Last year, two days before my 29th birthday, I slipped on ice at the restaurant where I worked and sprained my ankle. Told to stay home and recover, I quickly grew bored and did what any single person with sudden downtime would do — re-downloaded my dating apps. Within 24 hours, I matched with Motorcycle Man.
He was recently divorced (after a brief marriage) and riding his motorcycle around the country on some journey of self-discovery, doing his remote technology job in a different city every month.
Meaning he would only be in Memphis for a few more weeks.
And he had it going on: incredibly good looking, annoyingly charming, with some serious cool guy energy (it was mostly the leather jacket, but still).
We met for a drink that first night, which turned into dinner, which turned into more drinks, which turned into a drunken night at his Airbnb. I was shocked when he called the next day.
“I had a really great time last night,” he said. “What are your thoughts on going out again tonight?”
“Oh, I’d love to see you again!”
“Obviously,” he said.
All right. Calm down, Han Solo. His overconfidence both attracted and exasperated me. Experience had hardened me against romance. It didn’t matter how delightful or endearing or handsome I found him. I was not going to be the silly girl who fell for a man on a motorcycle.
You see, I have been chronically unlucky in love, a classic self-sabotager. I have a habit of eagerly searching for reasons to reject men who court me, nit-picking them into oblivion. And when I got lonely enough, I would consult my list of favorite exes for some make-believe being in love.
I have prided myself in being made of romantic wrought iron. You can’t break me open, no sir. So I was irritated to feel myself getting pulled in by this man.
We took his motorcycle to a soccer game downtown, and he teased me for squeezing him tighter than anyone ever had on a ride. I told him that I had been thrown off a bike before, and I was afraid. He gripped my thigh at every red light as if to say: I’m still here. You’re still here. Everything is going to be OK.
We went to brunch on a riverboat, the breeze off the Mississippi lifting my dress as we drank pineapple mimosas on the upper deck. There was never a time his hands were not brushing the stray hair from my neck. Never a time we weren’t touching somewhere.
We went to a strip club where the dancers told us how beautiful I was, how lucky he was to be there with me. Two couples lap dances and $600 later, we took an Uber home and fell tangled into bed without showering.
We cooked dinner together, slipping dangerously into the more domestic half of our month together. He shelled pistachios while I braised white beans in Chablis, and we discovered our mutual love of cooking to French jazz.
We talked about our dead fathers and difficult childhoods. We pinkie promised not to fall in love as we shared salted caramel ice cream. He spoon-fed me the bite he said was the best in the whole cup, saying he wanted me to have it.
On his last day in town, we went to Graceland to pay homage to Elvis. It was the final thing he wanted to do in the city, and I was happy to share it with him. We walked, his arm wrapped tightly around my shoulders, through the showrooms filled with classic cars, jewel-studded white leather jumpsuits and green-velvet-lined private jets.
I went to the restroom while he waited in line for the mansion tour shuttle, and an elderly tourist tapped me on the shoulder as I was drying my hands. “You and that boy outside?” she said. “I’ve been watching you. You’re a beautiful couple. And it’s so nice to see two young people so in love. You don’t see that anymore.”
I didn’t know what to say. What was there to say? That he was leaving tomorrow? That there was no way we could be in love because something as flimsy as a pinkie promise or a few thousand miles stood in the way?
“Thank you,” I said. But I couldn’t stop thinking about her words as he held my hand in both of his on the shuttle bus, drawing circles in my palms with his thumb.
Later, we took the narrow, mirrored stairs down to Elvis’s TV room. It too glittered with mirrors, and I suddenly found myself overwhelmed at our reflections staring back at us from 20 different angles. Reflected across the panoramic walls, this was the first time that month that I really looked at us. It was the first time I saw what other people saw, what that woman saw, when they looked at us.
With his cheap tour headset on, he was looking around the room and gently massaging my shoulders while John Stamos told us about the cost of the building, the extensive bar and Elvis’s favorite TV shows. I saw how much taller he was than me, how he stood so near behind me in the way that says: I don’t want to be anywhere that isn’t close to you. I saw the smile on my face, the beaming that came from it.
We looked happy. Like we were any other couple enjoying a Saturday afternoon in a lifetime of Saturday afternoons together.
I realized then what I was going to lose in less than 24 hours. I told myself this was only temporary; he was passing through. Tomorrow he would move on to a new city and a new person. We would never have an anniversary or a dog or a fight. I stood reflected on all sides in that room of mirrors and mourned the life we were not meant to share.
Then, I put it away. If I only had a few more hours to be in love, I wanted to live them fully. I wanted to exist in a state of happiness with someone without dwelling on when or how it would end. I didn’t want to waste the little time we had consumed by the sadness I felt in my throat or pretending that he was a gigantic mistake I should have run from. I didn’t want to be prideful anymore.
So I put it all away. We moved to the next room of the tour, his hands still squeezing my shoulders. That night I ran my fingers through his hair. I let him hold me closer as we fell asleep together for the last time.
Despite what my friends and mother kept telling me, I knew he wasn’t coming back. After all, we had made a promise not to fall in love. That promise may have been an enormous lie on my part, but that isn’t the point. I had the opportunity to be fully enmeshed with a kind person who had a more open heart than he wanted to admit, and I felt grateful for it. I started writing again after a long period of dormancy, and I was thankful for that too.
I felt grateful to be able to sit in the full sunshine of a temporary love affair without it destroying me in the end. It has taken time, but I’ve finally learned that the virtues of owning a soft and breathable heart are immeasurable when you live in a time and country like this one that is so full of death and reckoning.
I hoped Motorcycle Man would stay safe on his journey. I hoped he would find what he was looking for in life. I hoped I would be able to keep this beauty that I found within myself. And I hoped that there would be another life where we got to enjoy arguing about paint colors for a kitchen. That other me would want bright cerulean and that other him would want a dark sage green, and we would be able to meet somewhere in the middle.
I hoped for all these things, and I even allowed myself to hope for a little more. But if experience in love has taught me anything, it’s this: When a man on a motorcycle tells you that he’s going to ride off into the sunset and forget about you, you should believe him.
And I did believe him. Except he didn’t forget about me. And I didn’t forget about him. Until one day this summer when he came back to Memphis with no intention of leaving. And ever since, everything I had hardened my heart against for so long — the love I didn’t want to let in — has become my life.