it's complicated

When the Relationship Can’t Possibly Live Up to the Meet-Cute

Photo: J.V. Aranda

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I don’t mind admitting to my affinity for romantic idealism. I’ve always loved the idea of flowers and grand gestures and swoony stuff — but to me, the height of romance has always been a great first meeting story. I grew up on a steady diet of onscreen meet-cutes: When Harry Met Sally, Moonstruck, Working Girl, Ally McBeal, My So-Called Life. Bizarre circumstances that brought two people together? Inject that shit directly into my veins.

Especially it was happening offscreen, in real life. Invariably, whenever someone in my group of friends revealed that they had a crush or had started dating someone new, one of us would eagerly ask the question: “How did you two meet?” We could dress up almost any meeting, even the most mundane — maybe it was the way you dropped a letter waiting in line at the post office, and the way someone picked it up for you. Whatever it was, there was something special about sharing the first meeting and getting the friend-approved nods, even more so if it came with the coveted compliment of, “Wow, great story.”

I’d earned that compliment myself a few times over the years, In fact, I once had what my friends would consider the ultimate meet-cute: a whirlwind vacation stay-out-til-dawn night with a guy I’d only known for a few hours. It was exciting and magical and all that, but it’s also how I learned that there’s a Goldilocks issue at play with these types of stories — they should be romantic, yes, but not so romantic that you’re paralyzed with fear that you’ll do something to ruin the magic. And definitely not so romantic that you refuse to follow up afterward, intent on preserving this pristine story at the cost of anything actually coming of it.

This is a story of a lesson learned the hard way.

It happened on my first night in Iceland. I was sitting at the bar in my hotel, exhausted from a red-eye, feeling the first touch of nervousness about being alone in a foreign country for five weeks. My job of seven years had just ended, and the anxiety was starting to set in; I hadn’t quite allowed myself to start thinking about what I would do next after I arrived back home. As I asked the bartender to recommend a beer from the drink menu that I couldn’t decipher, a voice from the group of friends next to me spoke up.

“Hey, you’re from the States too?” I swiveled around on my seat to find a good-looking guy who seemed about my age, with an engaging smile.

“Yeah it’s my first day here. I’m from New York.” I smiled back, wishing I had actually put some makeup on before leaving my hotel room.

“Your first day?” He seemed to radiate excitement at this news. “You’re going to have the best time! How long are you staying?”

For the next couple hours, this stranger became my travel guide. We talked about all the places he’d seen in the almost two weeks since he’d arrived; he showed me pictures of his travels and gave me a map, marking his suggestions of what I might want to check out. His friends were equally gregarious,  jumping in here and there and eventually inviting me out with them for the evening, to come to a dinner they’d planned to celebrate one of their birthdays and their last night in Reykjavik. I declined, not wanting to intrude, but I really did like their company. I ended up giving the guy my number and told him to text me after dinner and let me know where they were.

Once they left the bar, though, I regretted the decision; immediately, the nervousness of being alone started to creep in again. I decided to close out and go up to my room, but when I asked the bartended for the check, he stared at me, confused.

“You’re all paid up,” he said. “That group that just left added you to their tab.”

Surprised and more than a little touched by their generosity, I grabbed my jacket and my bag and ran out to the lobby, where my bar buddy and all his friends were about to get into a cab waiting outside.

“That was so nice! I was there an hour before you guys even got there!” I babbled. “You didn’t have to do that! Thank you so much.” He smiled at me and gestured to the door.

“You sure you don’t want to come with us?”

So I went. Of course.

Dinner which turned into bar hopping which turned into dancing, which led to him and I peeling off and wandering through the cobblestone streets of Reykjavik before heading back to the hotel in the earliest hours of the morning — what would be sunrise, if Iceland’s sun actually went down in the summer. We settled in the lobby and talked for another two hours. At around 8:30 a.m., he walked me up to my room, where we hugged, each of us seemingly hesitant about whether we should kiss. Instead, we just said goodnight.

I ran into him the next morning in the lobby, and we exchanged hungover, bleary good-byes and promises to keep in touch. And that was it.

Naturally, I immediately logged onto WhatsApp to regale all my friends with the story of this handsome stranger who I’d only spent 12 hours with but was unexpectedly already sad to be leaving. He and I ended up texting pretty regularly for the five weeks I was in Iceland, with tentative plans to meet up when I returned to the U.S. — but when I did, nothing really transpired. We kept in loose touch, sending photos once in a while, but neither of us really made an effort to do anything or see each other.

I wasn’t sure if we fizzled because too much time had passed since that initial night, or if we were both second-guessing what it had actually meant. Occasionally a friend would ask, “Whatever happened to Iceland guy?” And I’d shrug and say some variation of, “Not much, we keep in contact here and there.” But every time I told the story of my first night there, and someone would say something like, “Please tell me the two of you are practically engaged now,” I would once again wonder what had happened.

A couple years have passed now since that trip, and he and I still remain in touch. For a long time, I thought that I must have somehow misinterpreted that night in Reykjavik — that if he didn’t outright say, “Hey, let’s date now,” either before we parted ways or in any of the communication that followed, then it must not have been the romantic thing I thought it was. Maybe there wasn’t anything more there than a brief friendship. In my mind, I chalked it up to a case of misinterpretation.

But recently,  it’s started to occur to me that maybe the appeal of meet-cutes isn’t actually about the best story. Maybe it’s more that these encounters represented possibility: We always ask about the meeting because it’s a little thrilling to think that a small romance could happen at any time, anywhere. Even if it doesn’t turn into anything right away.

A few months ago, Iceland guy and I finally had drinks for the first time in two years. After I left, he texted me that we should hang out again soon. This time, I intend to follow up.

When the Relationship Can Never Live Up to the Meet-Cute