The year I turned 24, I was convinced that I would never find love. I had never had a relationship that lasted more than three months. I was sure that I was falling behind my friends, who were beginning to move in with their boyfriends and get promotions at work.
I had always imagined that by 24, I would be working in an office and living in a Manhattan apartment with roommates. This was partly true, except my roommates were my starving-artist parents and the apartment was the tiny one in Soho that I grew up in. I had tried to ride out the effects of the recession in graduate school in Michigan. But eventually, I returned to New York, deep in student-loan debt and unemployed, sleeping in past noon on the twin-sized bed I used to do my homework on in high school.
Driven by creeping insecurity, I got into a relationship — if you could call it that — with Elouan, a French software salesman who lived in Montreal. It was not unusual for me to get into an impractical long-distance relationship. But usually, it was some boring American guy with drawers full of mesh gym shorts. This time, he was French! Elouan aroused an unknown Francophilia from deep inside me. All of a sudden, I loved everything French. I ate croissants every morning and watched Belle de Jour. At night, I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror, wondering what I would look like if I could speak French. Would it make me beautiful?
I met Elouan at a bar while he was visiting New York. We drank so many Jamesons that we stacked the empty glasses into a tower that crashed into wet shards on the floor. Afterward, we made out in the doorway of a nursing home on Houston Street until security came and banged on the door. The next morning, he returned to Montreal. But I’ve never let practicalities get in the way of romance. I took a 12-hour train north to visit him, a trip I made several times in the course of two months. He did not come to me. I went to him.
That summer, I managed to get a part-time job. A friend’s mom had a friend who needed an assistant. I was to work for Eileen, an eccentric woman in her late 50s who was raising money to make a documentary about her late father, a beloved musical composer. We met at a café near her apartment in the East Village. She showed up half an hour late, her hair unkempt and dyed red with gray, wiry roots at the crown of her head. “Sorry to be late. I have chronic insomnia,” she explained. I nodded, taking in the deep bags under her eyes. I had the urge to excuse myself to apply extra under-eye concealer in the bathroom. I was also an insomniac, but I hoped my crazy was not so visible.
Eileen offered to buy me a coffee. “If you drink coffee,” she said. “I only drink green tea. Coffee is the drug of capitalist drones.” I got tea. She told me that she needed help filling out grant applications and meeting deadlines. But as I would soon learn, Eileen and I shared an inability to organize.
We worked from a makeshift office in the cluttered East Village apartment where she lived alone. It was a sweltering July and Mercury was in retrograde, so Eileen insisted that we refrain from completing any logistical work. Most days, I would sit with my laptop while Eileen dictated lists of foundations we would apply for when the planets aligned. Eileen was resistant to the laptop, because she didn’t see what was wrong with pen, paper, and a phone book. After 20 minutes of this, she would roll a joint and we would get stoned in her living room. I sat on the floor beside her Buddhist shrine while she delivered long, uninterrupted political monologues about “the United Mistakes of America,” her face twisting into a grimace of desperation.
At the time, I was fully consumed with making myself attractive to men, and so I pitied Eileen, old and alone. But the stories she told me suggested that I was wrong: that men continued to find her very sexy. In the mornings, she would tell me about her nights out with an ex-lover — usually some British or Australian man, just back from Thailand and desperately trying to rekindle the old flame.
Encouraged by Eileen’s openness, I began to confide in her about Elouan. She warned me that I should “never use French men for anything but sex.” I told her that I’d never had a relationship last more than three months. “Me neither,” she said, resigned, as if airing a grievance about something irritating that she had no control over, like bad weather. I was so concerned with my own dating history that the congruence of our experience did not feel accidental, but rather a parallel of cosmic importance.
Eileen told me we were kindred spirits — fellow artists — and I came to love our afternoons together. Some days, she would take out bags of her old clothing for me to try on. “My body was just like yours when I was your age,” she told me. She drew us closer through these comparisons, making me feel both special and apprehensive. Like me, she had insomnia and a slew of unrealized artistic ambitions. But unlike me, she seemed to have long given up on the idea of finding love.
In Elouan’s apartment in Montreal, we would cook and eat elaborate meals: glazed pheasant and foie gras terrine. We would drink lots of wine. We would have sex, holed up in his bedroom, or in impractical places like bar bathrooms and alleyways, where I would bend over in uncomfortable positions, my butt exposed in the night air. The ridiculousness of public sex helped convince me that our passion warranted the embarrassing lengths I had gone to to be near him.
I did not speak French and Elouan’s English was rudimentary, leaving me to suspect that his thoughts in any language might be rudimentary, as well. I tried to talk to him about Eileen, but his only insight was, “wow, she is cray-zee.” Because he was French, I had assumed that Elouan was some kind of intellectual. But it soon became clear that he did not like to read. His goals were to make money and, from what I could understand, live in a luxury high-rise in Miami. This was not the life I dreamed of. Still, I believed I needed my relationship with him to succeed in order to break my cycle of three-month flings.
Sometimes I imagined that all this fucking and sleeping and consuming was love. But once I was on that endless train ride home, I felt unstable and ignored. When we were not together, Elouan only occasionally replied to my texts. He would disappear for whole weeks and I wouldn’t sleep, wondering where he was and who he was womanizing. One day, the relationship made me so anxious that I literally shit my pants. At work, Eileen began dropping hints that I should extricate myself. “I told you about those French men,” she said, “They are sexists disguised as harmless sensualists.”
Eileen believed that love wasn’t meant to happen in her current life. “In my past life, I was an adulterer, so this is karma,” she explained. When Elouan was withholding and did not answer texts, I wondered if I had been an adulterer, too. One afternoon, Eileen offered to read my palm. She told me that my love line was knotted. “It’s fucked,” she said, “just like mine.” She told me that I would never get married.
“I guess this explains why I’ve never had a relationship that lasted more than three months,” I said.
“That’s right,” she said. “But don’t look so depressed. You will have many things in life: Lovers, and travel, and art. So what, you won’t have a husband.”
Her reading confirmed what I had long suspected: that I would grow up to be a woman like Eileen. I was destined to end up a vaguely bohemian lunatic, alone and disheveled, touting far-left conspiracy theories at cashiers, baristas, wealthy neighbors — whoever would listen.
On my way home from Eileen’s apartment that night, high and dressed in her old clothes, I called Elouan. He did not pick up. I sat alone in the park, watching as a happy couple dragged a Dachshund in a canine sports jersey. I envied their comfort and security, which, according to my wretched, twisted palm, I would never know. Eventually, Elouan texted, “Hello. I am busy. Talk tomorrow.”
When days passed without hearing from him, I finally admitted to myself that the relationship was doomed (you know, because of my palm). I might as well break it off to save myself the agony of constantly waiting for his texts. What if I stopped worrying about falling behind? What if I cared a little less whether men found me sexy or pleasant or sane?
Standing on the sidewalk in Soho, I recorded a long, farewell voicemail. Women in white pants and preppy blazers passed by as I cried into my phone: “I love you but I have to say good-bye. I’ll miss you every day.” An hour later, Elouan texted to say he had listened to my voicemail. “For me, it’s a bit much,” he said. “You spend too much time with the crazy lady at work.”
Some names and identifying details have been changed.