© Stefan Hengst. All rights reserved.

The Salzburg hotel was locked when they arrived at 0100 hours. A note on the door gave a phone number, but the person who picked up spoke sleepily in German-peppered English from which they patched together no one would come let them in.

Her fiancé didn’t have to lecture her, and, thank god, he didn’t. He drove them down the street to another hotel, but it was booked. They wound through the city to a third: also full. She mapped and Googled. She called around, but there was a conference in town. He looked for a street brightly lighted enough for them to stay in the car till morning. Finally Priceline found them a hotel with a cancellation. By four a.m. they had passed out, not bothering to push the European twin beds together, and at eight he was shaking her awake so they wouldn’t miss the breakfast.


A few mornings later she awoke from a nightmare and lay in a half-sleep state of vague grief and terror. He rose to hustle them into the day, as he had every other morning on this trip, and she stayed in bed with the dream’s certainty, along with her resistance to understand it, crushing her like a stone. The darkened Prague hotel room felt grim and haunted.

He rose to hustle them into the day … and she stayed in bed with the dream’s certainty, along with her resistance to understand it, crushing her like a stone.

He went into the bathroom, peed, and turned on the shower. She walked to the window, pulled the curtain back, and stood naked, gazing at the gray September day, feeling the sunburn last night’s sex had left between her legs and thinking about the nightmare, set in a future when they were married. When the water stopped she got back into bed and called out, “Come put your body on mine.”

He wouldn’t want to fuck after his shower, and he wasn’t much for cuddling, but she needed something, maybe just his physical weight, to replace the stone. She hated feeling this way, like a gigantic child, so deeply desirous of his affection and devotion, so desperate at the idea it might not be forthcoming.

They had not discussed plans for the wedding, as she had assumed they would, in any of the nine days of their vacation so far, nor would they, she now understood, on any of the remaining six. Later, with him back in Afghanistan and her back in the States, it would obviously be a lot harder to discuss writing their own vows or picking a church. As much as their unspoken decision to avoid the topic bewildered her, she complied with it, afraid bringing up their future would break whatever spell hung over this time together. It puzzled her that he didn’t bring it up, and it puzzled her that she didn’t, either. Something she couldn’t acknowledge—something related to the nightmare—stopped her.

The spell was a filament, keeping things civil and horny and even sometimes playful, but detached, as he had been detached early in their dating, not connected and vibrant, as he was as they emailed each other across an ocean and a continent in recent months. The spell was also a mystery—a hex she picked up on only slowly, a truth needling through protective layers. Instead of the naked photo shoots and Maxwell-and-candle-inflected hotel-room sex she expected, they followed a grueling itinerary he made up on the fly, bouncing from Berlin to Munich to Heidelberg to Salzburg and now Prague, every day a parade of castles, cocktails, and clubs. They saw the sights, walked for hours, drove to another city. They dressed for a nice dinner. They found a club and danced until one. They had hard, hungry sex and napped until morning when they began again, and this was as it should be, he said.

“Fuck sleep,” he said.

She didn’t share this sentiment, which was emblematic of his very being, a fact that, weirdly, hadn’t made it onto her list of Reasons They Won’t Work Out. Instead she was on board with stretching herself. With “shifting,” as the leader of the personal development workshop she’d recently attended had put it. With getting outside her comfort zone and “enrolling in her vision.” That a fuck-sleep attitude wasn’t part of her vision seemed beside the point.

Once, they’d gotten to talking about qualities they sought in a partner. She had long ago written out her man recipe for the Universe, and, leaving off “tall” (she was five-nine; he was five-four), she shared with him the ingredients: kind, financially stable, sexually compatible, emotionally available, and smart.

“That’s good to go,” he said, then recited his: “Noble, brave, honest, responsible, and loyal.” In equal measures, she found him pompous, fantastical, and admirable.


“It’s not something I share on a first date,” he said, and laughed loudly. “Most women aren’t ready for that.”

Noble. The other four were easy. Of course she was honest, responsible, and loyal. She was brave, too; she had done scary things like going back to school to start a new career and staying by herself in a cabin in the woods to finish her thesis. Why not noble? She’d altered herself in worse ways for other men. She thought—she hoped—she was equal to the challenge.

He was not the first military dude she had dated (she lived a quarter mile from the Pentagon), but he was probably the most militant. She found his certainty refreshing in contrast to a kind of free-floating ambiguity she felt on her own. She believed in personal agency, but she was not ambitious the way he was. She was okay with letting the muse direct her steps. She wondered how much of their different approaches in this regard had to do with their different backgrounds. He was black and had grown up in a somewhat dodgy section of Brooklyn; she was white and had grown up in an upper-middle-class suburb of Washington, D.C. He often credited his childhood challenges with pushing him toward greatness. Winning was “a matter of survival,” he said. Was her lack of urgency in this regard a marker of her privilege?

She usually dated “alpha-dog” guys. But alpha men wanted beta women. Maybe she pretended to be a beta or maybe she thought she was one; either way, she didn’t interrogate the idea that this contradicted her claim to sovereignty. She only knew alphas’ swagger turned her on. This one especially: He debated pointedly and danced precisely and drove fast and dressed well.

Her late twenties had been basically a recovery from the stark certainty he embraced. At one time she saw the world in demarcated terms, too, because her parents raised her with because-God-said-so Christianity. But that stance stopped working as she discovered that rules she had deemed sacred—like the one keeping her married to a rage-filled deadbeat—were invalid. Going new-agey and free-lovey showed her that such commandments were unhelpful. Getting out of her marriage required her to acknowledge gray and embrace ambiguity.

Maybe the pendulum was swinging back. Maybe her fiancé’s certainty was what drew her to him.

On this vacation she was not assimilating his fuck-sleep stance. But she had been beta throughout their relationship in other ways. She adopted his linguistical tics. She liked that he tried to “onboard” her to his “vision.” There was no obvious reason martial dialect should appeal to her. True, she was left-brained, and she prized productivity and loved efficiency—military values, she thought. But a childhood spent cowering before her dictatorial mother should have biased her against authority. If her subconscious was attracted to this alpha so she could learn to defy dominion, and she was actually going along with it, well that was some junior varsity shit.

Even so, the language appropriation was a bit beta, was a way for her to signal “I get you. I’m in your corner.” He had overcome so much more than she had. It seemed fair to meet him more than halfway.

When they were first dating, a little more than a year before this vacation, he learned she was thirty-seven. It wasn’t flattery when he said he thought she was his age, thirty-two. It was an apology for pursuing her. That she was closer to her eggs’ expiration date than he realized had “changed the calculus.” This was first on his list of Reasons They Won’t Work Out, and it was why he broke it off the first time.

In Prague now he put his head around the bathroom door, a crisp, white, folded T-shirt in one hand, eyebrows raised, face otherwise expressionless. She waved him toward the bed. He set the T-shirt on the credenza and perched, tolerant, while she fingered the curls on his eight-pack. Her friends had rolled their eyes when she described it, but he was physically flawless. “Your body is how I know God loves me,” she had told him a few months before.

Now he gave her a quick smile before glancing at the bedside clock. She withdrew her hand and rose so they wouldn’t miss the included breakfast.

She wanted to be sillier around him, as he was sometimes silly with her, like the time he had playfully unzipped her boot at the bar when she wasn’t looking. She felt something on her calf and turned to see him looking up at her through his ridiculous eyelashes, giggling though not drunk. But he alone decided when they acted goofy.

When he broke it off the first time, she was more puzzled than wounded. A five-year age difference was a deal-breaker? No, no. They weren’t in love yet, but they had potential. Their basic values and OPTEMPO—operational tempo—aligned, she thought. They were both punctual, both optimistic, both salsa dancers. After his first Dear Jane email, she drove to his apartment in the morning, so her logical side could make the case for them, even though she knew, from being on the receiving end, that talking someone into a relationship was quixotic.

When she finished making her argument, which included adoption and egg freezing and the possibility of simply not having kids, he spoke as if beginning an entirely new conversation.

“I’ve always imagined myself at forty alone and unafraid,” he said. They sat at his high-top dining room table. “I’ll be that guy at the club. Sippin’.” He laughed, too loud, and she continued to gaze quietly out his window with the blinds opened just so, framed by subdued Restoration Hardware drapes.

He sobered then and said, “Your awesomeness is not lost on me.” He could probably change his timeline—move up having kids. She was whiplashed.

Her mother had been similarly mercurial, at times showing genuine love and affection while at other times shrieking and calling her bitch. Something about his 180 now evoked in her a familiar unease. She wasn’t afraid of him, not precisely, but what might this flip-flop foretell? They hadn’t fought. Neither of them yelled. He checked his emotions—packed them in and held them, as tight as his 4-percent-fat body. It wasn’t fear she felt, she decided. It was awe. He was the smartest person she had dated, by a lot, but it was more than that. He was in the military, he was protecting American values. (He had swerved from grad school to officer candidate school just after 9/11). She made stabs in the direction of being part of something bigger than herself, but he seemed there already. He was wholly and unironically mission driven, and his mission was global security.

They were staying a second night in Prague. A luxury; they could traipse down to breakfast unburdened by luggage.

In the nightmare, her mother had died. This was not the frightening thing. Her mother would one day die. Obviously.

At the table, he launched, as he often did, into a lecture. Today’s was about financial planning. “I use other people’s money like it’s going out of style.”

She reached for her coffee.

His broad left hand curved around the table’s edge, and his other hand held toast aloft as he chewed thoughtfully. “I’m one of the few guys I know who had the credit to buy two houses with no money down and take advantage of refis in a declining market. It’s because I deploy.” She felt a spike of envy that he had a specific way to make and save money fast. Then she was chagrined—she envied his putting his life at risk? Envied his participation in a killing industry? And anyway, why did everything have to be about getting ahead? Winning, survival; okay, she understood. But they were both already on firm financial ground. They made nearly six figures apiece. He owned two condos; she owned one. How much more was required? She said none of this.

Since he hadn’t asked her to wait for him before this 10-month deployment, she had started to withdraw as his departure date approached, six months before this vacation. But she hadn’t been able to stop herself from crying during sex one March night, which he endured silently.

“I remember having to hold my mom when she cried as she grappled with the untimely death of her sister,” he told her the next day. “I got that. Your emotions, I do not get.” Her sadness at his departure, he meant. It wasn’t noble. This gulf suggested an inevitable conclusion to him. Besides, he wasn’t “looking to cultivate” any of the qualities she valued, such as vulnerability. It baffled him that she asked him to, and he suggested she date other people in his absence. He didn’t see it as a reason for sadness. “I do love you. I’m just looking at the writing on the wall.”

He called her delicate, but that was wrong. Vulnerable, yes, but this was the strength that allowed her to connect. Of course, for a warrior vulnerable meant weak. This was their staple disagreement—the definition and desirability of vulnerability. She had tried an analogy once: “Does it feel better when I touch your skin or when I touch your shirt?”

“I’m not trying to put a sword in your hand,” he said. “Why would you try to put a flower in mine?” His eyes closed and he snapped his head. “Classic woman mistake.”

But after his first few weeks in the desert, his calculus changed again. He sent her long emails, confessed that he could now see how having kids could comport with his vision, how with her by his side, the mission would be more rewarding. She got swept up in it all, and he proposed on Memorial Day weekend. By June, they were email planning the wedding. He was online buying her short black skirts and shorts from Express and she was sending him provocative selfies in them.

Now they followed the tour guide through rainy Prague, her right arm draped across his shoulders and his left around her waist so they could both fit under the umbrella. In silver comic-sans font the word “BERLIN” marched across the burgundy nylon. Under a tent canopy not far from the astronomical clock they drank whiskey, and he (a nonsmoker) pulled on a cigarette he had acquired from a group of rowdy Australians who were using five-foot-long straws to drink from a punchbowl-sized margarita.

She had moments of anticipatory despair that she would not, in fact, live up to his expectations or meet all the requirements on his list. She attributed them to cold feet. But in the nightmare, they were true. In the nightmare she caught him looking at her with the contemptuous expression he reserved for black people who were boisterous and loud, contributing to his race’s “image problem.”

He had once said, “I need a woman who will not fall apart when the going gets tough. Someone who can take it all in stride and react to life like a silent professional.” I can do that, she had thought. I want to do that. A few days earlier in Salzburg, which enchanted them with its carved-out-of-a-mountain feeling, they had had their first fight. The town had a riverside; a nestled, Sound-of Music vibe; lederhosen in shop windows; and at a bar where they passed an hour a candidate for the world’s most interesting man, gray-haired and mustachioed, who wrote in a Moleskine and sipped champagne, scarf smartly encircling his neck. They had parked the car in a municipal lot, gone into an Internet café to book a hotel room, happened across a “Sound of Salzburg” sign, and made dinner theater reservations. They wandered back toward the car with the intention of finding the hotel and checking in before the show, but when they stopped for a courtyard snack she realized how spent she was.

“Do you mind if we check in later?”

He hesitated, annoyed, then conceded. Waiting to check in violated vacation best practices, which included squaring away lodging immediately. She started people watching.

“The delta between your OPTEMPO and the hours in the day is something to consider,” he said. A deejay and some high-heeled young women set up a card table nearby and played oontsa-oontsa music. “You can’t expect to work out and do dinner and go to the club and see all the sights.”

She started to protest but he reminded her she had insisted they visit the gym the night before and she had suggested the glass of champagne and the subsequent hour in the hot tub, which had pushed dinner back to 11 p.m.

“I don’t need dinner and the club every—”

“Quit arguing. Quit whining. Listen to what I’m saying because it is key to the next level for you.”

There was some way she was supposed to react to this situation, something correct she was supposed to do, something different from what she had done at age eight, nine, fifteen. But adrenaline coursed through her body, and silence seemed the safest bet.

“We’re in Europe,” he said. “We can work out at home. We can sit in a hot tub anywhere. We can sleep when we’re dead. This is basic shit. Everybody knows this. Everybody.”

Reasonable people disagreed about how to vacation. But okay. Silent professional.

“Complaining about being hungry is bad form and shows a serious lack of planning on your part.”

Had she complained? But no. He was the one serving his country. He was the one under pressure. Here they were on his one, short reprieve from war. It was on her to adjust, to support. His mind was on global security, not self-care. A little part of her, the eight-year-old part, maybe, crossed her arms and stomped her foot and silently fumed that it wasn’t fair.


At dinner, food and alcohol and the interactive aspect of the show—characters had pulled them on stage to dance with them—had softened their animus. They were making their way back toward the car when they heard a sound that was joy to both their ears: congas thumping Du-doon-PA! Du-doon-PA! Like cartoon characters, they spun their heads toward each other and grinned. Then, as one, they turned toward the sound and took off, practically jogging to the club. What didn’t this magical Austrian hamlet contain?

Once there, drinks in hand, sweating from their first few dances, they stood awkwardly. Sure the music was too loud to talk. Sure they had a protocol for going salsa dancing together: Dance together first and then find any partner you like. She needed this protocol more than he did, it seemed, since he was content to sip and people watch, but she still stung from his on-the-spot correction back at the plaza. Dance was one of a few things she did better than he did. Privately, back home, other followers had complained to her about his too-strong lead. She had lost, out there in the courtyard that afternoon, lost by silencing herself and outwardly conceding to his criticism. She needed to win.

But they weren’t in their home salsa community, where people showed up for love of the dance, not for the usual club attractions. Here dancing was a means to an end, and she had brought dance technique to a realm where what mattered was looks, and, that night, she got little love for hers.

His body was there but the soul that she had, after all their up-and-down dating, after all his holding her at arm’s length, finally seen over email once they were engaged, had disappeared again. If they were this incompatible on a vacation, what would day-to-day life look like? They stayed for another drink, watched a few songs, then left to try to check in to the hotel.


The nightmare was this: Married to him, without her mother on Earth, she was loved by no person in the world.

Their last morning together, he saw her off at Berlin Tegel. He had another day in the city before returning to Afghanistan. She was eager to go a day without wearing makeup, without drying and curling her hair, without a tucked-in shirt, carefully chosen jewelry. Dating him was like wearing heels all the time. It was aspirational.

“We never talked about the wedding,” she said across a plate of eggs.

“No,” he agreed. “We didn’t.”

Mathina Calliope is a writer, editor, teacher, and writing coach. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post’s Magazine and Outlook sections, NPR’s Morning Edition, Prevention, The Manifest-Station, Streetlight Magazine, Longreads, and elsewhere.

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