I spotted him standing nearby. He was with a tall boy who was smoking a cigarette. The boy offered him one, and he took it. I cringed. Everyone smoked here. I recognized them from when I was moving in earlier. They lived next door. I pulled together all my courage. It took everything I had to walk over to two random boys in a foreign country. But I was tired. And the burning behind my eyes had begun. I knew if I didn't find a way home soon I would start to cry.
I turned on the bubbly and hopped over. "Hi! You guys live near me! Want to walk me home?" I always acted extra outgoing and girly when I was nervous. I turned on the smiles, the hair flip, the giggles.
"Uh... sure, yeah." He said as he stubbed out his cigarette. The tall boy just grunted. And we fell into step together.
"I'm Annie! I just got in today from Copenhagen."
And that was it. No small talk. My heart fell. It seemed that making friends would be a lot harder than I had thought. I was sure I'd be able to make friends with the boys. It had always been easy for me to fit in with boys. Girls were another story. I didn't know how to relate to them. I had spent my entire life surrounded by only my brothers. Girls made me feel uncomfortable, self conscious. But these boys were different too. They weren't like the Kingdom boys, or even New England boys.
After they dropped me off at my apartment I forgot all about them. I ran into another boy, a New England boy, and we became friends immediately. I forgot about the cold reception I got from my neighbors.
Three weeks later I came home from the bar. I was a little tipsy and brimming over with confidence. I knew this city now. I had my group of friends. I felt at home. I was singing and dancing my way down the street to my apartment. Penn was standing on our stoop, smoking a cigarette. Something about him made me stop. As our friends talked around us, I just kept looking at him. He was tall, dark and handsome. In my drunken state he looked like he came right out of a fairy tale. His arms looked like he could sweep me off my feet and carry me away
As I emerged from my apartment Penn was heading to his. I asked him not to leave yet, I asked him to join me with my friends upstairs. He invited me inside instead. Inside I looked at his collection of Nickleback on his itunes and Nicolas Cage in his CD case. I giggled at his bad taste, but was more amused by how he defended it. I saw his Orioles shot glass and told him I had to go. He asked me not to hold his terrible taste against him, and offered a chair. I sat down. I never made it to my friends' that night.
I thought it was a fling. I thought it was just one night. If more than one night, it still wouldn't last long. He was different. He wasn't my type. He seemed a little boring, a little reserved. He annoyed me during the day, but I was drawn to him at night. I was annoyed that all of my friends were in awe of him. I was annoyed he didn't make an effort to open up more. I was annoyed that I couldn't stop thinking about him.
We started to spend more time together, and he began to talk more. I would stop by his apartment where he was cooped up reading or watching a movie, and I would drag him out into the rain. He started to make me laugh. I noticed him laughing with me. As we would walk we would gravitate closer to each other. We would touch more often. We would share knowing looks when we were out with friends. I no longer had to seek him out, we just assumed we would do something together. Our friends would me where he was if we were ever apart. We were hardly ever apart.
It was when I read one of his travel writing pieces that I realized how much I was falling for him. He was sitting impatiently at his desk while I cuddled in his bed. I was dressed in sweats. My hair was a mess. I had been up all night writing my own piece, and I looked terrible. But I didn't care, because he wanted me to read his writing. He wanted to know what I thought.
It was beautiful. I knew he was good at writing, but I didn't know he was this good. I looked up at him, and he was gazing at me, exploring my face to find my reaction. My stomach erupted with butterflies. And then I was filled with dread.
This wasn't what was supposed to happen. He was supposed to just be a fling. He was supposed to just be a little fun. We were just going to have a good time and go on our way. Our time in that city together was too short to start anything. In just a couple months I would be returning to Copenhagen, he would be returning to the states. In just a couple months it would come to an end, there was no other option.
I pulled back. That small moment of butterflies, that moment where I could feel the love creeping up on me, set off weeks of confusion and turmoil in our relationship. We tried to end it, to not let it go any further. But by then our groups of friends were intertwined. There was no avoiding each other. It caused more hurt and confusion. We gave it up. We gave in and let the feelings take over.
The last month together was from a dream. I never knew a relationship could be that happy. Penn took all of my ideas about relationships - ideas that were ingrained in me from my last relationship - ideas I had thought were facts because of my four year emotionally abusive relationship - and destroyed them. He helped me build up new expectations. He helped me realize what was healthy. And he made me happy. Together we discovered London and Wales, we explored the city and ourselves. We brought out the best in each other.
I noticed him change, he emerged from his shell. He talked more when we were out, he made jokes with my friends. He initiated plans. He held my hand in public and kept me close when we were out at clubs. I changed too. I'm not sure how I changed outwardly, but I let my walls down inwardly. I became more trusting. I let go of all the hurt I had from my past relationship. I learned to just be happy with what I had at the time.
It was difficult saying goodbye. Difficult is an understatement. I can't remember the last time I cried that hard. I kept it together as we waited for his bus. We talked lightly. We hugged, we stood together in silence. Friends came to say goodbye. I stood in the background. The bus pulled up and his grip tightened around me. Now it was real. And now, it was almost impossible. We hugged, we kissed. He picked up his bags, turned to walk away. Then he turned back. We kissed some more. Finally he stepped on the bus. I kept myself from jumping on with him. I kept myself from jumping in front of it. I just stood there. And as the bus pulled away, I fell apart.
We stayed together after that. We didn't know how to end it. We skyped every day, and then every other day, and soon it was only once a week. Our schedules got in the way. The time change got in the way. He came to visit for a weekend almost three months later. We knew it was our last hurrah.
He called last night. It has been months since the last time we spoke. He was sorry it had been so long. His voice still gives me butterflies. But it's just a reflection of a memory. Of a time when he changed my life. I'm afraid I will always think, "What if." What if we could have stayed in London forever. What if we had met over here. What if we lived closer together. Would we be together? But there is no use thinking what if, because this is where we are. It won't change. So instead I am just grateful for those eight months we did have together. He made me a better person. And that is something I will never forget.