“Tell me what’s wrong, Sweetheart,” Hans said to me, as he pulled me toward the couch. “I know something’s wrong. What’s going on?”
I hadn’t even been home for twenty-four hours. I hadn’t even unpacked my suitcase. I hadn’t unfolded my clothes and shaken the Montana dirt from my shoes. I had been gone for two weeks, traversing the West with my two best friends. And after spending so much time in their constant company—after hours of laughing until we cried, after stark truths uttered over a shared beer—here I was. Back in Indianapolis. Back to reality.
I saw the concern on Hans’s face; he could read my anxiety. He had noticed my shakes and shivers upon my return. He knew me, knew me well. And after four and a half years, I wasn’t surprised that he had tugged on my arm and forced me to take a seat.
“What’s wrong?” he pressed. “Talk to me.”
And there on the couch, only a few moments after everyone had gone, I began to cry. A year’s worth of frustration and confusion streamed down my face, fell from my chin to my chest, to the floor. “I can’t do this anymore,” I sobbed.
* * * * * * * * * *
We had been floundering for a year. More than a year, really. The cluelessness had begun last summer, before we were supposed to get married. We were both unemployed—an unwise decision on our part—and were soon to be without a place to live. Our wedding date—September 8—was approaching quickly, and we had neither a place to go nor an income to collect. I applied for job after job, typing resumes and emailing them off. Ten applications. Twenty. Thirty. Dozens of positions and possible opportunities. I was distraught and frustrated; I felt that my efforts were not paralleled. Hans spent time on the computer as well, but while I eventually snagged four interviews and three job offers, he spent his time with games and with reddit, leaving me to find security.
“I’ll go wherever you go,” he told me blankly, in an uninterested voice. “Just find something and I’ll go.”
Exasperated, I would spew things like, “I can’t do this alone!” or “I need your help, too! I can’t be the only one looking for a job.”
We argued. We argued over jobs. Over apartments. Over moving. Over staying. Over nothing.
I was exhausted, as was Hans. We were emotionally taxed, and the patience we had once had for each other disintegrated. We didn’t know what to do or who to turn to, when it came to our cold feet.
The day I realized I could not and should not marry was the day I tried on my wedding dress. I had already had it altered; it was fitted and ready to go. Sweeping, with a bustle. The black lace at my chest, on the sleeves. It was mine, it was different. But I … oh, I was heartbroken. I slipped it out of its protective sleeve, stepped out of my clothes and zipped it on. I paraded from the bedroom and into the living room, looking at the strategically-stacked boxes. The boxes of decorations and leftover invitations, of Ball Jars and dried flowers. And I started heaving. Heaving giant, great, dry sobs.
“Oh, God!” I cried out, sinking to the floor.
And there I was, last August, alone in the apartment, on the floor, in my wedding dress, sobbing. Screaming and sobbing and choking on my own tears oh God oh God oh God I can’t do this I can’t do this this isn’t right I can’t do what my mother did I can’t get married because it’s all paid for I can’t I can’t I can’t please please I want to go home I just want to go home I can’t
I wasn’t ready.
Hans wasn’t ready.
We weren’t ready, as much as we thought we were.
The pain, embarrassment, and relieving failure that comes with canceling a wedding eventually dissipated. It took time, though. Lots of time. There were always individuals who asked us when we would set another date. When we thought we’d try again. What we would do different. If we’d change things. If we’d change our minds.
Eventually, the questions stopped, too.
It seemed as though everyone had given up. That even we had given up.
And, in truth, parts of us had.
* * * * * * * * * *
Back on the couch, a year to the day after I had returned from last year’s August road trip, I cried again. Hans cried too. We both sobbed. We hugged each other and shared, honestly, our heartbreak. I’m not entirely sure what was said; I don’t remember. But we were gentle, and sweet, despite our wet cheeks and aching hearts.
“I’m so sorry I wasted your time,” I eked out. “I’m so sorry.”
“You didn’t waste my time, Sweetheart,” Hans said. “It was worth it. It was worth every minute. I still love you.”
“I love you, too.”
He took my hand and held it between his, in his lap. “You will always have a special place in my heart, Dawn. Always.”
And all I could say, over and over and over and over, was, “I’m sorry.”
And all he could say, over and over and over and over, was, “Dawn, it will be okay.”
* * * * * * * * * *
The three of us—Zoë, Ty, and I—had kept a journal on this year’s trip, mostly because I had wanted memories. Perspective. Stories. I wanted each of us to contribute to the leather-bound, handmade journal, and it was with eagerness that I would scribble my thoughts down, and then toss it to a friend with the simple instruction, “Write.” It was in this journal, this notebook for the West, that I shared my conflicts.
My insecurities and questions were evident from the beginning. In my first journal entry—which was jotted down on the first night, when we camped at my mother’s house—I wrote:
I’m not sure if this is a cluelessness I’ll maintain for the entire trip, but—let’s be honest—I’m not sure what I’m looking for. For a new piece of myself? For a sense of peace? Purpose? Hans, maybe? An answer concerning our relationship? A place to belong? The satisfaction and security of knowing that I’m fine where I am, that I don’t have to keep looking and looking and looking? That maybe wanderlust isn’t so bad. That it’s temporary and fleeting, not a disease. God, I wish I had answers. And maybe that’s what I want most—what I selfishly want aren’t pretty pictures or souvenirs or new inside jokes. I want to feel like ME again—me—sans the mental insanity.
The trip slugged on; the car took us to Wyoming, to Montana, to Idaho, to Washington, to Canada. I thought. I wrote. I talked on the phone to Hans, to my mother. I texted. I wrote. I thought. I wrote more. And as I wrote, and as I sung along to Dawes and The Head and The Heart and Of Monsters and Men and the Lumineers and Tom Petty and Tom Jones, even, I knew. I knew that it wasn’t worth it, that neither Hans nor I should be slaves to relationship that wasn’t going to work. That wasn’t going to prosper. That was … stagnant.
And then Glacier National Park happened.
Toward the top of the mountains, amid tourists and purple flowers and green valleys and encompassing sunshine, Ty said, “We joke about ‘all the colors,’ but this is no place to joke about.” You nod in agreement, looking at rocks, hills, trees, squirrels, people, companions, clouds, cars, twisting roads and you’re overwhelmed and mystified. … Glacier was this year’s Gettysburg; humbling, quiet, overwhelming. It leaves you feeling insignificant; or, rather, you remember the vapid problems of everyday life and realize they are insignificant. It was then that I knew what I wanted. And that I’m wasting my time pretending. And I think, for once, I loved myself and could tell myself, “DO. SOMETHING.” Because I don’t think I love Hans the way he needs. And I’ve known, for more than a year, that he is unable to be what I wish he were. We’re functional, but not joyful. We’re friends, but not companions. And that realization is simultaneously heartbreaking and relieving.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Letting go was hard. It’s still hard, and sometimes you need the words of others to explain how you’re feeling. For me, it’s an article that was published in Marie Claire in 2000.
“Women want things to go on. All things. Even, or perhaps particularly, sad things. We want our lovers to love us forever. Not necessarily to be with us forever, but to carry us someplace in their hearts, someplace prominent. Women want to matter. And as such, we do not like endings. We prefer the untidy swell and ebb of emotion to the change-of-address card. We know that feelings are complicated, fluid, uncontrollable … Women need a reason to leave. "Because I want to," is never enough. We need witnesses and encouragement and approval and an alternate vision of our future, which explains why, statistically, most women decide to leave their marriages seven years before they actually do, and why, when they finally go, it is often into the arms of another man. Messy, but real.”
… and that was me. “This doesn’t feel right. This doesn’t feel like unconditional love,” wasn’t reason enough for me. I needed support. I needed time. Time for myself, mostly. And that’s what Glacier gifted me. It gave me an urgent peace, one that would come after I made my decision. DO. SOMETHING.
* * * * * * * * * *
The morning after our break up, Hans came into the bedroom to say goodbye. He was off to work and I, still free from the office, would sleep another hour or two. He settled himself on my side of the bed and stroked my hair. I woke, gently, blinking the yellowed light from my eyes. I sleepily reached for his waist and held on.
“I’m proud of you,” he whispered to me. “I’m proud of you for making a decision.” He kissed my forehead, softly, quietly. And then he was gone.
For four and a half years, I was his girlfriend. His fiancée. And then, suddenly, I wasn’t.
Simply put, we weren’t meant to be together. This is something that both of us know, and both of us accept. We were made to be friends, not lovers. There was something he needed—whatever that something was—that I couldn’t give him. And there was something I needed—something I can’t put words to—that he could not provide. We both felt a bit unsatisfied, a bit forgotten. And combined with our mutual stubbornness and unbending inability to compromise … we … we just … we just weren’t. There is no “bad guy.” There is no cheater among us, no liar, no hider, no secret-keeper, no deadbeat, no bitter one. No, we are none of those things. We just knew that we couldn’t make each other happy. And when the person who knows you best decides that he can’t make you happy, you believe it. He’s done the time. He’s seen you naked.
* * * * * * * * * *
I will always love Hans. Always. He was my friend first, my fiancé second. He loved me selflessly, and he is a good soul. I wish for him nothing but happiness and success. I wish for him a family, an intelligent, easy-to-please wife who’s up for adventuring. I wish for him all the things I could not give him.
Hans, too, has similar feelings. He told me, soon after moving out, that he was so very glad to have met me. “I am a better person for knowing you,” he said, “and have had a chance to raise my self-esteem and confidence … I truly wish you the best. I want you to be happy, and I wasn’t able to make you happy anymore. I love you, my First Fiancée. You will always have a special place in my heart.”
And you, dearest Hans, will always have a place in my heart. You have changed me for good, my wonderful, patient friend. You made me a better person, and I love you for that. Thank you for taking a chance with me, for loving me—flawed as I am—and for doing so many selfless acts. There are so many memories, my dear Hans. Memories that include 14 miles of canoeing, 2,000 miles of road tripping, sunset-watching, picnicking, Boilermaker Special-riding, and miles and miles of driving to Iowa, to Hannibal, to anywhere. Thank you for loving me.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.