Question and No Answer

June 18, 2017 Brunei

When a three-year relationship falls apart for no apparent reason, the author wonders what “enough” means in love.

illustration by George Liu
When one is sad, one does unexpected things. When I was sad, I wrote a poem.
“Two people in love,” I said to a room of people on a Wednesday night, “is never enough.”
It was a spoken word event. A collective giggle had bred when I announced my reading of a love poem, but it now died and my words floated drily in the air. Before a crowd too clever for cliché metaphors and imagery, there I was: a melodramatic millennial mending her broken heart with words crammed into bad poetry, a product of wasted nights and swollen dawns. Such was the woe of my prosaic heart that I had to resolve to feared and uncharted territory.
It had been three weeks, and of those three weeks, I had spent three-quarters of them sleeping. I couldn’t think while unconscious, I had believed earnestly, but my dreams could not outrun my thoughts. In the end, I was just as devastated asleep as I was awake. The question in my head was one of confusion and desperation. I had trekked through all of my memories to answer it, but could never seem to find one that made sense: Was our love not enough?
“This is what I learnt when I loved a boy with broad shoulders, dimpled chin and bright eyes who couldn’t contain the fire in his heart that was a raging volcano,” I continued. The inferno in question was a boy I’d met four years ago, loved for three and left two weeks before. I was shattered.
We were utter opposites brought together by the sly call of fate: unanticipated, surreptitious and all.  In time, we had begun baring our souls and vessels, emptying every last drop of ourselves so that we could contain the other. We loved with a love that could bring stars to their knees, a great collision of dusty and fiery dispositions. How is it that something like that can come to an end and yet, the world still spins on its axis?
“But I was the ocean that broke all dams and he was the floodgate that held me in,” I read.
We began with a gasp.
I was a girl crushing on a boy she'd met in debate club. Sporting black-rimmed glasses and a red cap, he was the embodiment of ballsy charm, and I'd left that first club meeting feeling annoyed by him. He was loud, overzealous, and horrifically popular – everything I crossed out when discussing boyfriend criteria with girlfriends during tween sleepovers. And yet, for all of its unsympathetic irony, it was because of his unapologetic charm that I looked back. Gasp. Friends, guys and girls alike, would tell me years later that they'd had crushes on him for the very same reason.
As for him, he asked me out to senior prom nearly a year after that first encounter. I’d spent months sneaking glances at him, lost in confused awe, so I was aghast and answered with only a "whoa."
"Is that a ‘whoa yes’ or a ‘whoa no’?" he chided.
That would become a frequent line I engraved in my letters to him for the next two years. I said “whoa yes.” What followed soon after were slow dancing, confessions and McDonald’s dates. It was a whirlwind, the way we revealed ourselves to the other. We had frequent late night calls and evenings spent just being in silence. Soon, I opened up to him like I’d never done with anybody, told him about myself, let him in on my thoughts, shared with him my fear of criticism and judgment. In return, he lowered his suave façade and let me see the vulnerability he refused the world.
I learnt that he grew up all over the world and I told him I’d never been outside of the country. So, when I woke up crying from nightmares, I’d call and he’d make me see the snow he’d experienced living on the outskirts of New Jersey as a child, he’d make me hear the crashes of oceans from the beaches he’d lived beside in Hong Kong, he’d make me laugh about the cat he was allergic to that his family had adopted on the hillsides of Laos. He’d tell me, “Let’s go together one day. I’ll take you wherever you want to go.” There was always tranquility when I could hear his voice over static and time. Being able to call him about anything, at any time, was more than reassuring.
Once, on the brink of desperation, my body hungry from the last meal I had three days ago, my eyes swollen from sleepless nights and my skin torn red from a morning of self-loathing, I put down my envelope of notes written for the people I loved the most, put down the rope, put down the plastic bag and picked up the phone to call him. He wasted no time and was at my front door before I knew it. It was two in the morning.
He took me to the beach the next day. Sitting on the rocks, his hand in mine, we talked about life, the present and the future, while watching the sunset. It was a love I’d never known, that someone could be there for you again and again in spite of everything that you are, and he gave it to me in his quiet, assured way. I’d often ponder months later how differently we loved; he loved through spontaneous dates and midnight cruises, and I loved through scribbled letters and mix CDs. It didn’t matter, though, because we loved and loved and loved – and yet, we somehow found ourselves scrambling to keep ourselves from fraying. What was devastating was that there wasn’t a simple explanation. There was no falling out of love, no hatred, no frustration. We wanted to stay together, wanted to march through thorns and hurricanes arm in arm, wanted to chase galaxies together, but we just couldn’t. Over the months, he’d let his splintered past consume him and, like all things that made a home in the heart, he clung on. He started spinning little lies to go back in time – to try to fix what he’d broken.
“I want to help,” I told him once after he’d been gone for a few days and I’d spent sleepless nights wondering whether he’d come back.
“I know,” he said, but he never let me go with him.

While he was busy chasing shadows, I spiraled into despair. I began to deny myself happiness the way I denied myself food, reasoning that a person who couldn’t bring joy to someone else deserves none herself. Soon, we found ourselves sad in each other’s arms.
The day we ended was quiet. The shouts and cries in our systems had been emptied and what remained were the hollowness of rib cages, echoes of heartbeats and dying butterflies. He arrived at my front door in a T-shirt I'd seen him wear a million times and in his hand was a box of notes I'd given him. We had agreed to read them together just as we agreed to say goodbye, so I let him in. As he stepped in, he reached for my hand.
We often joked about how snugly our hands fit together. “Your hand fits in mine like it was made for me,” he jokingly sung once when we walked along a sunset beach, but it was true. Calloused fingertips against calloused fingertips, our palms lined up into a single prayer that was quiet and painful, and right where our skin touched was, I knew, the best answer He’d ever given me. These hands, I thought, when they go out through that door, will never be mine to hold again.
I didn’t let go when I took him upstairs. We sat on the bed, and, one by one, he pulled out each note and read it. I recognized them, the words that had been scrawled on colored paper under fluorescent lights over nights of careful planning; they had been meant for the days his heart felt bruised. It seemed that today was the day it withered, and all I could do was watch him water it softly with the tears that had formed in his eyes.
“And there we were, water and a flame, ocean and a fire untamed, sitting in the stillness of our crashing waves, two people madly in love, but that wasn't enough,” the last lines read.
The audience applauded as I took my seat in the corner of the room, though I hardly heard them because my heart was pounding so loudly; I’d never written a poem about someone and read it out to a room of people before. I’d always thought that if I ever did either, he’d be in the room listening. This was not the case.

Just because he was physically gone, however, did not mean he was erased from my life. After all, infernos leave trails of scorch and char. In the following weeks, I still saw him in all the things I did, whether it was in the yellow cars of a game of tag we used to play on the way to university, or in the songs we slow danced to in our pajamas on weekends, or in the children who bugged me to braid their hair like he did me when he was stressed or bored. I also recognized him in the words I spoke when I made new acquaintances with a smile and careful trust, or when I talked about my literary aspirations to an unseen audience I’d decided was not so scary after all, or when I listened to a friend's nightmares over dinner. He inspired my life in ways I cannot possibly count.
I questioned, of course. Questioned how our love ended up this way, how we ended up merely coexisting when we had been intertwined just months before. This plagued me for months despite all my efforts. My despair from this questioning was interrupted half a year later when he contacted me to see how I was doing. We discussed the question, but couldn’t answer it, though we agreed on one thing; when asked whether he regretted what we had, he said, “I’d go back and do it again a million times over.”

So would I. I never thought I’d be able to find closure in my unanswered question, but there it was.   

Perhaps there is no such thing as the word "enough" when it comes to loving someone. Perhaps there exists only what is and what isn't, and our love was something that crossed the defining line. Or perhaps it does exist, and “enough” simply means to love fiercely without regret. To love and be loved in return.

So perhaps our love was enough, after all.


May Cho likes to think that she lives in fictionalized reality. She is a hopeless romantic and believes she has an eternal love affair with words. Most days, she can be found with a coffee stain on her shirt, a secondhand book in her bag and a journal in her arms, writing long run-on sentences. She is a Computer Science major in the real world.

Find more of May's writings on her blog and Instagram.

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