On the flyleaf of the book Noah gave me as a graduation present, he wrote a note and signed it, “TGOYI.”
“What’s that stand for?” I asked, pointing to the red page. We were sitting on the edge of my bed in the college house I shared with five of my girlfriends.
He cringed. “As soon I wrote that, I regretted it,” he said.
I understood the feeling, but that didn’t keep me from being curious.
“Can I get a hint?” I asked.
“I’ll tell you if you really want to know, but you’ll be disappointed.”
Huh. Well, in that case, maybe it was better not to know. I dropped the subject; we only had a few days left together, and I didn’t want to taint them. I had graduated from Brown and was moving to Cleveland for an internship at the Plain Dealer, while he was spending the summer in New York before coming back to Providence for his senior year. We had only been dating for two months, but we had decided to stay together. We had met in a writing class. I’d liked Noah because he was the only writer in the room whose work didn’t make me feel insecure. In fact, I felt confident that I was a better writer than him.
As we both loved writing, it was no surprise that he’d bought me a book as a present. The gently used special edition of The Prophet by Khalil Gibran was beautiful, housed in a black and gold sleeve. I’d never heard of the book, but it makes sense that Noah had. The Prophet, first published in 1923, had become a bestseller again in the ’60s thanks to the counterculture. Noah’s father had definitely been a hippy.
Noah explained that the book was a collection of prose poems. The conceit was that they were written, or told, by a prophet who has lived abroad for 12 years. When the book opens, the prophet is about to set sail for his homeland. But the people of his adopted country beg him to stay, or, if he must go, to first speak to them of what is “between birth and death.” He starts with love:
When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden. …
The Prophet didn’t really seem like my thing. It seemed melodramatic, a little patriarchal. But I didn’t say this. I didn’t say I was more interested in Noah’s inscription, in the mysterious five-letter acronym.
* * *
On my way to Cleveland, I stopped at home in Virginia for a week. My mother and best friend Kathleen admired The Prophet, read Noah’s inscription, and asked what TGOYI meant. I admitted I didn’t know.
“Don’t you want to?” they asked.
“Not really,” I lied. I wanted to know, but I had Noah’s warning in mind: You’ll be disappointed. Not knowing was better than being disappointed. If I didn’t know what TGOYI meant, it could mean anything. As Noah had written in his inscription, in asking questions there was “wonder and joy,” which finding the answers to might sap.
Kathleen Googled the acronym. Nothing came up.
“Maybe it starts with, ‘Thank God’?” she proposed, “Like TGIF?”
No, that couldn’t be it, I said. Noah was Jewish/Buddhist, and I wasn’t even sure he believed in God.
We brainstormed a list of potential meanings:
o To Growing Old, You and I
o ToGether, Only You and I
o Truly Grateful Our Youth Ignited
o Too Good, Only You’re It
o Totally Gaga Over Your Intellect
o Terribly Grateful Over Your Inexperience
o Till God Opens Your Irises
It was hopeless. But also, remembering Noah’s warning, I was only trying half-heartedly.
* * *
In the following months, TGOYI became an inside joke between Noah and me. He used it to sign off emails and letters, and soon, I stopped wondering what it “meant.” I assigned it meanings of my own. While we were still in our honeymoon phase, TGOYI was flirtatious. It sounded like laughter. It was an expression of gratitude, a compliment: I’m so lucky. I can’t get enough of you. You’re so special.
But as long distance became more of a reality—after my summer internship, I moved home to Virginia and would fly the 500 miles to Providence once a month—TGOYI became an expression of longing: I miss you; I feel incomplete without you; I can’t wait to see you.
And as differences in our expectations for the relationship emerged and tensions arose, I understood TGOYI as an effort to make up after quarrels, to ask for forgiveness: I’m sorry.
Our quarrels were harmless until the spring, when Noah had to decide what to do after graduation. He had been offered a position at a microfinancing bank in Mongolia. I had a good reporting job and was not interested in living in a tundra halfway across the world from my family and friends. We both agreed that long distance from Ulaanbaatar to D.C.—6,500 miles—was not reasonable. Either he went to Mongolia, and we broke up, or he found a job in America and we stayed together. He decided to go to Mongolia. I was heartbroken, but I told myself that the contract was just for one year; afterwards, he’d come home and we would get back together. Thus, TGOYI became a promise: I will come back to you.
For the first few weeks Noah was gone, we spoke regularly on the phone and concluded each call with professions of love. But, as his new life grew busier, I only heard from him when he was struggling. He emailed me about his severe culture shock, the depravity of the ex-pat community, his stolen laptop. He had ceased to sign off emails “Love, Noah” but continued to use “TGOYI.” What did it mean now?
I made a new list of potential meanings:
o To Getting Over You, Immediately
o Try Getting Over Your Insecurities
o This Guy Opened Your Icy (heart)
o Thank God Only You Imploded
The ambiguity of TGOYI, which had once been a source of “wonder and joy,” now caused me confusion and pain. Once a promise, it now meant “maybe.” No longer “forever,” simply “for now.”
TGOYI was like one of the “meaningless words” that George Orwell writes about in “Politics and the English Language.” For such meaningless words, like democracy, “not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides,” Orwell writes. This is because, in its meaningless state, the word has positive connotations. If the word were clearly defined, people would have to stop using it.
I didn’t want to know the definition of TGOYI because I suspected it meant less than what I wanted it to mean. Noah didn’t want to tell me the meaning because then he would be accountable to it. “Words of this kind,” Orwell writes, “are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.”
With TGOYI, Noah kept us somewhere between together and not. He could have his cake and eat it too. He could follow his wanderlust and still have my emotional support. For our whole relationship, I had let him dictate the terms—I’d waited for him to ask me to be his girlfriend, for him to propose that we stay together after I graduated. And now, I was letting him decide when we communicated. But what about what I wanted? I didn’t want a partner who sought me only on his terms. I wanted a partner who was fully present, whether it was convenient or not.
Five months after Noah left, I made myself stop contacting him, replied to his messages days or weeks later, in short sentences. He understood I had decided to move on, and soon his emails came only on special occasions. On my 24th birthday, he sent me a brief email and signed it “tgoyi.” All lowercase, almost whispered.
* * *
In the years after Noah and I broke up, whenever I told friends about the mystery of TGOYI, they always asked why I didn’t call him up and demand to know what it meant. I repeated the old idea of finding “wonder and joy” in not knowing. But the truth was, I suspected that speaking to him would stir up old feelings. I still wondered what would have happened if Noah hadn’t gone to Mongolia, or if I had gone with him. Would we still be together? But I didn’t want to admit that I still thought about him, still wanted him. He had left me. I didn’t want someone who hadn’t wanted me.
Then, in graduate school, I fell in love again. My new boyfriend was handsome, funny, smart, kind, committed—but still, I sometimes thought about Noah and wondered: What if? Maybe, it occurred to me, if I could find out the meaning of TGOYI, I could close the book on my romance with Noah. And, bolstered by my newfound love, I felt confident that I could call Noah up without falling for him all over again.
And so, three years after we broke up, I emailed Noah and told him there was something I wanted to ask him. He replied less than five hours later. It was wonderful to hear from me, he said. He was home in Boston, after living in Johannesburg for a year. He’d be happy to catch up. He signed the email “Best, Noah.” I wondered if he knew I had a new boyfriend.
In the days leading up to the call, I was nervous. What if he refused to give me an answer? What if he had forgotten? What if he used TGOYI with another woman?
When I called, he was in the airport on his way to Joshua Tree National Park. Typical Noah, I thought.
We caught up for a couple of minutes, avoiding the subject of significant others, but soon he cut to the chase: What could he help me with?
I danced around the subject for a while. I was writing an essay about how he and I had communicated when we were dating, and I needed an ending. It was about—did he remember the book he gave me for my graduation present?
“You gave me The Prophet.”
“Oh, by Khalil Gibran? I was actually going to guess that.” He said if I were graduating today, he’d give me the same book.
I admitted that I’d never read it.
“Oh, that’s tough,” he said. And though he laughed, it’s probably a good thing I didn’t mention that the book was shoved in a box somewhere in my mom’s attic. “Is this confession the ending?”
“Oh, no, that’s just a side note,” I said.
“Well, you should read it,” he said. I didn’t make any promises.
I asked if he remembered writing a note inside that contained something he wouldn’t tell me.
“Of course,” he said. “The sign off, the sign off that I almost always did.”
“I want to know what it means.”
I feared he might refuse to tell me. Then he sighed. “If you want to know, I’ll let you know. Can you give me the letters? I know exactly what it’s from, but I want to make sure that I get the words right.”
“T—G—O—Y—I,” I said.
He hadn’t told me before, he said, because it was arrogant. “But I think it was meant sweetly.” Now he was the one stalling.
TGOYI was from the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet, he continued. I was surprised and impressed; I’d figured TGOYI was made-up, not a literary reference. And, as Noah summarized the scene, I pictured the 1996 film adaptation with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. Nurse calls to Juliet and Romeo must leave, dash past the swimming pool and over the property wall, but before he does, Juliet demands that he swear he loves her. He begins to swear by the moon, but Juliet interrupts: “O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon, / That monthly changes in her circled orb, / Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.”
What, then, should he swear by?
“If thou wilt, swear by thy gracious self, / Which is the god of my idolatry,” Juliet says.
“So, it stands for The God Of Your Idolatry,” Noah said.
I laughed. Noah had thought he was “the god of my idolatry”? That was pretty arrogant. I understood why he had been embarrassed.
But he’d had sweet intentions, he insisted. Early on in our relationship, he recalled, we were lying in bed staring out the window at the moon and he had quoted Juliet’s lines. “It was a cheesy thing to do,” he admitted. But, like the star cross’d lovers, we were also parting ways. Everything in our lives was shifting and his self was the most constant thing he had to swear upon, he said.
That was kind of sweet.
“If only the self was a constant thing,” I said.
“Are you glad to know or do you wish it were still a mystery?” Noah asked.
I told Noah that I felt very satisfied. I had come to see the mystery of TGOYI as a stand in for our relationship, I admitted, and that now that I knew the meaning of TGOYI, I could finally close the door on our romance.
When he replied, he sounded sad. “Okay,” he said. “That’s fine. Sounds good,” he said. I wondered if he had been hoping that this conversation would rekindle things, and while I felt a little guilty, I also felt glad, perhaps a little perversely.
“Are you sad?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “I’m not sad.” But he worried that in telling me the meaning of TGOYI he had reduced the amount of mystery in the world. Now there was a little less romance.
I told him that I had learned that I didn’t like mystery, that I had just started to see a shrink, who had identified one of my problems as a “low tolerance for uncertainty.”
Noah laughed. “So what you’re saying is that we were probably doomed from the beginning?”
I said I didn’t know about that.
People were lining up to board the plane, he said. Did I have any other questions?
“No, that’s it,” I said. “What about you?”
He paused for several seconds. Then he said he did, but he wasn’t sure he wanted an answer. He stalled for several more seconds, and I knew what he was going to ask, because it was the same question I’d been asking myself for years: Could things have turned out differently?
“If I had said in the beginning, ‘This is where my heart is guiding me, would you be interested in going to Mongolia?’ do you think that would have been something? Is there a piece of you that…would that have intrigued you at the time, as an endeavor?”
I had always blamed the end of our relationship on Noah, because he had never sincerely asked me to come to Mongolia with him. But I knew that even if he had asked me, I wouldn’t have wanted to go.
“No,” I said. I told him that for a long time I’d felt insecure that I wasn’t an adventurer like he was, but I’d come to accept that I was more of a homebody.
“Good,” he said.
I worried again that I had hurt his feelings, but he assured me that he was boarding his flight with a smile.
We hung up. I felt jubilant. TGOYI’s meaning made Noah look like a pompous prick, and it was clear that he still thought about me, maybe even still wanted me. I couldn’t wait to tell my friends: Can you believe he thought he was the god of my idolatry?
But since that day when we spoke on the phone, I’ve realized the precise meaning of TGOYI didn’t matter—what mattered was that I’d finally managed to ask. Since the first night I’d gone home with him, I had suppressed what I wanted, afraid that I wanted too much, that he wouldn’t be willing, or able, to give it to me. This was why I hadn’t originally pressed him on what the acronym meant. This was why it had taken me years to call. But finally, I’d demanded what I wanted, and he had given it to me. There was nothing else I wanted from him.