by JULIA CLARKE
“He looks like a hamster,” my friend Sarah told me about the intern who broke my heart. He was atypical for my taste: I went for skinny, gawky, baby face, and he was meaty, rough, Brazilian. But great romances are seldom typecasted.
He was getting his MBA at Princeton and working at our company for the summer. We shook hands in the office kitchen and quickly found we couldn’t stop talking. We discussed our families, what we like on our salads, Brazilian culture, movies, past relationships, travel. He taught me the Portuguese word for “arugula,” and I corrected his prepositions when he slipped.
Truth be told, I hadn’t had a serious boyfriend in years. Sure, there were a few fleeting dates, even some that made me hope for a relationship, but inevitably, the guy would lose interest for reasons unexplained.
The intern was four years older than me. He promised me breakfast in Princeton and made me laugh. We had the same taste for British humor, the same disdain for pompousness, the same favorite music and movies.
“You’re like me in skirts,” he used to say, and it was true. Strange as it was, we were kindred spirits, and I felt like I’d known him for years. I fell rapidly: notions of self-preservation go defunct when you’re clouded by charisma.
One Friday, he left work early to catch a flight to his brother’s wedding in Brazil. “See you Monday!” he smiled. That weekend, I pictured him watching the ceremony, standing respectfully in his rented tux, and wondered what he thought about vows of love.
It was just a crush, but I still had a girlish hope that he would commit to me in some way other than a distant plan for pancakes. “How was the wedding?” I asked when he got back. “Oh, really fun. Everyone was so happy,” he said.
He described the dancing, the whiskey and the plane’s turbulence on the way back. He had been momentarily scared of its threatening shakes. “I hate flying,” he said. “Me too,” I agreed, shuddering, “but I love to travel, and it’s a small price to pay.” Then, out of nowhere, he dropped the truth. “I brought my girlfriend back with me,” he said.
Apparently, she was something of a childhood sweetheart, a bond formed years ago and far stronger than the few weeks of playful chatter we’d shared. She came back from Brazil with him after the wedding to start an MBA program at a school in Virginia.
I had a sickening realization that what I thought was flirting — the beginnings of love, even — was just another guy like the rest. In that barren office, far from his girlfriend, he sought shallow entertainment, and I delivered.
“I’m over the Brazilian,” I told my sister. It was humiliating that I had ever thought he was interested, but there I was, caught in a one-sided infatuation. They would probably get married. At best we could be friends; at worst I was his coworker from a summer internship, a bleary memory vaguely recalled.
Somehow, friendship seemed favorable. One Wednesday, he told me he had a lonely night planned, and I cautiously agreed to see a movie with him. When we got to the theater, the cashier looked at us and said, “Together?” The intern looked at me meaningfully, but I took a step backward, shaking my head, paying separately like the platonic friend I swore I was.
The evening was painfully romantic; we sat close to each other in the dark theater, knees knocking and beers spilling, laughing heartily at all the funny parts.
It was misting when we went outside. He chivalrously opened his umbrella, and we walked close together for hours into that damp night, my heels sinking in the soft soil, my hand impulsively brushing against his arm. It would have been the best date of my life except that it was fabricated bliss. His reality was someone else, and mine was only a wish, only as true as the movie we’d just watched.
I abruptly asked him why he didn’t mention his girlfriend earlier. He suddenly looked nervous and small. “She doesn’t know I’m with you right now,” he admitted. “I like your company so much. She’s good, but she just doesn’t fill me. It’s different than this...” he trailed off before quickly adding, “And she wouldn’t understand why I’m with you tonight, so she can’t know.”
I was silent.
“Don’t look at me like that,” he said.
“Like a mixture of pity and disgust.”
The next day at work, he gushed over the night we shared. I was reluctant, but he insisted he had a good time and that we should get together more often. “You’re such good company,” he repeated.
What I knew should be friendship was fast approaching serious attraction. Lies, on his part, were flying. He told his girlfriend he was out with work friends when he was really out with me, watching the sunset from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and admiring my bare legs.
A future with him was immoral unless he broke up with his girlfriend. I resolved to keep my distance, but he was relentless. “I got you a present,” he said one day. “Nothing big — just something to remember me by when you leave for school.”
“Be careful with that hamster,” Sarah cautioned, but we’d already planned a date. He was supposed to visit his girlfriend that Friday, but he put it off so we could be together. “Got Friday off...” he texted me one night, as if playing hooky from school.
He came to my apartment with a bottle of wine and the gift, charmed my sister and told me I was pretty. The present was a favorite movie of his, demanding cruel remembrance of him, my impossible prize. He gave it to me on the roof of my building, where he passionately kissed me all night under the stars. “I can’t believe you don’t have a boyfriend,” he whispered, the Washington Monument coldly blinking in the background. The DVD was The Professional.
He told me he was confused. “She’s a good girlfriend, but she doesn’t fill me,” he kept saying. Still, he remained annoyingly, steadfastly attached. When I moved to Long Island for graduate school, I half-expected our relationship to peter off, but technology maintained it. Even from several states away, he kept talking to me, making me laugh, keeping me virtual company in my lonely one-bedroom.
We sent each other pictures of houses in the Great Homes and Destinations section of the New York Times, something we’d enjoyed independently until we realized it was a commonality.
“I found a house for us,” he’d say, and I’d wonder if our children would have blue eyes like his or brown like mine. It mattered decidedly little. For the first time in my experience, he didn’t demand sex: he demanded me. “We can be friends,” he insisted, and I was determined to believe it.
But I can call my friends, can text them on a whim, and he was perpetually unreachable. Contacting him meant he risked exposure, so I waited for him to contact me, on his terms.
He would gchat me daily, always with some amusing anecdote, some kind word. “You finished your novel yet?” he’d ask. I was used to feeling degraded and disposable, but he made me feel needed, smart and most of all, remembered. He was even with me while I slept. “Some joker just pulled the fire alarm!” he texted once at 1:45 in the morning. I liked that he thought of me at that hour.
He became a staple in my daily routine, and I dangerously started needing him too. I found myself listening for the cheerful ding of a gchat notification as I brewed my morning coffee. My composure was unraveling with each electronic alert.
To remedy it, I experimented with silence, but he saw right through it: “Are you ignoring me? In Brazil we call that rudeness,” and then the next day, “Good morning. Still ignoring me?” He was impossible. “Sorry — been busy — first year PhD stress!” I finally said lightly.
And so we clumsily started up again, making jokes and planning his visits to Long Island. I edited his resume, wrote his thank you notes for the summer internship where we met, encouraged him with his schoolwork and worries about the future. I was his girlfriend with none of that stability or comfort.
Somewhere along the way, I’d lost my self-respect. Maybe he would break up with her one day, but it wasn’t happening now. “We can’t talk anymore,” I reluctantly told him over the phone, and I heard his voice crack when he said goodbye.
About a month later, I was in Princeton using the library’s special collection for a research paper I was writing. I decided it was silly — childish even — to keep my proximity to him a secret, so I texted. He softly kissed my cheek when he saw me, and we caught up on our lives in a crowded coffee shop.
As ever, his girlfriend remained our unspoken impediment. She was his future, and I had to settle for being what could have been. At one point, I caught his gaze, and he quickly shifted his eyes: “Don’t look at me like that! It’s the same as it was that night in D.C. — a mixture of pity and disgust.” So I kindly laughed it off, changed the subject, and we walked for a long time in the cool air as if nothing had changed. And indeed, nothing had.
Julia Clarke is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. She last wrote in these pages about a college experience.
"Again" - Janet Jackson (mp3)
"That's The Way Love Goes" - Janet Jackson (mp3)