Sometimes when I’m watching old movies, I can’t help dwelling on the crucial plot devices that have been lost to, well, devices. The missed call, which today rings in our pockets. The long-lost love, who now lives forever in our Twitter feed.
Consider Doctor Zhivago: A chance sighting of Lara on a city street leads Yuri’s heart to rupture as she disappears before Yuri can reach her. Had the Internet been around during the Bolshevik Revolution, Yuri and Lara never would have lost each other. They would have been Facebook “comrades.”
Consider the plot twists in our own lives, moments that hinged on uncertainty, when all information was not laid out before us. Modern technology has made our world smaller and our lives easier, but perhaps it has also diminished life’s mysteries, and with them, some sense of romance.
In the summer of 1991, without social networks to tether us, I felt such heart-bursting longing for a woman I loved that I traveled across two countries and an ocean to make sure she would not wander out of my life. It was only in her absence that I was able to appreciate the depth of love I felt.
I met Joelle in March while I was still in college. She had recently graduated and was knocking around Peoria, Illinois, her hometown,
figuring out her next step. After two chance meetings, we began going out. Before long, we were rarely apart.
We spent less time with our friends, who could not track the electronic footprints of our relationship. The outside world fell away, and it became just us, slowly unlocking each other’s secrets, which in those days were not posted on “walls” for anybody to scroll through.
But our time together was coming to an end. Before we met, I had planned a summer backpacking adventure across Europe, and Joelle had been talking about a move to Chicago. I told her I would write, and I gave her the address of a friend in Wales, where I would be with my parents at the midpoint of my trip.
After landing in Frankfurt, Germany, I visited the Roman ruins in Trier, spent the summer solstice in Strasbourg, and saw a rock concert in a soccer stadium packed with 50,000 Germanic-looking bikers in Basel. In Budapest, my ancestral home, I heard church choirs and stood before masterworks of art. It was beautiful.
And I was miserable. I could not have been lonelier. All I could think about was Joelle.
Sitting alone on a bench outside St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, eating street schnitzel, I wished I were in Peoria, sitting across from her. I wrote her letters as if I could will her into my trip—long, heartfelt missives.
By the time I reached London to rendezvous with my parents, I was inconsolable. The distance between us had become unfathomable, and my spirits sank to a depth I had never known. I sobbed and pouted and slunk around London for three days.
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Finally, my father suggested (insisted, really) that I just call her.
So from our hotel room in London, I called Peoria. Except that Joelle wasn’t in Peoria. Her mother told me that she had packed up and moved to Chicago. My letters, she said, were sitting there on the table, unopened.
I called Chicago next but was unable to reach her. There was no answer, no machine, no voice mail, no caller ID to show the missed call. Just a landline ringing in an empty apartment. There was no way of knowing where she was or when she would be back. I became gripped by jealousy, panicked by the idea of her settling into a new life.
Here I was in Europe, weeping in front of relics for all the wrong reasons, and she was gallivanting around Chicago meeting people? It seemed ludicrous to admit I somehow thought she might hang around Peoria, waiting for me, but that was, it occurred to me, exactly what I had expected.
My parents and I drove to Wales the next day, and when there was no letter from Joelle waiting, I broke down into a blubbering mess. My body was in Wales, surrounded by craggy green hills and bleating sheep, but my heart was in Chicago.
My parents put me on a train back to London to catch the next flight home. At Heathrow, however, I was told that the round-trip airline ticket my parents had bought me could be used only out of Paris. So it was off to Dover, where I caught a ferry across the channel.
The boat was filled with fellow students, and as we staggered off in Calais and rode the night train to Paris, I regaled them with my tale of woe.
Forget it, they said. One guy said that he was meeting buddies in Pamplona to run with the bulls and that I should join. A girl was headed to France to wait on tables and lie on the beach. “Come with,” she offered.
“No, no,” I said. “If I don’t get back, I’m going to lose her.”
I was roundly ridiculed, and they said I would forever regret cutting short this once-in-a-lifetime trip.
In Paris, I headed straight for Charles de Gaulle Airport. I’d be in Chicago soon. All I had to do was get on a plane.
But I couldn’t get on a plane. Inside the United terminal, it was utter chaos, with people 40 deep at the ticket counter. I would not be getting on the next plane—or any other.
Exhausted, I lugged my backpack toward the trains, tears in my eyes. What a disaster. Stuck in Paris for three weeks! Could things be worse?
But as I left the United terminal, I found myself in the British Airways wing. I was facing three smiling ticket agents.
“You don’t happen to have any seats today?” I asked.
“We have seats,” one said, “but the plane leaves in 20 minutes.”
The one-way ticket cost twice what my parents paid for my round-trip fare. I glanced at my credit card: “For emergency use only.”
I bought the ticket. This was the part I didn’t tell my parents.
At least not until four years later, on the night before Joelle and I married. I confessed it after my father told a roomful of friends and family the tale of the despondent boy who chose love over bleating sheep, Roman ruins, and all the wine in Paris.