Never underestimate the importance of falling in love with your eyes wide open.
"Tell me about your sister," I said.
"She's short," he replied.
Travis sat on the adjacent barstool, bright-eyed, amused by the lightness of our rapport. "That's how you describe your sister?" I asked in mock reprimand. "There has to be more."
"She lives in San Francisco," he added. "And...I don’t know. She's short. She really is." We both laughed at the ridiculousness of it. I talked about my own sibling, a brother I love who's brilliant, creative and looks just like me.
I'd met Travis online. Though his profile was blank, there was something in his face that captured my fascination. An intense gaze. An earnest countenance. A wisdom that radiated.
The very next day, by some fateful coincidence, I'd stumble upon a random insight into Travis. Sitting at my laptop, I received a Facebook message from my friend Ian.
I clicked over to his profile, as one does, to see what he'd been up to. Five photos in, I saw a man. The man was Travis. It had to be. I switched over to Travis' online dating profile, examined the photos side by side like an FBI detective. Could it be?
"Ian, I have a weird question," I wrote. "Who is the guy standing next to you in this photo?"
"Oh, he was dating my friend Jennifer, the girl to his left." Stomach plummet. "When did they break up?"
"Just a couple of weeks ago. She was very upset."
"Oh," I wrote, "well I’m kind of probably going out with him soon. I met him online."
"That’s great," said the ever upbeat Ian. "Did she have anything to say about him?" I probed.
"I don’t know. But he broke up with her, so I don’t think she has a very high opinion of him."
"Oh," I typed again. Thud, went the other shoe. How could he move on so fast? I momentarily worried. Then I thought, tabula rasa. We all deserve a clean slate.
Plus, Travis' correspondence was charming in a way that felt right.
Despite my newfound knowledge, my intuition said "yes." Travis and I resumed our chat and made a date.
He'd picked a quiet, dimly lit wine bar in the West Village. I arrived early; he'd arrived earlier. He flashed a smile of recognition and stood up to greet me with a warm embrace. I felt completely at ease; not an ounce of hesitation. He had no problem with eye contact. He had the confidence of a man who'd never had trouble getting women.
We bonded over our creative pursuits, a fondness for Louis CK and Woody Allen, our New York stories, our similar upbringings. He'd asked me what my best first date was. This one, I'd answer later. But instead I told the story of being escorted to the VIP section of a swanky, celeb-riddled nightclub and coming face to face with Vince from Entourage, who was my date's acquaintance (and my raging crush at the time).
Mind you, I didn't for one second think, he is going to be my next boyfriend. I was drawn to Travis in every way but sexually. Slight in build and effeminate in demeanor, he wasn't the alpha male I was ordinarily drawn to. These qualities —among many more—I would come to adore one day, in the familiar way that a loved one's quirks and gross habits grow sexy and endearing.
Bouncing down the subway stairs, I pivoted coyly to see him watching me, grinning. I was running on pure adrenalin — and zero common sense. We had discussed his serial monogamist past, the trauma he'd endured when a woman broke his heart by packing up and moving out on him one day without warning. We discussed his most recent relationship — the one I was privy to — and how it ended. I didn't want to freak him out, so I hadn't mentioned the coincidence. But his story checked out. I trusted him. I wanted to see this man again. I was sure.
Our next few dates consisted of dinners out, kind gestures, heart-to-hearts, belly laughs, undeniable, dopamine-flooding chemistry.
I finally told him the story of Ian, and the photo of himself and his most recent ex in Ian's Facebook profile. Travis was not as shaken as I'd feared. Instead, he was intrigued. When something happened — good, bad or neutral — he always wanted to know, "What can I learn from this?" That inspired me. Travis inspired me.
For my February birthday, we braved a snowstorm to enjoy a seafood feast, and for Valentine's Day, we eschewed tradition and crashed at home after a long day of work. "I'm getting home a little later tonight and I'm worried I won't be able to make the dinner I'd planned," I fretted via text.
"I don’t care if we drink Coke and eat Cracker Jacks. I just want to see you," he actually said.
As much as we were bonding, though, I could feel we were keeping each other at arm's length. Painful experiences, coupled by personal hang-ups, can lead to walls built so stealthily that even you yourself are oblivious to the distance they create. Regardless, I thought, we're getting to know each other. This is normal.
Part of the package with Travis was that he traveled for work much of the time. To my surprise (and joy), I was not only comfortable with the situation, but genuinely excited for his experiences: a weekend in Chicago here, a week in Paris there, five nights under the gleaming stars of Austin — all expenses paid. Sometimes he'd be gone for several weeks at a time.
It was no secret that the relationship was on his terms, although I justified that dynamic.
His travel schedule didn't give us much of a choice; I had to understand — or I had to walk away. I chose to stay. Besides, I have a busy life too, and the time apart allowed me to focus on work, and it helped us miss each other more. I asked only that he keep in touch regularly. Looking back, it was that request — asserting my own needs — that began our slow unraveling.
When he'd check in from the road, deep down I'd know it was because I'd asked, and not because he wanted to. It was apparent in his means of contact — text and email primarily — and the brevity and one-sided nature of his messages. On the occasions that he did call, I was happy to listen to him grumble about whatever corporate wasteland he was stuck in, his dissatisfaction in the actual work he was doing, the dreadful lunch and dinner options "in this Podunk town."
In the beginning, he had listened to my gripes about moving into a building that wasn't my first choice, my stories about settling into my new job, my own personal dramas. We brought much-needed levity to each other's problems, like best friends do. But soon enough, we were only ever talking about Travis' issues.
I passed the time while he was away by working, pursuing my own interests and spending time with family and friends, to whom I proudly boasted about this amazing man who they'd never meet in the nine months we were together because of one excuse or another.
When Travis would return from his work trips, wearily dragging his luggage through my door, I'd eagerly offer meals and wine, hugs and kisses, a comfortable bed to sleep in.
(He was in between homes and had no permanent address; I had an apartment with a view he loved, overlooking the Hudson River). Most importantly, I offered a sympathetic ear. I stroked his hair as he revealed his struggles to complete and sell his first novel. It broke my heart. I held his hand as he stared straight ahead, recounting a relationship with a once-close relative that was irrevocably broken. Tears welled up in his eyes; tears for himself. Always for himself.
It was Memorial Day weekend when I decided to take him up on an offer to spend a few days at his favorite Buddhist monastery in the Catskills, where he loved to meditate. It was dark and rainy, and the bitter cold crept up inside us. We hadn't packed properly so we wore all of our clothing at once to stay warm. We ate bland vegan meals, prepared by monks, at cafeteria tables in complete silence. We were split into groups, where — huddled together — we were prompted to open up to people we'd just met. Somehow, Travis was never in my group. Nor, obviously, was he with me when our meditation groups were segregated by gender.
I’d sometimes look over to him, but he was never looking back. When I retreated to the women’s cabin, and he to the men’s, strangers undressed and crawled into twin beds in silence. I tried to be a trooper but I was a fish out of water. Instead of feeling Zen, I felt lonely and isolated. Even though I was with my boyfriend, I wasn’t really with him. Travis never texted at night to see how I was doing, or even to make light of the fact that we were sleeping separately, in bunk beds with strangers — something we'd both find hilarious under normal circumstances. I shut the lights and pulled the thin, scratchy blanket around my freezing body.
The next morning, unable to hold it in any longer, I told Travis I felt uncomfortable.
"I feel like I’m in a soup kitchen," I said, "if the soup kitchen were in a Buddhist drug rehab. During a hurricane." I tried to keep it light. I didn’t want to nag him; I wanted to communicate. I made the mistake of thinking that because he was my number one priority, I was his as well. I was wrong. The retreat was his priority. And by extension, he was his own top priority. I was just along for the ride.
Then he obliviously announced in a whisper, "I'm going on the walking meditation.”
For the next half hour, I pouted like a child. I felt abandoned. When he returned, I led Travis into the woods — the only place where we could speak in a normal volume — and the floodgates opened. I explained that I'd tried to be strong for him, but I felt lonely and alienated, and I needed to feel closer to him. He watched me with detached awe. (This, he later explained, was mindful observation.)
Eventually, he offered a half-hearted hug. "I don't think I can stay here," I confessed.
"Do you want to leave?” he asked.
"Will you be upset?"
"Well, I'll be disappointed," he said. His blue eyes were devoid of sympathy, broadcasting a subtle scorn instead. So I agreed to stick it out for two more days. He accepted without putting up much of a fuss. The next 48 hours were more of the same.
Back in the city, good old Ian contacted me. I revealed my feelings about Travis taking me for granted.
His distant behavior. His disregard for my loyalty, nurturing, trust, the space I gave him. He didn't seem to appreciate it. He didn't seem to care. "And what’s more," I told Ian, "I have no one to turn to for perspective. I've never met a single person in his life. Come to think of it, he's met exactly one of my friends. And it's been nine months. I just wish I could speak to someone who knows him. Anyone."
"Well...Jennifer knows him," Ian replied, referring to the ex I'd spotted all that time ago in Ian's photo. We looked at each other.
"No, that's a terrible idea."
"I can contact her."
"No, of course that’s a terrible idea."
A few weeks later, unbeknownst to me, Ian would contact Jennifer (with all the best intentions). And that would be the beginning of the end. Word got back to Travis, who chastised me. "But Ian took it upon himself after I nixed the idea," I pleaded, guilt-ridden. "I don’t know how I can ever trust you again," was Travis' cold reply.
For three hours, I panicked. Then my phone buzzed. It was Ian. He'd spoken to Jennifer again. "I have something really bad to tell you. And I'm sorry."
One of the scary things about being the delusional party in a doomed relationship is that the end comes suddenly.
You're blindsided. You haven't had time to prepare, to process. When I met Travis, I was in a great place, mentally and emotionally. I was ready to meet someone wonderful and have a meaningful relationship — and I was forthcoming about it. I'd already had my eyes on the prize way before I'd ever slid onto that barstool in the West Village.
"You are my joy," I'd remind Travis constantly. But here’s the thing: Despite the loving daily notes, the conversations, the sharing, the cuddling, the bond we were building — despite all of that, I was not his joy. It had never occurred to me. The signs were all there, but I wasn’t looking for them. I had lost myself so thoroughly to the idea of love that I was divorced from the reality of it.
Ian cleared his throat, preparing to be the bearer of bad news. "So, Jennifer says she and Travis never really broke up." He paused. "She said they've been seeing each other on and off this whole time."
I felt my face heat up, and I'm certain that if I had not been sitting, my knees would've buckled beneath me. To add insult to injury, Jennifer had lived in my neighborhood, a mere 10 blocks away. Which mornings, I wondered, did he leave my place and march directly to hers, telling me he had an appointment or some work to catch up on?
I didn't need to hear much more. In that moment the fog lifted. In the weeks that followed, it all started coming together. Travis had never introduced me to one person he knew in all the time we'd known each other. He never came close to saying, "I love you." Come to think of it, I can't think of one genuine compliment he'd ever paid me that wasn't somehow backhanded or self-serving. Not after the first month, anyway.
From what I'd gleaned through Travis' many candid stories, he was an opportunist.
And I was a non-judgmental (read: gullible) confidante, a warm body to sleep next to after weeks on the road, someone to boost his ego. He was looking for some temporary comfort. I was an easy target.
But it took me a while to realize what I was not: a victim. Sure, I was way too trusting of someone who hadn't yet earned my trust. Sure, I ignored obvious red flags. Sure, I gave my own emotions and needs a backseat so I could focus on his. But I chose to do those things.
Yes, we shared a sense of humor and a mutual attraction. But as I imagined a future with him, he lived for instant gratification. He wasn't open to falling in love, though he told me otherwise when he knew I wanted to hear it. He was just passing through. And you know what? I wasn't falling in love with him either. I hadn't even really known him. I was simply in love with the idea of love. And that's a dangerous trap.
During our last call, I confronted Travis about the ongoing affair. He stayed mostly mum. "What do you have to say for yourself?!" I demanded.
After a short pause, his voice lowered a few decibels into an unfamiliar monotone. He replied, "I'm not a bad person. I'm a good person who does bad things."
Even in the final moments, it was about him. It was always about him.