There was no echo.
Words dictated by my heart flowed from my fingers in a trance, feverish with fear and the despair of someone who knows but doesn’t want to.
Public humiliation, threats, abuse.
Wherever he goes when he’s in the archipelago, so do I. I dutifully document his every move, blending in the background for professional purposes. Or appearing by his side for personal ones, his, never mine as I’ve always shunned the limelight he seeks, demands, and hijacks all the time.
Unless it is the topic of poetry and prose, love is private, palpable, and proud — it isn’t a pose, a performance, or a plea for the admiration of our peers.
“Arm candy,” they call it in his native tongue until he leaves me behind one fall afternoon after taking me to task again for asking too many questions.
He is shrewd.
He knows I’ve understood what I was never supposed to; he is a grifter, his every move designed to garner power and profit under the guise of generosity.
Because it’s easy to swindle those who look up to you when you don’t live among them. Because it’s easy to construct a glitzy narrative when your every word is a PR move. Because it’s easy to acquire credibility by osmosis when you cosy up to journalists — staffers and freelancers alike — who will work for you on the side because they’re hungry.
“Now that I have an in with the newspaper,” he tells his fellow travelers one night as I’m standing next to him, the only woman in a group of middle-aged businessmen. And a foreigner to boot, mild-mannered, with a comedy accent thankfully inaudible in print.
I don’t like it and smirk in response, remaining tight-lipped, standing my ground. I’m not an in, I’m a columnist with complete editorial independence. No one tells me what to write any more that anyone tells my editor what to publish.
His comeback is one of those crass, churlish jokes that demean women and he prefaces it as such, ordering me to walk away for a few minutes.
My indulgent smile is that of a wary woman willing to humor him, a wary woman who can take a joke, a wary woman for whom equality has always been a given.
It wasn’t back then and it still isn’t now but that has never stopped me from claiming it as my birthright in every interaction, be it in print or in person, wherever I’ve been in the world.
This is how I became deeply integrated into insular society, something he respects and resents in equal measure.
“Look, I have a health condition and may need surgery, it is serious,” he tells me by way of goodbye, an explanation for his obnoxious behavior I take at face value. Some people act out when distraught, I reason. It will take me years to understand that if and when they do, there’s never any malice in it.
Watching him go through airport security, I will myself to forgive him, I will myself to wish him well, I will myself to let go of all the pain within.
“Wait…” I think but the tears I’m trying not to shed make it impossible to speak.
There is still time before take-off so I run to the small crafty shop and pick out a tiny angel carved out of semi-precious stone no bigger than half my thumb. It is exquisite, I worship no god but he does, love will find a way.
I run to the airline counter and ask for my friend Grace, a supervisor who unfortunately isn’t on duty that day. Her colleague offers to help instead and gives me an envelope, a sheet of paper, and a pen. I write a hasty note, place it and the angel inside the envelope and seal it.
On it, there’s his name and his flight number.
I hand it over the outstretched hand in a uniform with airport clearance cards around her neck and watch the airline employee sprint through security and head to the gate to deliver it while someone else is already making a tannoy announcement asking him to identify itself.
He will go to the counter and retrieve the envelope.
There will be no echo.
There is echo.
“He’s back,” my housemate tells me without warning one afternoon.
I don’t understand.
“And she looks very much like you, with one notable difference, she doesn’t speak the language, poor cow!”
I react to the news by laughing out loud and bursting into tears, all at the same time. At least I now have confirmation of what I long suspected and understand why his loyal assistant took me aside on the day he left.
“Know that there’s always been many women,” she told me, matter-of-factly.
Despite all I was already aware of and all I had already been through, it was a final warning and of course I failed to heed it.
My heart is a roadblock, my heart is a dam, my heart will endure what reason cannot; I don’t know any other way to be, I still haven’t learned any other way to be.
I likely never will.
The room starts spinning. To steady myself, I lean against the kitchen wall as my housemate looks at me and shakes his head.
“When will you get it? When? Will you ever get it? Look after number one, always look after number one,” he tells me again and again before folding me into a tight hug so I don’t fall apart right there and then.
His bluntness is the reason we became friends in the first place and ended up living together. Neither of us suffers fools gladly; we’re united in our staunch refusal to co-opt the regional cult of appearances.
Tony and I, we’re pariahs of sorts, stuck between cultures and languages, deeply integrated into local society but always at a remove.
For us both, alienation and familiarity are interchangeable words that have become synonyms. Neither of us knows how to feel at home anywhere even though there’s no other place we’d rather be than here, on this small island in the middle of the North Atlantic.
I will try and fail to protect my replacement from suffering the same fate as me. Perhaps her not speaking the language shielded her; she lasts longer than I did before being discarded, just as I was.
Time and research skills will eventually bring me closure but I still wonder about her and hope she managed to overcome, somehow.
Echo is love.
For those of us who come from a background of abuse and failed relationships, this isn’t always common knowledge.
Instead, love is a reward for being good, for behaving as expected, for knowing how to follow instructions, but never for being oneself warts and all. I learned to strive for my mother’s love as a child and nothing I did was ever good enough, it still isn’t, and it’ll never be.
As a result, I’ve spent years in exhausting romantic entanglements lacking in respect, acceptance, care, and empathy. In 2013, I married for the second time. I then went on to spend many more years alone, locked inside my head as suicide became the only viable solution, the ultimate proof of love I could give myself.
I came to the conclusion I no longer wanted to live because my love was worthless and a life devoid of human warmth was abhorrent to me as a married woman.
Because there was no echo.
Love is as love does; love is or it isn’t.
You cannot demand it, earn it, or commandeer it; you cannot sell it, purchase it, or engineer it.
What starts out as a combination of happenstance and curiosity becomes a mutual appreciation society of two based on choice. To love is a daily decision; to love is to accept someone else’s unredacted humanness as they accept yours without conditions or demands. To love is to engage in an ongoing conversation where silent pauses are replete with contentment and care, not a sign of rejection or abandonment. Knowing the difference can be a steep learning process, however.
Love should never be a transaction, an abstraction of the self, or complete abnegation.
Love is echo.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.