Best By: Study Abroad

July 15, 2017 Massachusetts, USA

When her relationship has an expiration date, the author struggles to see the point of the fleeting connection.

illustration by George Liu


“Ah, I don’t wanna get up,” He groaned, glancing forlornly at his empty bag of chips and then the distant trash can.

I gave him an unsympathetic look. “I mean, I know you won’t make the effort to actually walk over there, and seeing as you’re the same height sitting and standing, getting up won’t help you make the shot.”

Playful teasing and sarcastic retorts were the catalyst of our relationship. A favorite topic of banter was our height. Depending on who you asked, one of us was marginally taller—though neither of us would ever agree it was the other. After all, it was much more fun to continue concocting gross exaggerations than to admit defeat.

As he crumpled the bag for yet another notoriously inaccurate trash can shot, I slung another insult for good measure. “Besides, you’re gonna miss regardless of how close you are, so you might as well stay put.”

As usual, he missed.

Our similarities included poor hand-eye coordination, modest height, and a penchant for sarcasm. They ended there. He was Afghan-American and Muslim. I was Chinese-American and Christian. He was a carefree spirit; I was anxiety-ridden type A.

Consequently, I never understood his strange trash can ritual. He would save so much time and trouble by disposing of things properly—by simply walking to the bin the first time. Our relationship was equally incomprehensible. We knew we were incompatible long-term, yet we continued seeing each other.

We had an expiration date, however. It was five months ahead, the final day of spring semester—my last day on-campus before my junior year abroad. We probably wouldn’t cross paths again. He was a year older, and would graduate a month before my return. Our roots spanned far from our rural New England liberal arts college. His home was in Florida, where he planned to return for medical school. I was from Ohio, and my graduate school whims were unlikely to lead me to the South.

It mattered little that December morning—the day we decided to be together, and equally the day we decided to break up. We huddled for warmth atop our science center balcony, waiting for sunrise. The fiery aura behind the inky mountain range silhouette slowly gave way to dancing golden rays. We grinned stupidly at each other, lost in the euphoria of fluttery feelings and sleeplessness. It was our sunrise, and we tried to forget that sunset would eventually come.

But I couldn’t forget. Though I tried, and it worked for a while—but then time crept up on us. The blissful novelty soon faded away and our intense academic lives invaded. He busied himself with lab work and procrastinating. I turned to math problem sets and marathon training. Friends began remarking tentatively that they missed seeing us together. I would smile sadly and change the subject. I wanted to spend more time with him, but he didn’t seem to share the sentiment. I became resentful—yet I never attempted to remedy our fissures. Why bother? After all, we were doomed to part ways. I was convinced that the less ideal our relationship was, the easier saying goodbye would be.

The brief moments we caught together were often at night. In my lamp-lit room, we’d snuggle and toss insults. I often wondered aloud whether our relationship was real; I never expected romance to happen to me. He’d smile slyly in response: I never thought you’d get a boyfriend either.

On rare occasions, we’d even chat civilly. We discussed next year, our career aspirations, our ideal partner. Our parents would want us to marry within our cultures, we knew. I personally never saw myself married. He just wanted to end up with someone “nice.”

I laughed. “I hope you find someone nice,” I murmured in his ear, brushing my nose against his cheek.

He squeezed my hand. “I know you will.”

As we kissed, I tried to ignore the irony of our conversation.

We saw each other less and less as the semester wore on. I became even tenser after being accepted into my top-choice study abroad programs—I would spend the fall in Bordeaux, France and the spring in Oxford, England. It was a blessing, but my departure became all-the-more imminent. Our remaining days together fell away until only one was left.

We spoke little that morning in the airport. A slow country tune about love and loss drawled through the waiting area, speaking for us instead. I rested my head on his shoulder, sedated by lack of sleep and an unprecedented maelstrom of tears.

I broke our silence. “Maybe we’ll see each other again,” I offered, clinging to my naïve hope, “Oxford has a six-week break that coincides with your spring break. Maybe I’ll be able to come back.”

We both knew that wouldn’t happen.

Yet I still hoped, just as he hoped his trash can shots would be successful. I hoped long after he disappeared down the jetway—our implicit, predetermined breakup. I intently tracked spring break flight costs, heart soaring each time my app notified me that prices had fallen. I hoped that we’d stay in touch, that we’d remain close friends—our relationship would seem wasted if we only became strangers again. But my occasional messages were often met with halfhearted replies, or worse, silence.

I assumed that a planned breakup would be painless. I assumed that feigning detachment during our time together would help. I was wrong. Instead of waving a carefree goodbye, I found myself doused in regret of what could have been.

Regret is highly flammable, keen to flare up at the tiniest of sparks. I cried often that summer—at emotional YouTube videos, at misinterpreted messages from friends, at particularly brusque strangers in retail stores.

By the end of the summer, I was still hurting. So I did what normal people do—I whipped up a melodramatic 500-word, five-paragraph essay on Facebook messenger (oops). I convinced him to reflect on our relationship over skype. We had a nice chat. Then I stopped reaching out.

I left for France determined to turn the page—tourner la page, as they say. But I couldn’t seem to leave him behind. I met strangers in bars with his name, and my newfound friends asked about my love life.

Even my government-administered French oral exam had no mercy.

Pensez-vous qu’il vaut mieux être célibataire ?  Do you think it’s better to be single?

In the middle of my timed and recorded exam, I burst out laughing. For the next five minutes, I bumbled on about the pros and cons. Il y a toujours des avantages et des inconvénients…Singles have their freedom, but who doesn’t love romance? Oh, but romance is complicated. I knew well, as did some of my fellow study abroad students—one had even suffered a breakup with her two-year boyfriend shortly after our arrival. Her story aptly illustrated my oh-so-original ideas. I felt uncomfortable sharing my personal life in an official exam setting, so I kept my story to myself.

But it wasn’t the only time I’d been reticent—I never told my parents about my relationship. In traditional Chinese culture, dating is serious: you only date people you’d strongly consider marrying. I was just waltzing briefly with romance. So rather than cause my family worry and strife, I said nothing.

Though I had to admit: my parents’ philosophy was logical, practical, and would probably save me time and trouble. Even at the time, I openly questioned my directionless relationship. It was exhilarating, but what was the point?

I wrestled with these involuntarily-unearthed thoughts as I left my exam. Then I mentally berated myself. I had forgotten the French expression for “to be in a relationship,” opting instead for the awkward and roundabout “not single.” That would cost me some points. But it was a striking detail—être en couple was no longer part of my vocabulary.

He was also no longer part of my life. It was December then, a year after our sunrise, seven months after our goodbye, and four months since we had last spoken. I had long since deleted my spring break flight tracker; my fiery hope had long since faded to night. Come January, I didn’t even wish him happy birthday on Facebook. It felt both wrong and right—wrong because I post a brief wish on most of my friends’ timelines, except the ones I feel like I no longer know. It felt right for that very reason—we were like strangers now.

I turned the page. Then I ripped it out, crumpled it, and walked it right over to the trash can.

But I couldn’t throw it away (paper, after all, is recyclable).

While desultory and fleeting, our relationship was not a waste. It’s true; I could’ve saved myself so much anguish had we never dated. But I also would’ve lost those precious moments of resonance—that winter sunrise, the late-night soul-baring, the spirited banter. It was then that I understood his trash can ritual: he always said it was more fun to take the chance. I could agree. Our romance was far from logical or practical, but it sure made life more interesting.

Besides, what does “logical” or “practical” mean in love? Is it a love that’s compatible, one that’s likely to last? In college, our lives move so rapidly and indefinitely. We live on the cusp of guaranteed change and probable physical displacement. Can any relationship really be logical and practical? What’s more, if true love is a mutual action—not just attraction—how can we predict what will last and what won’t?

There are few things we can predict in life. I never expected my aimless romance to bring me so much grief, yet so much perspective. I faced even more expiration dates during my year abroad. As soon as I grew comfortable in one country, as soon as I truly connected with a kindred soul, time would uproot me. But the transience of my experiences has now become my motivation, not my deterrent. I would rather love recklessly and suffer than remain safely aloof. I would rather live audaciously and face disapproval than languish in the confines of logical and practical.

So when my friends mope about their improbable love, when classmates embark on “impractical” endeavors, and when others attempt the infamous trash can shot, I won’t judge like I once did. I’ll simply chuckle wryly, become a bit nostalgic, and lend an empathetic ear.

Then I’ll glance at the crumpled piece of paper in my hand, smooth it out, and tuck it away in my notebook as I keep writing on a fresh page.

Written March 2017-July 2017
Special thanks to my editors: Alex, Faseeh, Jason, Md, Yihao

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Lily Fang is a co-founder and co-curator of Thank You for the Tragedy. The idea for the site occurred to her while biking in Oxford one day. Inspired by a failed essay contest and recent romantic tragedy (incidentally, not this one), she aspired to create a space for everyday writers to find closure in prose when life couldn’t offer any.

You can read more about Lily in the site about page. She is also extremely flattered when people creep on her blog and Instagram.

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