A year ago, I was wrapped up in the rapture of love (word to Anita Baker) — and convinced that hopping on a plane to Washington, D.C., from Atlanta, where I lived at the time, for a romantic weekend was a great idea. Until … all the preparations and restaurant reservations and surprises we’d planned for each other gave way to a midnight ER visit.
My travels has always been about me, about how I feel, about making my own damn self happy. But last year, I wanted to believe that traveling could be something other than a selfish venture. I’d maybe argue that if I had retreated to my cynical self, none of last year’s Valentine’s Day disaster would’ve happened. But who really knows?
We’d met years before, after I’d relocated to the nation’s capital from Madrid, at a quintessential D.C. happy hour. We had an easy, comfortable dynamic and friendship. Somehow, whenever we’d lose touch, we’d manage to reconnect: at a wedding or a mutual friend’s birthday party. But when we met up Thanksgiving weekend nearly two years ago, I was ready. Up from my new home in Georgia, I wanted a whirlwind romance. And what’s more romantic than long-distance love requiring frequent plane travel?
Valentine’s Day 2017 fell on a Tuesday, so we celebrated over the weekend — I would fly in Thursday evening (just in time for #TGIT) and leave early on Monday.
I’d traveled for love before: stupidly in my 20s. Road trips with rented cars. Hotel stays booked on my credit card. Days off work when I really needed to remain in the office. Lavish weekends I’d planned for months in advance. This time, I was traveling to spend time with someone demonstrative of his care for me. Who didn’t require me to stroke his ego. It was a mature and adult attempt at love, romance, and partnership.
But then he got very sick. While I was there. There in his apartment. In the very early stages of our exploring the romantic aspect of our relationship, since the friendship aspect was solid. And that made me question my decision-making altogether.
On Friday morning, after a night of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, we shared an intimate ritual: a cup of coffee in the early hours, the time of day when my mind was still asleep. He loved coffee and, well, even if I didn’t love being up early, I loved being with him when the world was quiet.
Then we entered the surprise portion of the weekend. Hours after our coffee, we were in a Lyft to a destination unknown to me. The first spot was an unmarked door in a nondescript location, and once inside, I was dazzled. I bounced around A. Litteri, gazing at olive oils and packages of pasta with Italian scribbled all over the boxes and inhaled the smells of freshly baked cannoli. He told me to get whatever I wanted, whatever called to me, whatever inspired me, and we’d cook something together later.
From there, we strolled to nearby Union Market. Shrimp and grits for him and a massive buttermilk biscuit drowned in sausage gravy for me. He stuck his fork in my biscuit more than once, there at one of the tables at Union Market, and later, when we were back at his apartment.
Evening came. I gathered the ingredients — pasta, sundried tomatoes, spinach, mushrooms — and noticed my romantic date was spending more and more time in the bathroom. Before long, the pasta was finished. I’d poured a glass a wine, a crisp white I’d picked. My date was … still in the bathroom.
“Hey,” I said, knocking on the closed bathroom door. “You a’ight?” I stood and waited for a few seconds.
“Yeah. Sorry, I’ll be out in a minute.”
A few minutes later he emerged, haggard, slouching, and completely unenthusiastic. I was worried, but I didn’t know what to think. Or where to start my line of questioning. Or even if I should. He felt my mind filling with questions and spoke to silence and quiet them.
“I’m not feeling so well. I’m gonna lie down for a bit. You go ahead and eat dinner. I’ll eat some later.”
I frowned as he walked away, then grabbed my wineglass and took a sobering sip. I dished some pasta into a bowl and ate a few bites before he dashed out of the bedroom minutes later to go back to the bathroom. What was happening? I didn’t have to wonder long because next was the sound changing the pace and direction of our night and the entire weekend: a booming thud coming from the bathroom. I dropped the bowl on the table and hurried to the door.
“What happened? Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m okay,” he replied, his voice sounding small and far away.
I didn’t believe him, so I opened the door, only a crack at first, then squeezed it open little by little. I wasn’t prepared at all for what I saw. He was lying with one cheek to the floor. The sink water was running. An aroma of vomit filled the air, and I exhaled to keep myself from becoming lightheaded. This whole time he’d been sick and hadn’t told me.
His six-foot-two frame remained motionless on the floor, and he groaned while continuing to mutter he was okay. He was, in fact, not okay, and something needed to be done. I couldn’t peel him off the floor myself though. The loud boom his body had made hitting the floor earlier was proof.
I knew what I had to do. I had to call 911. Running around the apartment, I grabbed essentials: our wallets, phone chargers, and both of our phones. I got dressed and put on shoes. By the time I’d returned to open bathroom door, he’d made the same decision I had.
“I think you should call 911,” he said as he groaned from the bathroom floor.
I heard the sirens as they approached. They took his vitals and loaded us into the back of an ambulance. His body started to shake violently with chills. Terrified, I held his phone in my hand — he’d unlocked it with this thumb — staring at his contacts, not knowing who to call if this night took an awful turn.
We waited for close to five hours, his body slumped over in a wheelchair. The doctor gave a blithe diagnosis of gastroenteritis and hooked him up to an IV to rehydrate. He started talking and cracking jokes again, which is how I knew he was okay. Around 8 a.m., we took a Lyft back to his apartment. We slept for most of the day and woke up when it was dark outside.
Off in another Lyft to a surprise location on Sunday. A shop, Capital Teas, for a tea lover. I picked out a few varieties. We walked a few blocks away and sat on a bench in the cold as the sun was setting. Sushi for dinner at Nooshi. We ate it back at his apartment sitting next to each other on the couch. We went to bed early.
The next day, the nausea and vomiting began for me. I’d caught the stomach flu he’d just had. And then I missed my flight home.
I eventually made it back to Atlanta, once my appetite had returned, and the memory of a date gone wrong didn’t throw me. Maybe if we had continued to date for much longer, this could have been a funny story of our first attempt at romance. But now, months after we went our separate ways, this reminds me of one of the many ways things can go wrong when love and travel are found in the same sentence.
Planes and the miles between two people doesn’t make for a fairy-tale story with a happy ending. Sometimes it’s two people at the whims of airports and the TSA (or an aggressive stomach bug), making a fledgling attempt at romance, trying to figure it out.
I’m going low-key for Valentine’s Day this year. I’ll spend it in Mexico City, roaming the streets of Condesa and Roma, eating tacos from street stands and taking shots of tequila and mezcal. I’ll put on an outfit that makes me feel good, paint my lips red, fluff my poofy, kinky curls so they’re higher and closer to God.
And I’ll laugh at the memory of how last year I was in such a different place, literally, and be thankful it won’t be a repeat. But most of all, I’ll remember when I tried to give love a chance, when I traveled to meet it, and how for a moment it was everything.
For a moment it felt right.