Googling Romeo

Travel Stories: Claire Bushey couldn't stop thinking about the handsome actor she met on a trip to England. Then she did something she'll always regret.

08.30.10 | 10:33 AM ET

“Would the lady with the camera like to hear a sonnet?”

The words, uttered in the well-modulated syllables of a Shakespearean actor, stopped me cold. Unless another woman had just walked into the tiny chamber with her neck bowed beneath a three-pound camera, Romeo was talking to me.

Our eyes had met as I crossed the threshold into the rickety final room during the tour of Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon. I was writing a story about the town’s annual celebration of the playwright’s birth, and this visit to his childhood home was journalistic due diligence. I was not expecting the Birthplace Trust to have hired an actor to wear Elizabethan garb and recite sonnets to tourists. Nor was I expecting that actor to be crushingly beautiful. Though I’d glanced away immediately and avoided looking back, the price of not-looking was the rigid, straight-backed posture that is a confession in itself.

Now he was talking to me, smiling, standing too close, reading a sonnet for the sweet love of God, and I was trying to suppress a blush by force of will. He finished and introduced himself as Romeo Montague. What was my name? Claire, I replied.

“Is that C-l-a-r-e?” he asked, and I nodded, forgetting how to spell my own name. Our eyes locked again. The attraction felt real, but perhaps it was only part of the show he was hired to perform. I had no wish to be a fool. When two other tourists entered the room, distracting him, in a display of composure worthy of a seventh-grader I slipped down the staircase and escaped.

I returned home to Chicago but couldn’t forget him. The tantalizing “almost” felt too real. So, to my eternal journalistic shame, I lied to a source to find out his real name, telling her it was for a photo caption. Then, taking a fountain pen to thick ivory stationery, I wrote, “I wanted to kiss you the moment you opened your mouth.” The postal service is underused as a source of magic. I mailed the letter.

The night his reply came, stamped with the Queen, I carried it to the back porch and read through fast, seated in a lawn chair, light from the kitchen window spilling out to make the words visible in the murk. When I read the last line, a quote from Khalil Gibran saying, “We live only to discover beauty, all else is a form of waiting,” I tilted my head back against the bricks and exhaled. There was no return address; I knew I was not to write again.

It had been romance of a kind, though a kind seldom found in the modern world, as it lead neither to immediate sex or, after several respectable years of dating, the boring joys of companionate marriage. Still, real connection had lived in our perfect, encapsulated exchange of poetry and letters, a connection as pleasingly old-fashioned as the mode of communication.

What happened next, though, was all too modern.

I possess a genetic inability to leave well enough alone. Consequently, I am a dangerous woman with an Internet connection and time on my hands. Readers, you know what’s coming next. I Googled him.

Pages of life detritus rose to the surface of my browser, including one that looked like it belonged to some kind of online profile. The text was scrambled with code, like I was peeking behind some malfunctioning firewall, but it was still readable. Among his many interests, Romeo had listed acting, theater and skiing. Good, good, swoon. He was perfect, and I daydreamed about what might have happened had doubt and embarrassment not compelled me to flee. Focusing again on the screen, I kept reading. Other interests included Anthony Robbins.

Whoa. He liked Tony Robbins?

Now, Tony Robbins is the sort of self-promoting self-help guru who makes me roll my eyes, but I was in the mood to forgive. Everyone has flaws, and did I mention Romeo was hot? Hotness precludes a multitude of sins. But not the part that came after Robbins, the part where Romeo professed admiration for a professional pick-up artist. A picture was developing, and it wasn’t good.

Then I saw it. Listed under interests was “Women and their feminine radiance.” The line was familiar. He’d written about “feminine radiance” in the letter he’d sent to me. Suffice to say, in that handwritten note, unlike the web page before me, he hadn’t used the phrase to refer to all women, everywhere. His words had taken my breath away then. Discovering them in this new context had the same effect. I was officially a sucker.

Fifteen years ago I never would have known. Leaving a country presented a measure of finality; the people you met there couldn’t be conjured at the touch of a keyboard. Travel derived part of its intensity from the traveler’s consciousness that she might never see that place, that night, that person again. Now ... you can. Even if you really shouldn’t.

Like Pandora, I wish I’d kept the box shut. The memory, in its original form, is lost to me. Moreover, the disillusionment cuts both ways. If Romeo possesses a fraction of the curiosity about me that I had about him (which, granted, seems unlikely given the circumstances) he will find this essay, and it will change how he thinks of me. Writing this piece makes me a person who’s willing to trade romance, or at least its semblance, for professional success, who will sell out beauty for a publishing credit and a check.

In the age of the internet, travel encounters have become less discrete, more likely to bleed over into one’s non-traveling life. As long as a person lives in the developed world and has access to a computer, you can find him. Search engines and social networks make it possible to know more about the people we meet on the road, and thereby to undo our illusions about them and rewrite the past. We’ve lost the ability to lose someone, and with it, the ability to keep our memories pure.

So many travel memories seem to hinge on what could have happened, on the tease of possibility. But the internet demolishes possibility by providing answers, when it was actually the questions that inspired longing. The road not taken, we find, was washed out anyway. How ironic to discover in the era of search-and-ye-shall-find that we treasured certain encounters, certain people because we never really knew them at all.