It's not a word you would expect to find emblazoned on a birthday balloon.
“You want me to write what on it?” the woman on the phone had asked. She was four thousand kilometres away and taking my order for a balloon-bouquet delivery: five blue ones and floating just above them, in the centre, a silver one. And I wanted it to say, “LEAP.”
She had urged me to go online to peruse the shop’s selection of birthday designs. “The one shaped like a disco ball is our most popular,” she said. “It has the message, ‘It’s your birthday! Get down!’” I assured her that was very clever, but I needed the centerpiece balloon to echo the message contained in the card I was sending by overnight courier so that it could be attached to, and delivered with, the bouquet.
“So just a plain silver one,” I implored. “And write the word ‘LEAP’ on it in black marker, all capital letters. Please.”
I could hear her shrug in the brief silence on the line. “It’s your money,” she said.
My lips had stretched into a tiny smile as I hung up the phone. It was happening. His birthday surprise was in motion.
What do you get a man who lives in a different country, on the opposite side of the continent? I would have been there to celebrate with him without a second’s hesitation, but the space between us is where we always got hung up. For two years we had fought each other about the viability of a long-distance relationship. He was adamant he would not enter into one, even though that’s exactly what he had done. We had gotten to know each other slowly — message by message, revelation by revelation. Days passed, then weeks, and months. Our sharing deepened and became more intimate until suddenly, one day, our lives were entwined — his children, our jobs, my creative life, our mutual desires. We each were an abiding presence in the other’s existence. Like it or not, it was a relationship.
I knew how scared he was. He had done this before, and it had ended badly. But I wasn’t her. I wasn’t any of the ones who had preceded me. I believed anything was possible. I believed in working to make anything possible. I believed in him. I believed in me. I believed in what we had the opportunity to create together. Most of all, I wasn’t frightened of how hard it was going to be. I was a marathon runner: I was trained to endure excruciatingly long distances, and to find ecstasy at the finish line.
That’s why I had gone to him. It was almost entirely without warning; I knew better than to give him a chance to reason his way out of meeting in person. I simply bought a plane ticket and told him mere days before I was scheduled to land. It didn’t matter whether or not he agreed to see me or what would happen if he did. What mattered is that I went the distance, that I proved I meant every word I said. I was no virtual trifle — I was all flesh, and my blood ran hot with conviction, commitment, and passion.
He saw it. And he knew. There was a moment when we stood face-to-face for the first time, the city surrounding us coming to a full and silent stop as we bore into each other with a wordless gaze. Before we even said hello or touched, he understood exactly who and what I was and decided how all of it would end. I know now that I never stood a chance.
But on that day all I knew was a maelstrom of lips and limbs and lust, a confirmation of all we had imagined. Details from those first hours we spent together return to me even now, taking my breath away as they come hurtling unexpectedly from some far corner of my mind: The way my hip tucked in perfectly beneath his as we walked side-by-side. The contrast between his shy smile and his commanding eyes. The particular scent of his skin where his neck and shoulder met. The more I had tried to slow those moments down, to follow them to their very edges, the faster they had moved, racing towards the time of my departure.
After returning home, my life became a continual battle between holding on and letting go. How do you remain connected to someone who won’t choose? But how do you let go of someone who won’t step away? For every moment we spent together, there were thousands in which we were apart. For every message he sent detailing how a long-distance relationship would be impossible, there would be another claiming that he longed for and ached for and dreamed of us.
I was determined to be a smart woman with a grounded sense of self-worth. Longing and aching weren't enough. If he wasn't as willing as I to live love, I had to walk away. Which is precisely what I did. Until I ambled into a stationery shop off 5th Avenue in New York City on a work trip.
I saw it almost immediately upon entering. It was a card that depicted a canyon: two hulking rock masses with a great expanse between. Suspended in the air of that expanse was a man in full flight — hurling himself from one side to the other. He was risking it all.
I didn’t look at a single other thing in the shop.
It took me only minutes to write the message inside the card, which served as his birthday greeting — it was as if the words had always been there inside of me, just waiting for the right conduit. And could I have found a better one for a man who scaled rock as a source of leisure? He knew how to climb. I knew how to run. Together, there was no terrain we couldn’t conquer. It was time to lay it all on the line. And I had exactly two days to make it happen.
When the balloon bouquet was delivered to his office, it was anchored by an envelope inside which he found the card etched with my handwriting:
July 10, 2016
It's your birthday, and you know what that means: I've planned a Day of Adventure for us. We've spent the morning entangled and entwined. And now, it's time: Let's Go.
Here's what I need you to do: I need you to bring me to a place you love. It should be a place that inspires you, a place that makes you feel like anything is possible. It doesn't matter where it is. Here, for once, distance doesn't matter. Wherever it is, I think it's incredibly magnificent.
Now, look at me. Look at me exactly how you did when you broke our last embrace to ask me, "What does this mean?" You asked that question from a deep, true, vulnerable place, and that's where you need to be for what comes next.
With our eyes locked, tell me — tell me your wildest dream. Tell me the thing that seems outrageous, scary, exciting, and impossible, even though you'd go after it in a heartbeat if there were no insurmountable obstacles. Whatever it is, its beauty makes me smile.
Now, kiss me. Kiss me the way you did for the very first time after dinner that night, as light bloomed over your shoulder while you took my face in your hands and we held each other's unwavering gaze as our bodies fused with truth and fire.
Finally, back up far enough to get a good running start. Are you ready? Sprint. Sprint hard! And just as you're passing me ... LEAP. Leap just like the man on the front of this card.
And here's where I give you what I got you for your birthday: My arms. I’m not there to give you an actual gift to unwrap, so take my arms instead. I'll hold them up and use my hands to shield my eyes from the sun to watch you soar through the air after your dream. If you forgot anything in your pockets — loose change, a dry-cleaning ticket, a good luck charm — I'll collect them if they tumble out.
But most of all, the gift of my arms means that I've got you. Don't be afraid of falling. Not that you would be or that you would. But anything can happen in the air. You don't have to worry about that, though. I'm here, between you and the ground. All you need to do is chase your wildest dream. I've got you.
Happy birthday, VT. Make year 51 brilliant.
I still think of him, on July 10, no matter how much time passes. Tonight cracks of thunder tear the summer sky apart, and I look upwards at it in empathy. Bolts of lightning bleed across the grey like smears of acrid lemon curd. I once loved tempests like this.
Beneath my feet is the ground. It’s storm-soaked. I wonder about him — where he is, how he might be celebrating. I remember the words he used to describe to me his wildest dream.
Between us, we know who really took that leap in pursuit of that dream. And for the one who did, there were no arms to catch the fall.