Advertisement

L.A. Affairs: My relationship status dramatically changed while I was on a pilgrimage

A backpacker looks up at a tree in the shape of a crying man's head. Behind him is a tree in the shape of a woman's head.
(Illustration by Laura Liedo / For The Times)
Share

My  wife Kathy died in 2018 on my birthday, March 24, from breast cancer.  I mourned for a couple of years until my daughter Laura encouraged me to put myself out there, which I did, eventually, on Match.com.  Then I met  Mary.

We met physically in 2021 at her traditional Easter party at her Santa Monica house. Standing at her door, I saw her through the window, bouncing toward me with blond hair and twinkling blue eyes. She was 5 foot 4, and had a big smile. My immediate thought was, "God, she is cute.” And it went fast from there. Mary was a widow. We were both Catholic. 

“My prince,” she called me more than once.

“My angel,” I said.

I was smitten after two dates with a new man. When he had to move back to the U.K. and with our future uncertain, I embraced what I could count on — Los Angeles and my dad.

Soon I was at Mary’s house most of the time, returning to my place in Mt. Washington just to get mail. I loved our rhythm — tender pillow talk, lovemaking, meals together,  reading poetry and articles to her in bed, playing, going to St. Monica’s together on Sundays. I knew how to make her laugh. I also buried her dog Kiwi in her backyard when she died. Our life together was all I could have wanted. I thought the feeling was mutual.

Advertisement

Fulfilling a long-held dream with Mary’s help, on Sept. 1 I began the Camino de Santiago in Spain, a 500-mile walk from the French border to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. People who do it are called “peregrinos,” Spanish for pilgrims. Peregrinos talk a lot, and a typical subject is the reason you are doing the Camino. One of my goals was to find a way to tell Mary I loved her, and that I wanted to marry her, without scaring her off and losing her.  We agreed Mary would travel in Europe on her own, meet me so we could travel together, and then travel more on her own.

I got to Santiago. Two days later, Mary got there. 

We went to the pilgrim’s Mass. It was jampacked. We were in the absolute back of the sumptuous cathedral. We sat at the base of a centuries-old colossal column, back to back.  It felt wonderful, her body next to mine.

Afterward, at a restaurant with ancient stone vaults in the base of a hotel across from the cathedral, I floated the subject of where she thought we might be in six months, a year or three years. 

“I just want to have fun,” she said.

Looking back on it, whenever we got to talking about the future, she always said that. I always pushed it to wanting something  more.

In Korean dramas, a first kiss often happens on Date 6. We agreed to take the challenge, but the pent-up energy caused by taking it slow made me want to kiss him even more.

We went to Portugal and stayed in a dreamlike guesthouse in a vineyard. We went to Fátima and participated in a Mass with what looked like more than 100,000 people. We walked on the shore in Porto and collected shells.

On Oct. 16,  I returned to L.A. Mary got home a week later. We went to a movie, had a slurpy pasta dinner in Santa Monica and went to an event the next day. And all was great. Until it wasn’t.

Over the next week, Mary’s messages got more and more clipped. I asked if everything was OK. “Take a deep breath — we have to talk,” she replied.

The next day, she told me she realized while I was in Spain that she liked her house better without me in it than with me in it, and that she just needed space.  My head swirled in a storm. I said I had to think about it, and we hung up. 

Over a period of several days, we had one genial conversation and a couple of bad ones. I came home one day in a torrential L.A. downpour and found at my door a collapsing, sodden cardboard box from Mary with my clothing and belongings from her house all wet.

At Mary’s request, we got together for a lunch I arranged at Manuela in the Arts District in downtown L.A. I got there early and sat at the bar with a chardonnay. Eventually she showed up. We kissed deep and true as always. She felt like the Mary I knew. 

We were there for 3½  hours. We recounted our whole relationship. I told her I had time to come to terms with what she wanted and I wanted her to have what she needed. I could adjust, I said. I believed in us, even if she didn’t at that moment. At the end, we draped around each other and kissed, and she drove away on 3rd Street in her red Porsche. That was the last  time  I saw Mary.

Back home, I’ve scoured my brain, usually from midnight to 3 a.m., trying to understand how something so great could turn into something else so fast, and reasoning that if a change happened in Mary, it didn’t happen overnight. I believe she loved me truly to start, yet gradually just lost the feeling. But because she is good-hearted, she did not want to hurt me. So the fall of the ax came slowly but inevitably.

On the Camino, here and there, are random words of wisdom tacked to walls. One, I remember, was, “You can lead and direct your mind, but not your heart.” In the end, I think that’s what it was with Mary. Care for me as she might, she couldn’t persuade her heart to end up with me.

We shared a passionate kiss in Santa Monica, and I later proposed. In her mind, our relationship was just a pandemic affair, but I wanted more.

The Camino de Santiago has many physical challenges: mountains, distances, rocky paths, rain, fog and cold. This time in L.A. seems to be a continuation of the Camino. And this mountain inside my heart is harder to climb than any of that stuff in Spain.

“Buen Camino” is the way peregrinos greet other. “Good way” is the message, both coming and going. If walking the Camino had any real effect on me, my ability to say “Buen Camino” to Mary, regardless of her reaction, will be the most meaningful sign that I was made better by the experience, if even by only a little. And for her sake and mine, maybe that’s the most you could ask for.

The author is an architect, working at QDG Architecture in Koreatown. He lives in Mt. Washington.

L.A. Affairs chronicles the search for romantic love in all its glorious expressions in the L.A. area, and we want to hear your true story. We pay $300 for a published essay. Email LAAffairs@latimes.com. You can find submission guidelines here. You can find past columns here.


Advertisement