Bittersweet: A Love Story – Part One

After five years, I have finally begun work on this roman à clef as an exercise to get me back into writing condition, the same way a boxer or weightlifter gets into shape after a hiatus. It took me a huge portion of my day just to write the 3,300 words here, partly because it was painful for me to write, and partly because I fell out of writing shape.

It was the fourteenth of a snowy February that had yielded sidewalks lined with blobby lines of grimy slush. A young Travis came out of the one and only nice building of his Midtown college campus; one of the other buildings had been a reappropriated shoe factory for crying out loud. He hadn’t yet discovered the comfortable bespoke suits and slicked back hair that would become his distinctive iconic image five years later. No, he still sported a short crewcut—a holdover from his days as a cadet and a symbol of his future in law enforcement—and dressed simply in jeans that were slightly tight in the thighs and hips with short-sleeved black polo shirts that hugged his then still athletic chest. His feet, clod in clunky Rockport shoes that were more comfortable than stylish, plodded down the stone stairs towards the subway station. Looking at the messy walkways, he heaved a sigh. Before he got down to the sidewalk though, his thin little smartphone rumbled and yelped. This was unusual for the young fellow. Friends were not something he had a good supply of, and nobody really ever messaged him.

He reached into his coat pocket and took out the phone. His heart skipped a beat when he saw what his phone was chirping about. It was a message from Malissa.

Travis had met Malissa through a Craigslist personal ad six months ago. Well, to say that he met her would be misleading. No, he had written her for a bit. The truth was that he was thrilled to have come across her ad. What she wrote had completely captured his heart and mind, and he was very much a heart and mind kind of man rather than an ass man or a breast man. You see, Travis was peculiar in that he was a romantic in the truest sense. He was unmoved by physical beauty, and enraptured by the heart of a woman rather than the glint of her eyes or the silken cascade of hair that delicately grazed her shoulder.

And so when he read Malissa’s personal, he knew in an instant that he needed to pursue her. He knew from reading what she wrote that they were both looking for the same things in each other. Malissa wanted to find just one man with whom she could spend the rest of her life. To her, that meant building a life together, through the good and the bad. That meant being there for each other, even arguing with each other, because arguments meant that they cared. She wanted to build a warm home with a truly good and honest man where they felt safe to be each other, to make mistakes and to learn how to love each other.

Travis wanted all of this. He never really knew it before. At least, he never thought about it in words. He had an idea of who he wanted to be to his lover, and what she should be for him. After all, he’d daydreamed about being in a relationship with his true love for years now. But he’d never quite put it down on paper with such clarity the way that Malissa did. It was as if she had reached into his heart and pulled out the rosy wisps of romance inside him and reflected them back to him in a poetic fantasy of everlasting love. She showed him what he really wanted. And everything that he wanted was in her.

Malissa had replied to Travis’ first email with a gentle curiosity and a mutually warm fondness towards him. She was quite taken by how earnest he was in his email. The way she responded to Travis, he felt that it was the beginning of something good. Being quite excited to see her in person, he suggested that they meet up to get to know each other, as emailing back and forth was no way to get to know anybody. As a young and unexperienced fellow, he let her choose a time and place to meet. He wanted her to feel safe and comfortable, especially since she was only meeting him for the very first time. They hadn’t even exchanged photos.

In fact, what she looked like was something that never even crossed Travis’ mind. That is, until Malissa wrote him back after several weeks of silence. She explained to him that she was sorry about the delay, as she was dealing with some things. It was a little vague, but she soon revealed that she was struggling with an eating disorder. Travis didn’t know very much about eating disorders. But he did imagine that she would either be very thin or very heavy. Neither option seemed very appealing, though he was ashamed to say that he would prefer that she was overly light than heavy. That was about the only extent of his superficiality, but even this was enough for him to feel guilty over.

It wasn’t guilt though that compelled Travis to pursue Malissa though, despite her admission of having an eating disorder. To him, she had the most perfect soul that he could ever ask for in a girl. It was love at first sight, but it wasn’t the sight of a beautiful face; rather, it was the sight of her words that gave him a deep resonance that she and him were of the same rare ilk. He felt that he was so lucky to gain such an intimate glimpse into her heart’s desires, and doubly so that he knew that he could satisfy her. What more could he ask for? Here was a woman who he knew he could be satisfied with for his entire life, who he was sure that he could satisfy for her entire life. At least that was what his young romantic heart told him. Travis was more the family oriented type and unconcerned with things like cars, bars, nightclubs, parties, or beautiful girls in bikinis, or how good a woman was in bed. All he wanted, at the naive age of twenty, was a caring woman to dote on, a loving woman to care for and to make happy. He wanted to appreciate the little niceties in life with his true love, to share in the small delights of romance with a special woman by his side.

‘Hi Travis,’ the message on his phone read. ‘I hope your Valentine’s Day is nice and warm. Stay cozy, M.’ This was the first he’d heard from her in a what must have been several weeks. The last time they had spoken, she was apologizing that they hadn’t met up yet. She reassured him that she was still very much excited to meet him. In this, Travis saw in her a rare maturity and courtesy, uncommon qualities to his young life’s urban experience. Really, it shouldn’t have surprised him to get a message from Malissa on Valentine’s Day. But it was such a heart fluttering gesture to Travis that he could not help but break his usually stony visage by cracking a rare grin. The hardness in his cynical eyes softened and gave way to feelings of warmth, and a gentle glow of happiness began radiating from the center of his heart. Alas, that would be the last time that he felt the pleasantness of a budding pure and innocent love.

The snow had cleared up by the second of March. Travis was in Brooklyn, by Prospect Park. He had just come out of the subway station and messaged Malissa, telling her that he had arrived. That Thursday afternoon (or was it a Friday?) was not a particularly sunny one. Rather, it was overcast, the skies gray. But the weather was not reflective of the mood Travis was in. In his eyes, the day was sunny as though there weren’t a single cloud in a summer sky.

It was one of the first dates he had ever been on. Well, to call it a date would be misleading. He’d only ever met girls through the Internet—probably less than three of them at that point of his life—and this was what he called an ‘Internet first date’. It was the sort of date where neither the boy or the girl knew very much about each other, one where time was spent to get to know each other rather than to enjoy each other’s company. It was the sort of date where one gauged the chemistry between each other, if it even existed.

Travis’ cell phone rang. His heart skipped a beat. It was Malissa. She was calling him. He cleared his throat and let a low rumble roll through his throat before he answered.

“Hello?”

“Hey Travis!” Mallissa greeted. She had an ordinary voice, and Travis was relieved. He wasn’t sure if there was ever a voice he couldn’t stand, but it was good that she didn’t sound like a man.

“Hey, Malissa? I’m here. Where are you?” He looked left, and then he looked right. There didn’t appear to be anybody on the entire block. He wondered if he was in the wrong place.

“I’m here. By the train exit.”

“Oh.” He looked around again. “Can you tell me what it looks like where you are?”

“Umm…” she said with an uncertain chuckle. “You got out at Prospect Park station, right?”

He looked back at the station sign, just in case. “Yeah, yeah. Uhh…what are you wearing? I’ll come find you.”

“I’m wearing jeans, and a white coat.”

“Okay.” Still on the phone, he started walking to his left, hoping to see a figure off in the distance. Some number of paces later, he did see a figure. “Oh, okay. I think I see you. I’ll be right there.”

As Travis walked towards the figure, he roughly calculated that Malissa was not particularly short or curvy. He’d had a dream several nights before in which he’d met a girl named Malissa. The dream took place in a dark bar, the colors dominated by dim browns. He’d bumped into her on the way up the wooden stairs up to the second level of the pub. In his dream, this Malissa was short and curvy, with chocolate brown hair that ended at her shoulders. As he turned to say sorry for bumping into her, he looked into her soft eyes that were the color of coffee with cream. He was about to say sorry, but instead frowned curiously and asked, “Malissa?”

As he closed the distance to the stranger, his eyes resolved the image of the previously faceless and formless entity who captured his heart so readily. Was this girl, with her long legs in slightly rumply jeans that rose and rose until they disappeared under a somewhat fluffy white fur coat, Malissa? With her head turned away from him, he wasn’t sure yet.

The girl turned towards him and their eyes met. Instantly, a smile sparked across her face. “Travis?” she asked. Travis returned a warm smile. “Hey Malissa,” he said.

Malissa raised her arms to hug him. Despite not being used to giving or receiving hugs, Travis managed to hug her back without fumbling too much. She was a little bit taller than he was, which some part of his unconscious registered as being ever so slightly disappointing. Though Travis was never a very superficial fellow, he did have a typical male preference for girls to be shorter than him. But of course, these thoughts did not occur to him at the time.

They took a short walk through Prospect Park and discovered an instant air of familiarity and comfort. There was no sense of artifice between them, and no games were being played—not that Travis even knew at the time what games could be played. They were simply a boy and a girl who were fond of each other, and who found each other’s company to be a most pleasant thing to have. In time, Malissa led them to a quiet coffee shop some ways away from the park.

Being a gentleman—albeit a novice one, as he hadn’t much practice being one for a date—he opened the door for Malissa. They walked down to the menu to order their drinks. On the wall behind the Bohemian looking hipster with stringy blond hair manning the counter was a blackboard with a dusty handwritten menu.

“What are you getting?” Malissa asked Travis.

Travis had decisively chosen the blackberry tea immediately upon reading it on the menu, and said as such. “What about you?”

“Hmm…I dunno…” she said with a feminine singsong tone of curiosity. Travis was immediately taken by her unwitting charm. “I think I’ll have the black Japanese cherry tea,” she decided.

As a gentleman, he had learned to order for a lady. This would be the first time that he did so. There were several other customers ahead of them, so the two of them continued chatting. When it was their turn to order, he turned to the Bohemian.

“I’ll have the blackberry tea and-”

He had forgotten what Malissa wanted.

With a sheepish grin, he turned to Malissa. “Uhh, heh, what did you want again?”

“Hmm? Oh, the, uh…the black Jap-”

“Oh right,” he remembered. “And she’ll have the black Japanese cherry tea,” he said to the clerk. The clerk asked him if he wanted honey or sugar in his tea, which surprised Travis. He’d never ordered a tea before and was accustomed to having tea plain: he wasn’t aware that there were other choices. He said no to the honey or sugar. Malissa did the same, and they sat down at a square table. Rather than facing each other, they sat at adjacent sides of the table. Travis liked it better this way as they were sitting closer together than they were if they were across each other. They took their coats off and settled in. He noticed that she was wearing a white knit shawl sweater that draped along her long slender arms, the same color as her coat. It was probably her favorite color, he thought.

The two young lovers-to-be began chatting away, the conversation easy and flowing. After a small while, Malissa noticed that Travis had yet to take a sip of his tea.

“How come you haven’t touched your tea?”

“Oh, it’s still very hot,” he replied.

“Oh, really? I like my tea piping hot,” she said.

Travis acted according to his most natural gentlemanly ways and recorded this preference in his mind.

Over their hot teas, they talked on and on about anything and everything. Over the next several hours, Travis began to see what a sweet girl she was, the only sweet girl he’d meet for the longest time. He began to discover just how beautiful Malissa was, in her own ways. He found it endearing how she still hand-wrote letters to her grandmother in Poland, and how much she enjoyed doing things the old-fashioned way. A gentleman of the old school himself, these things resonated with him on a very deep level. He was rather impressed and taken by the care she took to stop and smell the roses.

In time, Travis noticed the sun had set and the skies had become dark. Their teas had been exhausted, so he asked Malissa if she wanted to get another drink.

“Oh, no, that’s alright,” she said in a voice that was ever so slightly tinged with a Polish accent. After listening to her talk for hours and hours, he had come to find the lilt of her voice to be rather unique to her, and endearing too. “Do you want to go see a movie?”

This was a good sign, Travis thought. “Sure. Is there a movie theater nearby?”

“Yeah, there’s one right by the park where we met.”

They collected themselves and left the coffee shop. Having exited into the dark evening, Malissa giggled.

“I’m not very good at finding my way around,” she said sheepishly.

Travis chuckled. “Heh, I’m not very good at navigating either. I know I should be, but I’m not.” + After five years, I have finally begun work on this roman 

“Which way did we come from?” she asked, looking left and right.

Travis looked to the right and decided instinctively that it was the right direction to travel. After a block, Malissa regained her orientation and they made their way to the theater.

There were several films playing at what seemed to Travis to be an independent cinema. He took the opportunity to suggest watching a movie that he had heard about. The Last King of Scotland was playing, and he wanted to hear the supposedly good accent work that was done for the film. Malissa didn’t oppose watching, so he paid for their tickets—a gesture she was pleased about—and they seated themselves in the back of the dark auditorium by the wall.

As a gentleman, Travis would not try to put any ‘moves’ on his date. It was, after all, the very first time they had met. But more importantly, he didn’t know any moves. It would be dishonest, however, to say that he did not feel an instinct to put an arm around her shoulder. He did note that she did not push down the arm of the theater seat and, whether consciously or not, edged ever so slightly closer to her. She must’ve done the same, because after they removed their coats, he could feel the warmth of her arm on his skin.

Before long, a few more people filled the seats and the already dim theater auditorium became even dimmer. The film started, and Malissa shifted in her seat. The heat from her body created currents of perfume that wafted into Travis’ nose. He thought it was a pleasant enough fragrance, if a little too musky for a woman. It occurred to him that he was wearing cologne himself, and wondered what she thought about the scent he was wearing, if she thought or smelled anything at all.

In the middle of a tense scene, Travis’ leg made a realization. Their legs were touching! He felt warmer for it. Yes, it was a physical warmth that he felt that was nothing more than the result of thermodynamics. But it was also a tender warmth that grew in his heart. He was trying his best not to make very much of it, his very absolute best. He’d always had a tendency towards maintaining a very moderate temperament. Alas, his young and inexperienced heart just couldn’t help but puff up just a little bit, swelling ever so slightly with the happiness of possibility.

At that moment, Malissa exhaled, and Travis smelled a bit of bad breath. He chuckled in his mind that it was good he did not try to kiss her. It wasn’t the stomach-turning bad breath borne from garlic or anything. In fact, he recognized that it was the breath of someone who hadn’t hadn’t eaten or drank anything in a long time. He knew this because he himself had gone without food or drink for extended periods of time before—not that it was because he too had an eating disorder. After a quick mental pat-down, he determined that he did not have any mints or gum in his pockets to offer her.

The movie finished and the two of them left the theater. There was a cool breeziness to the air that night. They both breathed in the fresh air and saw a gentle smile on each other’s faces. Both of them knew in each other that they did not want the night to end. But it was eleven o’ clock at night, and it was time to return to their respective homes. Travis wished to take her home: he was of the old school, and protective as well. But he didn’t express this desire because he was afraid to come off as too aggressive. After all, they’d only just met eight hours ago, and he was sure that she would prefer to protect her privacy until things got a little more serious.

Instead, he saw her off in the subway station. Her train arrived first, and before she boarded, she hugged him and gave him a peck on the cheek. It was the first kiss he’d ever gotten from a girl, and he would remember the girlish smile she had on her face and the fleeting sensation of her soft lips on his cheek for the rest of his life. On the way back home, he plugged his ears with a pair of earphones. He started listening to a song he’d recently found to be a real favorite of his. Have I the right to hold you? You know I’ve always told you, hat we must never ever part, went The Honeycombs.

He’d discovered the song while exploring his penchant for music from eras long past. He first started with the eighties, an era he was too young to have appreciated but was lucky enough to thanks to modern technologies like radio and music sharing websites. As he matured, so did his taste in music. And at the age of twenty, Travis was at a stage where he enjoyed music of the sixties, from forty years before. The song was entitled ‘Have I The Right’, and little did he know, he would be listening to that song many longing months to come ¶