When I bumped into him on the street in Rome last summer, we hadn’t seen each other for nearly a decade. You know how people say that you’ll fall in love when you least expect it? I am never not expecting it. On every plane, at every coffee shop, I’m always hoping for a spark with someone.
I had booked the holiday after the worst bout of mental illness I’d had in years. My psychiatrist said that traveling can be like geographic medicine. When stuck in your mind, you’re likely to feel trapped in your body. New surroundings can create a sense of freedom, reminding you that life is full of possibilities.
Romance has always given me a similar sense of escape. I crave the consuming feeling of having a crush, because it channels my emotions into something outside of myself. In love, my feelings are magical and constructive, rather than harmful and destructive.
Before booking the trip to Rome, I was, at 27, in a familiar pit of depression. Summer never seemed to arrive in London, and I spent the overcast months being rejected from jobs, drinking gin and sleeping through the day. Still reeling from the pandemic, I felt lost, low and lonely.
I focused on the only emotion that made me feel good — love. During lockdown, I had finally told one of my best friends that I was in love with him. My feelings weren’t reciprocated, but we became even closer, bonded by our newfound honesty. My older brother, a psychologist, told me, “Try to focus on the reality of the relationship, rather than its potential.”
Ignoring this sensible advice, I poured my energy into the connection, hoping that one day my friend would love me the way I wanted him to.
When he ended our friendship abruptly over text, it was worse than a breakup. It felt like my fault: The intensity of my feelings had pushed away one of the best friends I’d ever had.
Pain feels worse when it’s familiar, like bumping the same bruise over and over. I found myself wishing I had kept my feelings to myself.
For the first time in years, I thought seriously of taking my life. When those thoughts shifted toward making plans, I reached out to friends, who intervened to help. I knew from experience that although I couldn’t see a way forward, life lingered just around the corner. So I closed my eyes, disappearing into memories and imaginings, surviving each day.
After four months of therapy and a job offer at last, my depression started to lift. Remembering my psychiatrist’s words, I decided to get myself out of London.
Instantly, I thought of Rome. I believed in the healing powers of sunshine, spaghetti and seeing the Sistine Chapel. Plus, there was the prospect of a holiday romance. I only knew one person who lived there — an earnest, sensitive Italian man I’d met backpacking through southern Europe. We’d had a brief fling eight years earlier and hadn’t spoken since.
Feeling impulsive, I messaged him on Instagram. He seemed excited about meeting, and I found myself imagining a dramatic love affair. I spent my first few days in Italy eagerly awaiting our date. But when he canceled, I resigned myself to the failure of another romantic fantasy.
Being in Rome was both life-affirming and lonely. I spent afternoons drinking wine, keeping my sunglasses on in bright piazzas. I visited art museums with frescoed walls, feeling sick with restless anxiety. I gazed at ancient buildings while listening to songs that my ex-friend had sent me, music that made me miss him even more.
In short, I had gone away, but my depression had not.
My pain wasn’t just about a love I had lost or an unrealized fling. I was grieving the months stolen by lockdowns, the time that had disappeared to depression, the person I might have been and the future I might have had.
Toward the end of my trip, I bought a last-minute ticket to the Vatican. On the walk there, I started craving an espresso. Feeling unsettled, I stopped outside multiple cafes without going in. Finally, I picked somewhere, sitting at an outdoor table facing the street.
As I waited for my coffee, my old Italian crush walked past. He slowed, removed his sunglasses and said my name like a question.
I had forgotten so much about him: He had dimples when he smiled, his hair was bronze, I had to stand on my tiptoes to kiss his cheek.
We were 19 when we met at a beach club in Majorca. We swam and talked and kissed until sunset, holding each other in the sea as the air cooled. He promised that when I visited Rome a few weeks later, he would take me out.
Expecting beers at a hostel, I was surprised when he picked me up in his little Italian car and gave me a dozen roses. We drank prosecco at an alfresco bar, looking out over the ancient city.
He said I made him feel like he was in heaven. And I panicked. Back then, I coped with my moods by trying to crush them, frightened of how deeply I felt things.
The day after our date, he wanted to take me to a family party. When I saw his car pull up outside my hotel, I sank to the floor below my window, ignoring his texts and pretending I wasn’t in.
Part of me craved that kind of romance, but I was terrified of letting someone see my intensity and getting rejected when they didn’t like it. I joked about his passion to friends, saying, “He’s too much,” repeating a criticism that often had been leveled at me. I left Rome without seeing him again.
Now, here he was, smiling as if no time had passed.
We laughed in disbelief, and he apologized for canceling. He was in the neighborhood for an acting audition, and we connected over the challenges of chasing creative dreams.
“Step by step,” he said, “things will come.”
That night, we met up in a piazza draped in greenery and golden fairy lights. Sitting outside at a trattoria, he ordered us Aperol spritzes and spaghetti. I was thrown back into the exhilaration I’d felt eight years earlier, but this time with less fear. A free fall, after being stuck inside stagnant sadness for so long.
We talked about our first date in Rome. When I mentioned his romantic gestures — the roses, heartfelt words, turning up at my hotel — he winced.
“I’m not that boy anymore,” he said.
I was disappointed; over the years, I had become that girl. I no longer ran from my feelings but looked at them carefully, holding them close and going wherever they led me.
After midnight, we sneaked into the pool at my apartment, once again kissing in turquoise water. We spent the night together, and in the morning, he couldn’t find one of his rings. When it fell out of the bedsheets after he’d left, I texted him a photo.
“Keep it,” he wrote. “It’s a memory.”
But I didn’t want it to be a memory. I wanted more.
I asked to see him again. He agreed to dinner, but a few hours before, he canceled.
He was apologetic, blaming a deadline for a music project, and asked me to get lunch the day before my flight back to London.
I couldn’t decide if I should go. As I deliberated, I thought of a moment from our most recent date. Before dinner, he’d abruptly stopped walking, bending down to pick up a euro coin that had fallen between the cobblestones.
“In Italy,” he said, “it’s a good sign when you find these. I always pick them up. I can’t help it. I have to believe in something.”
We sat in streaming sunshine, and he ordered us ravioli and white wine. Then tiny cups of espresso followed by delicate glasses of iced limoncello.
I let myself sink into the moment, enjoying it for exactly what it was. Hours passed, and eventually, he had to leave to go to a friend’s party. I knew if he’d asked me to come, this time, I would have said yes.
But he didn’t. Instead, we shared a sweet kiss and said goodbye.
I’ve often been called a hopeless romantic, but I am filled with hope. For a long time, I focused on what the intensity of my emotions has taken from me. But my feelings also have given me the ability to imagine vivid possibilities and throw myself toward them.
To trust that life can be expansive and bright once more, even when it feels so desperately dark. To risk being hurt for even a fleeting chance at love. To believe that one day, someone will see the same beautiful future that I do — and feel it all right there with me.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.