My boyfriend wasn’t much of a problem-solver, but he managed to be the person I called when I needed to solve a problem. He dropped out of community college around the same time as my acceptance into my university’s study abroad program. The event marked an uptick in his use of the word fuckin’. He depended on it in times of anger or whenever he was at a loss for words, which was often. My friends would describe his way of speaking as blue-collar, but I deemed it as charismatic bravado. His fiery confidence laid beneath his oversized black leather jacket. I found him explosive yet mysterious, an exhilarating sight for a straight-laced school girl like myself who never had a boyfriend.
We started dating during my senior year of high school. Three years later, I was no longer used to the sound of my own thoughts. I was used to him. Being with him, calling him, texting him, IM’ing him, and during college, hopping on a Greyhound bus every other weekend just to maintain a long-distance relationship with him. I was consumed by my first love and all of the dependencies that came with it. Until I left for my semester in England. Then suddenly, I wasn’t. Up close, his presence in my life felt mountainous. But, from afar, he felt more like a pebble in my shoe — small, pestering, and difficult to shake.
I broke up with him over Skype and felt nothing. I thought the end of us would be climactic; an explosive moment filled with dramatic pleas and heartfelt tears. But we had done that already. Those kinds of break-ups would never last. Our real ending was stoic and plain. Being 3,500 miles away for a few months made it easy. I said the words, “I don’t love you anymore,” with little inflection and even less remorse. Aside from the annoyance I felt as he cried, no other emotion registered in me. I resorted to an audio-only call after being unable to wait for a better Wi-Fi connection, the courtesy of video chat, or the finality of our break-up any longer. I had a month of spring break, an unlimited EuroRail pass, and a trip throughout Western Europe ahead of me. I didn’t want to waste a second of it thinking about him.
Yet, I thought about him in Switzerland.
With twenty-dollar cocktails in-hand, my friend Pooja and I toasted to my breakup surrounded by a view of the Alps. “He was an odd one,” she said before sipping her martini. “You can do better.” I nodded while soaking in the opulent mountain range. I felt on top of the world, finally free of my ex. Sure, the drinks were well out of our student budgets, but the moment called for a celebration. Plus, there was little we could do about the prices since Pooja decided to study abroad in one of the world’s most expensive cities.
Geneva had little to offer other than a broken oversized chair, the United Nations, and a bunch of exclusive discotheques I couldn’t get into. After an overnight stay and fondue dinner, Pooja waved me off as I hopped on a train to Madrid. The plan was to travel solo for the first few legs of my trip and meet the rest of my group in Germany. Until then, I had fifteen hours and five train connections to look forward to. At the age of twenty, I wasn’t daunted by any of it. The time would surely fly by between sleeping off mounds of melted cheese, hustling from one station to the next, and catching up with my old friend Lewis Carroll.
During one of the stops, my connecting train was delayed in Marseille. Much like Alice, I aimlessly wandered through this French Wonderland trying to figure out when the train would arrive, what platform to wait on, and what to do in this charming yet foreign land. Before I could panic, I saw three Asian tourists standing across from me as they tried making sense of the delay. But, they weren’t just any kind of Asian. They looked like me. Big eyes, flat noses, and tan skin. As they deliberated around a time table, I watched their mouths move.
“Your teeth are very Asian,” my ex had once told me.
His words burned at first. He said them as he touched the sharp tips of his canines while examining the flatter edges of my teeth. He then examined the rest of my face in search of other deformities. His casual tone made his comments sound like observations rather than insults. After all, he called out his own flaws too. He even provided them with equally clever rationalizations. His teeth were jagged because he had carnivore teeth. His nose was broken because he had a fighter’s nose. He had acne because he was fair-skinned. He also made a habit of sizing me up to ex-girlfriends. My body wasn’t as slender as Christina’s. My boobs weren’t as big as Amanda’s. My butt wasn’t as plump as Diane’s. I got so used to his comments that, as time passed, I no longer gave them much thought. They were just observations.
I walked up to the Asian group, reluctantly asking, “Are you all… Filipino?” As a child, I was embarrassed whenever my mom uttered those words in Tagalog. Pilipino ka ba? I didn’t know why she had to ask that question to complete strangers just because they looked like her. However, as a foreigner in the middle of nowhere, I finally understood what my mom was searching for as an immigrant in America. A familiar face in the midst of unknown territory. The Pinoy group nodded and greeted me with warmth. With two of them speaking French, they helped me navigate the time table to make the next train. Although I noticed their teeth as they smiled and spoke, I failed to understand my ex’s observation. Some teeth were sharp and others were flat. Some were shades of white, others were yellow-stained. Some were close together, while others had gaps. But there was no such thing as Asian teeth.
I thought about him in Spain.
I woke up on Easter Sunday with my mouth tasting like an ashtray rinsed with absinthe. The remnants of a night out with my friend Eddie who was studying in Madrid. The smell of anise usually made me gag, but the taste was surprisingly tolerable once we downed a bottle of red wine before dinner. Absinthe shots were also cost-effective at the price of one euro. Nothing felt more European than having a bartender set the green liquor ablaze for us. Likewise, nothing felt more Spanish than smoking a pack of cigarettes indoors. Elástico was an indie-rock dance spot, or what Eddie called “a straight club.” We danced with his crew of gay guys and straight girls as I held a whiskey-ginger in one hand and a Lucky Strike in the other. Smoke clouds floated into the club’s flashing lights while we belted out songs by Muse and the Strokes. It wasn’t that I enjoyed binge-drinking and chain-smoking until 8 AM. I just missed the freedom to do so.
He didn’t allow me to drink or smoke.
“If you grew up with my mother, you’d understand. The bitch was drunk and smoking every day,” he explained. However, between going to a friend’s house party or attending a college mixer, I didn’t always abide by his rules. When I’d admit my faults to him, his first instinct was anger. Shouting at me over the phone or sending a barrage of fuming texts were standard responses. “What? You need to drink to have fun? Like some fuckin’ college slut?” The reaction that stood out the most was when he said nothing at all, only to physically explode. But, it didn’t hurt when he hit me. It didn’t happen that often. It didn’t mean anything. Those were the excuses I’d tell myself. I thought about that moment as I gargled some mouthwash while I got ready for Easter Mass to repent.
While Eddie slept in, I made my way to the homely church across the street just in time for the first reading. The modest wooden pew let out a resounding creak to announce my arrival. I took my seat next to an elderly woman wearing a lace veil. I thought she’d be happy to see at least one Catholic under the age of sixty. Instead, she clutched her hands in prayer as she saw my outfit. The space between my dress and my thigh-high socks revealed a sinful sliver of skin. I buttoned up my cardigan for some sort of added coverage, but I wasn’t having it when the old hag proceeded to block me from communion. She waved her finger at me, furiously shook her head, and said something along the lines of, “Sit down, you American slut-bag!” If anything is more Spanish than all-night partying, it’s receiving the Eucharist at an Easter Sunday Mass. I wasn’t about to let an ex-boyfriend or some abuela get in the way of either experience. I jumped over her and made my way to the wafer.
I thought about him in France.
When I missed my train to Paris, the last available seat was a private cabin on an overnight train. The room included a Murphy bed, my exhausted suitcase, and my own reflection in the window. It would be that way for ten hours. No connecting trains, no gracious strangers, no familiar faces. I pulled down the bed, tucking myself into its starchy sheets. I tried occupying my time with more chapters from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Then, once I turned off the lights, I fell deep into the rabbit hole. The only thing I saw was occasional moonlight peeking through the window. Nothing but a dark cabin and unnerving silence. Incapable of being alone with my own thoughts, I began to think of him. What was he doing? Was he sleeping alone? Did he hate the silence as much as I did? I spiraled into unending questions as I settled into the ashes of our relationship. I thought I moved on, but I was still struggling to navigate the world alone.
I didn’t have much money in college, but whatever I had was spent on him. Birthday presents, Christmas gifts, his bartending classes, and my trips to Pennsylvania. One semester before Thanksgiving break, I finished my exams early and bought a bus ticket to surprise him. I should’ve known what would happen next. I should’ve known from the look on his brother’s face when he greeted me at the door. I should’ve known from the two other times he cheated in the past. And yet, nothing could ever prepare me for the sight of another girl in my boyfriend’s bed. She was the third woman he cheated with; one for every year we had been together. She was a neighborhood girl who looked as dumbfounded as I was. I didn’t say a word. Not because I didn’t want to but because I couldn’t. I stood motionless by the doorway clenching my teeth and gripping the handles of my overnight bag, afraid that any sudden movements would make that moment feel more real than it already was. Perhaps in freezing myself, I could freeze time along with it. No explosions, outbursts, or hysterics. Just my standard response to my tumultuous relationship: inaction. I stepped to the side as she passed me on her way out. I stayed the night as he insisted nothing happened. I let him fuck me as he apologized.
The next day on the train, I woke up to sunlight flooding my cabin. Morning came to prove I had survived my first night alone. I rubbed my eyes and looked out the window. I watched the landscape rapidly unfold like some infinite impressionist painting. Lush green hills dotted with swaying trees, complemented by rustic houses. Then, the outskirts of a sprawling city until the Eiffel Tower revealed herself on the horizon. As my train approached the City of Love, I found myself enamored with a feeling of independence. The realization that being single didn’t amount to the pain of loneliness but the harmony of solitude. I began to embrace this new chapter of my life, so I didn’t think about my ex-boyfriend in Paris. I didn’t think about him in Berlin, Bruges, or Amsterdam either.
Then, a volcano erupted.
I was stuck between a strip club and a sex shop on Reeperbahn when news of the Icelandic eruption broke. A hostel in Hamburg’s Red-Light District was all my study-abroad friends and I could afford. In the communal kitchen, Kyle, Cass, Irena, and I devoured a meal of McNuggets and cheeseburgers while our eyes were glued to the news. All flights were grounded indefinitely due to Eyjafjallajökull and its volcanic ash that could damage the planes. I looked out the hostel’s dingy window and saw nothing. No menacing particles. No foreboding dust. No floating debris. Rather, I saw a blue sky, lush clouds, and trees in bloom. The budding flowers were reflected in the canal across the street as the sun began to set. In the midst of an eruption, this place offered a calm and serene refuge away from the commotion of Icelandic volcanoes and my relationship that exploded with it. Had it not been for the lack of money, I would’ve loved this place.
Anxiety sank in the next day as we headed to Hamburg Hauptbahnhof yet again. The name alone intimidated our group of three Americans and one Swede — all of whom didn’t know a drop of German. For the past forty-eight hours, this central station was where we hoped and prayed for train tickets. With the volcano affecting close to ten-million travelers, foreigners like us overran the place, who were hoping and praying for the exact same thing.
We took up our usual post at the station’s McDonald’s where we had free Wi-Fi. The lid of a trash can became our workspace as we set up our smartphones and laptops to desperately Google a way back to England. The tables were already filled with early-risers and backpackers. They slept on the welcoming floors of Hamburg Hauptbahnhof after being unable to find a seedy hostel with vacancy. We were the lucky ones. And yet, as money dwindled and spirits lowered, a desperate thought crossed my mind.
I wanted to call my ex. I wanted to tell him all about the volcano. I wanted to hear the familiarity of his voice say that things would be alright. It was easier to depend on him when I didn’t feel strong enough to depend on myself. I had been conditioned to do that for years. Although distance had made me strong enough to break up with him, my mind still wavered between thoughts. One moment I embraced the joys of newfound freedom. The next moment I longed for the familiarity of relationships — a habit that would take time to break. After all, he was my first definition of love. He taught me love was like a volcano. That love was this fiery, intense, and explosive thing. That love was supposed to hurt. Then, I thought about the answers he would offer if I called.
“I dunno,” he’d so eloquently advise. “Wait ‘til you get a fuckin’ train or something.”
I laughed to myself. This was the man I depended on? The hot-headed non-problem solver who put me through hell and back? For all of the reoccurring thoughts I had of him, not once did I acknowledge my feelings and the effects of our relationship. I had grown numb to all of it. But, at my wits’ end, in the middle of a German McDonald’s, I finally felt the anger, the frustration, and the pain surge inside of me. Fuck him, I said to myself. I banged away at my laptop searching for my own way out. Together with my friends, we searched for hours on end. Then, it happened. A Google result for a bus that went from Hamburg to London. We got up from our makeshift table, sprinted to the bus terminal, and bought the last remaining tickets. That night, we celebrated with cheeseburgers from the Euro Menu, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and even a tour through the sex shop next door.
By the time my semester abroad came to an end, my thoughts of my ex subsided. However, a few days after my return, he paid me a visit. He insisted we stay together, saying it with a grand gesture that featured sparkling gems. He held up his mother’s engagement ring.
“There’s something still between us,” he begged, “I know you feel it too.”
He was right. I knew it from the enduring memories that plagued me throughout my trip. I gazed at the gold band he presented with small diamonds encircling a larger stone. The kind that emerged from a volcano once it went through the pain and pressures of the earth, like he and I did. It was a symbol of our love. But, as I gazed at the second-hand engagement ring from the mother he cursed, the words were never easier. “I don’t love you anymore,” I told him again.
The symbol, the idea of love was comforting, but it was not love.
Love was finding a bus that could bring you home when no train could. Love was seeing the light at the end of the British Channel. Love was rain falling on your face in the middle of London and not wanting to share that moment with anyone else. After years of loving my once boyfriend, I finally knew what loving myself meant. An outpouring of strength I never knew I had. A power that could bring my ex to his knees. A tremendous explosion from within. All this time I thought love was like a volcano, and I was right.