How To Break Up When You’re Traveling Abroad


I leave her on a crowded train platform early on a Tuesday morning, tears brimming in her wide, blue eyes as she watches me go. The humidity of the day settles down like a wet blanket, oppressive, weighty. The weather a fetus inside the womb must experience every day for nine solid months.

Just five months, the relationship, beginning in China, ending in Thailand, with a ten-day visit from her to set me on my way and send her on hers. An ending and a beginning wrapped up tight in one little package.

I buy coffee and walk, my mind blank. I’m numb. I go to work. I drift through the day. I go home, go to the gym, go to sleep. It takes a few days for the shock to wear off and reality to set in. When it finally does, it is like a scalding hot frying pan to the face.

I wake up and colors are muted, like a television show in Technicolor. Drab and dull, an Instagram photo with the “misery” filter activated. I’m sad, yes, but I’m also angry. Angry with her for leaving. Angry with myself for letting her go. Most of all, I’m angry with others simply for being happy. I see couples holding hands, smiling. I hate them. I hate them so much. I hope they are run over by a train. Three times. And then maybe it could hit me, as well, if it’s feeling extra generous. There’s the feeling of coming home to an empty apartment, dark and silent, the curtains drawn. Lonely and desolate. There’s the realization that all those clichés about heartache are true. How your heart actually, physically hurts. This shouldn’t be surprising, but it is. It’s like watching a movie for the fiftieth time only to still be surprised by the ending, a different twist to the same plot with each viewing.

I should have seen it coming.

I knew our paths would diverge, of course I knew. It was a matter of timing, not of incompatibility, but timing is such an important factor — as much so as the balance of values and interests, or the ability to compromise, to fight and make up.

But for now, we need different things, and we go different ways.

We loved each other. We truly loved each other. I am sure of that. But there’s no solace in the past tense. There’s no solace anywhere at the moment. She is the only thing that can make it better, and she is gone. And I’m alone.

I meet my friend Claire for lunch. I’m not hungry, but I force the food down. It’s unappetizing. It’s just there, food sitting on a plate. I’d rather smash it into tiny bits with a hammer. But I take a forkful. I stuff it into my mouth. I chew. And I move on to the next bite.

On the restaurant’s sound system (and I swear I am not making this up), the following songs play:

Chris DeBurgh’s “Lady in Red.”

She had red hair.

It’s coincidence. Anyway, the song’s about her dress, not her hair. I think. But still, red, you know?

“My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion.

Christ Almighty.

“Right Here Waiting,” a ballad by Richard Marx.

Then Westlife’s “My Love,” a song about lost love.

It’s too much. Somehow, halfway through a bowl of carrot soup — which I didn’t even know existed until this moment, because who makes soup out of a carrot; it’s like making a chicken broth cake — I’ve become the subject of some sort of horrible cosmic practical joke.

I contemplate peeling off my face with a can opener.

“What if this was it?” I ask Claire. “What if there’s no one else?”

“Then it will work out,” she says.

“I don’t believe in fate.”

“It’s not fate,” says Claire. “That’s just how love works.”

“What if it’s not? What if she finds someone better?”

“There is no ‘better,’” she says. “There’s different, but that doesn’t mean ‘better.’ It’s not a contest. She loves you for you. I know she does. I saw you two together. She’s never going to meet someone and say ‘Oh, he’s so much better than Adam.’ She might think someone else is better for her, but that’s not nearly the same thing. And if she does find someone, then you know it’s time to really, fully move on.”

I imagine a stranger pulling her in for a first kiss — and worse, her wanting it — and I feel like I might vomit. I picture myself murdering that man. Slowly. Methodically. The thought of myself meeting someone new is equally horrifying. Right now, it doesn’t even seem attractive. People look the same, like walking, disfigured blobs of molten clay: men, women, supermodels, limbless beggars. Everyone is equally revolting.

I eat another spoonful of this ridiculous carrot soup.

I walk home; I unlock the door, greetings empty apartment. I open the curtains, and the darkness fades and sunbeams drift across the floor and creep up the walls. They hurt my eyes. The sun causes sunburns and melanoma. The sun never did anybody any good. Who ever thought the sun was a good idea? I hate photosynthesis. I hate solar power. I pull the curtains closed.

A knock on the door.

It’s Holley. I met Holley three weeks ago, so it is a good idea to pour my heart out to her. Definitely a good idea. It’s the beginning of another relationship abroad – platonic or not – a magnesium flash, burning hot and bright, intense from the start, right up until the end when it suddenly, bitterly, immediately burns out. You’ve found each other floating in a strange ocean and you cling, desperately, to one another until you drift apart. The kind of relationship between foreigners that usually begins, in certain countries at least, with something like, “Hello, we’re best friends now because we’re foreigners.”

You get used to that intimacy, that closeness, seeing each other every day, becoming the center of someone’s universe as you orbit around them yourself. You begin to take it for granted. You’re in a cocoon. A bubble. Then you hatch. You pop. You go back home, and it’s gone for good.

“I just can’t think of anything else,” I tell Holley. “It’s horrible.” I swallow around the lump in my throat.

“But you’re lucky,” she says. “You’re so lucky. You had this great relationship and it ended on good terms and it could still work out in the future.”

Yes, lucky, I think. It’s like I won cancer.

I am thankful for her, because otherwise I would very likely be confronting other foreigners who happen to be wandering Bangkok’s streets. “Listen, I’m having a really hard time these past few days, can I talk to you?” Like a woebegone Jehovah’s Witness. “Excuse me sir, do you have a moment to talk about my broken heart?”

There is a 12-hour time difference between Bangkok and Texas. I call my mother at three in the morning, her time. And she picks up. Wonderful, blessed mothers. She listens. She commiserates. Then she tells me this:

“Honey, there are so many things you are good at. You are so talented. I was just at a Taylor Swift concert with your niece, and my God, she’s such a performer, but I hear those songs, Adam, and you could write those songs.”

So there’s that, I guess. A relationship ends, but I’m on my way to pop stardom. This will happen right after I submit my application to play power forward-cum-astronaut for the NBA’s international space squad.

She tells me almost the same thing that Claire said during lunch.

“If it’s meant to be, it will work itself out.”

If it’s meant to be.

The phrase implies some sort of a predetermined path, which runs completely against the grade of my life’s philosophy, which, admittedly, at age twenty-six, is frail and meager, because I don’t know anything about anything. Except how to play Playstation games. I can really play Playstation games.

There’s some truth to it, though, “meant to be.” Love isn’t something you trap and keep locked up. It’s not a dog on a leash or a bunch of plants in a greenhouse, or fireflies in a bottle. Love is something that travels time zones and oceans. It’s not panicky or afraid. You don’t hold on to love for dear life in a desperate attempt to keep it stationary. Love is calm and comfortable and peaceful. It waits when it needs to wait. And that’s important to remember. Fate might not be real, but I’m very convinced that love is real. I know it is, because I’ve felt it. And love — or at least the people behind that love — makes things happen. Not fate.

But sometimes love escapes.

Or you lose it.

Or you let it go.

You give it up, on purpose, because it’s the right thing to do at that moment in time. It’s the whole “if you love someone, set them free” college of thought. Another cliché, probably thought up by the same guy who coined “heartache” and “lovesick” and “meant to be.” Hitler, I think it was.

And then there’s the saying that goes, “love is a drug.” It is. Love is a high, and every time you get high, there’s the inevitable comedown that follows. For every action, an equal and opposite reaction. Newton’s Law of Emotion.

So I push myself through work and weekends, telling myself it was the right thing. Not the easy thing. The right thing. Maybe. I hope. You just keep going, immune to laughter and smiles and happiness, a big dose of Novocain on the part of the brain that allows anything but hopelessness and despair and grief. And nothing will fix it, not drugs, not sex, not food. Nothing, no matter how hard you try, except time. And time drags by with a weighted tread. But time does go on, and so does the world, and she is not dead, and neither am I, even though it sometimes feels like it would be easier if one of us were.

Memories of us, together – once fresh, stinging, and ripe — will slowly fade away until the gap between us is no longer purely physical, and is no longer a gap at all, for that matter, having become — suddenly, seemingly overnight — a chasm. She’ll have her life in New York. I’ll live mine in. We’ll sleep when the other is awake, eat different foods, and meet different people. We’ll grow apart. Our joined memories will become old and worn and fondly, if not a little sadly, remembered, like an old letterman’s jacket or a baseball mitt kept in a box, high in the attic above the real house where new memories are actively being manufactured.

The world, my life, will come back into focus; will become high definition, full color, resuming its original appearance. Things always do. They continue to roll forward until that one day, in the near future, when this won’t hurt anymore. And that might be the most tragic part of it all.

The wound will scab over and slowly heal — until a new one is ready to take its place and the big cosmic joke of it all starts all over again.