A few months after my former lover, Juan, left London for good, I wrote to him.
I needed to summarize how I’d experienced the last few weeks prior to his departure.
I reluctantly say lover, but I suppose that is what we were. More than friends but not a couple.
He was unavailable (as they say) for anything more substantial, and so we met on regular occasions for a few hours here and there. We have been seeing each other on and off for months, but we have known each other much longer.
I wrote him this:
When you were preparing to leave London for good, I sat on your sofa and said, “I would like you to make me a goodbye gift. It does not have to be anything expensive or grand, it can be anything that means something to you or would mean something to me. But please, don’t palm off your old socks.”
I had to make that last caveat because I would not have put it past you to suggest I could have your old mugs or a toaster, thus was I already prepared for what could have been a real possibility.
“Anyway, I leave it with you. You don’t have to do it, but it would mean a lot to me.”
It was clear. It was simple. And above all, it was honest.
Clear, simple, and honest communication in relationships does not come naturally to me.
Years and years have passed as I tried to somehow get my wishes and desires met by the men I was dating using an unreliable mix of hoping, subtle hinting, and outright exclamations of the exact opposite of what I wanted; it did not work quite so well.
I have spent a lot of time asking myself why I was finding it so difficult to simply say what I wanted. Of course—like in so many aspects of our lives—the answer is fear. And in particular, fear of rejection.
But it became clear that rejection, much like affirmation, comes our way irrespective of whether we can communicate our deepest wishes or not. And so I carefully (and somewhat reluctantly) embarked on this journey of trying to say what I was really hoping for.
Despite Juan’s inability to express emotions freely or share much of his inner world, I adored him.
His quietness and somewhat insular lifestyle were wonderful antidotes to my fully-packed, ever rushing life. During my visits, I’d sit amongst piles of books framing the sofa on either side, be given a cup of tea, and stare at him through short conversations and prolonged silences.
His apartment was always quiet and so was he. I would walk down a packed London high street during my pockets of free time, press the buzzer, and he would open the door. The quietness would wash over me drowning out the noise of the day as if submerging my head into warm bathtub water.
When I was angry with him, I would think, “What does this person ever really give me? He never goes out of his way for me.” And when I was happy, I would think, “He is the only one who really gives me his full and undivided attention. Such a rarity these days.”
There was always this duality between uncertainty and gratitude, and I was never sure which of the two was actually true. Was I being used or was I being gifted something?
Every week that edged closer to his departure, I could see the already minimally furnished apartment slowly being stripped down to its bareness. Moving boxes were methodically and slowly filled with books. It felt like there was never really much else. And so I dreaded the last time we would be together like a child who did not want the summer holidays to end.
And with this clinging feeling in my stomach, I wanted him to make me a gesture—a personal gift I could hold on to.
And his reply was:
“Okay, I think I have an idea.”
And just as I wanted to open my mouth to give some more options he said “Okay, leave it now. Leave it with me.”
In the end, he left without giving me anything at all.
He mumbled something about Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, which he bought for £1.99 from a charity shop and thought it was one of the greater books he’s read.
“Actually, I considered giving this to you. But then I thought, it is almost too valuable to give away.” And with those words, it went into his removal boxes, never to be seen again. It wasn’t like I had any big expectations of him. I already knew his attitude towards material things, but I was curious to see whether he would make himself do it for me—a sign of affection I wanted so badly.
And that was it.
Life is always about giving and receiving, but it is important to understand that it is rarely from the same source.
I have received so many wonderful things from people, most of which I did not have to ask for.
I had done for him what I would have hoped for myself. I sourced an Antonio Tapies print for him because I knew he liked art and in particular this artist. One of Tapies’ essential themes was the value found in the most humble things, something that must have clearly been appealing to Juan.
I ordered it from a fine arts museum in Spain, and when it arrived, I wrapped it, stored it on top of my wardrobe, and delighted in the anticipation of giving it to him.
My message to him ended with this:
“After our last argument and the week’s distance that ensued, I decided to give it to you anyway. It was chosen for you, not for anyone else. You said thank you and hugged me and it was a pleasure to give it to you. I remember that clearly.”
And somehow it was okay. Until I thought about it today. Was that really what happened?
I sent this to him because with the potency that four months of distance brings, I was all of a sudden not so convinced anymore that my perception of these last few hours together was as close to reality as I thought they were.
I had a slight suspicion that perhaps we both experienced the same situation completely differently.
It is no secret that (especially romantic) relationships lend themselves to filtering our partner’s behavior through our own perceptions, experiences, and fears—and with that curious uncertainty had I taken a few steps down from my moral high horse I felt I was riding on to try and check in with someone else’s reality.
And? Was I far off?
Although Juan normally took hours to reply to much less convoluted messages, I stared at the three dancing dots on my phone screen letting me know that my recipient was typing away almost instantly.
His reply was clear, simple, and above all—honest.
“I suggested the Gibran book, but you did not like it because I had bought the book from a charity shop and so the idea got tossed aside. But what you don’t understand is that I spend much more money and effort on maintaining books than on actually buying them; they are precious to me.
So, I thought, perhaps something perishable. A shared moment. I know I am selfish, but I absolutely enjoyed that last drink with you. It was wonderful. It was my goodbye gift from you to me.”
Even now, I am not quite sure what to make of it.
It wasn’t a big revelation or dramatic expression of emotion. It was just a clear description of what was important to him and in hindsight, I wish I could have had that conversation face to face.
We make so many assumptions about how we think other people experience life and those assumptions are almost always limited to our own perceptions.
What I have learned, and yet consciously and conveniently ignored many times, is that two people—no matter how close—experience the same situation almost always in different ways.
My uncertainty about Juan’s attitude towards me meant I saw the book as a worthless, greasy old pamphlet I could order from Amazon any time. I interpreted this contemplated gesture of his as me not even being worth the £1.99 he spent on it originally.
And only he knows why he mentioned and then dismissed the idea so quickly almost in one breath. Perhaps he was uncertain too.
The only way to find out is to put yourself out there and offer that transparency.
Even if, in my case, it took four months to muscle up the courage to do so.
I looked out of my workspace window and flicked through Gibran’s Prophet:
“You give but little when you give of your possessions.
It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.”
And with that, there is the kind of closure I wanted.
The one where what is left is gratitude that someone was part of your ride in the way you needed it.