In Valencia, Spain, amid the dense crowd, an American smiles at me. He has greenish-blue eyes, tan hair and a boyish grin that suddenly makes me blush. He walks over and introduces himself: Josh, the firefighter from Montana. We wander the streets of the Fallas festival, drinking cider and admiring the burning papier-mâché effigies. Ash rains from the sky. Wild flames lick the sides of an old church. And hours later, we're in a dark alley, kissing until our lips chap and the sun rises.
The next thing I know, I'm hitchhiking with Josh across northern Spain to France. We communicate with words and caresses, and in between we draw shapes in his tattered notebook. Blue circles, squares and asymmetrical patterns fill pages with things we can't say. We never fight, but we also never talk about what will happen when we go our separate ways. I'm 23, about to start graduate school in San Francisco; he fights forest fires in national parks. What would a relationship like that even look like? After two months of travel, we're in London, and his bus goes one direction, mine the other. I press my fingers against the cold glass, my cheeks wet with tears, and expect never to see him again.
Over the next 10 years, I date — a doctor, a lawyer, a businessman, a comedian, a writer. With each relationship, I give away a piece of my heart, and with each breakup, I become better at moving on. Real relationships are full of jealousy and self-doubt. To love someone is to love all their faults. And through all this, my Montana fireman remains perfect.
Time passes, and I'm a 33-year-old account executive at a Los Angeles marketing agency, feeling nostalgic for simpler times. I track Josh down on Facebook, and a month later, he's visiting me from Denver. I recognize him immediately on the curb at LAX — that same boyish grin. I get out of the car and give him a hug. He holds my hands as if we'd never been apart.
At this time in my life, my idea of adventure is buying a dress between conference calls. My friends are having babies, buying homes, pushing for the next promotion. Josh, on the other hand, fills his life with experiences, not things, and suddenly I have the urge to do things now. I quit my job, put my stuff in storage and buy a one-way ticket to Bogota, Colombia.
For six months, we travel from the top of South America to the bottom tip of Chile. Josh, an avid rock climber, teaches me about the outdoors. I propel my body up vertical cliffs, hike for days to reach an isolated crag and trek up 16,000-foot glaciers in the Andes. I find myself in mountainous settings I only saw on screen savers. My legs are covered with scars. I'm robbed on an Ecuadorean bus. And through all this — the joys and tribulations, the adventures and long waits — Josh and I never fight.
Last Sunday, Josh and I are on a bike ride around San Luis Obispo, where we now live. He's a much faster biker than I, and periodically he stops on the top of a hill for me to catch up. By the time I reach him I'm panting, hunched over my handlebars, legs burning, and feeling embarrassed that he has to stop. I say, between short breaths, "Sorry to make you wait."
Josh tilts his head and smiles. Besides a few wrinkles around his eyes, he looks just like the boy I met in Valencia, except now he isn't a travel fling or some romanticized fantasy of my youth. He's in front of me. He's real. He touches my hand and says, "I waited 11 years for you. This is nothing."
He looks at me with genuine heart. I know few people who are this honest to others and themselves. But I also know that this statement isn't true. During our time apart, he hadn't sat around waiting for me. He saw the world; he fell in love with other girls; he hated his job; he fought with friends. In 10 years, we experienced life with all its beauty and complications, and it is only now, through learning those lessons, we fit.
I give him a kiss on the cheek, then quickly pedal away. Over the hill, I release. "Catch me if you can, Slow Poke!" The wind whips across my cheeks as I build momentum, flying faster and faster. I don't look back but know that Josh is right behind me. I'm letting go more than I usually do, but for some reason, this time, I'm not afraid of falling.
Chellis Ying teaches yoga and writing in San Luis Obispo and has been published in "The Best Travel Writing," "True Tales of Lust and Love" and other publications, http://www.chellisying.com. Chellis and Josh plan to marry in December.