Kung Fu temple in Austria! He was in Dublin for the marathon! I sat with chin in hand, veins thickened by hoppy courage, wondering if my parents would come to Austria for Christmas or if we’d go back to Canada.
A lot happened during the first few minutes of our chat. A high school reunion took place in my hometown, at which former tormenters whispered to one another about how Megan Findlay (remember her? With the hair?) had been swept away by an Austrian ninja and was now living on a Venetian estate where she had written a novel that won every literary prize there is, plus a few new ones invented just for the occasion, and oh my god, aren’t we realizing now how much we underestimated her when she was twirling a pigtail in our grade 10 careers class!
At some point, Wolfgang and I agreed that our agenda should evolve. It was so crowded by the time we stood to leave that he tucked me into him like I was a tiny delicate fairy person. (Public service announcement for all present and future men in my life: I want to be praised for the big independent deal that I am, but sometimes I want to be a tiny delicate fairy person tucked fondly under your arm.)
We caught a ride and proceeded with Taxi Snuggles, very different from regular snuggles because of time constraints and the vaguely exhilarating presence of an uncomfortable third party. It was as delicious as I had hoped.
But then we got to my hotel. He scrabbled out of the taxi after me and stood in the street, plucking at my shirtsleeve. I got my first real, considered look at him under streetlamps not covered in orange Halloweeny gauze. And that’s when my agenda re-prioritized itself.
I don’t know quite how to explain it. He was still unfairly good-looking but he seemed, in a devastating masterstroke, so suddenly real. He was no longer an intriguing fantasy. He was a full-blown man who cornered me with a look of concentrated desire. Not threatening, exactly. But whatever I’d gone seeking that night, this wasn’t it—I’d wanted to be nibbled by a baby fox, but here was a wolf (nay—a Wolfgang), and I was frightened.
Women: you must know what I mean, right? It's not like I was about to be assaulted. I wasn’t in danger. I was just...overwhelmed. I’d signed up for a frolic and I’d gotten an Olympic relay. It was time to leave. Suddenly, badly. Solitarily.
So I did. I yawned and commented on the full-ish moon. Then, when he looked upwards, I scurried gracelessly away.
I took three things with me to the hotel room that night: my barely-there dignity, the scent of Wolf’s armpit (fitness and masculine aspiration), and his email address scribbled on the back of a receipt. I taped that receipt in my journal and decorated it with shamrocks and hearts. Not even kidding. Because in all the most important ways, I’ll stay eight years old forever.
Unfortunately, that’s not where this ends.
I flew home a couple of days later and dined on my story of the Austrian all that long Montreal winter. When I got to the part outside the hotel, I’d let my voice trail off in a wink-wink sort of way. Let my friends believe what they wanted. The myth that we’d had a one-night stand felt more true than the truth. But there was another consequence of this embellishment: my friends approved so strongly of the lie that I began to doubt I’d done the right thing. I’d run away from what became an increasingly attractive option in my memory. Instead of recognizing that I was in the arms of a benign and possibly even well-suited gentleman, instead of accepting his love and living a Viennese fantasy for the rest of my life, I had… well, I had cried Wolf.
That’s why I emailed him. One year later, almost to the day. I’d upgraded from Canada to France by then. I applied the unassailable logic that has continued to make my romantic life such a magnificent success to this day: I decided that since we were both in Europe, and since we’d had one unsatisfying encounter twelve months earlier, we must be cosmically destined.
It pains me now to read the crappy, trying-so-fucking-hard email I sent him. It took me nearly a full weekend to write two paragraphs, sagging under apology and prissy grammar-girl syntax. Worse, though, is the self-doubt that’s apparent in every line. If you break it down, the whole email is about 10% telling him I’d like to see him again and 90% giving him options to say no. Why do I find that so agonizing? And why do I commit the same sins today, in nearly every area of my life? “I would love it if… but you don’t have to because… but it’d be really great for me if you could just… but seriously, it’s okay if you don’t.” God, shut up. Be better than that.
What he wrote back was brief, not completely discouraging, and straight to the point:
I am surprised to hear from you, but I must that say I like it. Your mail brings back good memories. I'll give you a call in the next few days. Wolfgang.
I would have liked a few xoxo’s or even some exclamatory punctuation, but whatever. He’d given me a reason to indulge in my favourite pastime: obsessing over my phone (Where is it? Is the ringer on? Is it charged?). For a little while, I was content in my bubble of sweet lovesick patience.
But I shouldn’t have been. I should have trusted the Megan who fled to her hotel room that night in Dublin. Or I should have paid attention to the nature of our first few phone calls. Only in retrospect do I see how weird it was that over the course of a few hours I learned all about his dad’s death from cancer, his best friend’s suicide, his brother’s emergency kidney surgery—and yet he knew nothing at all about me, and seemed disinclined to ask.
He was describing some heavy shit, sure. He’d get choked up on the other end of the phone and I’d swarm in, full of reassurance and tender questions. And maybe he really was in a maelstrom of pain and bad luck when I got in touch, which would prevent any of us from looking outward, right? But I don’t think so. I think he was a man of the type with which I’ve since become acquainted: convinced of the quality and relevance of his own story to a degree that blots out anyone else’s. He had no idea why I was in France, or how I’d been for the last twelve months, or even what the hell I remembered from that night in Dublin, and yet I was cancelling on friends so I could stay in my dorm room and murmur things into the phone like, “Tell me more about your mother.” It was fucked.
I was infatuated, though. Being a caregiver, even from a distance, is addictive. When he said, “I’ve been hurt before and I’m terrified of being hurt again,” I heard, “I love you, please protect me.” When he caught his breath, I told him he was strong. Maybe the strongest. And when he invited me to meet him in Germany, I was on a train a few days later, writing shaky, exhilarated entries in my journal.
[Oh, god—someone protect that girl!]
The reality, sweet or not, began when Wolf met me at the train station in Wurzburg. The chastity that had separated us in Dublin quietly reasserted itself as I walked towards him on the platform, and in the end our reunion was signalled by a hug and the world’s most excruciatingly awkward kiss. Then he walked me to the parking lot. Standing next to him, I felt a little silly. Even the way he took my bag made me small and helpless. We were embarrassed strangers, thrown together. Or, at least, I was a stranger—we both knew all about him. He never asked if I wanted to see Germany, or if I already had, nor had he offered to come to France. All of these facts drift into focus now, of course. I can see them. I could have traded places with almost anyone and he mightn’t have noticed. Megan Findlay—her perspective, her heart, her wild and unmatchable self—was not the point. The point was that someone was there, someone was listening to him, someone was smiling obligingly as he gestured towards his car.
And, oh God, that car! First he paused and asked me to guess which one was his. I pointed out a Volkswagen that embodied all I wanted in a man: reliability, durability, good brakes. But Wolfgang, scoffing, wheeled my index finger 90 degrees to the left, towards a bright blue Subaru, plastered in grotesque stickers, an inch off the ground, wearing a sort of fin on its rear. My heart sank as we got in. He liked to drive it fast. Really, really fast. Which, I guess—whatever. It was Germany. It was the Autobahn. But I could tell that seeing the g-force pancake me against the seat gave him a macho thrill. So did the ten-year-old boys who clustered around the car wherever we pulled over. Apparently that car was featured in some video game. Apparently this was supposed to impress me.
Somewhere in Bavaria, with a Disneyesque castle floating in the background, I asked him to take a picture of me next to that thing. He was pleased, thinking this showed some level of admiration. In reality, I could see that I’d need a visual aide to one day prove that this story was true. I can’t put a photo of him in this blog post—that feels like a too much of an invasion—but I can put a picture of his car, which stands in for him very well.
We ran out of conversation in under half an hour and became a little sullen around each other, like kids who are forced to spend time together because their parents are friends. And, you guys: we didn’t have sex. Each time we came close I balked, or he did. I think we both knew that the emotional match was too poor to be salvaged by arousal. We stayed in boutique B&Bs and behaved as though we liked each other—we were always holding hands, always playing our roles with faithful accuracy—but any close observer would have noticed that we spent a lot of time staring in opposite directions.
One day, we stopped to tour a palace somewhere in Bavaria. The ceilings of were decorated with paintings of exotic animals, including a deformed, grotesque tiger. Our guide explained that the tiger looked so odd because the painter hadn't actually seen one. He’d only ever heard descriptions of tigers from returned explorers. I stared gloomily at the weird representation, feeling something deep within, something that I continue to feel today.
Which is this:
That I, like the painter and his tiger, will only ever approximate romantic love based on other people’s descriptions of it.
When I read the long journal entry I wrote after those four days with Wolf, I feel as if I’m reading a different story, not the one that happened to me. It was written in the fall of 2008 by a girl still hopeful that this aggressive, commanding individual will metamorphose into the goofy and loving and tender sort of man she actually needs. In that journal entry, I cherry-pick cute details, but it’s done a bit breathlessly, as though to prove something to a jury by way of haste and subterfuge:
At the end of our visit, Wolf caught an early train back to Vienna. I caught a late one to Paris. And that was that.
I don’t remember our goodbye. I only remember the relief that fell over me after he was gone. I felt joy at being left by a man that I didn't want. Later, I would feel a corresponding degree of pain when left by a man that I did. And this is perhaps the most important lesson of all. Being alone is a state that is always experienced in relation to the person who has just left. Being alone can be a joy or an acute, obliterating pain. I’ve experienced both and could not bear to live in a permanent state of either. Nor could I bear to live without knowing what each feels like. And one day, if I keep trying, if I keep pursuing fantasy, I’ll know what it’s like to experience neither by experiencing the point precisely between both.
So, Young Dumb Self. Here’s what I want you to know.
Fantasy needn’t hold you back. Let it propel you. Use it to discover the next big thing. It’s a gift. It’s the painter holding his brush above a blank canvas, imagining a tiger. It’s you composing that email to a faraway stranger, trying to imagine who he might be. One day, you’re going to get the reply you actually need, from a man you can actually love.
Until then, let fantasy sustain you. It’s a vessel, not a vice.
Old Wise Self