Today it hit. I woke up with the usual thought—coffee. Despite the heat that caked my mouth like cracked paint, my craving kicked in immediately. I rolled out of bed and as I walked toward the kitchen it suddenly hit. My heart was broken.
The heartbreak had been triggered the week before but the realization, like a sluggish messenger inadvertently sidetracked, arrived late. The timing was completely off. I thought I had wrestled with anger and disbelief, waded through reasons, submerged myself in sadness, and cut through all the emotional entanglements finally to emerge with acute knowingness. I thought I’d grasped the greater truth. This was for the best. Only it hadn’t exactly hit—not until today, when the loss settled in my chest and sank like thick oil, smearing everything. My heart, that throbbing mass of muscle, so durable and yet delicate, was pure pulp. I’d been wrong. I hadn’t felt a thing up until now.
How did I get here? It was so unexpected. Unlike my smug, sexually-liberated friends—in their mid-30s, blessed with good looks and better judgment, edging towards the Mommy track while holding fiercely to independence and, yes, ultimately single— I was tired of the dating game. No thanks, I’d opted out. Then a buddy emailed me his friend’s phone number. “You two should meet,” he wrote, noting it was just a hunch. “I’ll leave the rest up to fate.” Although Fate had revealed herself to be a capricious hussy a handful of times before in my life, I decided to make the call.
I was immediately charmed by his voice, wrapped in a precise German accent, and tickled by his perceptions, which were also exceedingly exact. We met a few days later in Williamsburg, where we walked along the jagged river bank of the Hudson, past discarded bricks and mossy pipes to look at Manhattan jutting into the horizon. I was instantly infatuated. He told me about how he’d left Germany to pursue photography, his first night in Manhattan staring starry-eyed at the Chrysler building, and his constant cravings for cappuccino. This was definitely my kind of guy. We talked for hours, fueled by coffee, and then it started to rain so he dropped me off back home with his car, its digital speedometer measuring our excursion in kilometers rather than miles.
He gave me two European kisses, one on both cheeks, and, momentarily confused, I instinctively moved in for a third on his mouth. He kissed back with a crafty tongue that darted beautifully and then, minutes later, I got out. “Bye,” I said, clumsily.
The next day I went to work, a new twinkle in my eye. My students sensed it immediately. As an English as a Second Language teacher, I had long discovered that everything in the classroom hinged on my participation, so I readily put my life center stage, using my experiences to illustrate adjectives, clarify phrasal verbs and elicit vocabulary. The German was perfect classroom material, so I decided to introduce him.
“Alright class, let’s learn a new expression: ‘over the moon.’ Any idea what it means?” I asked, rather upbeat as I wrote the words on the white board. I was thinking, of course, of my Germanic kiss. My students, a group of adults from countries such as Korea, Japan, Brazil and France and who planted themselves in Manhattan for long stretches—usually to avoid returning to work or school—stared back silently. They’d probably been out drinking all night.
My Korean student Dong Seuk, pronounced “Dong Suck,” spoke up first. Dong Seuk had a penchant for gambling, smoking bad-quality New Jersey weed, and suffered from an ongoing lack of sleep. “Is that like mooning someone?” he asked sluggishly, eyes half open. “Wow, where’d you learn that?” I asked. “Don’t know. Some American movie. You see mooning in many American movie,” he said, smiling slowly. “Movies,” I corrected. “Yeah, movie,” he said, “and Americans have big asses. Bigger than Korean.”
Next I wrote on the board, “I was over the moon when he called.” “Oh I get it,” said So Yeung, pronounced “So Young,” but who the class had tagged “So Late” because she always arrived 15-20 minutes behind schedule. “It means you’re happy!” she said enthusiastically, her dimples showing. “Yep,” I said. “And I’m over the moon that you finally got it.” “So, why are you over the moon?” she continued, feeling confident, though she failed to notice I’d already marked her late. I told the class, excited to finally claim bragging rights. My two German students nodded their heads in approval.
The German didn’t call until days later, what felt like an eternity. We talked for hours, our mutual enthusiasm built, and I quickly entered his digits in my cell phone. More calls. I finally suggested getting together last minute, and he mentioned a number of places and plans: dinner with friends, maybe a bar, or there was a party later. We’d be surrounded by people all night, I interjected, would it be possible to carve out some one-on-one time? A long pause followed. “Is it German not to get innuendo?” I asked, adding awkwardly “I’m, uhh, trying to flirt with you.” He responded efficiently, inviting me to his apartment in Williamsburg.
When he answered the door, I blushed. We walked upstairs. We talked for hours. The walls were orange and we kissed. We hugged each other as we fell asleep. Over the next few weeks, we grabbed countless cappuccinos at his local Italian eatery. He showed me his photos, abstract, incredibly composed, beautiful and yet somewhat sterile as we sat in bed naked, pressed together. He taught me a handful of German phrases, and weeks went by, happy, pleasurable weeks. But then unexpectedly there was a subtle disconnect. He left town for a week, left no messages, then called to say a quick hello and that he’d be going away again. “Call me if you want,” he said. But he didn’t sound like he wanted it.
When he got back, clearly something had changed. After several awkward drinks, he steered me to a park bench just south of E. Houston. It was nearing midnight. “We need to talk,” were his leaded words. He was seeing another woman and didn’t feel like juggling the two of us anymore. “You choose, I lose, right—is that what you’re saying?” I said, shaking my head at the irony. A similar conversation, another time another face, had happened around the corner near Rosario’s pizza. What was it about getting dumped on the Lower East Side? I mused. Was it the constant stream of taxis, proximity to the Williamsburg Bridge (because I always chose Brooklyn boys), or my entrenched drinking habits that lured me here? I felt a strong, sickening sense of déjà vu.
Our conversation was as brief and economical as he’d always been. I sobbed romantic platitudes, pleaded and parroted self-help pap, with John Gray lurking in every sour thought. He said little. There was nothing to say that could be explained. It was just a decision, one of thousands a person makes in his life. He sprinted to catch a taxi making its way east towards the Hudson, but I remained stuck to the bench. An hour later, I dragged myself down to Canal Street to catch the subway home.
When I arrived at work the next day with worn eyes and an exhausted expression, I felt there was nowhere to hide. The classroom was a public stage, so I simply spit out the bad news. “The German ended everything last night,” I told them. “You got dumped?” responded Hoon Ki, a Korean advertising executive, his eyes widening immediately in sympathy. “Were you the dumper or the dumpee?” asked Shogo, a Japanese student with an appetite for fast cars, faster women, and all the crass American slang he could wrap his tongue around. “Hey, good vocabulary,” I said, momentarily impressed, wondering if I’d actually taught him something—with teaching, it was always so hit-and-miss.
“I was dumped. Auf wiedersehen. Bye-bye, to the German,” I told them while avoiding eye contact with my new German student, Michael, who was barely 19. Michael bore the rest of the lesson quietly, as if apologizing for his countryman’s sexual slip-ups. I felt an odd affinity with him. Later that day my Taiwanese student Chu Chen, touched by my sincerity, emailed me a note. “I am sorry,” she wrote. “I hope one day you find your sole mate.”
The week progressed slowly. I found myself running through my subconscious, tracking my mistakes like a bounty hunter. Mistake #1: There was the time the German left at 4 in the morning and I said nothing, afraid of rejection. Mistake #2: I called the German before he called me. Twice. “No chase,” as the Rules girls would say. Mistake #3: I suggested seeing a documentary at the Angelica which we walked out on ten minutes later. I had no taste. The list went on …
And then today—why today, I don’t know—it hit. And as it did, I cried until I began laughing hysterically. I missed the German. I missed his impatience, his intelligence, his strong visual aptitude and his caffeine addiction, which matched mine. I talked to him in my head, argued for our emotional connection and slowly, slowly realized that I had been conducting the relationship without him all along. I’d mistaken his curiosity for something much deeper that stirred within me.
I cried and cried again until I was raw, like sauerkraut in the market at Leinfelden-Echterdingen. This feeling was strangely beautiful. I was vulnerable, open, and painfully, yet exquisitely aware of every thing that crossed my path. I began to notice the city around me, how air conditioners would spit at my feet from three stories above, and those lethargic teens lingering on stoops, scanning the street for action. The city, city life, my life—it was all teaming with action and possibility. This is what it felt like to be alive again, raw.
I dragged myself out to a barbeque to distract myself. But beer, rather than bolstering my mood, pulled me deeper into melancholy. I decided to walk home, suffering through the heat that blew through the streets like an overzealous hairdryer. As I was looking at the sky, I heard my name and turned around. It was my former student Ariane, who was supposed to have returned to Germany, but had missed New York too much to stay away. She told me how much she had enjoyed my class. And she told me how she had returned to Germany to discover her boyfriend had been seeing someone else.
“Auch,” (also) I said, telling her about my German. Then I jokingly thrust my fist into my stomach, repeating “Ouch.” We laughed together. Heartbreak was definitely universal.