The pressure on the plane was likely the only thing holding me to my seat, given every time I looked up, my eyes were in direct line with the thinning hair of the man who wrecked my heart and who I haven’t seen since we parted on a cold, icy Boston street corner nearly two years ago.
I kept thinking each time my gaze leveled with his head: “He has more grays and less waves.”
The irony is that I have thought of this man—and the countless events, pieces of gossip, longings, songs, wonderings, worries, and joys that I’ve wanted to share with him—at least 10,000 times. (Less lately, of course, because the longer someone is out of your life, the less they know, and thus, the less painful and strange it becomes not to share every last little thing.) I could fill whole days with the conversations I’d wished we’d had. And there we were, at a loss for anything but pleasantries and clipped answers.
What a missed opportunity! For years, I envisioned us airborne toward Ireland or Greece or Costa Rica or Topsail, North Carolina, whole continents and oceans passing beneath us. Now, we’re trapped on a fully booked, four-hour flight to Dallas, with thousands of miles of time to connect, to share what’s happened and changed, to wrap ourselves tightly in the exciting pleasure of one another’s company.
Instead, we did as we’ve always done when faced with the unpleasant: ignore, avoid, separate, and opt for the safety of silence.
It’s amusing—and perplexing—to see how little changes even with the passing of such time.
In my latest imagined renditions of how we’d crash back into each other’s lives, we did not meet. Rather, we began tentative communication via a short e-mail or text message, or, perhaps, more romantically, through a letter sent by way of the road and postmen and mailboxes. I merely hoped for words, in print. Rarely did I think of actually seeing him.
And yet—before I went to stand in line at the gate and wound up standing directly in front of where he was sitting, I did think I’d glimpsed him earlier, as I waited for my coffee and stared off down the airport terminal, eyes burning and limbs shaking with exhaustion. I caught sight of a tall man, wiry like him, dark-haired like him, loose-limbed and yet stiffly awkward like him. I thought his name. And then I turned my head and went back to waiting.
It was always like this, though: me seeing him, wanting him, imagining him from far away, and waiting.
I still remember the first time we saw one another: I rounded the corner into a hallway, headed down to an office for a last interview at the organization that eventually turned him and me into coworkers, and there he stood, hands on either side of a doorway, lanky and lit by the afternoon sun streaming through the windows facing M Street. Our eyes met from a distance. My heart knocked against my ribs. The light crackled across his face. I accepted the job 30 minutes later.
Our evolution from coworker to friend to the undefinable thing we ended up as was like many other evolutions: natural yet deliberate, complicated, and surprising. Of course, from the get-go, I wanted to leap into every corner of his life and sit cross-legged there, witness to and participant in the daily doings of his existence. But, we took our time. He wisely stayed at a distance, at least at first. In the lower recesses of my self, in that quiet and kept place, I always knew I’d love him, and he must have known that, too. Over the years, we both moved, we both changed jobs, we both lost and gained friends, we traveled, we hurt the other, we aged. We prioritized time together; we bared fears and unhappiness; we had a few random but great adventures; we made each other laugh, and we gave each other grounding amid the growing instability around us. All that passed between us deepened, richened, grew big and heavy.
At our peak, we loved hard and messily, entangled in a destructive adoration and need. We pushed boundaries, we tested one another’s patience, we asked for too much. We took—and then took more.
We did this, for years.
I gathered and saved every word, every touch, every morsel of hope thrown my way, and I hoarded it, knowing the inevitable end drew only nearer and nearer.
And the inevitable end did come. After a fateful weekend spent in Montreal, we met at a loud bar in Boston, had our first truly honest, cut-to-the-core conversation, and there, my heart broke, cleanly, predictably.
I spent the better part of 18 months content with my bankrupt heart, sorting through the promises worth keeping, refusing advances, and considering new contracts worth exploring. Recovery is a very private, very personal exercise that one must keep at, day after day after day.
I think I did my mother proud. I have stayed her strong and brave and true daughter. I have tried very hard not to doubt my decisions.
But, there he sat, a mere two feet away from me, and I felt nothing but sickness and elation and confusion. I wanted to say so many things. I wanted to tell him how I have missed him, how I have hated him, how I have yearned for his advice and companionship. I wanted to tell him he’s a coward. I wanted to ask him if he’s happy, if he thinks of me, too. I wanted us to laugh, say, “What are the fucking odds!” and then agree to stay in touch, even if that’s a terrible idea, even if I swore I’d never establish contact with him ever again and have kept that promise all this time.
Mostly, simply, I wanted to hold his hand.
We are fools to believe that we can ever completely rid ourselves of the ones who we loved best, who bore so deep and so completely into the very seed of our being and our understanding of self. I shed him from my life, yes. But, from me? From my heart? The past is the past, but the past is also the make-up of who you are. Should you take scissors to it? How do you cut out the very experiences that helped shape you? Can I truly cut him out of me completely? Upon seeing him, I wonder if I ever will.
We are older, sure. Wiser? I’d like to think so. And yet, as we sat on the tarmac, before we had even taken flight, my heart thundering and his hands running uneasily across the back of his neck, he turned and said, with a grin, “I don’t normally imbibe on these early flights, but…I don’t know about you—I could really use a drink right now.” We laughed. He turned away. The wheels screeched as we rose off the ground and into the sky, the sun sharp and bright through the windows. All I could think was whether it would be totally insane to book a hotel room, change my flight, and not fly out until tomorrow, just so I could suggest we go get that drink and catch up. Just so I could rest within his company, for at least a little while.
Yes, of course it would be.
Love is its own form of insanity, is it not?
Yet, we carry on, even within its mad trappings. Somehow, we carry on.
You must know that I write this in the sparking immediacy of the moment. In time, mere days, distance will create the necessary chill, the firm reprimand of reality. I’ll remember why we ended and everything I have learned since. Friends will reassure me that I have “moved on” and “let go.” I’ll go out; I’ll have fun. I’ll take all of this to my yoga mat and work, hard, to work him out of me again. I’ll focus on what’s present, what’s real, instead of what I dream.
I understand now that this is one of the bittersweet benefits of true love, and of true heartbreak: You learn your limit—and you learn your depths.
Better still, you learn your vast and tremendous reserves that, unlike him, will never leave you.