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On Not Having a Romantic Rendezvous in Rome

10/21/2010 10:25 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The scene was set: Rome in autumn. An up-lit fountain in an ancient piazza. Lovers separated by an ocean (both physical and metaphorical) reuniting. A tentative hug, a bashful glance, hearts swooning with the purr of motorinos. Sparks would fly like those light-up toys the immigrants sell. There would be gelato.

But I didn't do it. I couldn't do it. I did not have a romantic rendezvous in Rome.

The vacation fling, the romantic getaway, the honeymoon: romance and travel are as hand-in-hand as a long walk on the beach. We get outside our physical comfort zone, and we get outside of our emotional comfort zone as well. That often opens space for love, a kind we normally wouldn't welcome. And in my case, that kind was self-love.

It started with a vacation-style case of the f*ck-it's. I met M when he was leaving, only in town for a few more weeks before taking off for a prestigious internship in Rome (where chance would have, I would be traveling during his stay). It was okay that he was much younger than me, freshly out of the longest relationship of his life and sleeping on his friend's couch because he didn't have a place to live. He was leaving. I couldn't get hurt. No strings, no expectations; three weeks of fun, then back to my regular life.

It's a funny thing to have spent your whole life starved for love -- hungry for it, searching for it, desperately looking for someone to give you it, an elusive feeling you're sure would fill that big empty inside. You tend to pick the people least able to give you the very thing you crave. Because, as they say, hungry people make bad shoppers. You pick the hurt, the broken, and it becomes a project: "I'm going to love them like no one else has; I'm going to make them love me. Goddamnit."

You hope, you dream. You weave elaborate fantasies and scenarios in your head ("Let's eat pasta and go on adventures when I'm Rome!"). You are far more concerned with these fantasies than the actual reality of what's around you ("He didn't call again."). You rationalize and justify ("It's okay, he had a hard childhood, you can't expect him to be emotionally available.") You cling to little scraps they give you like life jackets on a sinking ship ("Aw, he said he missed me!").

Because hungry people, they say, will settle for scraps.

But it's a funnier thing to feel a shift. It's a funnier thing to hear a voice -- a quiet but insistent voice -- that keeps repeating, "You deserve better."

M didn't deliver me any egregious wrong. He just didn't say goodbye, save for a text message at 5 am. And he didn't bother to write or say hello for a month. I felt dissed, but hell, I've been dissed a lot harder than that.

My own trip to Italy was approaching. We had to meet up, right? Hadn't Fate delivered us into the same city? Hadn't we made plans? Hadn't I constructed the perfect fantasy in my head? What did it matter that I'd gotten hurt when he left -- it'd be a couple days of fun in a foreign country, no strings, then back to my regular life.

But the voice just wouldn't stop. Like a mantra, "You deserve better."

Over the course of the repetition, the weeks of chanting in my own head, "you deserve better" became about something other than M, about what he did or didn't do. It became about me. It became about what I've settled for, what I've let be okay with me. It became about how I've set myself up to be hurt, and refused to acknowledge or be accountable to that hurt. It became about how I've constructed fantasies and lived inside them, used them as a way to not be present for myself and my own pain. It became about how I have so recklessly given away my self-worth and looked to other people to validate me -- begging and begging for them to fix something in me that isn't theirs to fix.

It became about how I wouldn't dare ask for something better, because I didn't really think there was anything better for me.

And somewhere, inside all that, it became about believing, if even in only some small broken chamber of my small broken heart, that maybe there was something better.

So I didn't do it. I flaked. I didn't have my romantic Roman rendezvous.

We travel in part to be free of ourselves, the roles and responsibilities of home. Travel allows us to escape those self-constructed constraints of Who We Are and What Our Lives Are, and allows us to live more freely in the moment. This is in large part why vacation/travel romance holds such allure, perfumed in the hazy mystique of What Could Be and If Only. Traveling, we are truer, simpler versions of ourselves, finding truer and simpler versions of love.

For some, this means being open to a fling with someone you might not normally date. For me, it meant taking care of myself in a new way. It meant really, actually loving myself.

And so I spent my days in Rome alone. But I wasn't really alone. I still had the fountains, still had the piazzas, still had the motorinos and the ruins and the gelato (a lot of the gelato). I still had the monumental crumble, the remains of greatness, still had gleaming black stones of the streets, worn smooth from the centuries of feet walking, walking, walking.

I still had Rome.