LOVE AND LEAVING IN THE CONDITIONAL by Kimberly Y. Liu
It’s not like crucial information wasn’t revealed in the early stages.
Lars and I, we met under the context of illicitness.
My boyfriend’s name was Léo. Tell him you have a boyfriend, tell him, I said to myself.
“My boyfriend is also an engineer,” I announced in an attempt to ensure that my initial attraction could not complicate itself.
It complicated itself.
One would have said that neither of us were cheaters—as if there were a specific size and shape and way of person who is predictably a cheater.
Lars was tall and slender, with striking facial features poised behind glasses made more for seeing than being seen. He had the emotional security of a youngest child with doting parents, and the social exuberance of a scientist who understood the currency of extraversion.
Men and women alike have called me overwhelmingly attractive but with a somewhat off-putting quality, likely the cause of my wary, analytical eyes and antisocial aura.
Exes would say that my interest is hard to capture but once seized, I am monogamous to a fault, tragically devoted, prone to melodramatic infatuation.
All of this is to say that neither of us saw anything coming.
Through my own interpretation of social cues, which would later prove to be cataclysmically faulty, I concluded that Lars had engaged in flirtatious behavior with me for five and a half hours. An unabashed compliment, a hand that finds my knee, a comment on the intimacy of a shared third language of French, a request for my number.
The media tells us that if one is a woman, it feels good to be seen. I thought I was being looked at, being wanted. It was a classic case of confirmation bias, a perfect environment for fantasy to brew: here was a Belgian electrical engineer, in New York for a semester of doctoral research, clearly attracted to me, likely looking for fun, relishing the recklessness of the city.
That night, after having scrutinized myself long and hard in the mirror trying to make an objective judgement about how I had looked, I watched the blurry image of Léo’s face lag on my phone screen. This was my partner for twenty months out of the twenty-four of our relationship: pixels from France doing their best to assemble themselves into an image of him.
“We’ve been talking about this for years, Léo. You know I can’t imagine feeling this close with anyone else.”
“Oui, je sais. You’re right—maybe it’ll make me appreciate you more.”
I said nothing.
“Du coup, euh…”
“Bref, euh… Okay. Bon. We probably shouldn’t see them a second time.”
“Yes. And no names, so we don’t try to find them online and compare ourselves.”
A flicker, and then his voice cut off.
“Oui, allô? Tu m’entends? Hello?”
“Hello? Yeah I just said—”
“Yeah, you said no names, I heard.”
“Okay…” A pause. “Tu me manques.”
“Me too. I miss you too.”
The feeling of liberation is like a well-composed movie score. It accompanies all perception and increases the chances of acting out of passion.
Under scattered stars enrobed in the purple of twilight, I wore a carefully selected outfit on top of my body with every pertinent inch of its skin freshly shaved: I was Lars’ date to a university-wide social. Or so I thought. Four hours and three drinks later, Lars revealed that his copine was also a PhD student in psychology.
“Pardon? Ta quoi?” I almost demanded, incredulous. Instead, I counted to three, took a breath, and said, in what was surely an impassive voice, “Ah! Copine, as in friend or copine as in girlfriend?”
“Girlfriend. Cognition and perception psychology, though, not social and behavioral,” he said lightly.
Had this happened in earlier years, I would’ve thought, through the distress of shattering revelation, that the coincidence was some indicator of fate, or at least a justification for entanglement, a reason to test the limits. In hindsight, it seemed like a sick game of multiple conditionals. If a, then b. If he has a girlfriend, he can’t be involved with me. If he is flirting with me, he’s inviting me to transgress boundaries.
Sometimes I am more stubborn than smart. I tested the boundaries.
Lars walked me home. I weighed my options with every step, my facial muscles tired from the effort of masking disappointment. Even so, never before had I wished that I lived further away so to make my remaining time with him last longer. Pure affection for his person, or the thread of hope I still hung onto?
At my doorstep, ready to leave, Lars kissed me on both cheeks as before. I had a minute or two to act. All options seemed absurd, but rationality had long escaped my prefrontal cortex.
My question was likely uncomfortably straightforward but still polite: Something something I can’t kiss you? Chagrin rusts memory, it turns out.
Lars looked more than fairly surprised, and his response was a more than fairly resolute, “No.”
“Mixed signals” is what we settled on. Some over-friendliness on his part, some misinterpretation on my part, a few cultural differences between us. He apologized. Said he was happy with his relationship back home in Belgium, gave me a long hug, asked what I was looking for.
“I have a boyfriend, actually,” I said in a flat tone. “We’re in an open relationship. He lives in France.”
A moment of silence as a pedestrian passed us on the sidewalk. I looked at my shoes and Lars twiddled his fingers.
“So, friends?” he asked eventually.
Friends was better than nothing. “Okay,” I said.
Reasons for desire blur into one another. Infatuation builds as quickly as male arousal.
Which of the following forms the best causal relationship to an all-consuming desire for an unattainable person: a) genuine adoration; b) titillation of the forbidden fruit; c) something to do with pride and rejection; d) all of the above?
I had no answers. All I knew was that Lars’ presence made the world feel vast, simple, and good. That he was everything I wasn’t: indiscriminately kind and slow to judge, unwaveringly positive and unbelievably free of self-doubt.
I knew that even when I looked at him under the unflattering fluorescent lights of a subway car, everything around him blurred away. I also knew that there was a voice in my head advising me to keep my distance, and that I didn’t heed it. We’re just friends, I told myself, just friends.
Lars came over for a movie one night. When I opened the door, he was standing in a royal-blue button-down of a satin-like material, and as we pulled away from each other after our greeting, it gleamed where the light hit it. It was fitted, and I could see the graceful slope of his chest and the streamlined curve of his deltoids.
Noticing my gaze, he said, “I had a meeting with a professor, and a presentation, so I said, bon, why not wear a chemise.”
In other words, he didn’t wear it for me.
Lars lowered himself into a chair, his movements slower than usual. He seemed low-spirited and tired, like circuits within him had been cut.
As I scurried around getting glasses and opening a bottle of wine, I felt his gaze following me, burning into my back when I stretched up to reach a shelf and felt my sweater lift to expose my waist, but I didn’t dare turn my head to verify. This was an anomalous moment. Lars only ever looked at my eyes; Lars was not interested; Lars was taken. Was Lars reconsidering now?
Lars is a human, I said to myself. I’m pretty, apparently. Humans like to look at pretty things. Nothing to dwell on here.
I asked him where he wanted to watch the movie. “Out here, or in my room?” Then I added, “I think my roommate is coming back soon.”
Not trying to precipitate anything; just stating a potential inconvenience.
“Your room, then,” he said.
Doesn’t mean anything; simply avoiding a potential inconvenience.
In the dim golden light of my bedroom, we sat on my bed, propped against pillows. The movie’s play button hovered on my laptop screen. As I reached out to press it, Lars asked suddenly, “Have you ever thought something was some way, when it in reality wasn’t?”
Indicator of fate, or sick game of hypotheticals?
“Of course,” I said. “Why do you ask?”
The inch of space between our knees seemed as wide and empty as an ocean trench—one that I had thought upon first meeting him that I could close so effortlessly, one that I never thought would weigh so heavily.
“I just mean… what we think is our reality crumbles so fast,” he said. “We assume things and it changes our perception but it’s all wrong the entire time.”
“Can’t say that hasn’t happened to me recently,” I said, hoping my tone was more teasing than self-pitying.
Then he was stretching out his arms and pulling me into his shoulder, and my head was resting against his neck, and I was thinking, Is this acceptably platonic? Is it out of sympathy or pity? I wanted to ask, What are you doing? but I didn’t know or care anymore, and if this was uncertainty, then it was an uncertainty I would happily rest in forever.
Soon, it was long past midnight. My computer lay on the ground, untouched. We spent the entire time talking, our movie abandoned. We talked about death, despair, and confirmation bias; sex, drugs, and Kant. We talked about everything except ourselves or our partners—Lars was this close yet Lars did not acknowledge it. I watched the ocean trench between our knees grow only wider as the night progressed.
At the end of the night, I walked Lars down to the street, where our goodbye was brief and chaste. I returned home to a message from Léo: I don’t want this to be open anymore. Okay, I thought, okay. There was nothing to be gained from its open state anyway.
You’d think that values and personality and history should, excluding wildly aberrant circumstances, predict most possible human action.
It was the end of the semester: the night before my flight to see Léo in France and three days before Lars’ flight home to Belgium.
I found myself in what started out resembling a bad romcom.
Lars came over to help me build a new bed.
By then I had agreed to Léo’s request to be exclusive again, and resigned to the fact that my relationship with Lars—now in its remaining hours—would never be anything but platonic; I’d gotten used to telling myself that circumstances which in any other context would signify romantic or sexual interest, between us meant nothing.
So screws were turned, planks were lifted, wine was drunk. Music—atmospheric and undulating—floated in the background of our last hours together. When we at last lowered the mattress on top of the frame, we looked at each other with wide eyes, like we had accomplished something triumphant.
“I hope it doesn’t creak,” I said, very serious.
“We’ll have to test it,” Lars said.
In one sweeping motion, he picked me up and tossed me on the bed. It didn’t make a sound.
He lay down beside me, his temple and wrist touching mine.
“It’s funny… the way attraction works.” Lars was looking at the ceiling.
“Yes,” I said, not sarcastic, though I wished I were. “Yes, it’s funny.” Then I added, “Why are you thinking about this?” scared to broach the subject but reminded by the flutter in my chest that fear and excitement are just two words for the same response in the hypothalamus.
“Je dirais… that I’m attracted only to my girlfriend.”
In the brief pause, there it was, that shattering sinking feeling. Why are you telling me this, I thought, I should throw you out of my bed. But there was the dirais, the would, that sneaky conditional.
He continued, “I think it’s no longer true. That time when we were supposed to watch the movie, that’s when our relationship—hers and mine—started to crumble. And now I’m not sure I still believe that there’s only space for one person in my heart.”
My arm found itself lying across his chest, my forehead against his chin.
“Yeah,” I said quietly. “I don’t know either.”
His hand on mine now, his thumb stroking my fingers.
What I’d been conditioned to think was so improbable a thing had happened so fast that I had to actively remind myself that it really was Lars’ body which was enlaced with mine.
Novel experiences create in the brain a rush of dopamine, a neurotransmitter best described as hedonism’s right-hand man.
Lars in this context was unfamiliar; having imagined him in my sheets didn’t make it less so. There was the rush, the novelty, the surprise, but mostly there was the realization of how far I had fallen down that godforsaken trench, looking up at his face haloed by the dim light, vacillating between concentration and tranquil contentedness. Riding along the waves of this realization was the regret that this would never be anything but novel.
The clock ticked.
Sprawled out against him on the beds, I asked, not quite expecting an answer, “Comment ça se fait qu’on s’est trouvés, but so late?” I meant mostly how did this happen, but how did we find each other sounded more poetic.
“I don’t know. But the night is young,” Lars said with a serene smile, but I heard the sadness in his voice.
And the night was young, as we talked, as our naked limbs entwined around each other, as if this was how it always would be.
And then the night was no longer young, and then it was over.
In the clarity of imminent departure, I tried hard to carve the moment into memory. The softness of our shadows on the pale yellow wall, our grey forms fusing then severing, fusing then severing. The grip of his hand on mine, my hand on his, the movement of our bodies synced with our breaths.
Our goodbye was quiet and stiff.
“À la prochaine,” he said, looking back before he descended the stairs. À la prochaine, à la prochaine. Certainly, there would be no next time.
Against the hum of the plane over the Atlantic, the distance between me and Léo shrinking with every hour, I played out arguments in my head to gauge the extent to which I was a bad person.
I donated monthly to the World Wide Fund for Nature. I quietly tipped my taxi drivers and baristas. I hadn’t eaten anything with a heart or brain in ten years. But sometimes I purchased plastic water bottles. And often, I forgot to smile at strangers.
Throughout my life, I had considered myself many bad things—unintelligent, unattractive, self-pitying, self-absorbed—but never a bad person. Maybe this is the end of it, I thought, as the plane hurtled to a stop on the runway of Charles de Gaulle airport, and my phone chimed with a text from Léo: I’m here 🙂.
A week after my arrival, Léo asked me if I wanted to go to Belgium for the weekend.
“Maybe,” I told him. “Maybe.”
“You’ve been wanting to go for a while.”
It was true. I had always thought it was so outrageously close to Paris that there was no reason not to go. But now that the city was imbued with the connotation of a secret lover—or whatever Lars was—the prospect of being there sent me into a slight panic.
Should I see Lars? Would he want to see me? Was he still in his relationship? Would I want to see him if nothing were to happen? If I weren’t to see him, would I still want to go to Brussels?
Three days later, we were exiting Brussels-Midi station, my hand in Léo’s, walking past the frituur I was to meet Lars alone at the next day after Léo’s return to Paris for work.
When lust and longing intrude, it seems there’s no difference between memory and fantasy. Scenes lodged themselves into my head at inopportune times, when I was walking through alleyways holding Léo’s hand, or sipping beer across from him at noon, or watching his chest rise under the blanket. Sensations of Lars crept into the moment—his lips trailing down my neck, his hip bones rocking against mine, whether memory of New York or fantasy of Brussels, they intruded electric and charged.
At the train station on Sunday, Léo said playfully, “Don’t miss your train. And don’t let your friend pécho you!”
I had expected him to ask why I would want to stay an extra day in Belgium for a friend, to ask about how we met, to poke and prod. But there was nothing asked, only the look of serenity on his face as he gave me a kiss.
“I won’t, I won’t. He has a girlfriend,” I said, avoiding his eyes, guilt blossoming in my stomach like a limp, bleeding thing.
Two kisses on the cheeks never felt more platonic. Lars and I walked for hours through the winding streets of Brussels which, with their eclectic architectural styles and wider streets, were a welcome relief from the narrow homogeneity of Paris.
As we ate our andalouse sauce-coated frites on a bench and watched the city wake from its winter afternoon slumber, Lars recounted how his relationship, though still existent, was a vestige of its former self.
All I could say was, “I hope I didn’t interfere.”
“No, don’t worry,” he said, the familiar peaceful smile on his face. “The problems appeared way before you.”
With thirty minutes left to the departure of the train that would send me back to my boyfriend, Lars had me pressed against the corridor wall of the Airbnb building I had shared with Léo, one of his hands between my legs, the thumb of the other on my tongue, and I could taste the vague saltiness of the frites from four hours ago.
The clock ticked, and he, as the engineer, knew it better than I did.
“We’ll be quick,” he said in my ear.
“Où? Where?” I pulled my face away from his, asking, incredulous.
“Dans la chambre,” he said.
Chambre, I thought, quelle chambre? Which room? How?
“The keys are all hanging on the doors,” he added.
“Mais t’as pas une capote?” I asked.
“I do. I have one.”
Incredulous. I was incredulous. I was in disbelief and I was ecstatic as I climbed the stairs, my hand to my forehead, muttering, “Incroyable, absolument incroyable.”
He’s supposed to have a girlfriend, I thought. He’s supposed to have a girlfriend yet this morning while packing his bag he figured there was a possibility that we would be somewhere, here, entering an Airbnb room we didn’t book, throwing off our bags and coats in a frenzy, him tearing away my pants, his mouth hot on mine, the cold leather of the couch against my skin as he moved in me, we moved against each other, the sound of my breath sharp in the silent room, the back of his shirt balled under my hands as I felt the pulse in a place deep inside—as my eyes strained to reach his through the dark.
I caught my train by thirty seconds. We had run from one side of Brussels to the other. He’d taken my backpack, I his hand. It felt good—it felt like this was what desire drawn out over five months and two continents was supposed to culminate in: our coats flapping in the night, our fingers embodying the age-old metaphor of fitting like a puzzle. Consummation, avowal. Infidelity, I guess.
As he relayed to me, a margin of thirty seconds is a feat even for an engineer. For twenty-eight of them, we looked at each other through the window of the Thalys train, our chests heaving. I pressed my hand against the window’s frosted pane, my fingers spread out. Then I brought them against my lips, and extended my hand out in his direction. Was I really blowing him a kiss? I had never even done that with Léo. Last time I did it, I must’ve been five. What was I doing?
From the platform, Lars returned the kiss. The train was pulling out from the station. I was in one of those backward-facing seats, which meant I was pulling away from him. Soon he had disappeared behind the seat in front. His eyes never left me.
At home in Paris, Léo’s eyes lit up when I entered the room.
He kissed me; in a flash of fear I imagined him tasting on my lips those of another man. He didn’t. There was nothing to give anything away, to spur him into a rage against me that I deserved.
He sat me down on his legs, put his arms around my waist and rested his head against my neck—completely trusting, almost infantile—just glad to be in the presence of me. Me: wrong, philandering, unrecognizable me.
“Almost missed my train,” I said, teasingly, but a heaviness was forming in my chest. It was true, though. I had almost missed it because of Lars.
And I would have. I would’ve missed it to stay another few hours with Lars.
What’s worst is the ease with which I seem to have gotten away with it. In novels and movies, landmines are everywhere. An inopportune text on a phone, a coincidental run-in on the street, a misspoken name during sex.
Not here. Perfectly platonic messages, always a country of distance, precision with every direct address.
In bed, Léo took me in his arms, his cheek resting against mine.
“Comment ça se fait qu’on s’est trouvés?” he asked softly. How did we find each other?
I hesitated, no longer sure how to respond to this question that was neither new nor really looking for an answer.
“I don’t know,” I said, glad the proximity of our faces hid my expression from him. It was true though—I didn’t know how we had managed to find each other. I reached out and turned off the light, and darkness enveloped us. Soon, Léo’s breathing slowed and deepened, and I lay against him with my eyes squeezed tight, as if trying to shut the world out from us, as if trying to shield this person from the depravity of others, of me.
In the dark of the room, I thought about the way we will wake up to each other, the same way we have in the innumerous mornings over the past two years. How I’ll feel on my cheek a vague softness of his lips and the prickle of his beard, how I’ll hear his footsteps fade as he makes his way to the kitchen. I’ll hear the click of the kettle as he prepares the French press the way I like it, hear the jar of raspberry preserves pop open, smell the fragrance of his toasted brioche waft from him to me.
“Did you have a nice time in Belgium?” he will ask over coffee he has poured for me, over bread he has made for me.
I imagined nodding, rubbing my eyes so I wouldn’t have to look at him. I imagined coming back to this home again and again for another two years or more, dragging behind me a suitcase of guilt that smells of Lars and that grows heavier with each trip.
Then I imagined shaking my head before telling Léo the truth.
“I’m sorry. C’est toi que j’aime, I love you, it’s only ever been you,” I would say, concluding the confession. But could I still say that with certainty?
In the morning, I awake to coffee that Léo has poured and brioche that he made on Monday as the Thalys train shuttled me back to him from Lars.
“Hope you had a nice time in Belgium,” he says as I feel on my cheek the vague softness of his lips and the prickle of his beard. “I certainly did!” he adds.
I smile and bring my coffee cup up to my mouth, relieved that I wouldn’t have to respond. Across the table, Léo smiles back, and I remember how defeated he had seemed when I first met him, his lifeless eyes and messy beard, his features surrendered to gravity under the hanging grey sky of the Parisian winter. How in the past two years, home has changed from being a location to wherever he was—how we were always unsure about our future, but never able to separate.
“We saved each other, n’est-ce pas?” I used to say.
I blink dryly. What happened to that certainty?
“Si je revenais, on irait où?” I ask him. If I came back again, where would we go?
“Ira. On ira où?” he corrects me, using the simple future instead of the conditional. Where will we go when you come? “We’ll go wherever you want, as long as you come,” he says. “And why wouldn’t you?”
Here it is, Léo’s hope and commitment to our future sprawled out, simple and steadfast as grammar. He wants our future to be neither contingent on something nor hypothetical—he wants it to be unconditional. And I realize that there’s no version of the truth that wouldn’t destroy him.
That evening in the Airbnb, as Lars and I rushed to get dressed, I had asked, “If I came to Brussels again, would we see each other?”
I must’ve spoken too quietly, for there had been no reply, only the fumble of a zipper in the dark.
On the plane droning over the Atlantic back towards New York, taking me further and further from both Léo and Lars, the cabin feels like a coffin. A coffin filled with me and my lies—big lies, little lies.
In a wave of turbulence that rattles the plane, I clutch the armrest of my seat for want of a hand to hold. It is squared and hard, not comforting at all, and I think of the two pairs of hands I’ve held this past year, and I’m certain that I deserve neither.
I shut my eyes. Soon, I am asleep, and through the fog of semi-consciousness, I crack open my eyes to see a sea of clouds. It’s strangely quiet in the cabin; there’s the sound of water lapping. The turbulence has subsided to a rhythmic lull. This looks like Normandy; this looks like a memory. Sure enough, in the distance, half-buried in the clouds are two dark forms. It looks like Léo and I a year into the relationship, standing at the Northeastern-most coast of France, the diffuse white light of the sky forcing our eyes into slits. In this memory, I watch him: a small dark figure on the brown beach of winter’s low tide. “What a gift and a curse it is,” I think as he reaches down to greet the feeble waves, “to have someone who makes you afraid of dying.” Then a thousand sparkling objects bob up in the water—empty oysters and sea glass and glinting bottle shards of possibility and hypotheticals, none of which I had ever believed I was interested in. Yet I’ve left Léo on the shore and am wading deeper into the waves while reaching futilely for these shiny ocean fragments, until the sea floor gives out under me, I’m treading water and up to my nose in it, and Léo is nowhere to be seen.
With a jolt of the plane, the scene vanishes. As the engines roar and the intercoms blare and the plane hurtles down into New York, I ask myself of Léo, How did I manage to find you? How did I ever manage to find someone like you? Comment, comment ça se fait que je t’ai trouvé?