By Britany Robinson
One writer’s obsession with rushed conclusions inspires a cross-country trip in search of romance. Along the way, she gains a new perspective on endings.
I once had a writing teacher tell a class of starry-eyed students that it’s best to write the ending first.
If you don’t know where a story will ultimately conclude, how will you know how to get there?
I find myself overwhelmed by that approach. So susceptible to cliché, cheesy morals and overly manicured metaphors, endings have always inspired a glacial peak of discarded drafts — crumpled versions cascading over the edge of a wastebasket.
(Or large chunks of text deleted from a Google doc.)
As a writer, I dread them. When it comes to my love life, however, I unintentionally take that teacher’s advice, racing towards possible conclusions on every first date.
What character flaw will make us incompatible? What plot twist will make him not call? What climax will send us hurtling towards our ultimate conclusion? (Would there be a climax?) I’ll mine the innocuous details of first date conversation to uncover those answers.
With Josh, it was different. We had a great story from the start.
I met Josh while participating in a televised, dating experiment in which fifteen single women were flown from New York City to San Francisco to go on dates with single men. It would be a viral-worthy spectacle of a weekend spent parading us in and out of bars to meet our matches, eventually condensed into a fifteen-minute segment for primetime TV.
I’d always scoffed at the women on The Bachelor and similar dating shows. The way they don evening gowns they can’t afford and display a special talent like an elephant standing on one foot in a circus ring; impressive but also possessing a contagious discomfort when introduced to an audience of people who secretly hope they fall.
I feared the experience would prove similar. People would judge me. I would judge me. But then again — it would be a story! “Yes, I appeared on television to potentially meet the man of my dreams through blind dates.”
The whole situation was ridiculous — of course I would go.
But I wasn’t set up with Josh on that trip. The dates I went on were polite and forced. We’d freeze and smile like fools when the startling light of the camera hit our faces, and then we’d melt into conversation about how awkward it was -- the only sentiment we seemed to share.
On the final night, I bolted from the pained interactions of a mixer and sought refuge in a quiet dive bar nearby.
Josh was standing by a pool table, peering over a full beer.
He approached without hesitation, inviting me to join him for a drink at the end of the bar. I was overdressed by San Francisco standards (for the cameras), but he made me feel comfortable. The way he touched his glasses when he spoke told me that despite his confident demeanor, he wasn’t cocky — maybe even a little nervous.
Our conversation quickened at the realization that we were both writers. Despite becoming entrenched in the local tech scene, he’d gone to school for poetry. I, for journalism. Our language danced together then, daring each other to prove it. I laid my bourbon-inspired bluntness on thick. He teased me with quippy flirtations and cheesy puns.
“Let me take you out tomorrow night,” he finally demanded.
The next night we took a whirlwind tour of his favorite San Francisco bars, cramming conversations about writing, jobs, love, and life into the chilly summer night. All too quickly it was late and we found ourselves at the base of the Oakland Bay Bridge. There was no one else around, and I desperately wanted him to kiss me as I shivered under his arm. He did, and immediately, my mind jumped to the end.
He lived in San Francisco. I lived in New York. This would never work.
But coincidentally, I had plans to leave New York — an epic summer road trip with the goal of relocating at the end. It was a chance to write, committed to nothing but the open road.
When he kissed my shoulder good morning, I couldn’t help but wonder if I might end up here. Or maybe this story would dissipate in the miles between us once I left.
It was crazy to suggest I might move to San Francisco. He’d run for the golden hills. So I said goodbye on his front steps and casually mentioned that should he ever wind up in New York while I still lived there, he should let me know.
Soon after, he did.
For three weeks we cohabitated in my tiny Brooklyn apartment while a brutal heat wave engulfed the city. Gone was the light-hearted bay breeze. Hot, sticky air forced us to test our compatibility through discomfort, and we passed.
Our days were spent working across from each other at various coffee shops in the neighborhood, peering over our laptops and occasionally sharing the progress of our work. I tried to focus on my writing, but I spent much of that time watching him — perplexed by how comfortable this felt.
“What if you just moved to San Francisco?” he offered one night. I laughed it off — afraid to indulge in this 2 a.m. fantasy. We’d each had a few drinks. Surely, he didn’t mean it. But when I woke the next day, I felt relieved that he’d finally said what I was thinking.
Then he flew back West, and things changed.
We kept in touch but agreed it was too soon to commit to anything. Also, he was seeing someone else — a casual “nothing” that I discovered over dinner on his first night in New York. It seemed harmless. He’d been dating her before we met. She wasn’t into commitment. He was. So it wasn’t going anywhere (is what he assured me with the conviction of a seasoned wordsmith).
Their commitment-free situation continued, as did ours. But she was there, with him. I was driving aimlessly across the country; alone in Chicago, losing cell service in Minnesota, desperately seeking reassurance in South Dakota.
I was tortured by the knowledge that he might be falling for someone else while I counted down the miles until I’d reach him.
Jealousy snaked through my thoughts, becoming tangled with vague plans and strong feelings I had never fully acknowledged. My mind was meant to be free to enjoy the open road, but I was constantly veering off course, towards a narrative I no longer controlled.
I needed confirmation that his casual suggestion regarding San Francisco was still a possibility.
He wanted to know why answers that couldn’t yet exist were so important. Neither of us knew how this story would unfold, especially while I was getting lost in the middle of the country, unsure of what city I’d hit next, let alone which one I’d land in.
When the segment of my time in San Francisco finally aired, my camera time had almost entirely been discarded — a story not worth sharing, apparently.
Josh started spending more and more time with her, as evidenced by photos of the two of them on Facebook. Seeing those felt like a punch to my chest.
I was trying to write my Great American Road Trip story, but the pervasive plot line became a desperate tale of half-requited love.
He kept reading my writing, critiquing and encouraging it when I needed him to. Our shared passion for the written word became our long distance foreplay, of the sort that always leaves you wanting more.
But then he’d go quiet for days. And my adventure fell victim to nights spent in cheap hotels, torturing myself with social media evidence of their progressing relationship and crying into those slippery covers that still smell of someone else’s sadness.
When I finally made it to the West Coast, I was emotionally drained and sick of driving. I decided to move to Portland, Oregon. Not because it was closer to him. We were barely speaking by then. Portland just felt right -- a city that might reignite my inspiration for the stories that had been lost somewhere on those quiet roads winding west.
He published an essay about how we met, and I read it by the dim light of a single lamp in my new place, while a steady Portland rain made my windows glitter excitedly.
Then I read it again. And again, reliving that seemingly perfect night through his words.
It was at once touching and infuriating how effortlessly Josh concluded that part of our story. He’d left the ending open and casual. It didn’t offer a moral or metaphor. It was sweet and inconclusive.
I loved his writing — which was much easier to admit than the fact that I might love him, too.
Months later, when my home was fully furnished and my new life had begun to take shape, Josh came to visit. The relationship with the other woman had ended, and we’d clung to our friendship in the process, mostly through the writing we both worked on and swapped for review.
I greeted him on the front steps of my apartment with an awkward hug, wondering how long it would take us to kiss again.
We soon found ourselves sitting knee to knee at my new local bar, our language spinning together with natural flirtation, just as it had in the beginning.
When we kissed, it all felt too easy.
The next day was unseasonably sunny. We wandered around my new neighborhood, past colorful houses and gardens overflowing with weedy years of growth. He casually mentioned, “I could live here,” and my heart gave a little flutter while my brain went into fast forward mode to the site of a garden we shared. But then I stopped myself, knowing that future didn’t exist.
I slipped my arm through his and focused on the beautiful day instead, remembering that it could end at any moment with Portland’s unpredictable rain.
So maybe the ending isn’t what’s important. I’ve always hated writing them, anyway.
Britany Robinson is a Portland-based writer and the journey editor of Limbo.