This Is Not The Foreign Romance I Imagined: On Giving Yourself to Someone Who Was Never Yours
Every city has seen heartbreak and absorbed sadness. It can handle mine.
It was cold when I arrived in Logroño. Heavy clouds swamped the streets with a cool mist that plunged the town and its people into a languorous mood, as though still half-asleep. I had departed Sydney airport in the midst of a week-long heatwave. Reports of bushfires and overcrowded beaches dominated the news cycle – trademarks of an Australian summer – and, in my haste to clear security and the pungent aroma of body odour that seemed to seep through the air vents, I had forgotten to pack a jumper in my carry-on. Only now, 35 hours of travel later, did I find myself regretting such stupidity as the contents of my suitcase lay scattered on the footpath, fingers straining for any long-sleeved garment I could layer under my coat like armour against the aggressive chill. I had heard that the exchange program I had committed to as part of my international studies degree would be challenging but I hadn’t sensed just how unprepared I was for change.
At the bus station, I waited for my Airbnb host, Jon. I didn’t know what to expect, only that he would be wearing a leather jacket. I saw the jacket first, then the person to whom it belonged. He was startlingly handsome and with his brown hair perfectly undone, framing his blue-green eyes. I thought Spain would do well to declare this man a landmark of charm and masculinity. With my gloveless fingers shoved deep inside my pockets, I awkwardly fumbled a greeting in butchered Spanish.
After dumping my luggage at his apartment, we embarked on a quick tour of the small town I’d selected, on a whim, to live for twelve months. The first thing I discovered about Spain – on this private tour, mind you – was that they do not cater to, nor acknowledge the concept of, takeaway coffee. Jet-lagged and already homesick, I sipped a cappuccino and watched as Jon talked with the staff. To this day, it is still my most enduring memory of him: leaning against the bar, downing an espresso in one gulp, head tilted in my direction.
‘You’re so cool,’ is all I could think – all I did think – for the two weeks I lived with him, and the months I shared his town. I realised very quickly that this was a man whose words and charms I did not have the means to resist.
Jon’s apartment was located in the centre of town, down a street so narrow the cobblestones had yet to feel the weight of a car tire. It was a small, rustic place that seemed to perfectly capture the essence of the man who inhabited it. He had made most of the furniture by hand and my eyes immediately went to the far wall where various indents had been carved in the stone to form a bookshelf of Jon’s favourites. These were books he later read to me on mornings when the rain ceased to fall and everything was too warm, too intimate, to be broken by venturing into the public sphere.
We had dinner together the first two nights and it soon became a habit of ours, with neither one of us making other plans in the evenings. He was patient and encouraging with my Spanish, but on the nights that my brain was too exhausted to find the words, we slipped into English which he spoke with a lilting accent. Despite finding myself on the other side of the world, in a country whose language I had yet to learn, everything with Jon felt familiar. My greatest fear about moving was that I might never tell a joke again; that my personality, prone to self-deprecation and humour, would surrender to a basic vocabulary and ability to only speak in the present tense. With Jon however, these fears dissipated. As we took turns playing records, sharing the memories we associated with a particular song, we found a commonality in our weirdness, in the awkward control we had over our limbs when dancing. We made each other laugh.
When I moved into my own apartment, I found myself missing Jon with a terrifying intensity. We messaged each other frequently and when we ran into each other in town, our interactions grew increasingly tactile and flirtatious like lovers reunited at the airport arrival gate.
There is a belief that when on vacation, responsibilities cease to exist. Time does not manifest as it does when at home, trudging through the mundane cycle we have created for ourselves. Instead, travel affords us the ability to rewrite ourselves; it suggests that the actions we make can be shrugged off casually, taken back and responsibilities shirked.
Or so I repeated to myself as six months later, having returned from backpacking around Europe during the semester break, I found myself sleeping with Jon and my feelings, once packaged so neatly, began flying off the shelf.
When the summer rolled around, these feelings only intensified with the heat.
Along the river where I ran each morning, once alone in my solitude, I found the space now taken up by fishermen and couples making out passionately, their clothes providing a kind of haphazard trail along the bank.
Gelato shops that were closed during the colder months suddenly re-opened to the feverish desires of children. Everything smelled of beer, coffee and cigarettes as café doors remained flung open past midnight, customers spilling onto the footpaths. Gone were the fur coats and long boots. All I saw was flesh – so much flesh – parading along those mottled cobblestones.
In my room with the long window I kept open for the cool breeze, I heard the clatter of glassware and the lulls of laughter well into the morning. In my single bed, with our bodies intertwined, I would fall asleep thinking that, from my seventh-floor apartment, if hot air rises, perhaps happiness does too, for that was what found us in that tiny room.
That summer was ours to waste. He took me to all the tapas bars that tourists missed; those that were considered ugly and decrepit. With him I saw them for what they were: unconventional in their beauty. We ate a Logroño delicacy – ham, goat cheese and strawberry marmalade sandwiches – just outside town, where he told me about the history of La Rioja. We covered every path, every street, every alleyway, with our heads tilted upwards as he told me about the architecture, the buildings, and the secrets of the locals who inhabited them. Jon’s energy was infectious. He had an insatiable curiosity that would have been more befitting for a tourist but his childlike enthusiasm to learn more about the town and its people was so deeply attractive.
We drank wine on his balcony, watching those who ambled past. We saw couples who were so in love, you could see it on their faces.
And when we fucked: passionately, relentlessly, covering every square space of his home, I traced my fingers along his jawline, along his thick bottom lip, looked at his face and those eyes that turned almost yellow in the light, and wondered if I could see it in his, too.
Fall passed, and when winter arrived, it also signaled my imminent departure. A month before I was to return home, he told me had a girlfriend. Or rather, was still with the girlfriend he’d ceased to mention in March, who conveniently lived in Madrid and visited most weekends. At that moment, the pretense of travel – that I should be able to just shrug off this situation and my actions – seemed a far-cry from the reality I now found myself in. Somewhere in Madrid, Jon’s girlfriend went about her day, blissfully unaware of my existence. I felt gross. Gross in the knowledge that I was the other woman and had infiltrated a space they had created and lived in together, for years. That space belonged to her. As did Jon. And the thought sent me reeling in self-loathing at the absurd selfishness; that I pitied myself for crying over a man who was never mine to cry over to begin with.
We spent a final night together and in the morning we said our goodbyes, resorting to a vernacular of stilted small-talk and suppressed emotions that were too formal for the setting and for the intimacy our bodies had shared.
With two weeks left in Logroño, I wanted to enjoy myself. But I only had to step out my apartment to realise that his affiliation with the city punctuated my every step. No matter where I was, or the company I kept, I was painfully thinking of Jon uninterruptedly. For all the wilful abandon and joy the holiday romance conjures, it comes with a sacrifice. The city and the moments you could have had and enjoyed uncompromisingly are reduced to experiences you can only imagine having had with that person there, with you.
Just as I had arrived, the day I left was grey and miserable. I woke early for a final run and although the rain had stopped, its effects continued to be seen. Water-stained bricks gave the buildings a fairytale-like splendour as empty balconies blinked down the lonely streets.
I wasn’t in the mood to laugh; I simply wanted to mourn everything I had gained in a year and what little was left of that now. When I crossed the bridge, I took a shortcut to the river where I knelt on the damp grass and put my head on my knees and cried. It was too early and too wet for the couples but reminders of their forays were everywhere: empty bottles of alcohol were littered along the grass and a t-shirt clung helplessly to a tree branch. Even the fishermen had stowed away their rods and moved on to another town.
Before Jon, I had been strong in my loneliness. More than comfortable - I thrived in it. For the first time in my life, he had made me want more than what was exactly present, and I realised that my love for him was so intricately woven into the city that in many ways, he would always be who I thought of when I remembered Spain.
On the bus to the airport, I watched as the town slowly returned to life. Elegant women wearing silk head scarves chatted under concealed shop fronts as children splashed in puddles, their parents trying unsuccessfully to keep them dry on the school run. I spotted an old couple walking arm-in-arm, the man’s free hand used to hold the umbrella and their heads pressed against each other, lovingly.
Here was a city full of life, continuing all around me. Whether or not I had ever met him, the city remained itself.
It survived. Just as I knew I would, too.
by: Jessica Campbell