“Why did you and Chris break up?” This was not the first time Rachel had asked me this question. Rachel was a very close friend, seeing me through college, my first job, breakups, more jobs, schizophrenia, and singlehood. Rachel was my age and also lived in Boston after our college years. She was there when Chris and I started going out. Then she saw us living together in Back Bay. She was there at the movies and dinners, his surprise birthday party, and mine. Ten and some years after the breakup, she was still asking this question, trying to understand what had happened. It seemed so strange to her that Chris and I had broken up just like that without any warning signs after six years of a seemingly perfect relationship. There was no drama, just an abrupt end.
In 1996, Chris and I met when I was a senior at Cornell in Ithaca, New York. We completed the same master’s program so had the same classes on engineering management. Most of the classes were full of men, and I didn’t think of Chris as any different from the others, but he started to talk to me between classes. We started doing homework together. Then from homework to dinners, to movies. The next thing I knew it was summer, and we were spending every free minute together. Chris told me later it was when he saw me in a ponytail one day that he started liking me. I told him it was when he asked me to help him think about what he should do after graduation that I felt affection for him. We adored each other. We were young with wide-open eyes, arms, and hearts. We roamed gorges, hiked forests, played in parks, and hung out in the only small town center nearby. Being a year older, Chris always knew where to go, taking me to quaint restaurants, the one and only mall in the neighborhood, and as many movies as the small cinema played. Without Chris, I only spent time on campus in classes, dining halls, and dorms. Cornell and Ithaca felt so much bigger when Chris was with me.
Chris graduated from Cornell first, moved to Boston, and began a new life chapter in the corporate world. In a modern city, he made new friends, kept fit, and worked hard. I graduated a couple of hundred days later and followed his lead pretty closely. With his help and planning, I settled in the same city and started working for the same company. We found each other in the same place again and without having a conversation about it, we naturally became a couple.
I came to know Chris as loyal, earnest, studious, and occasionally goofy. Sometimes during nights and weekends, we would both code away at work to make sure we hit our deadlines. He was career-minded and proud of his accomplishments. I was the same way. We were also surrounded by and became friends with like-minded people.
I was deeply moved at how he took care of me when I found a benign cyst in my left breast. He always knew what to do: what drugs to get, where to get food, and who to call. Chris touched me many times with that tenderness. I felt loved and was very thankful to have him by my side.
Chris was a little boy at heart. Secretly, I was a little girl too. Some of our favorite movies were the Disney ones. He owned almost every one of them. But we were okay with our differences as well. He preferred all the action and sci-fi movies while I loved the sappy romantic comedies. Regardless, we watched everything together. At first, we were both flexible in nature and considerate of the other person’s preferences. We made a point to get the other person to order food at the restaurant or pick the movie to watch. We were comfortable with each other. We were open with each other. We took care of each other in our own ways. We were inseparable. We were happy in the first few years.
Slowly, between the two of us, there was a shift in balance. I started to defer to Chris all of the time, and he started to lead our lives. “What do you want to eat for dinner?” Chris asked after we both got into his car after work.
“I am okay with anything. What do you feel like having?” I said.
“Let’s go for Thai food. Brown Sugar!” Chris didn’t mind making the decisions.
“Sounds good to me!” It was easy to defer to him, and I began doing it willingly when it came to food, movies, video games, shopping, golfing, or vacation plans.
“Let’s take a vacation,” Chris said one day.
“Okay.” I had never taken a vacation. Chris knew how to enjoy life better than I did, I thought.
“Let’s go on a cruise!” I smiled big. That sounded good to me!
Chris booked everything for us. He picked the airline and the cruise line. We packed our bags and flew to Miami. We took a taxi to the seaport and boarded the Carnival Imagination ship. The ship was enormous. Our room was in the lower deck, one of the smallest, with no windows. As soon as we put down our bags, we left the room. We went to the upper deck to watch the ship leaving Miami.
The sun was out, and the sky was completely blue. There wasn’t a single cloud. We found a spot we liked and spent a few hours soaking in the sun. Chris read his book while I napped. After a few hours, we got up, walked around, and explored the rest of the ship.
I stood on the top deck of the ship and looked to the sea and saw the blue sky blended with the blue water. I was amazed by the complete openness in front of me. There was nothing else out there, nothing that I would expect in a modern city like Boston, where the sky would be partially covered by highrises while cars and people crowded the streets. We were completely disconnected from our normal lives. I was acutely aware there was no internet and felt peaceful. I closed my eyes and tried to remember what was in front of me. I opened my eyes to make sure I remembered correctly. Then I closed my eyes again, imagining the blueness, and counted from one to ten. I wanted to remember what I saw forever.
The bright sun and blue sky lasted for the next few days. We alternated spending days at sea and on land. Towards the end of our trip, I discovered a spa on the ship.
“Hey! Should I get a massage?”
“Yes, go and get a massage,” Chris encouraged me.
“Really? But I’ve never had a massage,” I said, curious of how it would feel and excited about trying a new experience. I had to pick from the menu. “It’s expensive,” I said.
“Yep. Try it if you want. You make enough. You can afford it! ”
“Okay. Why not? I am going to try it!”
A woman greeted me in the waiting area, showed me the locker room, and explained what I needed to do to get ready. A few minutes later, a second woman, who introduced herself as the masseuse, showed me to a darker room with a bed in the middle of the room. She stepped out and was back in a few minutes. “May I come in?” There was a special scent in the room. Maybe lavender. And very calming music. Then she started working on me.
I could feel her hands on my back, releasing all that stress from non-stop typing in front of a computer. Then she worked on my arms and legs. I felt my muscles relaxing. My body works hard. This is amazing! I felt so luxurious!
Chris waited for me in the library. When I finished, I met him there.
“How was it?” he asked.
“It was great. I loved it. It was totally worth it.”
The ship came back to Miami. We came off Imagination. I stood on land, looking at the enormous ship. My body moved left and right slightly as if there were still waves even though I was standing on the ground. “Wow. My body adjusted to the waves!” I said.
“Had a good trip?” Chris asked.
“Yes, it was amazing!” I closed my eyes and saw the blueness of the open space in my head. I opened my eyes and looked at Chris. Then we both smiled. At that moment, I felt my life experience was tied to Chris’s and in some ways better because of him.
I felt loved, safe, and content.
Chris’s birthday was coming up. In the past, I always bought a gift for him like a nice watch, sweater, or tie. But this time I wanted to do something different, to throw him a surprise birthday party. Rachel and her boyfriend lived downstairs. They had a spare key to our apartment. They could sneak into the apartment without any problem. A week before the party, I emailed our friends and told everyone a time to be there. Rachel would let everyone in.
On the morning of the party, Chris wanted to go shopping and walk around. I knew he liked to go out during the weekends. I didn’t have any problem getting him to leave the house. We walked around the mall for a while. When it was time, I told Chris, “Do you want to buy something?”
“Not really,” he said.
“Do you want to head home?”
“Sure.” We got into his car, and he drove us home.
He parked the car in the back of the building. My heart started racing. I didn’t want to talk and hoped Chris wouldn’t try to talk to me. My voice might break from the excitement. We made our way from the basement’s back door to the second floor and our apartment. I followed him instead of going first. He took out his key and opened the front door.
“Surprise!” Everyone in the apartment shouted.
Chris heard the loud sound and instinctively ducked. I heard his knees hit the wood floor. A loud thump. His face became very red. He looked around and saw all the familiar faces. Everyone was laughing and wishing him a happy birthday. He took a few seconds to collect himself, stood up, picked up his cat, and sat down on the sofa.
I went over to him and asked, “Are you surprised?”
He was absolutely in shock. “I thought there was a burglar in the apartment!” His face was still red, but smiling now. He patted himself on the chest, still hugging his cat. I was happy the surprise had worked so well, but I was worried about his reaction. Maybe I’d overdone it. Maybe I should have planned the surprise in a public place and not at home.
Chris stopped patting his chest, let go of the cat, and started socializing with our friends. I kept watching him and breathed a sigh of relief.
Nex post: Small Hints (#2)