A spark of romance, a mystery man and the heart’s surprising truth

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”  Rumi


Two weeks earlier, I would have said “no.” Turned him down, flattered yet wary of what I would likely dismiss as dubious intentions.

Yet when Mario asks me to have dinner with him, I am quick with a ready “yes.” I give it without analysis, taking in the smile that deepens across his bronzed features, the way he lets his own eyes linger on my face with undisguised pleasure.

We are standing in the parking lot where he pulled up beside me to ask for directions — a ruse, he later admits, because he could think of no other way to get my attention. He had been driving by, on his way to soccer practice, when he noticed me walking across the half-empty lot, kept going for several hundred feet and then turned around, deciding he had nothing to lose in taking a chance.

When he rolls up alongside me, I think nothing of it, pointing him in the right direction. But instead of driving off as I turn to walk away, he offers a compliment. Nothing extravagant or extraordinary…Yet something in the way the words rush out, as if he tried to catch them and couldn’t, stops me. Now that they’ve rolled out, he isn’t sorry, only staring at me, when I face him once again, with his sunglasses off and joy washing across his face.

And so, our banter begins. I confess to being intrigued and curious. He, on the other hand, admits to a startling happiness and an attraction as exhilarating for its surprise as its potential. After he asks me to have dinner with him, he parks his car and steps out, and we spend enough time talking for me to learn that he is a private soccer coach and only in town for the week, shuttling back and forth between southern New York and a town just a few miles from where we meet.

He is stunned that I am single. I am stunned that after only a few minutes in my presence he asks to see me every evening that he is here.

But accepting his invitation to dinner that night is, for me, for now, enough. It is also a step that feels significant, though I cannot put a name to what it is I am claiming, hesitate to label any part of this shifting space.

What I know is that only two weeks before I lay on my yoga mat, tears leaking into my scalp, after my teacher, as she does at the end of every class I’ve taken with her, pressed by shoulders into the floor. I felt my back flatten more fully into savasana but what I’d come to acknowledge as a necessary adjustment to improve my posture suddenly revealed itself to be so much more.

She wasn’t merely deepening the pose — she was guiding me, slowly and gently, into opening my heart.

The realization astounded me, with a swift bloom of tears.

Wasn’t I always the one throwing my arms around life, jumping heart first wherever I was led, consciously choosing joy but accepting, too, the heft of every sorrow? Hadn’t I learned to let such sadness have its way, believing that what was lost and mourned created the space for a deeper love to root?

It was only last year I had traveled to Tanzania as an orphanage volunteer on the heels of three shattering losses. There, I was filled with an immensity of love I knew I couldn’t have held without the heartbreak that came before it.

And yet here I was, weeping quietly with the awareness of how closely I’d been guarding my heart, folding myself around its bruised layers with a perfected subtlety. Of course, I would love those orphans so much in need of it. The love I have for my friends and family? That is an effortless joy to express. And isn’t loving the world the healing that buds from our brokenness?

But the love that ripens in the intimacy of romantic connection — I saw how I’ve been protecting myself from such attachment ever since my partner and I went our separate ways almost three years ago. It’s not that I don’t want to experience that depth of commitment again. The sweet ache of such yearning has steered me to a string of dating adventures in the last few years and sliced through many a moment of contented solitude.

What I fear is not the fall but the very real possibility of losing once again. Of surrendering my heart only to have it seized by wild grief, of being soaked in gladness only to be left with a gaping hollow, abandoned by all I held dear.

Despite the silent havoc being wreaked by such thoughts, in the marrow of who I am, I believe great love always comes with great risk, that we never open our hearts to love without also opening them to the potential for loss. But somewhere between my last relationship and now, at least in such matters, I’ve become surprisingly risk-averse.

Which is how I find myself sitting across from Mario, amid a profusion of praise and promise. He has appeared in my life, not just in the wake of my dawning awareness, but precisely two days after I have attended a meditation with a dear friend where my intention was simply to remain open.

When he and I meet for dinner, he vows he wants only to make me feel special, that every detail of this night will remain, for him, a memory to cherish. He lavishes me with the kind of attention that could easily be cloying were it not for his own admitted shock at feeling all he feels, the pauses where he seems to be casting about for a rationality that eludes him.

The experience, for me, is a wholly singular one. It’s as if I’ve been catapulted into the pages of a Harlequin romance novel but while Mario is captivated, I am mostly bewildered. Still flattered, yes, and cautious, too. But as he casts his spell of adoration, I stare at him in wordless wonder. How can he be so sure of all he sees in me when he barely knows me? How can these few hours in my company entrance him so when I am still trying to figure out if I am as attracted to him as I am the idea of him?

When he walks me to my car, I let him hold my hand, because he asks and the last time a man reached for my hand it was with a presumptuous haste that left me cold. And if I am to be honest, I feel softer, made pliant by the reverence in his eyes.

Still, what he offers is complicated: the four days he has left here and the others that will snake around his unpredictable full-time job on the West Coast, the one that dissolved his marriage a year and a half ago, amid other chasms of wants. Yet he and his wife are only separated, and this seems another tangled layer in a life of snarled decisions.

Though he wants to be with me, it is not a decision I am prepared to make, or a desire I can trust. I also know what he wants is exactly what will keep me playing it safe. We can lead our separate lives on separate coasts, coming together when it suits us — and I can risk nothing. He can swoop in with his worshipful words and tenderness, and my heart will remain on guard, as long as he isn’t fully present.

I want a man who will be all in. I tell Mario this because as he makes his case for what we can be, within the confines of his life, I discover that as fearful as I may be about falling in love again, I don’t want to do it half-way. I want to dive in, to feel the headiness of letting go, to choose to be open, vulnerable, undefended. I want to stand in the center of the joy and the mystery, the fire and the beauty, and let myself be transformed. It’s the only path that makes it all worthwhile.

When Mario calls the next night eager to see me, I’m not available, already committed to an after-work appointment. The following day, my phone rings multiple times. I miss every single one of his calls, somehow even when my phone is next to me, and am unable to reach him in return. And then just like that, he evaporates. No more calls. No texts. Nothing.

It’s almost as if I made him up.

But he was indeed real — a gift or maybe a test. And ever since I have been walking heart-forward, bearing each flare of resistance, yielding to each surge of hope.


2 thoughts on “A spark of romance, a mystery man and the heart’s surprising truth

  1. Oh man, that wasn’t the ending I wanted to read!!! But maybe there will be a Part 2?! I’m hoping! And I so understand, dearest Naila, the way we protect ourselves from heartbreak. Sometimes it’s good and healing to have some time for “no drama, no trauma”. And then we ache for connection once more, and are open again to someone who makes our heart sing!


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