“So let me get this right. You’re Italian but you’re a resident of India.”
“And your fiancé is Canadian. Resident of Canada.”
“Yes, but he lives in India.”
“And you’re having a Catholic wedding.”
“Yes. But he’s Jewish.”
“That doesn’t matter to us. It’s a parish matter, they take care of the paperwork. Did you discuss it with your Italian priest?”
“My parish is in Delhi because I am a resident here. Anyway yes, we have permission to have the ceremony in Italy. We still need the bishop’s permission for the mixed religion marriage, but that should arrive soon.”
“So all we need is a certificate that says your fiancé has never been married before. A nulla osta. And then we can process the documents.”
“See, that’s why I called. Canada doesn’t really have that certificate.”
“Did you check with the Canadian embassy in Rome?”
“Yeah. They say they have nothing to do with this.”
“Mmmh…I actually have no idea then.”
The lady at the Italian embassy in Delhi wasn’t able to help. She’d never seen this before. Our wedding was just like us: Unique, unconventional, and a little all over the place. It looked impossible. Four months from the day and nothing was confirmed.
“It’s not going to work. Nothing’s ready.” I called him in a panic as soon as he woke up, in Canada. In India, it was evening already.
“Amore mio, that’s not true,” he replied. “Everything’s set. We’ll get the paperwork done.”
He was right. We had a venue, a fairytale-like villa on the Amalfi Coast. I had a dress — an expensive affair that looked just understated enough: When I tried it on I teared up immediately, surprising my cynical self at the belief that it was “the one.” The invites, designed by a talented friend, were about to be printed. Save the dates were sent — all our favorite people couldn’t wait to be there.
We had even received our certificate from the church after a two-day intensive course instructing us on how to start a good Catholic family. Not that we were going to be a Catholic family, but the course was compulsory to get married in a church —which I wanted, not for religious reasons but because I liked the tradition — and he had accepted to do, to please me. The course was on the outskirts of Delhi, and for two days we stayed in a nunnery with other couples, sleeping on different floors (the men upstairs, the women below) and attending classes on family values and conjugal duties. A foreign couple wasn’t the norm, and we were the center of attention — particularly when questions about sex came up and everyone assumed, despite our amused protesting, that we knew more about it than the teachers.
“So, where does sperm come from? Maybe you know?” I was asked.
“Nope. No idea.” I’d reply as the class burst in laughter. “Maybe he does?”
He looked at me smiling, shaking his head. “Why would I know? I don’t know!”
We were warned that the Holy Spirit was not going to attend the ceremony since we weren’t both Catholic, but then his being Jewish — as opposed to Muslim or Hindu, which was the case for other mixed-religion couples there — gained the staff’s sympathies. He was labeled “almost Christian.” We joked that we didn’t have money to feed the Holy Spirit anyway.
I needed to calm down. It was all working out.
But we did need the papers. And we didn’t know how to get them.
“Maybe it’s a sign? Maybe this wedding thing is a bad idea?” I whined. I was tired, and insufferable.
He laughed. “Aaaamore,” he started, in a sing-songy way. His funny accent on the few Italian words he knew would lighten up the darkest rooms of my soul. “Listen. Getting married is the best idea we’ve ever had and we’re going to do it. It’s all going to work out. I promise.”
* * *
He was so certain about us. He had been unfailingly so since our engagement, which caught me by total surprise. We had been living together for a couple of years in India — where I had followed him looking to start a career, and finally be with the man I loved — when he proposed.
Before moving in together, ours was the erratic, long-distance relationship of two people who never seemed to be in the same place. We met in Italy, fell in love and spent the summer of our lives on intense weeks together and long stretches apart: He worked on a photography project that took him to Alaska, Japan, Congo; I went to Kosovo, volunteering and looking for stories, then moved to Paris to complete a master’s. His work took him there, too, and we spent a couple blissful months together. For the first time since I could remember, I felt beautiful; I was loved and desired. We’d dress up and walk out in the middle of the night to have French onion soup in 24-hour restaurants. We shared a studio that was too small for one, let alone two plus too many cameras.
Before I’d met him I kept joking that “love is overrated.” But it wasn’t; It was perfect. When he had to go back to India, where he’d been living for years before moving to Italy, I worried it’d be the end.
It wasn’t. We spoke whenever we had a free minute. It was never enough. We were so different that our attachment was a mystery to both of us: I loved studying, he had hardly finished high school; I was all about manners and rules, he recognized none; I worried about everything, he never did. At times, our love for each other seemed to be the only thing we had in common.
And it was all we needed.
On spring break I went to see him in India. I landed, terrified and drenched in mosquito repellent, in the fog of Delhi’s February nights. In the arrival hall, he was waiting for me in the neon light, holding a sign, just like the hotel chauffeurs. It read: Amore Mio. My love.
Everything in India frightened me. The smell. The noises. The light, so different from anything I had seen before. Even the peacocks, flying on the rooftop terrace from the park nearby, were wonderful but so foreign. I followed him to Calcutta on assignment. In the teeming backstreets, electrifying and overwhelming, I looked upon poverty and dirt, equally horrified. Once I cried a whole night about not being able to afford anything better than a filthy guesthouse. I returned to Paris relieved.
We managed to meet wherever and whenever possible. In Paris, London, Italy. In New York — where we both thought we’d eventually end up. We spent Christmas together, my family now his. He had been estranged from his parents for many years, and while on my insistence he had resumed contact with them, it didn’t look like there was real hope of saving their relationship. They had been demanding and cruel to him in his teens, kicking him out of home before the end of high school, and still refused to acknowledge it, let alone apologize for it. As someone who counted on her family for anything, it was impossible to even imagine how hard that must have been, so it filled my heart with joy hearing him call my mother “mamma.”
A year after my first visit, I moved to Delhi. I planned to stay a few months, but I began the adventure of a lifetime.
We got an apartment and decorated it with colorful fabrics. I struggled to keep the dust out of the house, struggled with everything that didn’t work, struggled with the scorching summer heat, struggled to get work. I struggled, struggled, struggled. I packed my bags at least twice, shouting at him that I was going back home. He’d been in India so long he could no longer remember the hardship of the beginning, and he was traveling so much for work that I was often on my own. I got mad at him — now that we could be together he was off to Africa or China or wherever, prey to a wanderlust I failed to understand.
All I wanted was for him to be around for me, because when he was, things were pretty wonderful. We had so much hunger for time together that nothing seemed trivial: We’d explore the city on his motorcycle, go on holidays to remote places, turn any and every bit of daily life into an adventure.
But a couple of weeks here and there were not enough. I felt like all I did was wait for him. Finally, shortly after he came back from a long trip to visit a dear, sick uncle, I broke down. I felt horrible — this trip was not for fun, how could I get mad about it? — but I just couldn’t help it. I told him we’d better split up, that he had no space for me in his life. I screamed, he screamed more, the neighbors came to check if I was O.K. In a country where women are common victims of domestic abuse, it was hard to believe that it was me who always raised her voice first. We resolved that we should part.
* * *
I was on my way to work, late and unspeakably sad, when I realized I did not want to leave him. I wanted to stay. I loved him, and our life.
I went back to our apartment. He was sitting on the couch, exhausted as I was from so much fighting. I hugged him, sat on his lap.
“I’m sorry. This was terrible,” I apologized. “I don’t want to go away. Never.”
“I don’t want you to go away either. I want to be with you forever.”
“Yes. Forever,” I said, and I meant it. Yet I was shocked when I saw in his eyes the resolution of a question I didn’t know he had in him, and I wasn’t ever expecting him to ask.
“Then… Will you… will you marry me?”
“What… You don’t… You don’t have to — I’m not going anywhere. You need to think this through.”
“But I have! I have. Look—” he reached for his backpack, me still sitting on his lap, and took out a small box. “I even have a ring! I’ve been waiting for the right moment.”
“Well this is pretty right,” I joked. “So how did he propose? Well, we had a massive fight and nearly broke up, but got engaged instead.”
“So. Will you marry me, amore mio?” He was serious.
He was ready.
It was a gorgeous ring, an Art Deco family heirloom — Canadian, as guilt-free as diamonds can come — and hard not to notice. People did notice: the excitement about our engagement was so genuine and overwhelming, everyone pointing to what a romantic story we had.
It was, indeed, the most romantic story I had ever heard.
* * *
It was all unbelievably sweet, yet I couldn’t shake the looming sensation that something was going to go wrong. It came out in my dreams. The fear of losing everything would turn into nightmares, and cropped up at every big step we took.
I loved him, and the unexpected certainty that he, too, truly loved me gave me a happiness so enormous it frightened me. My father had died too early for me to believe happy endings were possible, let alone feeling that I was destined for one.
I looked everywhere for signs of an impending disappointment. We had to leave our apartment, and our landlady insisted we owed her several months of rent. He was in charge of making the deposit but couldn’t find the receipts to show we had paid — that was enough to infuriate me. He was irresponsible, I said – how could he be ready to be a husband? We should call the whole thing off.
We looked for a new place, and I cried like a spoiled child when faced with the reality that his priorities were different from mine — he wanted to save money on rent, and on everything really, to be able to invest in his work. I saw myself as shallow and materialistic for wanting a place that was nice and comfortable. Again told him, “See? This is why we should not do it.”
I would cast doubts over us and our future, which I so wanted and so feared.
But for all my questions, he had answers. “It’s us, amore,” he’d tell me, his voice always so calm and kind. “I’m not letting you get out of this.” His certainty seemed to grow as mine withered, and the way he dealt with my actions, minimizing my fears, showed me time and again the depth of his love.
We finally found a place that worked and bought new furniture. We didn’t have much money — I worked as the editor of a small online publication and had been supporting both of us on my Indian salary while his work was slow. He had a few personal projects to pursue, and I was determined to help him see them through. His assignments had always been sporadic, but a day of his work often paid ten of mine, and something always came through when our funds were nearly gone.
But this time seemed different — I was worried we wouldn’t be able to afford the fairytale wedding that I, who had never actually thought I’d get married, discovered I wanted. My mother was covering most of the costs, but I insisted we at least pay for a few things: The flowers, the invites, the favors. As the weeks, then the months, went by, I grew worried we wouldn’t have enough.
One thought, in particular, made me panic. If he didn’t get any work soon, I’d even have to pay for his suit and his ticket to Italy for the wedding. I’d have to pay for my own bouquet. Something about the image of me buying myself my own wedding flowers was unbearable to me: Was this the life I was signing up for? What if he never actually had a breakthrough? I looked up what would happen if we divorced, if I had to pay him alimony.
I was disgusted by my own thoughts.
I hesitantly suggested he look for assignments from publications less prestigious than the ones he usually worked for. He was hurt, and saw that as a lack of belief in him, pointing out that he could have gotten work in Africa had he been free to move there, but I didn’t want to leave my job to follow him around — that had its costs.
But my faith in his talent was blind — it was destiny I didn’t trust.
* * *
We were over the rough patches, though, when the issue with the papers came up. It appeared we were in a bureaucratic loophole and none of the puzzled officials I contacted were able to figure our situation out.
“That’s why we’re so special,” he said. It was a fact.
He had gone to Canada to renew his visa — his trip home drained my account, but some work had finally come through for him and he was going to be paid soon. We were back on our early-days routine of long-distance phone calls. For the first time in our many goodbyes, I hadn’t cried when he left. As he told me that he’d be right back, his happiness was so visible it gave me goose bumps, and a newfound feeling of safety.
But then, when I tried to reach him the day he was meant to go see about our documents, I couldn’t get through to him. He would not pick up his phone. He was not online — which he almost obsessively always was. I emailed him. No reply.
Something was wrong.
Whether it was some sort of sixth sense or just my constant fear of the worst, I started to worry. I called the friend he usually stayed with, trying not to sound paranoid; after all, it had only been a few hours since I had heard from him. He was not home. As the night became morning in India, a day was passing in Canada. I called, and called, and laid awake waiting. Sleeping was out of the question.
Finally, I got a two-line email. He said he loved me. And that he needed space.
I was paralyzed.
The following days were a game of waiting. I checked my phone and my email compulsively. I stared at the screen to see if he was logging onto Skype. No sign of him. I told myself I should not try to contact him, that he needed to be left alone, though I did write to him that we could postpone the wedding if he wanted to, and that whatever problem there was we were going to work it through. I knew we could.
I blamed myself for having so many doubts. Had I ruined everything? I kept going to work to be around people, but I was numb.
As the date of his return trip approached, I tried to be calm and focus on the fact that I was about to see him again. We had never been out of contact this long, and I missed him terribly. I tried to be patient, but when I saw his name go online on Skype in the middle of another sleepless night, I couldn’t resist.
“Amore mio,” I typed. “I am so happy you are coming back next week. We’ll make things right, I promise.”
“Yes,” he replied. “We have a lot of work to do but we can make things right. Things will be right.”
But he was not coming back. Not yet anyway. His birthday was coming up, and he didn’t want to spend it with me.
“I don’t want to resent you,” he typed.
He wasn’t going to discuss it further, but I convinced him that he owed me an explanation. He promised to get back online soon, and he did.
“You’re so beautiful,” he said, sweetly, when I answered the video call. “I missed you.”
He looked beautiful, too, in his light blue collared shirt, rolled-up sleeves and messy hair.
He started explaining what was going through his head: He needed to be free to travel and work, and I wanted security — we were just too different, there’s no way it was going to work.
As he was speaking, gently, his words started losing meaning to me — it all became white noise, and I interrupted him.
“Oh my god,” I said. “You cheated on me.”
Something in his gaze hardened. “Yes,” he replied.
“No, not again,” I begged. I knew it was true, again.
I hadn’t thought about it for years — the memory of betrayal buried deep under the illusion of the most wonderful story that had ever happened to me. I had found out about his infidelities before I moved to India, when we lived apart. Infidelities and lies: a girlfriend hidden from me when we first got together, who he moved back in with after he left Paris; an older woman he had even thought he was in love with; adventures around the world as he traveled for work.
But we had worked through it all. He had begged me to stay with him when I found out, told me I was the love of his life and the last chance he had of having a happy life, of changing. He had blamed distance and so had I, and it had worked for years — so well, too well. I had worked so hard to get past his infidelities that I had actually forgotten about them — the truth, of the past and the present, felt heavy on my burning sternum.
“Yes, again,” he said, suddenly cold. There was something in him, something in his voice I could not recognize. He was a stranger.
“But this time it’s different,” he continued. “I found her.”
I swear I heard my heart break.
He told me he’d just met her. A few days had been enough to know. He had given up thinking he could find the one. But there she was. They were going to travel together, see the world and be nomads, as he wanted. And she wanted. And I never did.
“I bet she dresses terribly,” I said, heart yolk leaking from my smashed chest, making an ugly mess already.
I became a monster; I could barely speak, filled with anger as I told him, shocking myself with the violence of my own words, hissing at him, shaking, that it was not true that he felt sorry — that he felt good and not sorry, that while fucking this woman he didn’t know, in and out and in and out of her, he did not think of me.
“You want to make me feel guilty because I am in love.”
He was moving in with her.
“Are you going to marry her?” I was crazy. It was crazy.
“We’re not planning to get married at the moment.” He was crazy, too.
The conversation lasted through the night, through bouts of anger, tears, words of love. At the end, I asked him if this was the first time that he’d be unfaithful since we’d been living together.
“Is it because I was not enough?” Isn’t that what every rejected lover dreads?
“Yeah. I was always looking for something better.”
“Something or someone?” I couldn’t stop digging.
“Something, someone, I didn’t know. I thought it was as good as it got, with you. Now I know it wasn’t true.”
“What do you mean?”
“I am not in love with you. I don’t think I ever was.”
Outside, it was dawn. The sounds of India waking up were a loud sign the conversation had to end. We — “us” — had to end.
“I will miss you so much,” I muttered before I hung up. I wanted him desperately. But he was unrecognizable, someone else. Happiness and love were a dark force in his gaze. They were pulling him away from me, taking him some place frightening and far, a place my arms couldn’t stretch to.
I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t feel anything other than terror. Who was he?
* * *
When I landed in Milan I was a ghost. I hadn’t eaten in days; I had no feelings other than sorrow. My sister picked me up from the airport, and as she hugged me, without saying a word, I cried. I cried when I saw my mother. My grandma was visiting — usually the simple sight of her would be enough to put me in a good mood, but I just kept crying, incapable of anything else.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” It was all I could say, whisper really. I was sorry I had trusted him, that I had followed him, that I had brought him home. I was sorry I was so embarrassingly heartbroken. I was sorry I messed up, sorry I failed, sorry about the embarrassment of a wedding to cancel. That he had not only lied to me, but to my family, caused me unbearable pain. I blamed it on myself — all of it.
I was infinitely sorry. And so sore.
I walked straight into my mother’s bed and laid there crying for days, getting up only to check my emails for signs of him, and sit at the table for lunch and dinner, unable to touch my food.
As I stared into my plate, the Italian mothers of my life — my own, and my mother’s — discussed me, and him, as if I weren’t there.
“She isn’t eating.”
“I can see that.”
“What are we going to do about this one?”
“I don’t know, I can’t force her.”
“Look at that. Not one bite.”
“I know, Ma. She doesn’t feel like it.”
My belligerent grandma had been through a lot — her father dying as a kid, the war as a teenager, her husband leaving her a widow in her early thirties, an earthquake destroying her home and her town in her late forties — far too much to concede to a romantic heartbreak.
“That guy had always been a bit strange,” she offered. “Remember how he stopped eating meat?” She had always treated his vegetarianism as an exotic disease.
When I finally had the strength to leave my bed, I started trying to put together the pieces. I was obsessed with understanding, and the more I obsessed, the more it all seemed terrifying.
I went back to Delhi, leaving behind a family worried sick about me, determined to save the salvageable: A job I loved in a country that was going to save my life.
My pain was enormous, kept alive and stinging by a succession of small new wounds.
I had to cancel the wedding, let all the guests know on my own, as he was far too busy with his new life to even tell his own family — who called me seeking explanations, unable to track him down.
* * *
In all of this, and despite my rational self, I still madly loved him. I hoped he would come back. Once I woke up convinced I heard him ring the bell in the middle of the night. It was a dream.
A recovering patient, I put one day in front of the other, waiting for my love to go away. Like a famous Italian poem says, it was like quitting a vice. Come smettere un vizio. It was a daily exercise in abstinence — from calling him, wanting him, loving him.
Before I knew it, it had been a month since I had last seen his face, on a computer screen. Then two, then a whole summer.
On August 26, when our wedding was meant to be, the sun was shining over the Amalfi Coast, but I spent the day in rainy Kathmandu, Nepal, on my own, hanging out with the monkeys at Pashupatinath Temple — the Temple of Shiva.
I was glad there was a god I could thank for destruction.
For a long time afterward, I was obsessed with this story. Obsessed with his lies. I uncovered countless more: about his family, his past, our relationship. The more I found out, the more the hurt gave way to relief.
I wrote to the woman he had left for me way back when — to let her know it didn’t work out with us. Somehow, I felt it was right for her to know, that I would have wanted to know, if I were her. She was understanding, forgiving, and helpful — knowing far too well what I was going through, she repeated to me countless times I had not lost someone worth keeping.
Years later, that’s what I told his wife, when it was she who wrote to me.
Read the Sequel: A Second Super Strange Love Story: I Was the Other Woman
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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the award-winning East Village Inky and author of seven books, including “Peanut” and “No Touch Monkey! And Other Lessons Learned Too Late.” Follow her @AyunHalliday.