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In a way, it was true. Ethan and I now had the special bond of travel partners. We had learned what made the other person ugly, and we still liked each other. I was coming to appreciate what a deeply kind and present person he was, and I respected him more each day I spent with him. And yet, every day, I was also realizing something else: we were wrong for each other. It was neither of our faults, but there it was, every time we interviewed someone who was talking about true love.
One of those people was his mother, who has one of those rare stories. She married her first love — her high school sweetheart, and Ethan's father. As a product of divorce, I'd always believed there was no such thing as truly happy marriages — or people, for that matter. Ethan's parents, in all their Midwestern functionality, proved me wrong. I'd assumed that anyone who settled for their first love just didn't know any better, or was afraid to look outside of their original experience. Nope, it turns out some people just really love each other. Forever, even. We listened to his mother's story, and watched her eyes mist over.
"There's no way I would have ever imagined that I'd be sitting here, fifty-four-years old, feeling like I'm seventeen. All those fabulous pinch-me-I'm-not-sure-if-this-is-real feelings — they're all still very much alive. I wish everyone could experience this."
Even with all my cynicism, there was no way I could see her face and not believe her. This woman was clearly, deeply in love. And I imagined she wanted the same for her son. I felt exposed, and wondered if she could smell the fraud on me. Maybe being in true love gave off signals I wasn't privy to; something only the initiated could sense.
After the interview, Ethan and I were quiet. I think we might have been thinking the same thing: "I want what they have. It might not happen for most people, but I have to try and find it. And what we have? It's just not that story."
We were almost home to California when we decided it was time to eat the mushrooms we'd brought cross-country. We ate them in a canyon, ready to watch the faces come alive in the New Mexico mountains. But desert flies had other plans for us and swarmed our eyes and mouths. They chased us into our little tent, and instead of staring at the clouds, we were forced to trip looking only at each other.
Ethan's face swirled, his handsome features twisting into a Picasso mess. I felt my eyes swell and tears stream down my face. I cried and cried, and couldn't stop laughing. After a whole summer, I finally had my release. And man, was I feeling things.
"It feels so good to lie next to each other and not worry about sex!" I remember exclaiming. Maybe he didn't agree, but Ethan nodded.
A few campers walked by. Their voices sounded like busy munchkins from Oz. They buzzed on by for milliseconds that were also hours. And just then, it started raining in the desert.
"Yes, rain, we welcome you!" Ethan laughed as drizzles came through the tent, dripping into our thirsty mouths.
"Who are all these crazy people walking in the rain?" I asked as more munchkins waddled by.
"We're all crazy people walking in the rain!" Ethan pronounced. I had to agree. I looked over at my boyfriend’s rotating face. His chin was on his cheek, but there it was, still distinguished. Here was the person I loved, even as I was falling out of love him. In that moment I knew for sure. We would break up, and sooner than we'd hoped. He wasn't my first love, and I couldn't let him be my last. But right then, that didn't matter. I was just glad we were on this trip together.
"You're the best friend," I told his bulging forehead-eye.
"You're my best friend," he told my melting face. We held each other's gaze for milliseconds that were also hours.
And then we cracked up.
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