It was 6 a.m. on a humid Monday morning in May. Bleary-eyed and standing in line for security at Pittsburgh International Airport, I felt my phone buzz with an incoming text: “Have a good trip babe, I’m going to miss you. Thank you so much for coming.” It wasn’t outlandish message to receive from someone you love after they drop you off at the airport. It also wasn’t your typical breakup text.
I met Nick on Tinder in the late fall of 2016. After ignoring his first message, I agreed to go on a date only if the bar was next to my apartment — and then quickly realized how stupid I’d been in my reticence. Beyond that, I can’t really even recall what we said. All I remember is rapid-fire conversation at the bar and my brief nighttime walk home afterward, tipsy and excited.
The start of our relationship was easy, almost flawless — so of course, there had to be a catch. I found it on our third date, on a chilly December evening. We were walking through the Lower East Side when I lamented how the cold made me want to move back to Hawaii, where I grew up. “But my friends say that’s just talk,” I said. It’s true: I was constantly saying this, every winter, ever since attending NYU, graduating and then staying to work in the city. “I’m planning to move back home too,” Nick, a Pittsburgh native, said casually, walking alongside me with hands in his coat pockets. “My lease ends in April. I think I’m actually going to do it.” I just nodded, assuming that he, like me, wasn’t serious.
After seeing each other for about two months, I learned I was wrong. He was very serious — about Pittsburgh, and also about me. We were lying in my bed when he suggested we stop seeing other people. “I know it seems like a dumb idea,” he said, “but I really like you, and I don’t think I can continue seeing you if we just keep it casual.” Knowing that I had no plans of my own to move to Pittsburgh, he made his proposition: that we enjoy each other’s company, in an exclusive kind of way, for the three months until he had to leave.
In one way, the most important way, three months is a long time. It’s not long enough to start discussing — or even daydream about — serious future plans together, like uprooting your life for the other person. But it’s plenty of time to fall in love, to build up feelings strong enough that you feel real pain when that love severs. I didn’t know any of this, though, when I agreed.
The second he left my apartment, I began preparing for how to present this arrangement to my friends. “It’s kind of nice you already know how it’s going to end,” one of them said, “so you can prepare yourself.”
“It’s a matter of heart versus head,” said another. “How fascinating.” She paused. “Obviously, follow the heart.”
Another would just shrug whenever an issue came up. “What does it matter? He’s leaving in three months anyway.”
All of these thoughts had independently passed through my head at some point or another, in addition to many more. Yes, I liked the guy. No, I didn’t want either of us to see anyone else. But did I like Nick enough to invest in him only to lose him? It felt like I was scheduling an appointment for heartbreak three months in advance. Then again, do you only enter a relationship because of the possibility of staying together forever?
With our relationship’s hourglass now flipped over, I felt like we were racing against time to fall in love. I was convinced that only then would the relationship be considered worthwhile — that being able to say “I love you” would mean that our short time together mattered, enough that it would stay with him as he carried on with his life and ultimately ended up with someone who had a full shot at being with him. The fear that we wouldn’t get there bubbled up inside of me at random times. Nick, aware of my anxiety, would remind me how love was a gradual feeling. “You don’t just wake up and feel in love,” he’d say. “It grows.”
As the weeks passed, I found myself breaking down into tears in restaurants, our apartments, the Airbnb in D.C., the hotel in Philly when we went to his friend’s wedding, anywhere I was reminded that he was about to suddenly vanish from my daily routine. In an attempt to make the most of our time left, we spent almost every day together, which made his approaching absence that much harder.
When the end of April finally came, we cleaned out his apartment, booked my returning flight from Pittsburgh, and hopped into a rented minivan stuffed with his belongings to embark on his manifest destiny home.
That weekend in Pittsburgh was sadder than we expected. Sitting in bars and restaurants and his parent’s house, there was nothing left to talk about. I would cry, he would say how he was so happy to have met me, we would both reassure each other that we’d still be friends. I imagine how conflicted he must have felt — happy to be home and start the new chapter he’d been craving for, but sad to leave someone behind.
During our last morning together, he snuck into his parents’ guest bedroom, where I was staying, and we had sex for the last time. Afterward, I looked up at him, and once again cried, managing to sputter out, “I just want you to be happy.”
He looked down at me and said, “I love you.” I’m sure you can see this one coming, but I cried even harder.
Even though I wished for it and fantasized about it, he didn’t ended up visiting New York. We slowly lost contact over the following months, never becoming the long-distance friends we had said we’d be. I often wondered if what we had maybe wasn’t that significant for him after all.
That worry slowly faded over the next year. I met new guys, some I liked more than others, and changed jobs and apartments. By winter, like clockwork, I once again became unhappy with New York. But this time, it felt different. After years of talking about leaving, I realized that maybe Nick was onto something: leaving New York when it no longer made him happy, even though there were still things he cared about there. In other words, he reminded me that there is life elsewhere. So I started seriously applying for jobs along the West Coast, later accepting one back in Hawaii.
Nick reached out to me when he saw my roommates’ room vacancy post online to wish me good luck. He also said that I was just missing his first trip back to New York. I told him to let me know if he ever visits the islands. “Of course,” he replied.
I’m pretty sure, though, that even if Nick does come to Hawaii, he won’t look me up. From what I gather on social media, Nick is now happily dating a local Pittsburgh girl. As for myself, I’ve recently fallen in love with someone else here in Hawaii.
Still, I continue to think of Nick fondly. Even though hindsight hasn’t helped to clarify at all what I even meant to him, I do know that the short amount of time we had mattered, because it matters to me. In a way, I have him to thank for my life now. Of course, one could argue that I would have moved back to Hawaii even if we hadn’t met, but deep down, I know that’s probably just talk.