That afternoon, I phoned Eric to tell him the news and that, even though I loved him, things between us were impossible. He started to cry. Why, he wondered, was I willing to trust other people’s dreams for my future over my own? Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell him what I didn’t know. How this engagement had so seamlessly eclipsed our love was a mystery to me as well. I felt like a bystander in my own life.
In the midst of the first month of the engagement commotion, I went back to finish my last semester at college with grave doubts about my upcoming wedding. My mother called these feelings cold feet and suggested we advance the date. So I turned to my taciturn father.
“Dad,” I said, “I don’t think AJ can see the parts of me that I like best.”
“What you’re saying is important” was all he said in response.
Soon after, noticing my torment, my English professor, a poet and my thesis advisor on feminist literature, asked,
“Can’t you call it off?”
Something in her words gripped me, some kind of implicit permission, and I spent the afternoon on the phone explaining to AJ’s sobbing mother—his mouthpiece—that I could not, would not, marry her son. Then I phoned my own mother, who wept just as hard.
Relieved and alone in my student apartment, I listened to a tape of the love songs Eric wrote and played. With his rich voice filling my ears, I remembered outlining his smiling crescent eyes in kohl before his band’s rock concerts in Tholonet and Arles. I remembered him playing his guitar on the Cours Mirabeau, the case open at his feet, ready to receive money from passersby. Vivid pictures and flavors of our time together came back: the small boiled potatoes he swallowed whole, steam escaping from his lips, the cherries he fed me as I lay in his bed, the flavored marshmallows we consumed for breakfast from the vending machine in the bowling alley next door.
Although he had almost nothing, Eric had been insanely generous. He instinctively paid for the aperitifs my rich American friends ordered at the Deux Garçons, where we drank and dined in the speckled light that danced through the swaying leaves of silver platane trees. On our first “real” date, he and his friend invited my roommate and me for dinner, and they cooked carrot salad and pork roast tied in string. I’d never before eaten pork roast, or any other meal cooked by a man, and with the trying of new things came a broader self-definition.
With these memories fresh in my head, I called Eric to say I’d broken off the engagement. His voice gushed with joy. “Now, finally,” he said, “we can be together.” But I couldn’t make another commitment. Weren’t my memories of him enough? By keeping him preserved in my imagination, he became the perfect fantasy, and I remained free from what I perceived as the bondages of a relationship. Eric was both hurt and confused by my comfort with distance.
Over the next few years, we wrote letters to each other on lightweight airmail stationary. Occasionally, we’d talk on the phone when he could borrow a scooter and call me illegally from some remote phone-company cottage in the countryside. I can still remember the despair I’d feel when a roommate would casually announce, “Some French guy called you.” I’d have to wait days, sometimes weeks, for the next call, but I didn’t discuss any of it with my roommates. It was important to me to keep the most important person in my life a secret. Anything too real, even saying his name aloud, would shatter my perfect fantasy of him. I was terrified of having a breakable relationship in real time.
Each time we saw each other in person, Eric greeted me with the big white-toothed smile I’d memorized. Only it was never exactly quite the same as in my head. That he had a particular shape and size, that he took up space in the world, that he really existed, was always a jolt. Even though it’d take me a day or two to remember him, to relax into what we had, he was patient and present. Days of passion would then begin, but then came the inevitable misery of ripping apart. Eventually, out of frustration, we decided to stop all contact with one another. We needed to move on with our lives.