I Fell in Love Abroad and All I Got was This Plastic Key Ring
He made me nervous from the moment I saw him.
It was the first day of college. Both of us had chosen a small town on the east coast of America for our semester abroad. Perched in the sun, I chatted mindlessly with a new friend while I was messaging my ex as though nothing had changed. Some boys strolled over and invited us to a party at their house that evening – the first accents I’d heard that weren’t American. I glanced up from my phone to make a mental note of their faces, and immediately caught the gaze of the boy standing closest to me.
He was the epitome of the cliché tall, dark and handsome. His naturally tanned skin paired with his black hair, which he had groomed to one side. The wide, deep-brown eyes that met mine were framed with long, black lashes that I envied. My favourite was his lips. They were big and full, a perfect shade of pink. He was dressed casually, and his t-shirt clung effortlessly to his toned arms and chest.
I’m not big on eye contact, but I held his gaze for a few extra seconds. I was intrigued, but I quickly shrugged it off and returned to my phone. I bailed on their party that night too.
He was French. His name was Pierre, for fuck’s sake. He became unavoidable as our social circles quickly became entwined: there were parties, school events, classes and even some casual Facebook chat. It didn’t take long to realise that the nerves I’d felt for him the first day were pure chemistry.
The next party the boys were hosting was an offer I could not refuse. I stepped into their apartment, a place that would soon become somewhere I spent most of my time on my semester abroad. Budweiser bottles proudly lined the top of their cupboards; their ‘table’, a piece of flimsy timber, was held up by cases of beer. It was where I sat each morning with my breakfast in hand, digging a spot for my plate underneath the mounds of leftovers. French and American flags patriotically lined the walls, and their beer pong setup was a permanent fixture.
Up until my arrival at the party, the connection between us had been hypothetical – we had barely had a proper conversation, but as the night progressed, it was clear we connected beyond just chemistry. He was intoxicating. I had to kiss him. We were together in the hallway, my back against his bedroom door. Our heads moved closer together as I lightly bit my lip in anticipation.
Our lips touched and I felt an electric current seamlessly ooze through my vodka buzz. This was the first time I’d felt such a vibration reach every inch of my body. I left the party alone and, as the flow of messages came in the next day from my ex, my replies began to dwindle.
That night with Pierre played on my mind for days. The soft touch of lips; his gentle grasp on my waist as he pulled me towards him. His hand sitting proudly in the small of my back as we moved through the party.
I needed more.
A week later, I was outside my apartment, waiting for him to pick me up. I was freshly shaved and telling myself this was casual, but I knew it wasn’t. The conversation flowed and our bodies moved together naturally. The feel of his muscular body on mine was heaven as we slowly undressed each other and his strong touch explored my body for the first time. I felt like I’d waited forever and I wanted him now. It was intimate and something I’d never experienced with anyone else. It was perfect.
We stayed up until 5am talking about the 21 years of life we had to catch each other up on, then we did it again. I was hooked.
The harsh vibration of my phone jerked me out of my endorphin high and into the reality of my ex-boyfriend. I felt a sharp knife of guilt and, in a ridiculous attempt to reduce it, I murmured some bullshit to Pierre about “keeping it chill, not being too serious”. He didn’t understand – English wasn’t his first language, and to be fair, I didn’t either.
It was a Tuesday night and we were stumbling home, burgers in hand, trying to walk off some $1 shots. My phone illuminated with the notification of a new email. I lost my shit as I realised I’d been accepted to do a month-long internship in Bali, and drunkenly dialled my mum to deliver the news. Pierre feigned excitement for me, but I could tell it wasn’t genuine. Later, he told me that although we’d only spent a few nights together, it was the first time he’d realised we had an expiry date. He knew in that moment that I would have to leave him.
An outstretched arm reaching around my waist to pull me closer – that is how I woke up every morning for five months. Pierre acted as my alarm clock, whispering that he loved me whilst lightly kissing my neck. I don’t even remember the first time he told me – it wasn’t a pivotal moment, it was just something that happened naturally between us.
To him, I was completely transparent. One day I was lying on my bed catching the last rays of the autumn sun. A knock at my door revealed Pierre armed with a bottle of wine and massage oil. He had known I was upset, and he had come to help – even though I hadn’t invited him. That was when I realised I didn’t want to be without him.
Everything progressed so quickly between us. We would lay together discussing our bilingual futures. I was on a constant high. The only downfall of our relationship was the ticking clock of my impending departure.
As our time began to run out, we discussed the need to distance each other to brace ourselves for the reality of the semester ending.
It didn’t happen.
Pierre took me to Dallas for Thanksgiving, where we spent a rainy Saturday in an arcade more excited than the children who surrounded us. We played every game they had to offer, and all we won were stupid matching key rings that we placed on each other’s keys. He took me to France and we had Christmas with his family. We spent the day on his cousin’s vineyard in the south with 40 of his family members, indulging in red wine and six courses of food. On New Year’s Day, he whisked me away to the French Alps, and we rang in 2017 with his childhood friends. When he saw me getting lost in the French dialogue, he would hold my hand, kiss me and patiently translate each conversation.
With every new connection to Pierre’s life, I felt the pain seep in. We both knew we couldn’t stay together. The connection we had from the beginning was too beautiful to watch it die a slow painful death via messages and Facetime.
Then it was time for me to go.
Salty tears stained our faces as we felt each other’s warmth for the final time. We sat quietly in the crowded station, unaware of the steady flow of passers-by. The emotion had a strong hold on both of our voices. My train arrived, and Pierre pulled me into a final passionate kiss. That familiar tingle rushed through my body. He struggled to look me in the eyes as he whispered, “I love you”, his voice breaking.
As I boarded that train, not one fibre of my being wanted to leave. I felt the panic rise in my chest as I left the station. With every clunk of the train against its weathered tracks, I was moving further away from Pierre and my semester abroad. My alarm clock had suddenly been relegated to the generic bellow default on my iPhone. A few more tears escaped as I clutched my gummy bear key ring. A wave of hatred for the piece of plastic washed over me, as it had become symbolic of all the love I now had to live without.
Two boys and two continents, but still not a fucking clue.
Cover by Vladimir Kudinov