Whenever I’m at my worst, I usually have the fleeting thought: Wow, it would be terrible to run into my ex right now. Last time I had that thought I had just wiped a piece of dried ear wax that I’d picked out of my ear on my gross yoga pants and was turning around to admonish my three-year-old, who was screaming and wearing a purple cloak. (It wasn’t Halloween, or even close.) And I thought: Yeah, right now. This is exactly the kind of moment it would happen.
You want to be at your best for something like that, because depending on the nature of the relationship you had with that person, you might need to summon all your resources to survive. But truth be told, I don’t think there’s ever a good time to be confronted with an ex, especially if it’s someone you truly loved but left and then didn’t speak to for twenty years.
And you put him in an emotional box, and let it get all dusty and moldy.
And then he friended you on Facebook.
And you had to bust that fucker open. (The box, not the ex.)
And it was scary and beautiful and painful and all-consuming—just like being with him the first time. Only this time, you had a husband and kid and laundry and a job and responsibilities, and you couldn’t just lie around all day and night wallowing in your own puddle of emotional goo.
So that’s partially why I haven’t posted lately. In addition to increased responsibilities at home and at work, I’ve been wallowing.
The wallowing began with questions. I was struck by how little I actually remembered and went digging in the garage for my journals from college. When I read my entries from that time, they left me profoundly… everything. Sad and regretful, yet exhilarated. I had made myself forget that I’d had that kind of passion and connection with someone, largely because (unfortunately) I was already dating someone else when it happened. It was my first semester at college and I’d had a boyfriend back home—someone I cared for, but in retrospect, wasn’t in love with. What did I know then? Nothing—not what it meant to be in love, not that love shows itself in myriad, complicated forms, and certainly not that I was free to follow my heart. The anxiety was just beginning, the worst kind that would put me in the hospital and finally get me medicated, and I felt anything but free.
I was too afraid for freedom. I looked for safety. That was before I knew safety to be illusory. There’s no relationship that can protect a person from feeling alone, from confronting her own mortality, or from the tremendous responsibility of creating her own meaning from life. As I would later learn, those things can only be done alone. John, the boy I fell in love with, still represents to me the freedom I could and should have chosen—even if, as I strongly suspect, I would have gotten my heart broken for doing so. But that’s exactly the point—I needed the unpredictable yet passionate path. Doing everything possible to avoid anxiety only produces anxiety. My anxiety worsened during my relationship with my high-school boyfriend and abated when we “took breaks,” and I have no doubt that it showed itself precisely because I was somewhere I didn’t belong.
If I could go back, I wouldn’t burden myself with guilt. That’s a significant thing for a “nice” girl to say, a girl who always worried about her reputation and always strove to do “the right thing.” Seventeen is just too young for that kind of burden. The new seventeen-year-old me would say, “I’m sorry, but this is how I feel,” and act on it.
My husband pegged me early on. He said to me once, “Sometimes I think you get what you want confused with what everyone else wants.”
But enough with regret—John and I both have happy lives now. We’re both married, with children, and we are enjoying sharing what we remember from all those years ago. Now that the memories are unpacked, I get to look at them again—appreciate them, savor them, and rearrange them into a new chapter in my memoir. I don’t want to forget again. What good is forgetting? The moments I remember best with John are the ones full of life and love and beauty and meaning. His infectious laugh. The all-night marathon phone conversation. The time I reached out spontaneously, inexplicably, to stroke his hair. And the time, after everything went wrong, that he touched my arm as he walked by my desk leaving class. I wondered for twenty years what that touch meant, and now I’m sure my hunch was right: He had loved me.
So what’s left is all any of us can do: write, and remember. I’m driving home thinking of all this, my stomach tight and my heart racing, because my body remembers being seventeen and in love. I’m teary because I’ll never have it back. The fall light is singularly golden on the trees, and for the first time in years rises a line of poetry from Donald Hall: Let us affirm that it is fitting and delicious to lose everything.