Read the original Solitude.
“Remembering always felt almost guilty, a lingering where there was no cause to linger, as if whatever you loved had a claim on you and you couldn’t help feeling it no matter what.”
– Lila by Marilynne Robinson
This is the story of how I got better.
For quite some time, all it took was a dream to dampen the day. Something simple—a held hand, a kissed cheek, an “I miss you.” These soft images felt real until the day dawned, catching me sprawled atop my sheets, awake to my new grey city. Where did those lips go, and those hands calloused from gardening? I thought maybe the dreams would have stopped here, two thousand miles away, but they lingered through the travel just to sidle up next to me in bed while I slept.
There’s a memory that comes to me when I want it least—while atop a mountain, Rainier or Baker, or while lounging on a hidden beach listening to the Pacific lap against the shore. I’ll be in these beautiful places, soaked in them, and suddenly I’m drawn into a moment from three years ago:
I had sunk into a nap on the porch of her family’s cottage. Tired and insecure, worried what her family thought of me, I had relaxed onto a sun-warmed chair just to be alone with myself. As was my nature at the time, I thought I was failing at everything—disappointing my girlfriend and coming off to her family as some frail, insecure boy she stumbled upon at college. I felt annoying. I was napping with these thoughts of failure, only to be woken moments later by a soft kiss on the lips. And there she was, standing at my feet and watching me with a look on her face like she had startled herself with that tenderness.
I’m struck with that memory, the sweetness of it, and where I am is suddenly lesser. Wouldn’t it be better if she were here, too—to see her tired, smiling, and shivering on a mountaintop, or sun-soaked, reading a novel on a beach? Or maybe just near at all. And the following pain: she doesn’t want to be. She hasn’t wanted to be for a long time. I have wanted for too long.
My friends soon learned that whenever I was with them and staring at my feet, I was really with her. The memory of her, that kiss on my sleeping lips; the endless cups of Twinning’s; the swing set where we sat in the dark and wondered about the future. And others. Too many. Some people make the choice to push aside such memories and move on, while I suppose I indulge them. I’m too fond of some, like the kiss, or watching her dance at her sister’s wedding, stealing sips of my mojito. My friends and family never did figure out what to say to me when I suddenly became distant. They knew I was trying to move on and taking all the right steps, but still, somehow, failing. What was there to do but sidle up next to the memories and rest until the aches ached less and the heart hardened?
Of course, she is more than my memories of her could ever let her be. In my mind she still has the gardening callouses—maybe those have softened and disappeared. Maybe beets and peach pie aren’t her favorite anymore. Who knows what has changed. Who knows how my memory has changed her. Maybe I’m not in love with her, but with some idea of her that has mixed with the memories and created someone new. I wonder that often, and have been accused of it, too. It’s probably a mixture of both, real and made-up, as any love tends to be. Do we ever know people as fully as we think? No matter. I knew something of her, still, even if it’s just a fragment of the woman she is now.
In the meantime, I was growing up. I moved out of my parents’ house, found a desk job, bought a car, and paid my bills. Time carried me relentlessly forward when all I wanted to do was stay in the past and relive that kiss.
It wasn’t adventure that healed my heart, or making new friends, or laughing and dancing, or dating new people. It wasn’t learning how to love myself or being at peace in my own company. I carried her through all of that. It was the constant weight of time pressing down and down, molding and hardening. Two years of ache and memory and dreams, until I woke up one morning at 6 a.m. like I do every day, brewed some coffee, cracked open my computer to write, and felt for the first time that I was where I needed to be, and was who I needed to be. Strange how things happen. You can put all your effort into living well only to find that you were living just fine the whole time. You simply needed time. So I was sitting with my coffee and some words, content just to be—a contentment I’ve never had before.
There was a strange day, a few months after writing Solitude, when I found myself out drinking tea with her. It was so strange to be near: all this love in my chest for a person right across from me, and nowhere for it to go. My face felt twitchy, my posture awkward. I wanted to come off as confident and together, but I came off as damaged. I know that now. I told her I still loved her. She said she didn’t want to leave me with any hope, knowing I was looking for it in everything. Before we parted, I told her how much I was going to miss her. I choked on the words. We hugged. I tried pulling away, and she tightened her arms. She knew it was our last. She walked away. I sobbed in my car. I go back to that moment often, too. Wondering about her. Wondering about myself. Sometimes love weakens, but it’s still love.
I thought after all that weakness I would never be whole again, but time does move relentlessly forward. I can’t say where the contentment came from that morning or why it has lasted. So for now, I’ll just say “time and growing up,” though there’s always something more, some mystery.
I had hoped, when I healed, that I would stop missing her. But sometimes healing takes us aback in that way. I do still miss her. The memories are still sweet. And here I am, something whole.