Sarah Johnson of The Girl With the Map Tattoo shares her story:
Once upon a time, I read a post online about a girl who went on a one-week first date to Costa Rica. I read it a few weeks before I was due to leave for a ten-day trip to Italy with a guy that I had only met once before. Had the post been published just for me? Was it fate that I read it? I’m not sure I believe in fate – I realized I was meant to read it, and began to understand that my trip might not turn out to be a fairy tale after all…
Ryan and I met in Alaska, in the summer of 2014. He had come to my work to be a driver – that was his sole job – and so he had a lot of free time. On the first day, he came in early and I was clearing up the bar and lounge, getting ready for the next week of guests. My immediate thought was, “he’s cute,” but I was determined not to get involved with him.
That night, I was standing there watching the guests go through the emergency drill and learn about their floating home for the next week. He stood next to me and pointed at my tattoo. “What’s the meaning behind that?” he asked me. I told me it was my love of the world and of maps. He got really excited… it turns out, he also collects maps. We had an immediate bond. We talked a lot that week and we joked about taking a trip together when our schedules matched up. We both said, “well, I’ve never been to Prague.” Midway through the trip, he dropped the word “girlfriend,” and then immediately corrected himself, “my ex-girlfriend,” but I was curious. Hadn’t we just spent the week flirting?
He told me the story: he was a yachtie (I know, I know, judge away) and she had been accepted into graduate school in another country, so they split (among other reasons, that was a big one) but he was heading to Spain to take some captain courses for his mate’s license and on the way, he was going to Norway to see her. That should have been my first red flag, but I definitely wasn’t looking for those.
On his last night, he slipped me his card. “There’s no good way to do this,” he said, “but we should stay in touch.”
That was the beginning of it. He sent me a quick text that next day, I emailed a few days later, and we went back and forth. I headed to New Zealand and we stayed in constant contact. By that time, he was on a yacht in the middle of the atlantic – we were literally on opposite ends of the world. I put him in my vip email list, so emails from him popped up on my screen. They came while I was sleeping, and I would reply the next day. I saw what the yacht looked like and the upper deck bar where he sat to email me. They were delivering the yacht, so it was crew only. He sent me the link to the boat so I could see it in all its glory – with cappuccinos sitting on silver trays on the bed. I began to think that it would be fun to work on a yacht… I daydreamed about us working on a yacht together. I was totally head over heels.
We said we held each other to the traveling together promise. We talked about Prague and then I got an email from him with the Prague weather for December. Too cold for both of us. We bantered ideas back and forth: south of France, Greece, Italy, I could go to Spain. When we agreed on Italy, things just fell together. He had better internet, so he searched for a place where we could cook for ourselves. He would be in Rome a whole three days before me, so he found a place he liked, and I booked our Florence accommodation.
By this time, I was back in the States, heading back to work. I landed in Seattle, drove to Portland, and called him. We overlapped in the same country for only a a day or two, but we talked for most of it. He suggested I drive to Cannon Beach, a few hours away from Portland on the Oregon coast. I didn’t ask how he knew of it, but I went anyway. I loved it. We talked most of my drive; he was in Mallorca by then and we had to rely on wifi signals. Back in Portland, we FaceTimed.
I got back on the boat and did a few weeks on the Columbia River. We talked a lot, but we had never talked about any romantic aspect of our traveling together, although he did make some comments about the bed looking comfortable in different flats in Italy. We joked about it. But somewhere along the line, it became a little real. He told me he wanted to kiss me. I said I wished he had done it back when we were in the same place.
All of a sudden, there was this charge between us. Our FaceTimes became flirty. I lost phone contact for six days while we traveled down to Long Beach, California for shipyard. Once we moved into our hotel in shipyard, I talked with him daily. There was a seven or eight hour time difference, so when I woke up and had an email from him, he was finishing his day. We FaceTimed on Sundays when I had a half day and he would still be awake when I got off work. I’d lay in the hotel, on my bed, curling my hair around my finger and we would talk about nothing for two hours. He grinned when he saw me – every time – and said it was good to see my face. I probably grinned like an idiot. One night, I emailed him a picture of me in a bikini, my damp hair falling over my shoulder, my map tattoo predominant. I woke up to an email and a text: “F***. That was hot. Wow. I can’t stop looking at you.” Was that wrong? Was I seducing him from the other side of the world? Was I making a huge mistake? Had I crossed a line? Where was this going, anyway?
I asked him about his “expectations” for the trip. “None,” he said. He just wanted to have fun in a new place with great girl.
We’d text during the day and every time my phone went off, my friends would turn and grin at me, waiting for my reaction. I was totally head over heels. When Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” came out, I jokingly said it was a reflection of Ryan and me. Everyone laughed, but I didn’t. I should have listened to my gut.
My flight was booked for a Saturday out of Los Angeles to Zurich and then from Zurich to Rome. On the day I was supposed to leave, I got an email that my flight from Zurich to Rome had been cancelled. Panicked, I called my travel agency and spoke with someone. She found out that they had rebooked me on a flight from Zurich to Frankfurt to Rome, arriving in Rome at midnight. I was furious. How dare they cut into my date week? I texted Ryan and we went back and forth with various options. He had been in Rome for a few days at that point and was planning to meet me at the airport on Sunday night. This changed though; the metro didn’t run that late and a cab out to the airport was expensive. He spoke with the woman who owned the flat we had rented and she was able to secure a hired car for me. I felt so much better.
My friend Ada drove me to LAX that afternoon. I spent the entire drive freaking out. Was I doing this right? What was I doing, anyway? I almost didn’t go. She hugged me, told me it was going to be alright, and left. I shouldered my backpack, picked up my carry-on, and walked into the departures terminal. Check in wasn’t open yet, so I sat in line and waited. All of a sudden, I looked at the departures board to find that my flight was delayed til 10pm. What?! My mind started frantically calculating the time I would land, my connection time, the flight to Frankfurt. I called Swiss Air. They assured me I would make the flight; no, there were no other flights; no, I would definitely make the flight. This went on for some time before I finally agreed with the woman. I was so upset; all I wanted was to be in Rome, in the flat near the colosseum, in a cozy bed with a guy I liked, who I was sure liked me back.
Fast forward to Rome: it was amazing. We toured the Roman Forum together, the Vatican Hall of Maps, the Colosseum. We had delicious dinners at amazing trattorias in tiny back alleys and we walked hand in hand talking, so excited to finally be in the same place. He said he was so glad I had taken a chance on him. His words, not mine. He had a few days on me, so he had found all these cool places and he was excited to share them with me. We ran through the rain at the Pantheon, watching the water pour in through the oculus and the lightening light up the sky above. We criss-crossed Rome with our own two feet and I was thrilled to have a travel partner that knew what I was thinking and how I was feeling, and how I felt about travel, without me having to say a word.
Fast forward to Florence: our flat was compact and charming and right cross from the Duomo – I could see it from the window, and I could see the Palazzo Vecchio from the other window. It was heaven. We went to the Academia and saw the David, we climbed to the dome of the cathedral and to the top of the baptistry. We had amazing dinners in little trattorias in back alleys (again.) We took a day trip to Siena and had a pizza and wine lunch. We had pizza and wine for lunch in Florence at the market, or we cooked for ourselves at the flat. We had gelato from the little place on the corner and espresso every morning from the cafe across the street.
Somewhere along the way, we drifted apart. Just a little, not enough for someone to notice. But I noticed.
There was the day that he begged off sightseeing because of the crowds. I spent the day wandering by myself, but he went out alone that night. When we got back to Rome, we only had a day. We had moved our flights up one day because we heard there was going to be a strike, so we lost a day together, but in the end I think that was for the best. On our last night in Rome, we went out for dinner in Trastevere, but we couldn’t agree on a thing. I twisted my napkin in my hands as I asked if we would meet up in the States. He didn’t know what his plans were, he said, but yeah, “if we’re in the same place.”
We would never be in the same place again.
We went back to the flat and packed, silently. When he stepped into the bathroom for a shower, I texted Ada: “I f**ked up. I don’t know what I did, but we’re not even speaking.” Her reply was immediate, “What do you mean?” I sent her the gist of it. I was so upset, my fingers flew across the screen riddling my text with spelling errors. We slept with our backs to each other and didn’t talk. I lay there on my side, with my eyes wide open, listening to his breathing – something that had become so familiar to me over the last week. I barely slept a wink that night.
He woke up at four a.m., and when he shifted, I woke up from my non-sleep. We sat in awkward silence across the room – he sat on the floor with his computer plugged in and I sat in bed reading. At seven, he decided to leave for the airport – his flight was early, whereas my flight back to Zurich wasn’t until one. I couldn’t take it another minute, so I asked where everything went wrong. He said nothing was wrong. I insisted, he said it wasn’t, I kept insisting. I had this pit in my stomach though; I knew I would never see him again.
I watched him leave, kissing him one last time in the hallway before shutting the door behind him. I wasn’t going to watch him walk away but I found myself standing at the window as he dragged his bag down the sidewalk toward the train station… never once looking behind him.
Afterwards, I cried. I admit that. It was hard for me to watch him walk away, knowing he had already forgotten me. Knowing he was stopping over in Norway on his way home – where his “ex” was living. That was probably the hardest part for me. We had had such an intense two weeks – was I really that unimportant to him now?
As I write this over a year later (and edit it even later than that) I’m struck by how my feelings have changed since then, and since I originally wrote it.
At first I was hurt. I was broken. I got to Luzern and my friend, Jon, the same day I left Rome. I asked him his advice, which was typical guy advice. When we got to Paris to see our other friends, I asked Di. She advised me to let it go. So did Libby, back in Luzern.
And gradually, I did. I went home for Christmas – the first time in three years. I spent time with my brothers. And I took a break from my dating life. I made the decision to slow it down, not to meet someone and expect an immediate connection.
I emailed Ryan, once, twice. I got a reply: he was working on a yacht in the Caribbean; I was on my way to Costa Rica the day after Christmas. I flew home early for my friend’s wedding on Valentine’s Day and then I left home for six months: Panama, Costa Rica, Mexico, Canada, Scotland, Iceland, Norway, Alaska.
I never heard from him again after March. My last email was from Panama City, the night before I left town. It was short, breezy: “I hope you’re well.” Over the summer of 2015, I found the power adapter he let me borrow. I slipped it into a blank card, wrote a little note, and sent it off to his PO Box in Fort Lauderdale. To this day I have no idea if he received it. I wish him all the best though, he lives a peripatetic life like me and while I don’t expect our paths to ever cross again, I imagine what I would say to him if they did.
In my imagination, I’m with my husband, happily vacationing in the Black Sea, when he sees me on the dock. My dress is blowing in the wind and he’s struck by how beautiful I look. It’s stupid, of course, but since he either blocked me on Facebook or deleted his account, he doesn’t see how happy I am these days. He doesn’t know where I am or what I am doing. He doesn’t see the people I hang out with or the adventures I have. He left a heartbroken girl behind in Rome – but he doesn’t get to see how he didn’t actually break her.
Written by Sarah Johnson, Travel Curator & Scotland Expert