At age 21, I spent my junior year abroad in Aix-en-Provence, where, despite the many classes I skipped, I learned French in the bed of a long-haired French musician and occasional math tutor named Eric (pronounced Erique). One day, two weeks after we’d started dating, Eric stopped me at the front garden path of my host family’s house.
“Je t’aime,” he said, looking directly into my eyes.
“But you don’t even know me!” I said, mortified by the thought of what caricatures of our cultures we seemed at that moment.
“I do. I know you,” he insisted, and kissed me softly on the mouth.
For years, when I was relaxed and my senses were open, I’d recall his exact smell at that moment, an impossible combination of peaches, oceans, and babies.
I’d always been skeptical of intimate relationships. From what I could see growing up, marriage seemed like a confusing, if not dismal, arrangement. My parents’ marriage, after all, had been more or less arranged. When my mother, a Syrian Jew, was 16 years old, she returned from school one day to find her father and two men from New Orleans sitting in her Brooklyn living room sipping Turkish coffee. She was of age, and so were the two suitors, both Syrian Jews, who were 11 and 12 years her senior. That night, she wrote in her diary that she’d marry the elder one, the doctor. Soon, she had the braces she wore on her teeth removed for the wedding.
My parents were taught to value perseverance over happiness in marriage and deference over closeness in child rearing. My whole life, I’d been told I’d marry young to one of our own, a Syrian Jew. At 17, I asked my mother, “Ma, what’ll you do if I’m not married by the time I’m 21?”
For once, she was succinct: “Kill myself.”
Just a few months after my 21st birthday, my parents visited me in France over my spring break. When I introduced them to sexy and unshaven Eric, they grew concerned for my future, and insisted I drop out of my exchange program. For the first time in my life, however, I fought for what I wanted and finished the semester.
Back home in New York, just 10 months after my affair with Eric, I got engaged to AJ, an American Sephardic Jew, just as I was supposed to. Although I was still 21, I was already considered old by the standards of my parent’s community. It happened like this: AJ and I were at an upscale nightclub on the Upper East Side, on our fourth date.
He said, “We should get engaged.”
AJ didn’t talk much. What I knew about him I’d either observed or heard. He drove a pale blue Mercedes, drank scotch, and ran a tourist-scamming electronics store in Midtown. I also knew his father had died when AJ was 11: he’d been on his way home from work one perfect summer night when a freight train hit his car at the Jersey shore. That was the hook for me—AJ had such a sad story, I thought marrying him would be the right thing to do.
“I guess so,” I heard myself say in response to his proposal. I’d explain how I really felt to him later, when he wouldn’t be so let down by my doubts. For now, I’d be polite and not make waves.
On our way home from the nightclub, he called his mother from a payphone to say, “Guess what? We got engaged.” By noon the next day, I’d gotten congratulatory calls from dozens of people.
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.
Not quite two years later, I woke up one day missing him so much my chest ached. I put my hand on the phone, telling myself that it’d be unfair to call him unless I could commit in some way. Before I could move my hand away, however, the phone rang. It was Eric. He missed me, too.
For me, the turning point between us was something ridiculously ordinary. It happened when I went to visit him eight and a half years after we’d met. We were settled in our separate lives and dating other people in our home countries, but unwilling to give up our infrequent encounters for them. By then, Eric had become a creative director living in Paris; he still wrote and performed music for the ads he wrote. I’d become a psychotherapist.
When we met at the Paris airport something had changed. Eric’s consistent love became more real than the voices in my head telling me not to trust it. I was no longer surprised by his actual physical presence, that he took up space in the world, and that the reality of his presence wouldn’t hurt me by somehow taking me over or vanishing. Later, on that first morning of my last visit, exhausted from jetlag, I took what was supposed to be a short nap. Instead, I practically slept all day, leaving only three more days together.
“I’m so sorry, I’m just so tired,” I said. “I’ll get up now.”
“Sleep, mon amour, sleep. If you’re tired, sleep,” he responded.
In that moment, all of his past acts of acceptance and sweetness congealed into a precise and permanent sensation that could no longer be swept away. I was filled with love. And then I knew.
Thirty-three years later, our four daughters are at the stage in their lives where they sometimes need advice in matters of the heart. Their answers must be their own, yet I share my story in the hope that it might become a parable to them about the intricate tie between self-knowledge and true love. I tell them sometimes it can take a long time to know. It did for me. But on the way to knowing, love can be as simple as the permission to sleep.
Illustration © Adam Niklewicz
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