The end of my relationship began with a coat.

Yes—a coat.

“What’s that?” His brows furrowed, he stood, intensely scrutinizing something resting a little ways up my butt on the back of my winter jacket.

“What’s what?” Making a futile attempt to turn my head a full 180 degrees, while simultaneously grabbing at my coat, I tried to discern what he was talking about. Finally, after furrowing my own brows, a circular stain began to appear. “Oh that. I don’t know. Some stain.”

I was ready to move on—he wasn’t.

Thus began one of the biggest fights of my entire year and a half long relationship: the oil stain on the back of my winter coat.

I met this man (let’s get stereotypical and call him Vlad) in 2017, a little more than a year after I first moved to Russia. Oddly enough, even though, at this point I had lived in Russia for over two years, not counting the 6 months I had spent studying abroad, I had never really dated Russian men. I did have a brief fling with a Russian sailor the summer I spent in Moscow while still at Northwestern and had been asked out by a few Russian men (I think). However, nothing serious ever materialized. And it wasn’t for lack of trying. I had Bumble and Tinder downloaded on my phone. I went out to the clubs (still a common place to meet people in Russia). But, for whatever reason, I seemed destined to date non-Russian foreigners. In Nizhny, I dated a Turkish man, and the closest thing I had had to a boyfriend since moving to Moscow was a casual relationship with an emotionally stunted man from Israel.

Given the horror stories of the elusive Russian man, I wasn’t exactly jumping at the chance to break free of my pattern.

While Russian women were supposed to be beautiful, shallow, and after your money, Russian men were often unattractive, misogynistic, albeit always willing to pay. I didn’t buy into the stereotypes completely, but I did know that Russians were incredibly comfortable with traditional gender roles, which did put me at a slight disadvantage since I was used to taking the initiative (and impatient). Oh, and I also hate dating. I firmly believe that if Dante’s Inferno were to be written for the modern age, one of the nine circles of hell would be online dating. However, that particular week at a particular low point mentally, my therapist recommended I try going on a date, so I logged onto Bumble and agreed to go out with Vlad, since he had complimented my smile and asked me out right away—no bullshit included.

I was glad I did. We had one of those movie-like, fabulous first dates—the kind where you end up talking for hours and end up going to multiple places just so that you can spend more time together. We shared a spine-tingling first kiss in the second bar we visited, and he had already asked me out on a second date by the time I had returned home. Things progressed quickly, and it wasn’t long before I was spending weekends at his apartment.

But, from the beginning, I knew it wouldn’t work out. There was that nagging feeling in the back of my brain, the kind that whispered, “I could marry him, IF…” He was obsessed with his appearance—and, seeing me as a reflection of him, mine as well. In his mind, not only was that oil stain a painful eye sore, but it was one that was mocked by casual passersby. Since I was his girlfriend, not only did this stain lower their estimation of me, but it made them look upon him negatively. He would question my decision not to wear makeup, even just to go get groceries, and hated that I stuffed my hat in the pocket of my coat, creating an unsightly bulge.

I’ll never forget the argument we had one day when I planned to go horseback riding. Knowing I would sweat, I had put on leggings and a sweatproof, long-sleeved shirt. I then put my hair in pigtails and grabbed my backpack—the backpack he hated. (Keep in mind, this is just a Columbia branded backpack with black and white flowers.) I told him I was off, and, if he wanted, he could join my friend and me at Starbucks after the lesson.

“Don’t you want to bring a change of clothes?” he asked in a tone that signified he wasn’t just asking out of curiosity.

“Why would I bring a change of clothes? Also, I don’t want to carry too much stuff.”

“Well, because you’ll be sitting in Starbucks sweating. You could just take your gym bag,” he responded.

“I don’t want to carry my gym bag. It’s easier to wear my backpack. Does it really bother you?” I asked incredulously.

I could tell by his silence that yes, it did—a lot. We continued arguing, but the main takeaway was this: he didn’t want to join us at Starbucks because he couldn’t stand sitting with me looking the way I looked.

That was a bit like having someone poking your heart with a large stick—and poking your arm repeatedly until you were so angry you wanted to punch them in the face. It was also a bit like someone who is supposed to accept you was telling you, “Yes, I love you…but you’re not good enough for me.”

Of course, I knew these arguments weren’t really about me as a person. Even he, to a certain extent understand that they were about his issues—his insecurities, his anxiety, and a lack of self-esteem. It also signaled a fundamental mismatch in our personalities: boyfriend cared far more about what people think and appearances than I ever have.

My opinion, to this day, is, “Who really gives a shit?” The reality of the situation is, most people most of the time are thinking about themselves.

I remember vividly calling my mother on the phone and explaining our issues, to which she responded, “Well, you two come from completely different cultures.”

Was that it? Were our problems predominantly caused by the fact that I was American, and he was Russian? Back then, I was firmly in the “no” camp. Looking back now, I do think it was a mix.

There is certainly something about appearances and “being neat” that is relatively characteristic of Russians, including men. My friend’s husband revolts at the sight of dirt, has to keep the shoes lined up perfectly, and oh, the fights they’ve had about the dog being on the furniture because she’s “not clean”. You won’t see Russians walking around in sweatpants or workout clothes, women going to the grocery store without makeup, or Russians not giving you a death stare should you accidentally trip over them and leave a mark on their otherwise pristine shoes. The fact that I didn’t clean my shoes after traipsing about in the slush would most likely elicit a complaint even from the most secure of men. And I’m pretty sure no man would be exactly be floored by some of my clothing choices.

However, Vlad had problems that extended far beyond the typical Russian need for cleanliness and concern with appearances—and these weren’t caused by his nationality. He had deep-rooted insecurities that manifested themselves in an obsessive need for control, unfounded jealously, and, at times, depression. His refusal to seek mental help and refusal to “believe” in therapy were, on the other hand, very, very Russian. (I genuinely believe there’s a reason the rates of alcoholism are so high in the country).

I remember the slow crawl towards the end of our relationship. By that time, I knew it wouldn’t work, but I was waiting to receive a new job and return to America to receive my new visa before breaking it off. I have an almost pathological sense of loyalty, and cutting connections has never been my strong suit. However, it was a few days before Valentine’s Day when I figured out how Vlad had been lying to me. Despite his reassurances to the contrary, he had not made any plans for what he knew was my third favorite day of the year. I knew that was the end.

Eventually, he came over to my apartment and gave me a long speech about how he loved me but wasn’t in love with me. He trusted me and was attracted to me; I was even his best friend. But that initial spark had disappeared. It wasn’t what he imagined in his all-knowing head what love would look like. Of course, that’s life—that’s the transition from pure lust and passion to something even better: companionship.

But that was something he had to learn on his own.

I’ve never regretted the relationship or parting ways, and I ultimately don’t think our demise was primarily because he was Russian, and I was American.

The truth is, when you cut through all the subtle differences, the differences in personalities, and the mismatched expectations, dating and love in Russia is—like in the rest of the world—just a whole lot of bullshit. It’s hard, and at times an insidious adversary. The brush-offs and ghosting, the gut-wrenching heartbreaks and short-lived marriages, the affairs and the sense of “how the hell did I get into this mess?” Sure, the bullshit may look different at times, but it’s still a lot of bullshit. That’s just the reality of love.

But that also means you have just as much of a chance to find your Julia Roberts fairytale ending as you would anywhere else. Yes, even in Russia.

I sure haven’t given up on finding mine.

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