Download the app now: Google Playstore

When Do You Call Time On A Not-Quite-Relationship?

Love Stories is a series about love in all its forms, with new essays appearing until Valentine’s Day.

It was one of the last winter days in New York City in 2013, and I was at my sister’s Crown Heights apartment showing her how Tinder worked. Like me in my early twenties, Tinder hadn’t yet decided who it was. There were rumours its sole purpose was for flimsy hookups, but stories of serious relationships circulated too. I was curious, but suspicious, with no intention of actually meeting anyone.

“No. No. No. No,” my sister and I would chant in unison as we swiped left. Then, he popped up. She yelled, “Yes!” as my finger moved left. But before I could finish the swipe, she plucked the phone from my hands and swiped right on a black-and-white headshot of an admittedly gorgeous face with Jacques, 27, below the photo. “Sorry!” she said with no contrition, handing my phone back.

So much lived latent in that unassuming swipe: Kisses in the street, how I’d usher in my 22nd year (with him and two baby-size burritos), nights spent crying until I fell asleep because he was gone. It would ricochet into a reunion in Los Angeles years later, and Paris, and New York years after that. It would teach me that I was lovable even when vulnerable, that showing up unguarded instead of chameleon-like was paramount, and that something that felt like rejection could hold a powerful lesson of its own.

We met for the first time on a decrepit, half-piss-soaked bench in Madison Square Park on one of the first spring days in 2013. As I walked the ten city blocks from my apartment, I was unprecedentedly nervous. I like to think it was my intuition buzzing with knowledge of what lay ahead, but maybe it was the fear of being catfished or kidnapped. But then I spotted the man in the photos sitting across the street in a leather jacket and turtleneck where Broadway and Fifth Avenue met, waiting for me.

“Hi. Are you Jacques?” I managed to croak as I walked up to him.

“You must be Rachel,” he said, with a New York accent, not the French one I expected. His dad was from Ohio. He had grown up in Alsace, France, but moved to New York when he was 17 to pursue a career in photography and acting. I never asked how much of his accent came from his American father or his dedication to method acting. Our eyes locked for a moment – green eyes, eyelashes thick and long like the teeth of a Venus flytrap – and his calm demeanour and easy laugh both comforted me and made me anxious. We walked to Eataly, where I ordered lemon sorbet in a cone. At one point he reached for the dripping, uneaten cone in my shivering hand, “I think you’re done with this,” he said with a smile.

I walked back to my apartment where I was met by eager roommates waiting to hear my report: I felt certain we’d see each other again.

In January 2014 in New York, our first nine months together came to an end when he moved back to Paris. It had always been his plan, but as the departure day grew closer I couldn’t help but engage in what I knew was a twisted kind of calculus: If he liked me more, would he stay? I held on to the hope he would change his mind, despite knowing he wouldn’t. He was steadfast.

He left a note on the counter, waiting for me when I got home.

Rachel, merci pour ce sejour inoubliable.

I had no idea what it meant, but I could feel tears welling up anyways.

Thank you for an unforgettable trip.

He continued in English: Thank you for the beautiful moments. So many of them. Thank you for being you. The world needs more people like you. Regardless of the circumstances of moving back to Paris just when I met you, I am so happy I met you. Like you, I don’t like saying goodbye so… See you next time.

I sunk to the floor, tears landing on the page, the blue ink spreading.

There were so many more goodbyes in the years that followed. At the Gare de l’Est in 2018, after we spent a day holding hands and locking eyes and kissing again for the first time in years. Over the Seine in 2016, where I wished him safe travels to Marseille to see his girlfriend, all the while wondering why he had agreed to see me. In my Los Angeles hotel room in 2015, after a romantic weekend-long reunion when he hurriedly left the room to catch his flight to Paris, a piece of unbuttered toast in his hand.

Over the years, the meaning of our non-relationship shifted. After he left New York, our abrupt ending made me feel like I was living out the tail end of a phantom storyline I couldn’t shake. Brief communications – a Whatsapp text, an Instagram message, a rare call, the even rarer in-person reunion – kept my feelings intact and the story in limbo.

We never planned our in-person reunions ahead of time. He would see from social media that I was in Europe for fashion week or a trip with my family and ask if Paris was in my plans.

Then I’d meet someone and my feelings for him would loosen for a bit, never fully disappearing. He’d comment, “I’m happy for you,” on a photo of me and my new boyfriend, and it would seem like he meant it. He’d meet someone. Photos of her would fill his Instagram grid, and I wouldn’t say anything at all. We respected each other’s relationships. We’d age with just an occasional “Happy birthday!” message, or congratulations on big life moments, like when he booked a big role in a film. I’d still let him know if I was in Paris. He’d still let me know if he was in New York.

For a while, I would compare other men to him – faulting them if they lacked his easy intimacy or ready laugh. But by my late twenties, I came to realise that the qualities I admired in him were not the only ones deserving of esteem. I learned to stop looking for him in others.

My intuition when we first said goodbye years ago wasn’t wrong. Much more would transpire between us. I just didn’t know then what the lessons of those events would be: That things will unfold just as they are supposed to, and that time can change your perspective of which outcome is the right one.

The last time I saw him was just over two years ago. He was sitting on a plasticky, thatched bistro chair outside of my budget-friendly Parisian hotel in Pigalle with his back to me when I crossed the threshold. A nubby turtleneck sweater poked out from the same leather jacket he had been wearing the first time I met him.

I stopped to take a breath before I went to him.

For years, I mourned the absence of tidy relational titles like, “my boyfriend” or “my girlfriend”. I longed to meet his younger brothers who lived in Alsace and Madrid. I wanted my mom to force him into those wretched matching Christmas pyjamas that my family wore back in Chicago. But none of that happened.

Seeing him sitting there made me appreciate everything we weren’t. This is exactly how we were meant to be. I strode up to him. 

“Hi, are you Jacques?” I said with confidence, resting my hand on his shoulder. 

He turned at my touch and laughed as he stood up, green eyes bright. We hugged long and hard.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *