Love Isn’t Conditional

I turned 20 on the floor of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. I was waiting for a woman I thought I loved.

It was the year following my dad’s death. I lost most of my drive toward anything. I was empty inside. So, I ran away from my life. The idea was I to spend three months in Costa Rica, but I spent most of my time in Panama, and eventually got a job in a bar in Granada, Nicaragua.

Central America was good for me. It was warm and sunny, alcohol was cheap, and the food was good. I saw things that I had never seen before, like sloths and tribes of monkeys stealing backpacks. I met people from all over the world.

During those days I saw sunlight through the fog of depression. The person in the mirror started to be recognizable. One day I totally skipped my depression medication. The next day I decided to see how long I could go without. I made traveling companions, and kept moving mostly by saying yes to each of the places those new friends said they wanted to see. That took me to butterfly farms, banana plantations, black sand beaches, and to a lake at the top of Vulcan Maderas in the middle of Lake Nicaragua.

I realized I didn’t want to go back.

I was living and working in Granada during the election of Bush vs. Gore. I have never been yelled at as emphatically as I was by my fellow occupants at the hostel during the weeks where the election was contested. During my adventures every week I bought an international calling card and found a pay phone to call the only person I really missed from the US. She was in the army living thousands of miles from home. For me the long conversations were open and made me feel warm and loved in a way that I hadn’t felt before.

Still, especially after Bush was enthroned, I didn’t want to return. I wanted to stay where I was happy, where new people from all over the world came through the hostel I lived in and the bar I worked at. I was making enough money (mostly through tips) to cover my expenses, and as long as I crossed a border every 90-days I could have made it for most of a year with enough left over to buy a ticket back. That is what I wanted to do.

A stabbing sent me to the hospital.

About two-weeks before my original flight home was scheduled to leave something harrowing happened. At 4am after one of my shifts at the bar another hostel occupant franticly told me that they needed me outside. Another of the patrons (a British guy) was bleeding from a stab wound. A group of kids mugged him. I was the only person awake that spoke Spanish and English, so they wanted me to go with him in the ambulance.

Before I could get inside to grab clothes the medics arrived. So, I rode in the ambulance in my boxer shorts. I dutifully explained the situation to the medics and the doctors at the hospital. I helped the incredibly drunk British man stay up-to-date on what the doctors were doing to him. After four hours his friends finally found out and came to relieve me. I was exhausted. I called a taxi and rode home, still in my boxer shorts.

When I called my army friend she reminded me that her flight would arrive at Seattle-Tacoma about 10-hours after mine. She told me that she wanted to see me, and that I should come home. It sounded very nice; it was the first time that I felt any interest in coming back.

I quit the bar and bought a bus ticket back to Costa Rica to catch my flight from San Jose to Seattle. When I made it to San Jose I made friends with a Desert Storm vet and settled in for a last bit of fun before leaving. On December 15th 2000 I boarded a plane I spent weeks planning to miss.

It wasn’t my homecoming.

I traveled for most of a day, landing in Atlanta, being screened and re-screened, questioned about how and why I was in Central America, eventually I was allowed to continue. The plane landed in Seattle late that night. A hazy state of exhaustion and excitement floated  me to the baggage claim, then back up to a safe spot to sleep. I woke up on my birthday with enough time to get coffee before her father and I greeted her as she passed the security checkpoint.

We went back to their house, a place I frequented often during high school, I spent my birthday with her and the family. It was warm and comfortable, I felt deeply loved. When I was leaving I told her that I loved her, and that I was excited that we could see each other, instead of just talk over the phone. That was the last time that I saw her.

Now that I was 30-minutes away, and she was back home, she stopped returning my calls. After a while I gave-up. For the next 8-months I lived in a basement with four other people, I sobered-up, I worked as a janitor, busboy, and a construction worker. During visits to Reed College I decided it was time for me to return to college.

Closer to what I loved.

I packed what little I still had, clothes and computer, into my lumpy spray-painted Datsun 210 and I drove from Seattle to Portland. I was homeless, but I found my way to couches and friendly beds. At the end of my first week in Portland I got an e-mail from Army Girl.

“Hey Carlos,

I wanted to let you know that I am getting married…





My reply was short:

“Should I be happy for you?”


I think that is the last thing I ever said to her.

This was how I learned that some people are only loyal to what they need from you. When their needs change, so does their loyalty. What I wanted was to feel loved, I got that for a while, but it was my mistake. I mistook her longing for home and family as longing for me. When she returned to her hometown she didn’t need a friend or lover, so she didn’t need me. I hurt for a long time, but eventually I realized that love isn’t conditional.

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