Nikki: Setting Myself Free

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After getting engaged, Nikki Vargas was staring down a lifetime of white picket fences, suburbs, and 2.5 kids. And deep down she knew she couldn’t do it. So years into a confining relationship, and even deeper into a love affair with travel and journalism that compromised the future her fiancé imagined, Nikki had to make a life-changing choice. She talks with Stephanie about how, ultimately, that choice might just be the best one she’s ever made.

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To follow along with a transcript, go to shortly after the air date.



Stephanie Wittels Wachs, Nikki Vargas

Stephanie Wittels Wachs  00:00

Hi, Last Day listeners, I wanted to let you know that this will be the last new episode of Last Day that you’ll hear for a little while we are taking a break for the next few months. In the meantime, we will be sharing lots of new shows and past episodes that we think you’ll love. I hope you have a great summer and we will see you in the fall.


Nikki Vargas  00:18

It was about two weeks out from my wedding. And I flew to Buenos Aires alone. And I’ll never forget the feeling of being on that flight of getting to the airport, boarding that flight which was largely empty. It was like last flight out of JFK. And being on that plane and thinking to myself, Oh my God, what are you doing?


Stephanie Wittels Wachs  00:47

Sometimes you find yourself squarely in the middle of a big scary moment where everything suddenly feels wrong. You’ve been having one on one conversations with yourself for quite some time and you know, deep down what needs to change, but creating an entirely new reality based on a gut feeling seems well. Extreme, irresponsible, delusional even. This is the headspace Nikki Vargas finds herself in sitting on a plane by herself, two weeks before her wedding. She can’t begin to explain her actions to anyone else. So she starts by trying to explain it to herself.


Nikki Vargas  01:33

I could feel that in this moment. If I don’t do this now. Like, I’m never going to do it. This is this moment isn’t happening back in New York. Once I’m in that apartment with my fiancee with my mom calling me all the time and and his parents call in about the wedding. I’m realizing that if I don’t have this moment right now, then I’m never going to confront myself.


Stephanie Wittels Wachs  02:07

This is Last Day, a show about the moments that change us. I’m your host Stephanie Wittels Wachs. Today, a story about betting on yourself against all odds, and the gamble ultimately paying off years down the line.


Stephanie Wittels Wachs  02:32

The life story of Nikki Vargas begins very far from where it’s currently set. Today, Nikki lives in New York City where she works as a travel editor. And that means you’re just as likely to catch her in the mountains of Europe or the savanna of Africa as you are on the streets of Queens. She’s also the author of the memoir call you when I land which documents her many travels. But years before all of this jetsetting Nikki was a kid growing up in the Midwestern suburbs, unaware that this big adventurous life would one day be her reality. Even though she and her family always dreamed big.


Nikki Vargas  03:11

I grew up in Chicago, but I was originally from Bogota, Colombia, where I was born. And my dad and I emigrated to this country with my mom at a very, very young age. And my dad always had such a fascination with aviation. He was always drawn to like the science and the way that a plane can stay up in the air. And like the principles of aerodynamics, I was always drawn to the idea of just transporting yourself somewhere completely new. And this idea that when you step on a plane, and you walk out of that plane, you’re so far from your reality, and it’s almost it sounds magical, and it feels magical. So that idea always captivated me when I was growing up.


Stephanie Wittels Wachs  03:59

And as she was growing up, Nikki had a pretty rare chance to act on this magic. Because after her parents split up, her dad and her stepmom made travel by airplane and otherwise a big part of the family’s life.


Nikki Vargas  04:13

And the trips that they chose were really unique at the time, because we would go to places like St. Petersburg, Russia and spend three weeks there, rent an apartment in Nevsky prospect and experience that or we would go to Vancouver, Canada and we would go on a multi day camping trip and kayaking alongside orca whales, or we would go to Mexico and we would not go to the all inclusive we would go to a little hut and to loom on the beach and visit local Mayan communities. And at that age at that time when I’m sort of a preteen teenager, I thought it was the worst I could not understand why we couldn’t just lay on a beach and and have fun and why did we constantly have to do all of these things that were like educational. But looking back I see how much that instilled in me a fascination and an appreciation for other cultures, which really, unbeknownst to me at the time laid the groundwork for what would become my career.


Stephanie Wittels Wachs  05:20

This lifestyle wasn’t a given. The family wasn’t swimming in cash, nor did they have an abundance of time. Nikki’s dad was in his medical school residency when he met the woman who would become Nikki stepmom. And she a Russian immigrant was in dental school at the time. Despite the tight circumstances, though, they were both motivated to make travel and education a priority. Have you ever talked to them about that? Why they did it that way? Or, you know, the route of.


Nikki Vargas  05:50

I think a lot of it was fueled by the fact that they were both immigrants. You know, I think a lot of it came from leaving their respective countries, their respective cultures, acclimating to what an American life is. And so much of that acclimation process involved, sort of subduing elements of their own culture and their own identity. And so I’d like to think that when they chose these trips, in a very intentional way, and tapped into these cultures, part of it was almost a desire and hunger to sort of reconnect with their own by connecting with others. And I think that the simplest answer is probably curiosity, you have that real curiosity for the world, and they had it.


Stephanie Wittels Wachs  06:42

Okay, so writing is also a big thing that becomes important to you. When do you figure that out that you love to write that this is something that’s inside of you? And how does that kind of inform how you choose to spend your time in college and beyond?


Nikki Vargas  06:57

You know, writing was something that I have always done, without really thinking about it too hard. I remember being eight years old, and getting my first journal, it was like a Bugs Bunny journal, from Six Flags Great America and Chicago. And I remember writing in this journal, and what I was writing was so lame. Like, did that girl steal like my stuffed animal kind of entries. But what I didn’t recognize at the time was this relationship with this craft that was developing. And I’ve always regarded writing as a form of therapy. I’ve always regarded it as this opportunity to be completely honest and transparent with myself, and to work through whatever’s going on in my life. And I used to do this thing called the state of Nikki almost like a State of the Union. And when I was in like the wild throes of my teenage angst, and I couldn’t figure out why I was so angry, or why I was so mad, it just felt like this confusing ball of yarn that had to be untangled. I would do this state of nichy, where I would sort of sit down with my journal and write every aspect of my life. You know, what’s going on, on the school front, what’s going on, on the love front, what’s going on in the family front on the sell front and try to identify like, what area of my life is the sticking point, and it worked every time. And so I really, again, it wasn’t an intentional it wasn’t somebody taught me how to do this. I just always had that love and relationship and trust that writing would get me where I needed to go.


Stephanie Wittels Wachs  08:38

At the time. Nicki doesn’t consider the fact that writing could be an actual career. Once she sets her sights on college, she decides that she’s going to major in journalism, despite her family, urging her to please dear God, do something different. You’re not only worried about her ability to find a job, but about the meager pay she’d be bringing in once she did. Unfortunately, they’re right. Specifically because by the time Nikki is in the middle of her journalism program, blogs are on the rise all around her Nikki is seeing people without formalized journalism training making a big name for themselves. And we love to democratize but man does it suck when suddenly everyone believes they can do the job that you’re actively accruing debt for? One thing does seem to go Nikki’s way though, during college, and it all starts with an internship. She gets in New York City.


Nikki Vargas  09:38

I was interning at Donna Karan international for PR, which I was such a random thing to do. I had no interest in PR I had no interest in fashion. And I will admittedly say I think it was a direct result of getting into Sex in the City. Just like watching some I had the job to New York being glamorous and I was going to school at Indiana University. And I’m like enough of these cornfields. And I took this internship in New York, and I really just loved New York, I think New York, you know, blew the lid off my life in such a amazing way because it’s just so diverse. And it’s so open to whoever you want to be. However you want to present yourself whatever dream you have, like the city is like, go do it. And I just fell in love with New York. But I was also very lonely because I didn’t know anyone in New York and I was staying in the city that summer and through a friend of a friend sort of a mishmash of people coming together. One evening for dinner, I met Alex. Alex was a French expat who was also interning in New York that summer as well. And we hit it off right away. And when I say we hit it off, it was not love at first sight. It was lust at first sight. I thought he was the cutest thing ever. I thought his accent was so swoon worthy. And I just I wanted to spend my entire summer without us.


Stephanie Wittels Wachs  11:10

I do too. I know, Alex, but he sounds lovely.


Nikki Vargas  11:14

Yeah, he was absolutely lovely. And that lust and that desire to just spend time together for the summer started to really evolve into love and really evolve into a relationship. And so by the end of summer, and we found ourselves at a crossroads.


Stephanie Wittels Wachs  11:33

Summer was coming to a close. And just like Sandy and Danny Zuko the two lovebirds had to go their separate ways, Nicky would have to go back to Indiana. And Alex would have to finish his internship in New York, then go back to France until he graduated from business school. But instead of being ripped apart forever, they decide to do it all together. Once Alex is back in France, Nikki joins him there and the to then move back to New York to start a life together. Unfortunately, Nikki still doesn’t have a job. But at least now she’s planted herself in New York City, the hub of so many kinds of business and media and publishing. Which means that even though she hasn’t yet been able to find the kinds of writing opportunities she’s been seeking, you can almost sense that she’s surrounded by them at every turn, even as she starts working a day job as a waitress.


Nikki Vargas  12:26

One day I was at the restaurant, I was serving this table and these two girls, about my age, mid 20s, flounced in and they ordered champagne, and they’re celebrating and I can hear snippets that they’re celebrating a promotion. And one of the girls when she goes to pay the bill, she put down a Chase credit card with a Chicago backdrop. And I started talking and I was like, oh, my God, you’re from Chicago, I, you know, I, I’m from Chicago, I went to school there, I just started monologuing. And, as a monologuing, I can’t stop myself, I’m going on about how I came to New York to be a writer, but there’s no jobs and I’m serving. I’m just like, it’s like everything that I had said, like was like, I just like, let it rip off this poor girl. She didn’t say anything. She just looked at me kind of took it all in was like drinking her champagne. Um, without saying much without context. She pulls out a business card, gives it to me and says, You know what, send me your resume. That’s it, just like drinks, the last few drugs of champagne. And her and her friend go out. And I look at this card. And it’s a media company. And I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know what the job was. But I figured I had had enough of serving cocktails. And so I looked it up. And it ended up being a job in advertising, which is not what I wanted. But I figured that it was maybe a step closer to getting me into the media space into the industry. And so I took that.


Stephanie Wittels Wachs  13:56

As Nikki expects this job is not exactly a dream. It’s gray, it’s corporate, it’s time consuming, but it pays and it gives her mind the space and frankly, reason to wander.


Nikki Vargas  14:11

And within this sort of colorless world that I had put myself in, I started to really fall in love with travel blogs at the time, and particularly fascinated by the fact that these travel bloggers were my age. And they were out there in Dubai and the Maldives and Borneo and I’m thinking to myself, what am I doing wrong here? You know, what, what am I doing? I have a journalism degree. I love writing. I’m a good writer. I’m in a city where I have access to all of the major media companies and publications. What am I doing wrong? And I really launched me on this quest to try to become a travel writer. When I discovered travel blogs that had me fixating on the idea that life doesn’t have to follow this roadmap that we’re often fed. And when I see people that are married or with children, and they’re backpacking, or they’re living six months here, six months there as digital nomads, or whatever it is, suddenly I’m seeing a colorful way of living that is very different from this idea I had that you just have to work, get married, have kids retire or die. And I was so that got me started on this idea of like, can I make my life a little bit more colorful, a little bit more exciting, a little bit more well suited to me. And so one of the connections I had was the sales team for Food and Wine Magazine. And I had expressed my interest in writing and had mentioned very briefly over a work dinner that I had studied journalism, that I’m loving, travel, all these things, and very graciously this person put me in touch with their food and wine editorial team who threw me a story. You know, they said, okay, let’s, why don’t you do a story on the best plates in Cartagena, Colombia, knowing that I am originally from Colombia. And that story, which I went to Cartagena to write was the first time that I had a writing assignment in another country. And it was the first time that I tried travel riding. And I loved it, the ability to move through a place and be tasked with the awesome responsibility of capturing the flavors and the smells and the sights and the sounds and the scenery so that someone on the other side of the world can read that and feel transported to Cartagena and be inspired to go, I thought that that was just the most magical thing. And that really, really, really got me going it was a catalyst for so much in my journey to chase that career.


Stephanie Wittels Wachs  14:46

Oh, I love that. How old were you when you got that first assignment?


Nikki Vargas  17:13

Oh, gosh, I must have been 25.


Stephanie Wittels Wachs  17:17

Wow, that’s amazing. I love how you describe that. You’re great with words, Nikki, it’s almost like you’re a writer.


Nikki Vargas  17:26

I thank you.


Nikki Vargas  17:34

When I become obsessed with becoming a travel writer, and a travel editor, and I’m like a dog with a bone with this passion of mine, at the same time, I am building a life with Alex, I’m living at home with Alex, we are marching ahead towards this idea of what an adult relationship in New York looks like. And so suddenly, I have two very opposing dreams at play. I have the one where I want to travel the world and write about it. And I want to spend six months in South America and I want to backpack through Southeast Asia and I want to be collecting stories as I go. And then on the other hand, I have this man that I’ve been building a life with actively, who is talking about marriage, and who’s talking about kids. And he’s talking about maybe one day we’ll move to Westchester and get a house. And so I’m holding these two very conflicting realities at once. And stunted for choice.


Stephanie Wittels Wachs  18:41

What is French boyfriend Alex, think about all of this travel stuff in this travel writing dream?


Nikki Vargas  18:49

Alex, I think felt a little bit deceived, in some ways, because the person that he had fallen in love with sitting on the steps of Columbia University, eating Pinkberry at night, the person he fell in love with was not that that person was not talking about traveling the globe. That person was not talking about backpacking everywhere, spending months at a time in different places, chasing stories to the deepest parts of the jungles of South America. That person wasn’t the person he fell in love with. And so when he came to New York, and we moved in together, and I started to evolve as 20 Somethings do, I think that he felt let down and almost almost hoodwinked. And I sympathize. I truly do because I think that that is something that is heartbreaking within relationships, where when you fall in love with a person and they change and grow dramatically in whatever way that they do. And you realize one day that that person you fell in love with is no longer there. And I think that he had a slow dawning realization that that was the case. But there wasn’t a letting go. It was more of a, you know, hunker down, sink your nails in and hold on tight. Because this is a phase, we’re going to get through this. And we’re going to come out the other side as husband and wife, and our plan is going to go forward. And we’re going to have the life that we both said we wanted. I remembered that we had gotten in a fight. And we were going grocery shopping. And on the way to the grocery store. I had asked, you know, a stupid sort of silly question. And the question was, if you could have any superpower, what would it be? And immediately, we both were like teleportation. And like, just imagine, imagine that, like, you wake up in New York, and you’re like, you know what, I’m gonna do lunch in Paris. And then like, I’ll meet you in Bangkok for dinner. And I’m just like, going off with it. And he stopped. And he looked at me, he’s like, well, I was thinking more along the lines of like, if we could live upstate in a beautiful house, and I could snap my fingers and be in Manhattan for work, and then snap my fingers and be back of the house. And I remember thinking in that moment, what are we doing? Like this is wow. And it just seeing the red flags, but being too naive and too scared to really do anything about it. And a couple weeks later, I remember I was going on and on and on about travel, travel writing, and Alex in a very exasperated way, said, when are you going to get this out of your system. And that was something that cut deep, because it wasn’t a face. And it wasn’t a hobby that I would get out of my system. It was something that I was actively trying to make my life. And I’d like to say that these two instances were enough for me to realize this relationship isn’t working. But it wasn’t. I was afraid to walk away. And I think part of that is because I didn’t know what I was walking away towards. What I was chasing wasn’t in my hands. yet. I wasn’t a travel writer. I wasn’t a travel editor, I was still knocking on every metaphorical door trying to break into this industry. I was still becoming but I hadn’t became that person yet. And so to walk away from something that was comfortable and loving and, and my home and my partner into the craggy wilderness and unknown, was terrifying. And so I stayed put.


Stephanie Wittels Wachs  22:47

Yeah, it’s so true. I think when you’re 2526 years old, you don’t yet know how to tune in to your own voice. You don’t trust it yet. It hasn’t earned. It hasn’t earned your trust yet. And so you are trying to carve out an identity for yourself. And then you have no idea like, Is anything going to come to me again, it’s so universal. I felt exactly that same way. At that age, it was such a difficult time. And the way you describe it is so vivid, at what point in all of this that you’re describing and this sort of tension in the relationship. It does sound sort of like beneath the surface a little bit, right. Like it’s, it’s something that’s probably gnawing at you. But at what point in this does he say let’s get married? And you say yes.



Hmm. We went out to North Fork Long Island. And for those who don’t know, it’s our vineyards. It’s our Napa Valley. And while it’s our Napa Valley, closest to New York City, because Finger Lakes, a digression Finger Lakes are much nicer, but.


Stephanie Wittels Wachs  23:54

Thank you for the clarification.


Nikki Vargas  23:59

So we went out to North Fork. We had gotten tickets off group on for like a half day tour of the vineyards. And I remember we were at this vineyard. And on the way there he seemed very nervous. There was like a real, anxious, palpable energy coming off of him. And I thought he was just in a bad mood. And I couldn’t understand why because it’s like, we’re going to the vineyards. And we got to this vineyard. And I’ll never forget that. You know, we took two glasses of wine, a bottle of Rosae. And we walked out into the vines. And it was just the two of us. And he got down on one knee. And he started to speak and I cannot to this day tell you what he said. All I really remember, is like the elements. I remember the sun was so bright, and I remember him in the dirt and the dirt on his like pants. And I remember feeling tipsy from the wine that we had just had and feeling sweaty and feeling nervous. And I remember the sense of feeling that this, like this moment, doesn’t feel as joyous as I always imagined it would be. And saying, yes, doesn’t feel as clear. And I remembered those emotions bubbling and just pushing them down. And thinking to myself, of course, yes. It’s like the man that you live with the man that you’re building a life with. The man that moved to New York to start that life with you from France, where his family is the man that is kneeling in the literal dirt, and asking you to spend your life with him. You say yes.


Stephanie Wittels Wachs  26:15

We’re back. Nikki’s boyfriend Alex proposes an early 2014. And despite her misgivings, the wedding planning begins, like right away. They are set to be married later that same year, and everyone it seems is on board. Except the bride. Nikki’s mother, for one is way more excited than Nikki could ever be. She’s coming up with guestbook ideas, she’s helping out with the menu. She’s even customizing a pair of heels for her daughter by hand.


Nikki Vargas  26:50

And she spent months but dazzling them one gem at a time so that they were this beautiful like, like Andre, sort of it went from like silvered black, like she just did that. So I would have a one of a kind pair of wedding shoes to wear on my wedding day. So my mom did everything, wow, to make this wedding magical. And I started to retreat into myself. And I kept thinking, it’s going to be fine. I’m going to pull it together by the big day. These are just normal pre wedding jitters. And I kept clinging to that, trying to feel that whatever feels wrong here is just temporary. But I really started to pull away. And the closer we got to the wedding day, the more it felt like being in a pot of boiling water with the heat turning up. As the wedding planning is going off, I’m still in advertising. I have started my own travel blog at this point in an effort to try and almost build my own field of dreams and the hope that I’ll have this blog, I can start writing, I can start sort of building my own portfolio and then the job will appear one day. So as I get into the world of travel blogging, I’m introduced to this concept of a press trip. So press trips allowed me to start traveling on an entry level salary, at no cost in exchange for creating content for my blog. So I started doing press trips, a little here or there. These are early days. So they’re not like coming down the pipeline. But I had you know, I did one in Miami and I got some in Colombia. And then at the same time outside of these trips, I’m looking for opportunities to just get away any chance I get. I’m just desperate to hold on to the feeling of being elsewhere. And that feeling of just being free.


Stephanie Wittels Wachs  29:00

But as they say, the show must go on. So Nikki continues to play the role of enthusiastic bride. She answers the questions. She takes the phone calls, she goes to the dress fittings, and that is where these dissonant parts of her life really start to crash into each other like bumper cars.


Nikki Vargas  29:20

We’re at this Bridal Salon in New York and I look sickly, I look, I look like green. And on my wrist. I have all of these woven bracelets that I had started to collect on my travels. Because anytime I went somewhere, and I would pick this bracelet up, it felt like a physical reminder that I could when I’m back in New York and back in this mess. I could look down on my wrist and be transported to these moments in time in these other places. And my mom’s sitting in a seat behind me and she’s surveying the fitting and I see her are looking at me through the mirror and I see her. You know, we’re both Latina Scorpios we’re both constantly like emotional trying to figure everyone out. Like we sense emotions the way that those like machines that pick up earthquake vibrations. That’s how we pick up other people’s emotions. So I see her looking at me through the mirror, trying to figure it out. She can tell that I’m not happy. Why doesn’t she look happy? I’ve done everything for this girl. She has the most beautiful dress. She has this wedding. She’s everything. She’s still not happy. So I see her figuring it out. And then I see her eyes land on my wrist. And she says, you’re gonna have to cut those off.


Stephanie Wittels Wachs  30:39

I knew you were gonna say she told me to cut them off. And I was bracing for impact.


Nikki Vargas  30:45

Yeah, I made I just bollock yeah, it is. And of course, like from her perspective, she’s like, okay, you’re in this gorgeous gown. That’s being the customized to your body. And you’re gonna wear these ratty, like 50 cent bracelets. Like, I get it, I do get it.


Stephanie Wittels Wachs  31:05

Nikki might get it, but she doesn’t accept it. The Taste of Travel that she’s finally gotten in this stage of her life is too good. And she wants more. The one off freelance assignments, the press trips, and the blog write ups, the flexibility and the possibility and the escape she feels while exploring places she’s always wanted to go. Without anyone telling her she can’t. This is what she wants. So she takes on another article, two weeks before her wedding.


Nikki Vargas  31:41

Oh, man. So I, I had the opportunity to write about the cafe scene and Palermo in Buenos Aires. Now, I want to make clear that this did not require me to travel. There was no budget for me to travel, there was no press trip. This was an article that I could have written from the comfort of my home, using social media and research and asking locals from New York, I used this opportunity as a way to run away one more time before the wedding. And I think it took me a long time to admit that to myself. Because at that point in time, I’m not saying that, at that point in time, I’m saying this is a necessary step for my career. You all know and by you while I’m talking to my family, fiance friends, like you all know that I have been barking up this tree of being a travel writer and editor. It’s not a hobby. I’m like, I’m defending it. I’m like, this is this is it, I need to do this, this is I’m gonna be I’m gonna come back and become like the next big thing you’ll see. But the truth is, is that I really just wanted to get away. It was about two weeks out from my wedding. And I’ll never forget the feeling of being on that flight of getting to the airport getting to JFK, boarding that flight which was largely empty. It was like, last flight out of JFK. And being on that plane and thinking to myself, oh my God, what are you doing? But when I was there, I was avoiding everything. I was having a ball. I was drinking my callback, I was making tattoo appointments. I’m reading like Cheryl Strayed wild and I’m like, all the cafes and the name of research. And I remember one day I get back to my hostel. And there was someone sitting there this Italian expat. And he’s editing photos of waterfalls. And I’m looking over his shoulder and he caught me and he goes, it’s Iguazu. I had never heard of Iguazu. I’m embarrassed to say that Iguazu is the you guys are waterfalls are like one of the natural wonders of the world. So I’m embarrassed to say had never heard of Iguazu but the photos were stunning. And he says, you know, it’s like an hour flight away, like the domestic airports, like 20 minutes from here. You could jump on a flight. It’s like 40 bucks. And you should do it. It’s really worth it. And I did I booked my flight. Within an hour of that conversation. I didn’t check out of the hostel. I left all my stuff at the hostel and just got a backpack. So it was a real quick like, I’m just gonna go see the waterfalls. And it wasn’t until I was in Eagle as your National Park, did I realize, oh, I’m alone. There’s no distraction here. I don’t have wine. I don’t have people around me. I am walking through this jungle. It was a week day and it was fairly empty in the park. I’m walking through this jungle and I’m alone. And it was the first time that I think I allowed myself to be alone with my thoughts because I had been avoiding myself in all the wrong ways, too much drinking too much going out too much running away, getting crushes on other guys. I mean, I really was just avoiding everything in my life and all the wrong ways because I didn’t want to be alone with myself. So when I’m walking through Iguazu , National Park, and this sounds so dramatic and almost scripted, but I swear, this is how it went. I I started talking to myself out loud. And I asked myself, what is it you have to say? Because I just I could feel that in this moment, if I don’t do this now. Like, I’m never gonna do it. This is this moment isn’t happening back in New York, once I’m in that apartment with my fiancee with my mom calling me all the time and, and his parents call it about the wedding. I’m realizing that if I don’t have this moment right now, then I’m never I’m never going to confront myself. So I’m walking through the jungle and I asked myself out loud, what is it you have to say? And the minute the question leaves my mouth again, without thinking, without taking a beat to process the question. I just scream into the trees, I don’t want to get married. And then I stopped. And I sort of was like, oh my god, I said the words I said the words that I had not even managed to think internally let alone say out loud. And then I screamed to the trees. I’m not in love. And it was all of these exasperated emotions that were like, deep inside me that were just like, like, finally, please let me breathe. It was just like this feeling of like, having been suffocating myself for months and months and months, and finally allowing myself to have air. And it was terrifying. It was freeing, but I think I more than anything, I knew that I couldn’t walk down that aisle.


Stephanie Wittels Wachs  37:10

Wow, that does seem scripted. I believe you. But my goodness. I mean, the way you describe it, it’s like, you know, it’s stressful. And then also like, I’m sure just the biggest. Just like a sigh, right? Like, okay, it’s out, it’s out there?


Nikki Vargas  37:25

Well, it’s like what you were saying earlier, it’s like, you know, when you’re in your 20s, you tend to stifle your own voice. And I think that this is such a dramatic representation of that. If I had just listened to myself, at any point in time, in any of the months before that moment, if I had just allowed myself to sit down and say, what’s going on here, if I just, I had told you at the beginning how much I used writing to figure out my own emotions. And I hadn’t even done that, right. I didn’t even allow myself to put on paper what was going on in my head because I didn’t want to confront it. Because confronting it meant admitting that I had not only lied to myself, but that I had lied to everyone close to me and let this continue forward. And I didn’t want to do it. At that point in time, we’re about a week away from the wedding day. I’m feel like I’m staring down the barrel of a gun and and I know what I need to do. I know that when I go back to New York, I’m going to have to dismantle everything.


Stephanie Wittels Wachs  38:55

Back, while on a last minute trip abroad to escape her impending marriage, Nikki calls off her wedding, at least in her own mind. Now she has to call it off for real. So she flies back to New York, from Argentina. And she is scared to put it lightly. She knows the stakes of what she’s about to do. And the explosion she’s about to set in motion.


Nikki Vargas  39:23

It was messy and chaotic. I mean, I got back. And I spoke to him first. And I couldn’t bring myself to admit that I wasn’t in love with him anymore, because it felt like calling off the wedding was such a blow. It felt like that second truth would just finish them off. And it felt cruel. And so I came back and I said to him that I don’t want to get married. I don’t want to do this and what transpired was maybe like two days of us in this sort of like, lock, where we’re just arguing, arguing, arguing, and as this is happening, we have our families sort of bandwagoning around us. And almost like trying to break in the door being like, what is going on? Like, what like, what is it like his, his parents are due to come in from France, where like, everything is like coming down to the wire, and everyone’s like, what is happening, what is happening, what is happening? And it was, it was awful. And eventually, you know, when the clouds broke apart, and the clarifying truth of I don’t want to get married, and I did eventually have to be like, you know, I’m not in love. Then it was like, the best way I can describe it was like, just people jumping ship. It was like, the minute those words were spoken. My dad and stepmom were like canceling the hotel trying to recoup the cost of their travel, my mom is trying to recoup the costs of like, whatever she can salvage from, like the wedding vendors. And then you get into the logistics of informing the guests that the wedding’s off. And all the financial losses suffered by everyone, you know, and it’s and it’s a lot schedules that were changed, you know, flights that were booked hotels that were booked. And then the favors the registry gifts, the dress, the decorations, everything, all of this stuff that was never had its day in the sun. And I think the hardest part, out of all of the many hard parts of calling off a wedding last minute is as the person that plunged a stake through not only this wedding, but this man, as the person, you feel like you don’t get to grieve. And even though you have lost a lot, in my case, I lost my home, I lost my fiancee and best friend. I had family members that didn’t talk to me for a year plus, after I lost some of my best friends who just could not get over the fact that I hadn’t communicated to them what was going on, not realizing I couldn’t communicate it to myself. I lost a lot. And I felt like as the villain in the situation, you don’t get to grieve.


Stephanie Wittels Wachs  42:38

Wow. The grief part makes so much sense, right? You’re the villain in the story. You’re the bad guy. So you can’t you don’t feel like you have the space to grieve. But like, was there a self loathing in this too? Like, was there messages to yourself about like, this guy didn’t do anything wrong to me? What am I do? Was there doubt was there? Or were you just like, I screamed into the trees and I know what I’m doing and I am okay, if I’m the villain, you know, or, or after that moment was there like that kind of waffling at any point?


Nikki Vargas  43:09

It wasn’t so much self loathing, because I do think that I I just realized that I wanted to take my life back. And I didn’t, you know, I had been carrying such guilt and shame for months from the sheer act of going through the motions of planning a wedding I didn’t want. And when I finally yelled that truth out into the jungle, I think there was such a purity there that I didn’t want to be ashamed about. I, I knew, on some level that for as hard of a decision as this was, I knew it was one that I needed to make. And so there wasn’t so much self loathing, but there was a lot of sadness. You know, there were I, I won’t say that, you know, I came back to New York called off the wedding and just like skipped out like Latino, like it was, there was a lot of sadness, there was a lot of loneliness, because when you’re the villain in the situation, no one wants to talk to you. You know, not only did I call off the wedding, and lose friends and damage relationships with family, but I just went right on rolling with the changes, and I left my job and advertising too, because I figured you know what? I did this so I could become a travel writer and editor. And the next step is freeing up space in my life to do that. And because I had become persona non grata, and because nobody wanted to be around me, I figured there was no better time in my life then to get the hell out in New York.


Stephanie Wittels Wachs  44:49

It’s not long after calling off the wedding that Nikki decides to apply to grad school in London to pursue a master’s in journalism. She feels extra pressure to make this whole writing thing happen now that she’s essentially blown up her entire life for it. Going back to school might better arm her for the industry. Plus, it would delay the ongoing process of finding a job she really wanted.


Nikki Vargas  45:13

I had been blogging this whole time and I hadn’t gotten a job and I wasn’t exactly hacking it as a freelance writer and so I was sort of at this like impasse of like, okay, I just did all this. I just blew up my life. What is the next step? And that dramatic next step to me felt like, okay, new city, graduate school. Let’s go. And that is where I was headed. Until Jeff entered the picture.


Stephanie Wittels Wachs  45:46

Bom bom bom what happened when Jeff entered the picture? Tell me all about it.


Nikki Vargas  45:50

I remember. I was I was pretty low. You know, I was spending all my time in sweatpants, like eating Doritos. And at the behest of a friend that had stayed by my side, I download Tinder and just see what’s out there. Just have fun. They’re like enough with the Doritos and sweatpants.


Stephanie Wittels Wachs  46:16

And what year what year? Is it here? […]


Nikki Vargas  46:19

This is maybe of six months after the wedding.


Stephanie Wittels Wachs  46:23

2015.. 20..


Nikki Vargas  46:25



Stephanie Wittels Wachs  46:25

Okay, great, yeah.


Nikki Vargas  46:27

So I download Tinder, and Jeff was the first and only person that I had met through Tinder. And what drew me to him, I mean, beyond the fact that I just thought he was gorgeous. I mean, he looked like a cross between Penn Badgley and a young Mark buffalo, just very like Italian features, dark hair, dark eyes. Just I thought he was stunning. And, and I remember, he asked if we can meet. And I was convinced that this was a catfish situation. So I said, he’s like, asked me to meet on like a Friday night in the East Village. And I was like, I’ll meet you at Monday at five in front of BestBuy. And I was like, I’m literally, because I wanted to meet in front of BestBuy at Union Square so that I had quick access to all the stuff. And I didn’t wear makeup, I showed up in like a ratty shirt with like, a tank top underneath and jeans. And I was fully prepared to get there and find out that like, this impossibly gorgeous man is actually like a retiree from like Staten Island who collects MetroCards. And I get there. And there’s Jeff. And he is more gorgeous than the photo. And I’m immediately like damage control. I’m like, like tugging at my sleeves. I’m like trying to fluff my hair. I’m like, I’m so insecure about how gorgeous this man is. And how messy and acutely aware of the fact that I’m like, I look just like gross. But we had this lovely first date. And, you know, we went to just a bar like around the corner, and it was like threw darts, and we had our first kiss. And it was just fun. And that fun, very quickly gave way to a real connection. And I think one of the things that first struck me about Jeff was that he was a fellow creative. And so coming off of this relationship, and this wedding were my passion for being a travel writer was like, just felt like it ended everything. I from the get go. I mean, I feel like I practically screamed at him in front of BestBuy. I’m a travel writer, I’m trying to be a travel writer, like, let’s just get that out of the way now. And he was he was so just supportive and whatever about it. And that relationship was so rooted in honesty, from the beginning in a way that felt so refreshing. At the same time, I’m looking at going to London for grad school. He’s looking at moving to Los Angeles. And we hadn’t really talked about going in different directions because we’re having fun. And one day we were at a bar near Union Square. And I had had a few too many to drink. And I turned to him and I said you should come to London with me, because I had a trip planned to go scout neighborhoods to find a flat to sort of set myself up in London before the semester started. And he agreed, which I thought was incredible. I mean, like we had barely known each other and he’s like, sure I’ll go to Europe and I also thought that that was just the coolest thing. And he’s like while we’re at it, let’s do Paris and I was like okay, so we we went to him I have with me to London, we went to Paris. And while we were on that trip, we just became abundantly clear that there’s something here. And I had been keeping whatever was happening with Jeff, largely under wraps. I felt afraid of judgment from family and friends about jumping into a new relationship. I felt like I wanted to hold this thing close to my heart. And I also had a lot of doubt, I had a lot of self doubt about, you know, is this smart to get into a new relationship having just come through this experience. And I remember thinking at the time, I’m not going to miss out on this man, because of something as arbitrary as timing. And I didn’t want to lose him. I didn’t want to lose the opportunity to get to know him. Because I had screamed into that jungle that I didn’t want to get married, I’d set myself free. I had pushed through the mud, to get to the other side so that I could live my life. And if I was going to miss out on this man who felt right in every way, out of fear of judgment than what the hell had I learned.


Stephanie Wittels Wachs  51:15

As it turns out, she’d learned a lot. Nikki sensed that this man had bought into everything she was about the lightheartedness, the hunger for adventure, he wanted it all, and he wanted to support her as she grew. So for the second time, Nikki finds herself canceling her plans, she withdraws from her graduate program, Jeff calls off his move to LA, and the two of them start a life together in New York, built on mutual support and excitement for everything the other brings to the table. After a few years, Nikki lands a job as a staff editor for a New York based publication where she’s able to report and continue to get more press trip opportunities. She then spends time working for Atlas Obscura, and some other outlets. And eventually, she ends up at the publication, Fodor’s travel where she’s now a senior editor. She also publishes several books and even launches a travel magazine. And Jeff is along for the ride, just as Nikki is for his own burgeoning career as a comic and film producer. They’re supportive when things don’t work out. And they’re ecstatic when they do in that same way, they’d support each other year after year.


Nikki Vargas  52:33

And we’re now married.


Stephanie Wittels Wachs  52:43

That’s great. You know, I think another thing that’s so striking about your story is like the idea of being a passive participant in your career trajectory in your in the choices that you’re making about how you’re going to spend, you know, we’re at work all the time, how are we gonna spend that time? Knowing what you wanted, and then going after it, and getting it, right. Like this is, that’s like, the love story is great. But the self story of, I wanted this thing, this was my dream, and I have gotten it is really, I think, the most inspirational part of it. And, and it’s something that’s hard for people to do, I think, because a lot of stuff gets in the way. And your dreams don’t always make sense. So I’m wondering, you know, have there been moments along the way where you’ve been able to stop and be like, I laid every brick on this path. And I have walked it. And I have arrived.


Nikki Vargas  53:49

All the time, I was on a trip in Kenya for photos. And it was a press trip. And it’s very rare, very, very rare to be able to bring a plus one on a press trip, it’s usually never happens. And it was for Safari and the Maasai Mara. And I was allowed to bring Jeff and it was a small group of journalists. And I remember being there in the wilds of Kenya. And we’re having what’s called sundowners, which is like happy hour in the bush. So the safari vehicle pulls over and they put a bunch of, you know, local beers and snacks on the hood of the car and you’re just surrounded by wilderness and there’s acacia trees, and there is silhouettes of giraffes walking along in the horizon and it’s the coolest experience. And I’m there on the wings of my riding. And I just had this realization during those sundowners with Jeff that yeah, it all worked out and I sometimes think back to that time, an eagle eye zoo and that time with the cancel a wedding. And what would have happened? If I hadn’t made that decision? What would have happened if I had gone through with the wedding? What would have happened if I decided to ignore all my doubts and ignore my feelings and push through and try to do right by everyone else, but not myself? What would my life have looked like? And I don’t want to know that reality. Because I’m now doing what I love. I’m now doing it with a person I love and everything that I wanted my life to look like, spawned from that moment in the jungle.


CREDITS  55:47

There’s even more LAST DAY with Apple premium subscribers get exclusive access to content like behind the scenes chats with the producers of the show, diving deeper into episodes. Sign up now on Apple podcasts. LAST DAY is a production of Lemonada Media. The show is produced by Kegan Zema, Aria Bracci, and Tiffany Bui. Our engineer is Brian Castillo. Music is by Hannis Brown. Steve Nelson is our Vice President of weekly content and production and Jackie Danziger is our Vice President of narrative content and production. Executive Producers are Jessica Cordova Kramer and me Stephanie Wittels Wachs. If you’d like what you heard today, we have three other seasons that you can check out. Have a story you’d like to share, head to, or click the link in the show notes to fill out our confidential Google Form. follow and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts or listen ad free on Amazon music with your Prime membership. You can find us online at @LemonadaMedia and you can find me at @WittelStephanie. Thank you for listening, we will see you next week.

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