it's complicated

Me, You, and the Fantasy I Projected Onto You

Photo: Laia Arqueros Claramunt

Welcome to It’s Complicated, a week of stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships.

The day my husband moved out, I cleaned the house. From the sidewalk in front of our building, I watched him drive off, our dog in the passenger seat. I’d thought, good riddance to both of them. Then I went back to the apartment and packed away what he’d left behind. We’d been together for 13 years, since before I could drink legally. I felt nothing.

Two months later I met a beautiful Irishman on a dance floor in Dublin. Somehow, he broke my heart in a way my husband’s leaving hadn’t.

The Irishman was my crisis romance. When I fell for him I was in that altered breakup state when the heart has been hammered by so many little blows and for so long it feels nearly dead. Mine was held together by a zigzag network of hairline fractures, the way a tight wrapping of ivy can sometimes hold together a rotting fence.

All crisis romances are ménage à trois. It’s you, him, and the fantasy you project on him. He’s a god. He’s the best sex you’ve ever had. He understands you like no one before. He’s better looking than anyone you’ve ever seen. He is the opposite of your old partner in all ways. Except of course he’s exactly the same.

You think a crisis romance is the start of your new life, but really it’s the end of the old. I can see it in hindsight: I’d become immune to my husband’s worst; I needed the Irishman to deliver the final deathblow so my heart would, finally, shatter — and then I’d be able to start anew.


I went to Dublin to meet my brother who was on tour with a famous rock star. That sense of emptiness I’d had since the day my husband left had turned into a sense of vastness, as if I’d been cracked open and was now as big as the universe. My innards were on the outside — or rather there was no distinction between inside and outside. When my brother said “come join us,” I hopped on a plane the next morning.

I went with my brother and the guys from the band to see Jimmy Cliff. After they all went home, I stayed, because I felt like if I didn’t get to dance to the rock-steady DJ just starting to spin, I might die.

Pre-separation Heather Chaplin did not go out dancing by herself, and did not smile indiscriminately. But there I was, smiling at everyone who came near, feeling less like a body and more like moving energy. I felt lit from within.

“What do you say to impress a girl from New York?” the Irishman shouted in my ear. Except it sounded like waddiyeh saaay tih inprres agirrl frem nihyeeerk? Except also like a beautiful song.

“Hello?” I suggested.

Later, against the front of my hotel, he kissed me, and I was engulfed in liquefying, molecule-scrambling heat. I hadn’t felt anything like it in more than a decade.  “Bee-u-tifel gerrl, bee-u-tifel gerrl,” he kept saying. I almost turned around to check he wasn’t talking to someone else.

The Irishman came back the next day and we ate sandwiches under a hazy Irish sun on a park bench in St. Stephen’s Green. It turned out the Irishman had just signed his separation papers that morning. When I told him my story, the Irishman suggested that God had put us on that dance floor so we would meet. I’d never believed in God, but I was ready to believe in the Irishman.

What was there to do but resume making out, wildly.

Later, in a pub at the edge of Temple Bar, when he got off work, we kissed more. He had an autistic child and a dead mother. I thought he was brave and noble, the same words I’d thought about my husband when we’d first met and his tragedies had set off fireworks in my chest — but I didn’t notice at the time.

The Irishman had blue eyes like the night sky just before it turns to black. I watched him watching me and there was something in them I was sure I knew. And he seemed to be watching me watching him like I was a gift.

While he was at work, I wandered through the north side of Dublin and thought about God, or the universe, or whatever you want to call it. I thought God must have changed his mind about me and dropped me into another, better universe. I felt I wasn’t walking, but rather was suspended, weightless, in some infinite web. Everything I saw I took as a sign.

Times of crisis can have a euphoric quality about them. Everything feels imbued with meaning. Then, of course, I went back to New York, and it was like waking from a dream and finding myself face down in the dirt, drool turning the ground to mud.

I had a house filled with possessions from another lifetime. My husband was gone and not coming back. But that’s not what had me swigging from the whiskey bottle in the afternoon. It was the absence of my Irishman I couldn’t bear.

I wrote the Irishman letters that compared him to the statue of David in Florence. I wrote him love letters that were 10, 20 pages long. I refrained from sending them — but barely. After the first 24 hours of no contact, I looked in the mirror and the face that stared back at me was ugly. I felt I was in a room with the lights slowly fading to dark, the Irishman my only point of light.

In hindsight, I pity the man. To have such a heavy burden as the expectation of love placed on him by a stranger.

Ten months later, I once again stepped off a plane in Dublin. There had been weeks, even months of silence, followed by calls, emails, and texts. Presents were exchanged. Then he invited me to visit. Sort of. Technically, he urged me. In spirit, now, I think he was just talking.

I stepped out of my rental after having only arrived and ran smack into him — just like that, on the street. I almost vomited. Then I saw him start to pick up his feet and run toward me, and there was one blessed moment where I thought, It’s happening. My fantasy is becoming reality. This man was going to take me into his arms, and I would spend the rest of eternity quietly frozen in perfect reunion on a fading-to-black movie screen.

But he stopped running. He dropped his pace and sauntered towards me as if I barely ranked as a casual acquaintance. And in that split second, between when he started to run and when he stopped running, I had what I suppose you could call a premonition. I saw that the Irishman did not love me. I saw my fantasy was just that — a fantasy, projected on a stranger. What was I even doing there? Who was this person walking toward me? I had a flash of a future in which the credits were not rolling over me swept off my feet, but rather in which I was trudging along the edge of an abyss, having thrown my old life away because survival dictated it, but with no obvious path forward.

Naturally, I did what any sensible person would do given such an insight. I ignored it. There’s a study that says if you present people with facts that contradict what they believe, they won’t change their minds, but rather will entrench more deeply in what they want to believe. I won’t bore you with the details of my time in Dublin. Suffice to say, it didn’t go well.

In a tangerine-colored room in a Dublin youth hostel, I crumpled. Before I’d even taken off my coat or put down my suitcase, I started to cry. Soon snot was running down my face and into the folds of my scarf. My tears became howls, and then I shoved my fist into my mouth to keep the howls from becoming screams. I sank to the floor. I put my face on the bed, clasped my hands in front of me, and pleaded with God to spare me. But what was God going to do? You can’t avoid the hard parts, no matter what you do to put them off.

I’d handed the Irishman my heart like an offering. Like any worshiped deity, he devoured it without thinking too much. And that’s what left me crumpled on the ground. Not my husband leaving. Not what led up to my husband leaving. But losing my heart to a man I barely knew.

It took me months to get back up. I felt like I was huddled on the ground while my house went up in flames around me. The heartbreak from the Irishman was the spark that started it. But the timber was dry and ready to blaze. It was the whole history of my life crashing down on me, the story I’d built for myself over so many years, collapsing.

And after it had burned itself out — what could I do but step away from the smoking cinders and find somewhere else to live.

Heather Chaplin is the author of the new memoir Reckless Years, from which this essay is adapted.

Me, You, and the Fantasy I Projected Onto You