Barrel-chested and bull-necked, Will had cerulean blue eyes that offset the safe, sturdy gravity of his body and made me feel as though I were drowning. They were the kind of eyes described in novels as being washed out, like the sky. If I had grown up in the middle of the rainforest, and Will’s eyes had been the first blue eyes I ever saw, I would’ve thought he was either a god or on his death bed.
I was 20 years old and despite it being only our first date, Will was already my favorite person. We sat at a candlelit table in a restaurant in the basement of the Italian Workman’s Club in Madison, Wisconsin. Two bottles of wine in, I stared into his eyes and recalled a short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
“It’s about a man and woman who meet every night in a dream and recognize each other by repeating the phrase, ‘Eyes of a Blue Dog.’ But upon waking, the woman can’t remember what the man looks like. She writes their phrase throughout her town, but the man can’t remember anything from his dreams, and they walk by each other like two ships passing. I can’t imagine anything sadder.”
I don’t recall if Will responded. My eyes misted, and, drunk, we left. He took me to his small walkup apartment and we sat in his living room and talked about our dreams. I was still figuring mine out, which meant I had no real idea yet what I was doing with my life, but Will was in college and had already set course. Surrounded by books about Latin American politics and discussing his need to gain a higher level of fluency in Spanish, he grew animated when talking about a future that would take him far away from Wisconsin.
“I’m going to work in Central and South America.”
I waited for him to tell me more, but instead, he kissed me, and we soon fell into his bed. He was everything I wanted: adventurous, hilarious, and intense. In the dark, with only the light from a streetlamp shining across his broad chest, he stared at me through his wide, azure eyes.
When eventually I turned to sleep, I felt a gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach. I had grown up having daddy issues because of an absent, alcoholic, gambling father, struggled with my own drug addiction, and just generally had difficulty with men. In the back of my mind, I grappled with the idea that I was unworthy of love.
As Will curled up against me, I thought: Come morning, he’ll be like the man in the Garcia Marquez story – he will have forgotten all about me.
At the first signs of daybreak, I unwrapped myself from Will, quietly collected my things, and slipped out the door, vowing to cut off our communications to prevent the pain of him leaving me.
Yet I couldn’t quit Will. Not entirely.
Over the years, he moved to Indonesia, to England, to Colombia, to Minnesota. But he always came home, and occasionally, I’d run into him at some bar or another. We’d make small talk, have a drink or two, and inevitably end up in bed together. Each time, I felt that what we had would last forever. We spoke of getting a cabin in the middle of Oregon. He invited me to visit him wherever he was living. Yes, I said, yes to all of it. But then dawn would break, and I’d disappear like a forest creature into the crepuscular fog.
One day, I received a letter sent from Colombia. “You would love the rainforest,” Will wrote. “Pink dolphins swim alongside my boat in the river. They are like nothing I’ve ever seen. I miss you.”
I kept that letter in a drawer for years, pulling it out occasionally to stare at his words and examine every curve of his handwriting for hidden meaning. Pink dolphins…He missed me… What did it all mean?
The years moved along. I had a series of relationships, bore a child with an abusive man, and then, just like that, decided I had had enough and finally started to pull my life together. Will moved to New York, and I ended up there too, to finish a degree in art history. He helped me move into my apartment in Greenpoint, and that evening, after I had tucked my daughter into her new bed, we sat on my front stoop drinking beers in the rain. It was that night, while listening to Will laugh, that I realized how hopelessly in love I was with him. And as sure as I knew anything, I knew that he loved me, too. My heart cracked wide open as we kissed.
The next morning I woke in a panic. My old fear filled me. He’d leave me. He always did. I heard my dad’s voice in my head: “Good things never last.” And another voice rumbled even deeper: “Leave. Run. Don’t look back.”
Life became more complicated. Will and I lived in two parts of the city about an hour apart, but my university was only a few blocks away from his apartment. We should’ve created many New York memories together, but even when he had a bad injury to his Achilles heel that left him largely immobile, I visited him only once. My dad had recently had his first heart attack, and my daughter’s father was giving me grief. I felt depleted, shaken, and alone. Every night I’d sit surrounded by books on the couch in my apartment and just cry, rocking myself to sleep. Despite wanting to be there for Will, I felt incapable of opening myself to him even as I watched him hobble around on his crutches. Something was wrong with me for not being able to be a good friend – I knew that much – but my heart, like a stagnant pond, stood still.
I dated other men. Men who risked less, who stayed put more. I moved in with a boyfriend, a man who – although a little wild – wouldn’t rush off to nearly die of snakebite or dengue or whatever other horrors I imagined Will might encounter in the rainforest. Unlike Will, my boyfriend was a man who didn’t believe in anything fantastic.
“Do you know that there are such things as pink dolphins?” I asked.
“Sure,” he quipped, barely looking up from his computer. “And unicorns, too.”
Of course, when a person goes against what her heart desires, life has a way of teaching lessons the hard way.
Armed with a degree from an Ivy League in an area of study I didn’t ultimately want, and a job in finance I only took to pay back student loans, my grandmother grew very ill, my father had another heart attack, and my stable, safe boyfriend left me. In the midst of it all, I realized I wanted – more than anything – a life filled with adventures and purpose. I become a freelance writer and started to travel the world. I took my daughter out of public school and together we climbed mountains in Switzerland and Iceland, ran out of money in the Algarve, and went deep into the Peruvian Amazon to some of the same areas Will had visited.
Throughout the years, Will and I continued to satellite around each other, always in tidal lockdown despite the distance between us.
“You know how I feel about you,” he said. “You know how I’ve always felt.”
I nodded, my heart pounding. I was almost ready to make the leap. I just had a few things left to take care of. My dad had recently tried to commit suicide and one by one, my family members were starting to die. I had long believed that my family was cursed, and although I was beginning to escape from beneath the heavy yoke that I felt had fallen over me, I still had a ways to go.
Will and I made a drunken pact: if we weren’t already partnered off by the age of 35, we’d marry.
I bought a gift for him – a small volume of Pablo Neruda’s love poems – and wrote a note in the front flap. I wrapped it in sapphire-colored paper with a thin silver bow – and waited for the perfect opportunity to offer it.
In the meanwhile, I made some choices: I embraced feminism, cut my father out of my life, went to see a therapist, and started to write a memoir. Over night, I went from being a woman afraid of love, and turned into a woman whose every moment was filled with it. I became a better person – a kinder, gentler person. A giver, rather than a taker.
The next time Will came to visit, I was ready. We were 36, one year past the age we had drunkenly decided to marry. That night, I made the leap: “I’m in love with you. I want to be with you.”
Will squinted and looked at me through thin slits. “All those years,” he said bitterly. “And now you suddenly decide to profess your love? I don’t buy it.”
My heart sank. I told him I’d wait until he trusted me again. I decided to hold onto the Neruda book until the next time I saw him.
But over the course of the next six months or so, it looked as though I might not see Will again. For 20 years I had been waiting for him to leave me. And then, in his own way, he finally did. We made plans, and he broke them. I left phone messages for him, and he wouldn’t respond.
I mourned as though I were going through a divorce. I spent long nights recalling how his eyes had shone in the dark that first night we had been together and remembered the time we had sat on the stoop in the rain when the whole world had been before us.
I unwrapped the Neruda volume I had bought him, letting the blue paper fall to the floor. I opened the book and read: “Someday, somewhere – anywhere, unfailingly, you’ll find yourself, and that, and only that, can be the happiest or bitterest hour of your life.”
For 20 years I thought I could only be with Will if he were somehow able to replace my father’s love and be at my side forever. With him gone, however, I realized that the person I had always needed to give me love had always been with me: I was a fortress, and inside my gates, I contained an entire person. Despite missing Will when he was gone, I realized that I had never been alone. With that thought, my angst was replaced with a pervading sense of calm. I no longer felt it necessary to have Will or anyone else keep me secure within a romantic relationship, but instead, I gave myself to the idea that I could do anything – alone or with friends, with a lover or just the stars to guide me. I subscribed to the old mantra: Wherever you go, there you are. I didn’t need to be completed – I was already complete.
In front of me, the world opened like a flower. Recently, while on a boat heading upriver through the Peruvian rainforest, I swore that I caught a glimpse of a slippery pink dolphin diving next to the boat in an area not known for harboring dolphins.
Last month, I saw Will again. Without concern for a future with him, I stood beneath a blazing sun and waved my weathered sign: Eyes of a Blue Dog. Maybe – just maybe – he was able to see it for what it was – an olive branch. A promise that just as he had been a devoted friend for twenty years, I would now also prove steadfast, no matter where we each stood on the planet.
Melissa Banigan is the Founder and Managing Editor of The Advice Project (“Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self”), a media, writing, and travel program that empowers teens and women in New York (USA), Bamenda (Cameroon), Gosier (Guadeloupe), and Tambopata (Peru). Melissa is also a freelance writer, editor and marketer who works for clients such as Scholastic Inc. and NYU-Polytechnic. She has written for numerous travel sites and also for STIR Journal, is currently writing a memoir called ‘Stranger Than Fiction’, and is also editing a collection of letters written by 50 women from around the world called ‘Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self’. Learn more about Melissa: www.melissabanigan.org