Thirty people deep in the lunch line, creeping ever closer to today's version of rice-veggies-lentils-fruit, the blond-haired goddess and I lock eyes.
She's on the other side of the marble-tiled dining hall, where a couple hundred soul-seeking 30- to 60-year-old Westerners sit at long tables, the Nepalese countryside dramatically on display through the surrounding windows.
She's giving 90% of her attention to her group of gap year students. I'm giving 90% of my attention to my teen group. Despite having spoken only once, briefly, on the first day of the 10-day Tibetan Buddhism retreat where we'd each arranged to take our tour groups, we have each silently decided to reserve the final 10% of our precious attention for this mysterious, alluring, and perhaps-forbidden Other Trip Leader.
Samantha is 29 and teaches math and science at a progressive private school in Colorado, she tells me when we steal five minutes at lunch the next day.
She's my height, tan, lean, with long sun-bleached hair that reaches the middle of her back. Pillowy Thai fisher pants reveal her runner's legs when there's a strong gust of wind. She talks quickly, speaks fluent sarcasm, and sprinkles edu-jargon (pedagogy, praxis) onto her sentences like salt on dal bhat. I'm smitten.
We steal 10 minutes the next day and 30 the next. It's never enough. I make the proposal.
"Meet me tonight, after lights-out."
The retreat, a kind of spiritual summer camp, has a 9:30pm curfew. Wake-up call is 5:30am. First meditation session: 6:00am.
"Let's do it," she whispers conspiratorially. "But where?"
We scratch our heads. Where can you find privacy in a monastery?
"The roof!" she exclaims, finger pointing skyward.
Samantha instructs me to meet her at a semi-secret staircase she's discovered, leading to the top of a pagoda.
We spend the next four nights meeting on the roof and talking till 11, 12, 1am. We sacrifice sleep without regret. We rub each other's feet, gaze into each other's eyes, and drink cool October air on our perch overlooking Kathmandu, the Himalaya looming to the north, daring us to dream bigger.
And dream we do: of changing the education system, starting a traveling school together, extended backpacking trips. It's the first time I'd ever met someone to whom I was both physically attracted and career-attracted: someone with whom I might build something. Smitten, smitten, smitten.
But there's a problem. I'm in a relationship.
For a handful of months I've been dating Renee, a lovely woman in Oakland, an EMT and avid biker. She's met some of my friends and family, we have a warm camaraderie. I'm not in love with her, but I have nothing to complain about.
I have to break up with her, I realize. I have to break up so I can pursue Samantha with a clear conscience. I have to break up because Samantha has shown me that maybe, just maybe, I can have it all.
Renee and I share a nice passion for the outdoors, but "nice" suddenly isn’t good enough anymore. Sharp, fit, snarky Samantha has raised the bar to the stratosphere. The five little words she whispers in my ear on the monastery roof are aphrodisiacal:
The grass is very much greener. I look irrationally far into our future together, and I see long trail runs, living abroad in Spanish-speaking countries, and 2.5 blond-haired babies.
Enraptured by such beautiful possibility, a sacrifice must be made.
I hand-write a breakup letter to Renee. I take a picture of it and email it to her. She responds the next day, flabbergasted and heartbroken. “It sounds like you’ve already made your decision,” she writes. She is right.
Samantha and I kiss on the last day of the retreat. Forty-eight hours later we share one glorious day off together in Kathmandu, before our groups go their separate directions.
We promise to meet again when we're back in the United States, two short months from now. We send each other long emails, poems, affectionate notebook doodles, heart-faced emojis. We openly dream of marriage, mountains, kiddos.
I hatch plans to move to Boulder when she finishes her semester, so we can continue canoodling and scheming Our School. She doesn’t ask me to do this, and she’s a bit surprised when I tell her. No matter to me. Each day is one day closer to our inevitable future.
Months later we finally meet in the mountains of Utah. We try to relive our passion. But something has changed. We go our different ways with plans to meet weeks later in Boulder.
For me, the fire rages. For her, the embers cool.
A week later, she tells me over Skype: "I'm not feeling the romance anymore."
I move to Boulder anyway. Samantha and I talk in my sublet. We have to try, I tell her! We have such beautiful possibilities! But they are all in my head. For her, the moment has passed.
She’s already made her decision.
I'm flabbergasted and heartbroken.
I meet Renee outside her house in Oakland, just after my return from Nepal. She hands me clothes I'd forgotten in her drawers.
She tells me how hurt she was by our breakup. That she had been falling in love with me. That I could have talked with her about what was happening with Samantha.
She wonders why I abandoned our relationship so quickly.
"Does the concept of loyalty mean anything to you, Blake?"
I don't know what to say.
I've only ever known loyalty to my own heart.
Oof, that’s a journey! Nice bit of writing Blake!