My boyfriend and I were walking back to our hostel in Berlin after a pub crawl when he told me he needed to be on his own for a while. We had been traveling together for less than two weeks.
He had been moody and quiet ever since he got off the plane in Paris. He blamed it on the jet lag, but he stayed “jet-lagged” for the next 10 days. I tried being extra chatty and affectionate whenever he was distant, but this seemed to irritate him even more. I could tell he wasn’t having fun, but I hadn’t forced him to be there.
He was almost his old self again during the pub crawl as we sipped margaritas and bantered with British backpackers. He even held my hand for a little bit on the way home. I started to tear up when I realized it was the first time he’d done that in days. A sob escaped my lips before I could stop it.
“I hate when you do that.” He dropped my hand. “I need a break. I shouldn’t have come on this trip.”
He had never spoken to me like that before, especially not when I was crying.
“Why did you, then?”
“Because I didn’t know it would be like this! You’re so clingy. Why can’t you stop acting like a lost kitten?”
“Are you seriously calling me clingy?” I saw a taxi pulling over nearby. “Would a clingy person do this?”
I ran across the road, jumped into the back seat and disappeared into the night, giving him all the space he wanted. Was it immature? Absolutely. Would I handle it that way now? Probably not. But in the moment, it felt good.
I thought about staying out all night clubbing, but everything looked closed, so I asked the driver to take me back to our hostel. When my boyfriend stumbled through the door an hour later, he hadn’t changed his mind. He began to list everything I’d done that had pushed him over the edge. He resented me for pressuring him into going on the trip. He accused me of hiding my face under my fringe and hiding my body under oversize cardigans. He told me my insecurities were like clouds of cobwebs obscuring my true self.
The last time I saw him was at the station as I boarded a train bound for Prague. We had a hostel booked there for four nights. I planned to spend a few days regrouping before planning my next move. He was staying one more night in Berlin before flying home. I sat down in an empty carriage and started scrolling through photos on my phone — anything to avoid making eye contact with him for those last few seconds before the train pulled away.
I spent the first hour of the train ride crying silently and hiccuping loudly, in between sneaky sips from a miniature bottle of convenience store wine. Fortunately, I had the carriage to myself.
Memories of the past year and a half played on a loop in my head ― spending the holidays with his family up the coast, our New Year’s Eve kiss at his friends’ house party, lazing on the beach reading aloud to each other during our last weekend back home.
I searched for some mistake I could point to and vow to never repeat. I thought I was an attentive partner. I gave him space, never policed his female friendships or complained when he struck up conversations with pretty waitresses. Sometimes I got upset with him when he canceled plans at the last minute. I knew he had a lot going on; I just wished he’d organize his time better. But nothing explained why he couldn’t be on the same continent as me anymore.
I thought of something an older co-worker said to me before I left for Europe. She and her then-boyfriend went backpacking together in their 20s, and she returned home convinced he was the one.
“I knew if we could make it through that, we could make it through anything,” she told me. They’ve been married for 16 years now and have three kids.
I hadn’t expected our trip to be all smooth sailing. I liked researching places and having a basic itinerary, even if we didn’t stick to it. He thought I needed to be more spontaneous. Also, he was never on time for anything, so I knew it would be up to me to make sure we didn’t miss our trains. But we loved each other, I thought, and we had always managed to talk through our problems. It was our first real test as a couple, and not only had we failed spectacularly, but I also had no idea what I had done wrong. I didn’t expect a fairy tale ending, but I had hoped for one with a little more dignity.
Two hours later, I looked out the window properly for the first time. The sun was setting over green hills dotted with cows and little cottages on stilts with thatched roofs. Hills cast dark reflections across the stillness of the river flowing next to the train line. I saw the hint of a city skyline on the horizon. A strange energy was building in my chest, jolting me out of my self-pitying stupor. It made me want to laugh, cry, rage and roar all at once, so loud that I would send ripples through the river. I felt less like a lost kitten and more like a lioness ready to maul the next tourist who threw a french fry at me.
It occurred to me that I could keep examining the wreckage of our relationship looking for answers that may never come or I could leave the pieces on the ground and move on. I had worked hard to save up for this trip. I still had a couple of weeks left in Europe, and we hadn’t booked anything after Prague. Not only could I go anywhere I wanted, but I was single.
I spent the next two weeks in this strange heightened state in which colors looked brighter, food tasted sweeter and sunsets reduced me to tears. I woke up each morning knowing I could do whatever I felt like, without feeling guilty or worrying if he was having fun. I explored castles and hip, grungy laneways in Prague. In Budapest, I partied at open-air bars, kissed a stranger on a dance floor and recovered in thermal baths. I caught up with an old friend over curry in London, geeked out over the Harry Potter studio tour and blew my remaining cash on a corset and a leather notebook at Camden Market. There were moments when I wished he had been by my side savoring the experiences with me, but they never lasted long. After all, he had chosen not to be there.
I started feeling more like my old self, the girl who would try almost anything once just so she could write about it one day. Being alone forced me to start more conversations with strangers. Sometimes conversations would turn into drinks and card games at a hostel or a night out exploring a new city. Other times, I would go out for a meal by myself and remember how much I like my own company.
I expected depression to kick in when I got home and had to deal with real life, but that never happened. I downloaded Tinder and started lining up dates the second the bars appeared on my phone after the plane touched down. I dyed my hair red, started taking pole-dancing classes and sold the earrings he bought me on eBay. He texted me sporadically over the next few months, saying he missed me and he was sorry how everything turned out. I stopped replying once I had all my stuff back.
It has been five years. I haven’t completely forgiven him, but I allow myself to smile sometimes when I think of happier times. When I look through photos from that trip, I can see the shock and hurt in my eyes, even when I’m smiling. But I also see flickers of the rage I channeled into my career, securing my dream job. I see sparks of creativity, as I started trying to capture what I saw on paper. I see a glimmer of hope to heal with the intention of loving again one day. I see someone who took her pain and used it to create the life she always wanted for herself, on her own terms. I have no regrets.