Ugh, guys are so damn complicated. Why can’t he just tell me what he wants? I thought, as I was attempting to gaze “mindfully” and “appreciatively”—as instructed—at what was probably poison oak. Oh, right, because he literally can’t talk right now.
I came to this seven-day, technology-free, silent meditation retreat seeking isolation. Not a mind-eff of a relationship. After quitting drinking seven months ago, I’d started meditating, and the idea of having a week to focus on strengthening my practice seemed like a smart thing to do. Plus, I’d heard from friends that if you meditate enough, you sometimes feel like you’re on Molly. As a sober person, this held great appeal.
But what really sold me on this specific retreat was that it was held in the quiet hills of Northern California at a Buddhist center that specifically prohibited books and scented lotions because they were both too “stimulating.” And with no speaking or texting allowed, I was expecting—and so ready for—some calm and solitude. But, of course, I was wrong.
Nope, instead, within a whole seven days of not uttering a word to each other, I found myself in a relationship with another guy attending the retreat.
Now, hear me out: A lack of communication has never inhibited my love life before. So, in some ways, this wasn’t much different than the experiences I’ve had with some of my exes. And at dinner the first night of the retreat, I found this guy looking at me, okay? Not the other way around. I wasn’t looking for this! But there was a twinkle in his eye. Or maybe I was just seeing strange colors because I hadn’t looked at my phone in 36 hours. I gave him a small smile, and he gave me one right back. Then we both looked down and returned to our lentil soups.
He was older than I was and vaguely resembled a silver-foxed Alex Karev from Grey’s Anatomy: rugged yet boyish, with narrow shoulders and warm eyes. Mind you, the retreat was 75 percent women, but I’m an expert at finding a way to have a crush in all environments (ask me later about my experience at the dermatologist’s office). I’d never been involved with an older guy, so this was my chance to kinda try it in a low-stakes—okay, super-low-stakes—way. After all, we wouldn’t be speaking or coming into physical contact with each other, so what was the big deal in seeing where this nonverbal relationship went? (We took a vow of silence, after all, and I can only be with men who honor their vows....)
On the second day, I saw him approaching a hiking path for a “walking meditation.” He pulled his sunglasses up so we could make eye contact, and immediately, we both smiled. When you can’t use your words, eye contact is everything. So I took it as a sign that I should walk behind him on the hike, since walking together was discouraged, as was hand holding. In fact, all sexual activities (including masturbating) were explicitly forbidden. Dating, though, was not, almost certainly because it did not occur to the retreat managers that anyone would be able to form a relationship within a week. Whoever left that out hadn’t met me though.
On days three and four, we settled into our what-do-you-even-call-this relationship. The evidence: There was an empty spot open next to me in the meditation hall at 6:30 a.m. (someone had slept in, and for the only time that week, it wasn’t me). He was there earlier than I was but dallied outside, taking a seat next to me when the final bell rang. Maybe he came late because he needed to pee, use hand sanitizer, or have two more minutes of freedom before sitting for three straight hours. Or maybe he just wasn’t paying attention. IDK. But the cushion he normally sat at was near the very front of the room, while mine was in the back. So, explain that.
I was able to diagnose sexual tension without asking six of my friends if they noticed it too.
Then, during the meditation, I noticed him cupping his hands on the ground in the space between our cushions, letting a tiny bug wander around inside. Again, I wondered: Was he keeping the bug alive in the spirit of Buddhism? Was he just bored? Or, most logically, was he trying to keep the bug from coming toward me because he and I were, like, a thing?
It was clear that, during this retreat, I was gaining a heightened awareness of my body, which made it possible to ID sexual tension without asking six of my friends if they noticed it too. Whenever he sat next to me, I started to feel the hairs on my arms stand up. And even though we hadn’t spoken a word to each other—I didn’t even know his name—I could sense we had something. He sat next to me at all meals, and at lunch, he brought me a glass of water. Much like the priest pulling open the curtain at the confessional to gaze upon Fleabag, it was the overture I had been searching for. There was no more ambiguity. Did he bring water to anyone else? I don’t think so.
Suddenly, on days five and six, I noticed a distinct shift. I had skipped the morning meditations, so the first time I saw him on those days was just before lunch. He immediately averted his eyes, the corners of his mouth turned down. I tried to stay positive. Maybe he was just trying to focus on actually meditating? But at lunch, he sat at a different table—meaning he had passed on one of the few times when we could engage in the intimate act of looking at each other. I sat across from him at dinner, but he looked down the whole time, seemingly entranced by his mashed cauliflower.
In the past, I’ve let romantic encounters fizzle because I thought the dude was disinterested. Later, I’d learn that they still liked me but thought I was the one pulling away, which made them course-correct. In this case, I did opt out of the morning meditation...so maybe he got worried I was the one not feeling it anymore? Other than sitting near him, there was nothing else I could do to keep our connection alive. None of my typical moves were available: I couldn’t Like his tweets. I couldn’t text him a new meme. I couldn’t pretend to laugh loudly at his jokes.
What if he’d fallen in love with the energy of someone else in just two days?
And then, just like that, we were officially done. We did not sit next to each other at meals. We didn’t walk near each other during the walking meditation. He held the door for me as I entered the meditation hall, but he did not reciprocate my bow of gratitude and there was no more manual protection from bugs. No more smiles. I found that, without words, it was still possible to show and withhold affection from someone and know for a fact they are doing the same without any verbal confirmation.
My mind started thinking: What if he’d fallen in love with the energy of someone else in just two days, like someone who walked a little closer to him on those hikes?
On the seventh day, it was time to leave. I wondered if I should say bye to my retreated retreat lover (I like to stay on good terms with past people), and I started to second-guess everything. Had it all been in my head? Perhaps. Then again, so is meditating, so at least I was thematically consistent?
Then, as I was waiting for my airport shuttle to bring me back to reality, he approached me...and finally, he spoke. He asked me if I had a good retreat. Did I have a good retreat? I thought angrily to myself. I got on the shuttle and said, “Nice to meet you,” as if we were just meeting for the first time in that moment. He said it back and gave a nod, and then, for the first time in two days, he smiled at me.
Trust me, I never thought I’d be able to develop feelings for someone without stalking their Twitter first or, you know, hearing their voice. But I had genuinely liked this person, and the way things ended between us left me legitimately disappointed and confused. Like, I’ve been ghosted many times and that’s become something I know how to deal with. But this was a new type of disintegration: We had said nothing to each other for seven whole days, so I definitely wasn’t entitled to ask what happened or how we ended up here, apart.
But, I swear, what we had during the retreat was real. Given the limited set of things he could do, he went out of his way to show interest. He looked at me any time we were in a room together. He waited for me at the dining hall. Only going off his body language weirdly made me more sure of the vibes between us than if he had just texted, “You’re cute ;).” It all felt real, dammit!
If I learned one thing from this odd experience, it’s to stick to my gut—because whether it’s through words or not, you can always feel someone take a massive step back, even if they play it off like nothing is up. In the end, I prefer a guy who’s more communicative. And who Likes my Instagrams.