July 20, 2004

Words We Don't Have

By Richard Bulkeley © 2004

There is an African tribe that has no word for goodbye. When it’s time to go, they just turn around and go. Now, I’m not sure if this is a real African tribe, or one of those apocryphal ones (like the dubious Chinese proverbs people are fond of), but at the moment, I wish I was part of that tribe.

I’m at the airport, saying farewell to my soon to be ex-girlfriend, and what I want more than anything else in the world right now is to walk away. I want to walk through the security check and towards the plane without looking back.

Her hair smells like apples, and the subtle scent of her shampoo is squeezing the bottom of my lungs. It always amazes me the power that smells have to evoke memories and emotions and all the other stuff that our more rational senses filter out in darker moments.

Ultimately, Robert DeNiro’s character in Heat said it best “don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” In my case, the heat is a metaphor, an almost physical need to travel and be alone, but it’s just as scary and life altering as the police. Well, it’s been closer to thirty minutes, and she still isn’t allowing me to walk away. Truth is, I don’t really want to go. There is always a lot of dead time before catching a plane, and there are worse ways to spend it than hugging a good-looking woman.

Now, admittedly, these were the words of a fictional armed robber, and it might seem sick to try and apply them to the life of an arrogant, confused, emotionally retarded twenty-something. But I do. It’s not like I do anything more criminal than smoking an occasional joint. I’ve really got no excuse for my predisposition towards rejecting the trappings of civilized life. When I think about it, it’s kind of sad that I see a long-term relationship as just a trapping of civilized life. Or that I pretend I think that. It’s not that I didn’t love Kate. I did.

But it’s over, whether or not I still love her – and I do. I just don’t love her like I used to. When we first got together, it was tingles down the spine, an interminable goofy grin, and all the other sickly Hollywood clichés that seem so apt when your hormones take over. Now, it’s a warm fondness. Before time took its toll, I loved her in the same way I loved my right hand. Life without her would have been possible, but inconceivable. If you’re feeling cynical, and I usually am, it’s possible to say that I loved her because she performed some of the functions of my right hand. But, for a dozen more reasons besides, I loved her. Now, well, my feelings towards her are more on par with how I regard my baby teeth. Sure, they were nice, and useful while they lasted, and the sight of them (my mother keeps everything) brings back some warm memories, but that’s it.

Or so I tell myself, and have been for the last month. We’ve both noticed an edge of desperation creeping into the relationship recently, and we’ve both kept quiet. We’d rather slip into the North Atlantic singing “Abide With Me” (or more likely trying for one last quickie on the poop deck of the HMS Titanic) than scramble around trying to find lifeboats. Neither of us would have admitted that we knew that the massive iceberg in the shape of a jumbo jet with a kangaroo on the tail was coming, but we would have had to be idiots to forget it. While love makes fools out of men, and women (although it’s more expected of them), there are limits.

So here we are, locked in one last embrace. There’s precious little emotion in it, and what little there is is precious. I wish I could cry, but I have only cried once in the last decade. I’m a deliberate emotional cripple and it took the death of my best friend in a climbing accident, the death of my grandfather (of a throat cancer that robbed him of the dignity and strength that mere old age and the shadow of Hitler’s evil couldn’t), and a two-day bender to weaken my resolve.

The final split is about as anti-climactic as it is awkward. English doesn’t really have the right word for this situation. I mean, “see ya” is definitely overly casual, almost cruel in its indifference. But then, “farewell” is almost too formal; it’s become a noun in its own right. But English has several words for use when parting, and I end up spluttering the simplest one.

“Uh. Goodbye.”
“Yeah. Goodbye.”

And that’s it. I’m not sure if it’s appropriate or ironic, and frankly I don’t care. I’m a coward, and I walk. I barely notice anything until I walk past a stooped old man in a cowboy hat. Now, this isn’t all that unusual, we are in cowboy country after all. In fact, he’s just another retired guy with his wife, flying somewhere.

What gets me is that he’s with his wife. I remember a half-joke I made the first time we discussed long-term possibilities. I said “cowboys are free, cowboys don’t have wives, farmers have wives, and I don’t want to be tied to one horizon.” This old cowboy’s got a wife, and he looks plenty happy. Now, I’m not even considering asking Kate to marry me. But I do realise that I’ve been an asshole.

I believe that everyone has a moment where they are given the opportunity to make a magnificent gesture. The universe grants us a limited number of opportunities to stand up and be truly exceptional. Even the least of men will have moments in his life where he has a chance to reveal a character who rivals those we love in the great stories.

With a sickening clarity, I realise that this is one of mine. I can either keep walking towards the gate and cut the sundry bonds that I have accrued on this patch of earth, or I can turn around and walk back to the departure lounge. Ultimately though, I don’t really have a choice. The role I have created for myself inside my head requires – no, it demands – that I act like a hero. If I can’t be one, and I’m gradually resigning myself to the fact that I can’t, I can at least act like one on occasion.

I’m not Ulysses, or the Scarlet Pimpernel, or Steve McQueen. There’s no honour in destroying myself here. To nobly shoulder up and face the future has no value to any cause but my own selfishness. So I turn around and hurry back to the security check where we were separated. I can almost imagine the stirring violin music starting as the realization dawns on me what I should do.

CUT TO: Medium Close Up, our hero turning round with a grim smile on his face and walking rapidly away from the camera, back towards the security checkpoint.

It’s like I’m watching myself in a movie. Actually, it’s like I’m watching someone else in a movie. This is new and uncharacteristic territory for me, so I’m framing it in terms of something with which I am familiar: Hollywood. Everyone understands what the leading man should do in a romantic comedy, or even a romantic drama, so I’m doing it.

I break into a run as the imaginary soundtrack swells towards the inevitable crescendo. It’s easy enough to avoid the other passengers and wind up to near full speed. My arms are pumping and my backpack bounces rhythmically as I fly past and round the bit players.

They probably think I’m just another idiot who has scheduled his connecting flights badly. My smile becomes genuine for a moment as I realise that I’m actually an entirely different level of idiot. Today is my day to be an idiot of legendary proportions, at least in my own life.

Slightly out of breath, I stumble through the exit lane and come to a full and complete halt (and the airhostesses will tautologically ask us to wait for upon arrival before removing our safety belts). My safety belt was discarded a long time ago, at least a minute. This is all definitely unsafe territory. I look around. I know that the familiar shock of blonde hair will be somewhere nearby and we will run towards each other and fall back into each other’s arms, where the white-hot rush of emotions will turn me into a good man.

Well, that’s the plan anyway. But I can’t see her.


I draw disapproving glances from several of the nearby family farewells, but I’m too angry with myself to notice. I turn around and walk slowly back. It’s what I’ve always wanted, to be walking away, alone, into a grand new adventure. But it’s far more difficult to feel proud when there’s nobody there to impress.

This could have been my bright shining moment, and I blew it. I had my chance to make a grand gesture, and it ended up being as hollow as my heart. Now that’s a nice melodramatic metaphor, it’s just unfortunate that it’s true. I’m not even sure I wanted her to be there. Like I said, I’m a confused, emotionally retarded twenty-something with arrogant notions of freedom being just another word for nothing left to lose.

Richard Bulkeley is a gentleman scholar from Auckland, New Zealand.

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