Male Madagascar fody. Toliara, Madagascar All rights © Charles J Sharp

A lot of people come here to die, he tells me when I admit I’m still afraid of heights.

The sun is setting over the river as we drive under the last stretch of the four-mile-long bridge looming some 200 feet above us, blocking the sun for a brief moment with its concrete underbelly arced across the river.

This is a very popular suicide destination, he continues and turns some Bon Iver song up too loud. On top of the layered tin-echo-through-a-tunnel chorus he shouts, If the fall doesn’t snap your neck on impact it will knock you unconscious and then you’ll just drown.

It was a nice enough place to die, I thought, looking out the window but not responding out loud. At night, the reflection of the city lights on the water seemed to double the size of this small coastal town. Suddenly emerging from the densely forested mountain pass toward the coast is like being ejected from the neck of a long dark bottle.

There was also an incredibly tall man there with a young heart and a ready smile. He is lonely, having relocated there a year ago, after living in big cities and globe-trotting his entire adult life. I was moved that he admitted that matter-of-factly, without shame or self-consciousness. Like a soccer score or a weather update. “I’ve been here for more than a year and I’m still lonely.” It was just an observation.

The sleepy hollow fog breathed in and out over oncoming high beams and fading brake lights on my first drive out to meet him. Kind of like a prayer. Or a song. I try to tell myself it’s beautiful in this way but I’m still scared. I’ve never driven this road before and after the third hour I realize, with surprise, I’ve actually never driven more than three hours anywhere by myself before. How is that possible? Let alone this winding dizzying climb up the elevation where cell service vanishes. I no longer have music to sing along to distract myself with and I can’t call anyone if anything goes wrong. AAA membership only works if you call them. Deep breath.

By the time I finally arrived at his door I was frazzled, almost completely drained. I barely had a thought left in my polluted head and would’ve been shaking if my mind weren’t so fatigued. My brain felt flat, ironed out into a doughy oval.

But he was all smiles and his rescue pup was jumping with airborne frequency I could only embrace. I hugged his dog first. I dropped to my knees as I usually do with dogs to go on the affectionate offensive, wrestle-hugging the three-year-old mixed breed before standing up to finally greet him for the first time in person. We juggle-danced with the introductory do-we-hug-or-shake-hands first moment. I decide to shake his hand and put my hand out at the same instant he pulled me into him, making the decision for both of us and my head is suddenly in his plaid flannel chest. There, with my face somewhere at heart level, I realized the top of my head doesn’t even reach his shoulders. My boots gave me at least an extra inch or two but he was so tall I could only put my arms around his waist. That I couldn’t get my arms around his neck overwhelms me in a way that only women who’ve been with short men can appreciate. But he was so tall I realize I couldn’t even see his face. He was a foot and two inches taller than I am. So tall I almost didn’t write him back after that first message.

But there I was. After countless hours on long-distance phone calls, now I’m craning my neck back farther than I thought I’d have to in order to see what he really looks like. And with the faintest flutter of disappointment, I realized — it’s not him. This is not the man I will marry. It was with a quiet simple clarity that I understood this. Not a magnanimous epiphany that might have propelled me right back out on the road again. I sighed inwardly and wondered what I should do. I decided I shouldn’t decide right away. I remind myself that sometimes love, and even passion, can grow over time. A slow build that ultimately feels fuller than any instantaneous stomach-dropping lust. And I will give this a chance. I will get to know this tall man with an eager smile, laugh lines and a calm presence.

He was animated and talking excitedly about politics. And maybe something about religion. The elections, I think? But I was so deliriously tired I just remember the enthusiastic cadence of his voice, not any of his actual words. He finally stops midstream and looks at me. Do you need to take a nap? He asked with what I took for surprised but bemused concern. We discussed the options. Rally and go for a brisk walk to dinner at one of two restaurants close by or rest up and have dinner later.

It’s much more cosmopolitan than you’re thinking, he had told me on the phone after I admitted I would never purposely make a trip as far away as he lived — a four-hour drive from me, one way. But he told me about some restaurants there — Colombian food, vegan quinoa dishes, organic bakeries with gluten-free brunch options, art galleries, Danish pastry shops, cocktail bars and craft breweries with live music and dance performances.

So I decided to rally. We ate a quiet pan-Latin restaurant owned by the man who runs the annual drag parade. And I had the vegan quinoa — with roasted vegetables sauteed in garlic and ginger. He told the owner/chef they had to make a good impression for me since I’d been skeptical about meeting up with him in the first place. I was morbidly uncomfortable with this disclosure but they both laughed and all seemed forgiven and friendly.

Walking around town we ran into countless people who seemed pleased to see him everywhere we went. Hugs, high-fives and genuine smiles. He seemed pleased to be acquainted with so many of the cool kids who brought a bigger-city vibe to this town of 10,000. He introduced me to everyone and told me a little backstory for all of them. Who was dating whom. Who had moved here from wherever to escape a bad relationship and a minimum-wage job. But in the midst of all of this shoulder-rubbing and hearty handshakes I wondered why we were running into all these people by chance. And then I realized that they were not friends. They were all acquaintances. And I was suddenly sad for him because he knew everyone but had no one.

After dinner he decided we should stop into one of his favorite bars for a nightcap. The @Redacted. It is an unabashedly hipster cocktail joint that wants to be wildly popular but still indie — like an underground band with a massive cult following that never goes mainstream. It’s like walking into a very curated instagram account.

We walk in through a long narrow rectangle, oddly laid out with a great adjacent room that was inexplicably vacant and roped off. The L-shaped bar is lined with thirty-somethings and younger with just enough room for us. Low-lit with unfinished wood and exposed beams, it felt like my favorite restaurant back home — an izakaya-style whiskey bar with Japanese food and crooning steel guitar classic country. Very Quentin Tarantino. I try not to think about his toe-sucking foot fetish or licking tequila off Salma Hayek’s bare foot.

We take a seat and suddenly his hand is on my thigh under the bar and he leans close to my ear. He tells me that the cocktails are all named after local shipwrecks.

And something in my heart immediately lifted at the impossible charm of this, the historical romanticism of a place so defined by its geography. In one moment even the smallest abiogenesis suddenly seemed possible. Sentient life spontaneously rising where before there was none. His face was still in my hair and I wasn’t tired anymore. I wanted to know more. A few strands of my hair caught on his beard as he pulled back, the dim bar light illuminated this little suspension bridge between us.

As he ran his finger down the menu he told me about as many of the shipwrecks as he could remember. One enormous freighter had wrecked with a hold full of wheat on his father’s birthday — a decade to the day before he was born. The four-masted steel barque made it through the Depression and most of World War II before a northeasterly wind blew the massive vessel beyond the breakers and ran it aground. Seventy years later the giant oxidized ribs of the ship stick out of the sand like dinosaur bones reaching out of a grave. Amazingly everyone had survived, including three stowaways.

I couldn’t stop smiling while he recanted this story as if it were one of his own. Like a family classic retold at every holiday. I think he felt something shift in me though he might not have known why I came alive at that moment. But he smiled. And ordered two more shipwreck cocktails. A gaff-rigged schooner for me whose only survivor was a dog and a Spanish galleon for himself. He told me this one was his second-favorite drink but his favorite mystery. Radiocarbon dating made historians and researchers think that it was most likely one of two ships that would’ve been trading enormous quantities of beeswax and Chinese porcelains in the 17th century. They still didn’t know for certain. And no one knows if the hundreds on board survived. So we toasted the three-masted warships. The clipper ships and frigates. The merchant ships and the demise of empire economies. Maritime history and lore was completely alien to me. But smart men are one of my strongest weaknesses.

The boardwalk is a walkable distance from just about anywhere in town. The haze of the fog still hovered low but the rain had softened to a warm mist. The kind people actually like to stroll in. We decided to walk to the pier. I looped my arm through his.

He had made me grab one of his raincoats before we left and I was suddenly glad I did. It tarped around me like a busted tent and the billed hood hung low past my eyes. It was bright red but otherwise looked like the ghost of that fisherman-turned-murderer in Scream, which made me chuckle to myself. But I closed my eyes and walked blindly beside him, trusting him to lead us. I’m sure he didn’t realize I had given myself over to him in this subtle little way.

It was at the pier that he said my name, quietly, urgently, for the first time. It sounded like an admonition. And I felt the obligation in his voice. Felt that this was a stern inevitability. I wasn’t ready to kiss him but he tilted my chin up with one hand and his full lips were instantly kissing me. I don’t even remember standing up on my tiptoes. I kissed him back for a moment but pulled away just as quickly. It was still too soon. I didn’t have feelings for him and was still trying to understand if I was attracted to him or simply the idea of him. On paper, his CV was so many things I idealized in a partner. In anyone, actually. A true citizen of the world without any worldly pretentiousness. I didn’t know that combination was possible.

Months into our getting-to-know-you process he mentioned in passing that he had been a bouncer in college. That he hadn’t humble-bragged about that right out of the gate impressed me. He had told me many things about Boston, his years at Tufts. But that he didn’t lead with this tidbit of iconic masculinity was endearing. There was only a hint of high-and-mighty when he talked about the Fletcher School and I figured he had earned it.

He had joined the Peace Corps right out of college. After being the rowing captain. After more than two years in Madagascar he had worked in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Palestine. He had traveled to more countries than most people will see in their lifetimes. I always thought that this would have been my story too. That by this age I would have just as many crazy stories of my own to trade. But as a child and even into adulthood I didn’t realize I simply was not brave enough to do any of it. To get on a plane and go. So I was suddenly wondering if I actually liked him or if I wanted to be him. But after a glass of wine and two shipwreck cocktails, I decided I could decide that later too.

Within a few minutes of getting back to his house we were curled up on the couch, in theory, to watch tv and have another glass of wine. He lied behind me and told me to choose whatever I wanted to watch. I chose a comedy special thinking it would be fun and light to laugh together. It was easy and natural to lie down with this man I had just met. By the time we met in person we had spent dozens of hours on the phone.

He already knew my biggest secrets and a few of my regrets. We already knew many of the milestones along each other’s timelines. He had warned me that his dick wasn’t as big as one would assume. I assured him that at his height he was definitely hung like a redwood. He dismissed the compliment and changed the subject.

When I felt his lips on the back of my neck, his arms tightening around me, his hands in my hair and his hard body pressing into me my breathing deepened but I wasn’t scared. I’ll be honest, I can’t really concentrate on the movie, he breathed heavily into my ear, his full lips kissing my neck. And then a frantic tangled tumbleweed of arms and legs and kissing and stroking. And suddenly he was standing up with my legs wrapped around his waist and his hands on my hips, holding me up high enough that I could now wrap my arms around his neck for the first time. We were eye-to-eye now.

In the dark he made his way to the bedroom from the living room, still holding me against him. Just before the bedroom door he pushed me against a floor-to-ceiling mirror on the wall in the hallway, my legs still wrapped around his waist. He pinned my arms above my head and thrust against me once, gently, and held me in place there with the leverage of his large body. He kissed my throat and I felt my breasts pressed against his chest. It was perfect.

The last time a man carried me to bed I thought I was in love and spiraled deeply after it crashed and burned. But passionate aggressive men are hard to come by so I was willing to take the risk, to give myself over to this rare moment — the possibilities. Because I knew that he wouldn’t pressure me for more than I was ready for. His deep respect for women was tangible in the countless stories he’d told me and none of them reeked of effort or obligation or ulterior motive. He was more of a feminist than I was. And he was still a man.

The rest of that first night was a drunken blur of sheets and blankets and hands. Skinny jeans yanked off inside-out, one sock still on. And when his shirt came off I couldn’t keep my hands off his chest.

Finally.

A man with broad shoulders and thick chest hair. Another rarity I was disappointed by in adulthood. And it was worth the back hair. Running my hands up and down the length of his entire back took time. A lot of time. A long swooping pass over the shoulder blades and down, down, down over his enormous oak cask rib cage and finally to the small of his back — wider than both of my hands. He was so big it felt like an accomplishment to finally finish the course of his whole body. I felt like a rock climber or long-distance runner.

He rolled over and pulled my shirt off, kissed a trail down my neck to my nipples, cupped my breasts in his hands and took them in his mouth one after the other.

I reached down to grab his dick. It was thick and hard but much shorter than I was expecting. He wasn’t lying after all. He lied down next to me and slowly ran his hand up the inside of my thighs, his slow pace asking permission. I smiled at him in the dark. His fingers were inside me and I felt my whole body relax into it. Deeper and faster until my deep breathing turned into screaming.

I have neighbors! He admonished me. He seemed genuinely concerned they might hear me.

Suddenly I was on my back. He was straddling me and furiously jerking off. I ran my hands up and down the enormous trunks of his legs. I remember thinking they felt like felled trees, the ones you have to climb over when you’re hiking and they’ve fallen across a trail.

Can I come? He panted.

Come hard, I whispered.

In an instant he exploded all over my chest, his own chest heaving in the light coming through the window from the neighbor’s backyard. Maybe they had heard me after all.

He rubbed it all over my breasts, massaged it into my skin. I was surpised to find I kind of liked it. It feels like summer, I remember telling him in the dead of winter.

I don’t remember falling asleep. But I woke up alone, naked and chilled under the covers. Suddenly he was standing in the doorway like he had sensed me waking up from the other room.

What time is it? I asked him with heavy lids.

He smiled and stood there with one hand holding a cup of coffee, The Birds of Madagascar in his other hand, one finger holding his place in the pages. His dog had watched us briefly the night before and retired to his own little bed next to the human bed. Now they were both staring at me.

5:30, he smiled wider and strode toward the bedside with the coffee outstretched toward me. I felt like I had woken up on my side of our bed. Like he was purposely bringing me coffee before I had to throw off the covers to spare me the cold walk to the kitchen. It seemed thoughtful.

Maybe this could turn into something after all.

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