It’s something that people often say when a relationship fails: “It was just the wrong time”. But is there such a thing as the wrong time, or is it an excuse? And does the wrong time always bring heartache, or can it also bring gifts?
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Close the door and dim the lights. Let’s talk. I’m Violeta Balhas and this is Season 1, Episode 7 of Pillow Talking – Stories about the stories we tell each other when there’s no one listening. In this episode, It’s the wrong time, and the wrong place.
Almost all my life I have heard people say about failed relationships that “it just wasn’t the right time”. And yet I never really believed it. Maybe it was the ignorance – or arrogance – of someone who had only had a couple of serious relationships, or maybe it was romanticism, or just stubbornness that made think, whenever I heard “it just was the wrong time”, that no – when two people want to make it work, love can conquer and they can make it the right time. They can make it the right place.
Until Barry came along.
A few years after the end of a 21-year relationship I was dating casually, keeping it all light and friendly, and so was he. Light-and-friendly were the ground rules and he had his own reasons for keeping it right and friendly, and so did I, except his reasons for keeping it light and friendly were quite serious. Knowing what they were, I vowed to respect them and went in.
Except that there was something about Barry, and I fell fast – and hard.
His reasons weren’t just more serious, so was his resolve. And when he let me down, because he’d been upfront, right from the beginning, and wouldn’t change just because I was putting my heart on the line, I had to be on the receiving end of that most bitter of words, almost like a cosmic joke: “It was just the wrong time”.
And I had to decide what to believe. Should I embrace the idea that there really is such a thing as the wrong time, or should I fall back on what I always believed, that he just wasn’t willing to make it the right time… for me. Huh.
I still don’t have the answer but here’s what I do have: a far more open attitude towards the idea of “the wrong time”, because I’ve seen it happen over and over again with people who are obviously not just looking for an excuse, and with people who do their best to make the wrong time the right time. And not just that, I’ve seen amazing relationships happen despite common sense or weight of evidence pointing to it being the completely wrong time, like in one of the stories in this episode.
Here’s what else I’ve seen and what these stories show: that the wrong time can bring heartbreak, but it can also bring unexpected gifts, like it eventually did for me. These conversations all happened in the intimacy of the bedroom.
Ssh. Let’s listen.
There are decisions you make that some days you think they’re the best decision you ever made. Some days, you wonder if they’re the worst you ever made. Most of the time, I think Louis was the best. Sometimes, when I’m feeling melancholy and sorry for myself, I think it was the worst – but only sometimes. Louis, if you ever hear this please know that I only think this because sometimes, when the setting sun hits the Yarra just right, or when I’m picking out the perfect white peach, or when I’m laughing with my friends, who used to be our friends, I miss you so much.
It was clear to me almost from the beginning that Louis could only ever be a heartbreak. But what kind of heartbreak? This was the decision I had to make. Break it off early but miss out on this gorgeous man, or get to have this gorgeous man for as long as I could before saying goodbye forever? You can probably guess, like Louis did, what I chose.
He was frank from the beginning. Not that he said we couldn’t have a future, but he told me all about himself, and it was clear that his future was already decided for him.
He was here to study, he told me, and then he was going back to China. He was being given many freedoms while he was here, but certain things were expected from him.
His mother came to Melbourne three times a year. She checked in on her son and her business interests. Although he was living in one of their houses, she never came to visit there. She always stayed at their penthouse in Docklands, and he was expected to go to her. So she never knew that he had filled the house with students from around the world. And she never knew that I, a middle-class white girl, spent as much time there as I did at my own place.
There were actually many things I knew that she didn’t. The biggest was that he didn’t want the future that was planned out for him. His family’s wealth was recent but then again so was the trauma of poverty just a couple of generations back, so there was no question of Louis doing what he wanted to do.
Over the first meal he cooked for me, a sumptuous and mind-bogglingly good one, he told me of the time he fell in love with French cuisine. It was actually on a trip to Japan when he was fourteen. They went to a Michelin-starred restaurant and the way he described it, it was a transcendental experience for him. He went back as often as he could during that trip, sometimes on his own. He felt he’d found his passion. He floated the idea of becoming a chef past his parents. His parents immediately sank it.
But they didn’t sink the idea of letting Louis come to Melbourne to study years later, and meeting him, and being with him, was my transcendental experience. He was studying business but the way he looked at the world was like an artist. He found poetry in everything, from a beautiful painting to my crazy morning hair to the Saturday morning shop at Vic Market. Because of that he changed the way that I looked at the world and I just had to be with him, even if it was for a little while.
For my part, I introduced Louis to chefs who knew chefs, and suddenly he found himself working as a kitchen hand, doing all the shit jobs and having the time of his life. He used to shrug it off and say he was playing, but I kept telling him that playing was a good thing. Told him that saying about us growing old when we stop playing. Eventually he started to believe it. I think that’s something I was able to give him, and it gives me comfort.
Two years we had together. One night in bed shortly before the end of his course he told me his mother was coming back, and this time she was taking him with her when she went back to China. He would not stay for the graduation ceremony. His parents thought what for? It made no sense to have the ceremony in Melbourne where there was no one here. They would have a big party at home.
This was a big shock. I’d been relying on him staying for graduation – it would have given us a few more months. I started crying, and told him I was someone in Melbourne.
He kissed my tears and told me I wasn’t just someone. I was THE most important one. Not just in Melbourne, but in the whole world.
That was the last time he cooked for me.
He told me to stay in bed, went to the kitchen, and came back with eggs, wine, sugar, and a few other things.
He kept one of those portable Korean stoves in his room to cook quick things – everyone in that house wanted to recreate flavours from home and sometimes the kitchen was so busy he couldn’t get in to boil water. He put it on a chair next to the bed and started making me something I’d never had before, and haven’t had since. Sabayon.
I watched his beautiful hands as he separated eggs, and measured out sugar and wine into a bowl. Then he set the bowl over simmering water and with a hand whisk started whipping, whipping, whipping. He didn’t look at me while he worked. He just looked down at what he was doing. His face was half shadowed by his hair but I saw he wasn’t just concentrating. His eyes were shining. And the look on his face was pure sadness and love. It was like he was pouring it all into this beautiful thing he was making for me.
When he was done he just brought the entire bowl to the bed with two spoons. We lay with this bowl of sabayon between us, and silently shared it. Didn’t speak a word. And yet, we somehow said volumes. He was gone a few weeks later and although we had an official goodbye before he left, this was the real one. It was real because alone in his bedroom we didn’t just say goodbye to each other, we also both said goodbye to a part of him.
We began hanging out almost weekly, just listening to records, talking about music, sharing stuff about our lives. I saw Alex as a musician first, but after we started to see the parallels, an intense connection began to build. He was trying to make up for lost time after being in bands for the last fifteen years and I was trying to pay back all the friends and family debt I had created developing the two companies. He had just gotten out of a long-term relationship with a divorcee and after playing the part of dad, he realized having kids wasn’t for him. I annually asked my gynecologist to tie my tubes into pretty little bows but had yet to reach the ripe old age of “she means it when she says she doesn’t want children.”
Thank you for not yelling at me.
Thank you for not being mad about getting lost.
Thank you for being so nice.
Thanks for holding that door open for me.
Thanks for listening to me talk about my ex.
Don’t say you’re sorry. We both need to get through our past.
For every day we spent together, a dollop of gratitude would land in between the two hands that naturally held together. We supported each other’s need to get through it as much as we distracted one another from the pain of it.
Alex had one of those memory foam toppers on his too-old mattress. When we slept in that bed, we’d roll into one another. “Thank you for being so warm when you sleep. I’m always cold,” he’d say.
Many nights I’d get up during the dark morning hours to pee. Feeling the cold of the cream-colored toilet seat I’d hold onto myself for warmth. One thought would lead me to another and finally I’d realize the pee had stopped and the holding back of tears had started. I’d carefully walk downstairs to the living room and sit on the tan area rug surrounded by tan furniture and wrap myself in the icy blue moonlight. I remember feeling guilty for poking fun at his monochromatic color sense. Thanks to their somber steps within a single hue, I cried furiously among the tan until the only thoughts coming in were of Alex sleeping sweetly upstairs.
The tenacity of it, of us – it was so powerful that it was nearly tangible. We would stand in his living room, lights low, only able to say “hi” in very small voices as we stood closer than kissing distance to each other. There was so much more to say but neither of us was ready to say those things out loud. All we could do was feel the vibrations of it.
I felt it, that damn connection, but I didn’t want to look at him that way – not yet. I had a plan to fuck whoever I wanted, travel the world, and make as much art as possible. Wasn’t it too soon? It had only been a handful of months since Trent and I were officially separated. How is it possible that the person you’re meant to be with shows up so early in the process? I have a therapist. She’ll disagree with this. Tell me it’s the wrong move. It is the wrong move. Right?
My secret boyfriend Jason and I were in bed one Saturday night, too cold and rainy to go out, and we were just reading and browsing our phones. There was a Spotify music list playing and I was sort of singing along under my breath every now and then. That’s what I was doing when Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees came on. Jason looks at me and goes, “What did you just sing?” I reply, “The words!” And he says, “What words?”
A sidenote here of two small things that are relevant to the story. First, he was my secret boyfriend because we were both teachers at the same school and were keeping it absolutely quiet. We didn’t see each other during the week and only got together on weekends. The second thing is that he was an English teacher and had a supreme way with words. He was a sharp, funny guy.
Obviously I knew I’d got some lyrics wrong and I knew that he knew – there was no escaping. Very, very quietly I told him the words and he repeated them back to me at what seemed to me unnecessarily loud volume: “Did you just sing, ‘GOT A WICKED PANTHER ON MY SHOES’?”
What then followed is something that is burned in my memory but I can barely describe because there’s no way I can do it justice. On the spot, he started making up lyrics for Stayin’ Alive, silly mondegreen after silly mondegreen. I can’t remember them all but it was hilarious. I was DYING.
But that wasn’t enough. He got up and started doing some Saturday Night Fever moves, and keep in mind HE WAS NAKED. John Travolta had some very tight pants holding everything in place while he was dancing, but Jason didn’t have a stitch on and watching him do the pointing up and down thing while he thrust his hips, parts of him jiggling, other parts waving around… That was it. I was out.
In this state of hysteria I was laughing so hard I fell off the bed. And then I laughed harder.
He joined me on the floor and eventually I calmed down. “More than a woman” came on and he looked into my eyes and sang, “We can take forever just a weekend at a time.” It was very sweet.
We had many more weekends although it didn’t last forever. That’s OK. We met at the wrong time in our lives, when we were trying to establish ourselves and our careers and we were applying for jobs everywhere – this eventually sent us our separate ways. Plus, I think we knew that we couldn’t base an entire lifetime together on what we had on the weekends.
But I don’t know what it was about this guy, late at night in my bedroom. I didn’t laugh like that anywhere else, and haven’t since. I’m a grown-ass woman and can’t begin to tell you how stupid I feel admitting that I want someone who makes me laugh in the bedroom. But it’s a lot more than that. What that laughter meant to me was complete comfort with someone, complete lack of inhibition, and my time with Jason left me with that as something to aim for. Gives a completely different meaning being uninhibited in the bedroom, right?
It was 2009. I was single for the first time in years, and I was a single mom going through a very hard time. I met a man who was going through a lot himself, and we connected in a way I had never connected with anyone before. There was no judgment, just connection because we had the same sense of humor and just needed a friend during a dark time for both of us.
I spent hours at his place. Sometimes we drank, sometimes we did more intimate things, sometimes we just sat and watched TV and held hands. We knew we weren’t right for each other. But we were what we both needed at the time.
One night has stuck with me beyond everything, even years later. I was next to him with my head on his shoulder, touching his face. He looked at me, and he said, “You know I can’t be the one to take care of you guys.” I was immediately gutted because I felt like I simultaneously wanted him to be that person… but knew he couldn’t. He was a haunted alcoholic who couldn’t seem to keep a job or keep any healthy relationships. I had a toddler at home and was trying to better myself.
I told him that I knew he couldn’t be that person, that I didn’t want that from him, that I was happy with how we were. Our relationship fizzled out a few months later when we both met the right person for ourselves. We’ve touched base a few times over the last few years. He’s still the same person, though in a much better place now. I’m happily married to a wonderful man who has become a father to my child who is now a teenager. But I can never forget the man who kept my head above water when things were bad, and who taught me how much it meant to me to be a friend to somebody. And who spoke the truth to me when I would have settled for less than I deserved.
Pillow Talking is produced, narrated and edited by me, Violeta Balhas, from stories by you, the listeners and pillow talkers. Music is by Radovan Jekic. This episode’s stories were:
Goodbye Sabayon by Someone in Melbourne
The Tan by Walker Raigh of the Scratch and Sniff podcast
A Weekend at A Time by Monique
I Can’t Be The One by Becky from The 101 Podcast and Dungeons and Improv Podcast
Thank you so much for listening. This little-but-special podcast is growing slowly but surely and the best thing for me has been to see that most of the original listeners are still here, and most new listeners don’t just listen to one episode – they go back to the start and listen to them all. I think this speaks to the power of stories to connect us, and also to the idea that whatever they’re about, the conversations we have in the privacy of the bedroom are significant, and have valuable clues about intimacy for anyone who cares to take a close look.
Thank you also to those of you who are sending me feedback and notes that mean a whole lot. They went from sublime to the ridiculous these past two weeks, from the one who was out for a walk at 5am and listening to the last ep and just had to leave me a voice message, to the one who told me that “take care of yourselves. And each other” is how Jerry Springer used to end his shows! D’oh! Still laughing about that one – and wondering whether I should come up with something else.
Anyway, please keep the messages and feedback coming, and also rate, review, share, and subscribe – it helps a lot.
And while I’m asking for stuff, please remember that I’m always looking for stories of bedroom conversations to feature here on Pillow Talking. As you’ll no doubt know by now, I’m open to all kinds of stories, all kinds of lengths, and submitting is easy – just go to pillowtalkingproject.com. Remember you can submit anonymously if you like.
While you’re there, you can also check out the show notes. I’m no scholar so they’re pretty short and to the point, but if you want to know stuff like who said the quote about people growing old because they stop playing, or what sabayon is, or where to find the podcasts from Becky or Walker Raigh, that’s where to go.
On the next episode of Pillow Talking, The third person. Stories about someone else, or the idea of someone else, coming into the bedroom.
Until then, please take care of yourselves. And each other.