“Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish its source. It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of illness and wounds; it dies of weariness, of witherings, of tarnishings.”
New York City, 16th October 2015
It is strange to think that 10 years have passed since we entered each other’s lives. 10 whole years! Stranger still is the fact that our relationship (at least in its first, conventional incarnation) lasted for little more than two of those. You burn bright or you burn long, I guess, even if it always felt like the time we spent together was honey-dipped and golden in its slow, rich sweetness. In her love, I found a warmth and nourishment that made it easy to open and share my own cautious heart in return.
How easy? Well, less than a month after that first Thanksgiving, she flew over for Christmas, taking advantage of flexible working arrangements to spend five weeks with me, my housemates, and – for a few days over the holiday, at least – my family. I look back at that period now with wonder and a pinch of mild disbelief, as if perhaps it happened to someone else; with barely a second thought, I not only allowed the compartments into which I’d so carefully packed my life to be messed around – I helped this woman, this gleeful human wrecking ball, to break them down altogether.
In some ways, it helped that neither of us really knew what we were doing during that first year. Forced to make it up as we went along, we often felt like two conspirators, whispering across the pillow late at night, and sharing secrets under the duvet the next morning. The future we invented together seemed inviolate, built as it was on a love that shone with clear, pure strength. We allowed ourselves to be swept towards it by our own accelerated intensity, oblivious to the rip currents that gathered beneath us.
Of course distance facilitates that strain of wilful blindness, especially when the heart is singing loudly enough to drown out any additional alarms. Each time we came together, a giddy, surging swell of happiness held at bay the grinding reality of a life spent staring across an ocean. We sacrificed stability for excitement, forgetting that intimacy maintains a steady state only through the application of regular – and equal – pressure from both sides; when this slackens, its core warps and degrades, and it starts to die, long before the impact is visible from the outside.
Even when the tiny cracks that formed below the surface widened out into deep, gouging scars, we continued to cling to a sort of shared romantic idealism. I guess all love is trial and error – especially when you’re young – and that goes for its ending too. The longer we wait to deploy our emotional parachutes, the harder the landing when we do finally hit the ground – wait too long, and all that’s left is one huge fucking mess. She and I plummeted down together, hurled from our crumbling cliff edge; to disengage, to bug out and float to safety, would have felt like the worst form of selfishness – instead we conspired to doom each other.
For all that, it would be disingenuous to call it a fait accompli. I hurt her, and I hurt her badly – with luck, it will remain the worst thing I do in life. Cheating is much simpler when you don’t have to go home that night and look someone in the eye, but by the same token it breeds an acute, corrosive awareness of one’s own cowardice. I carried that with me for a long time, and its poison filtered through into everything we said and did to one another.
Sepsis both necessitates and precludes a clean break. Grimly we tried to flush out the toxins, but succeeded only in making ourselves even sicker. Perversely, geographical separation made closure more elusive: it is too easy to hold onto something (or someone) rendered intangible by distance. A lonely heart selects soft-focus memories, and avoids those that must be wrenched up from the cognitive depths; an instinctive self-preservation that merely serves to extend the process of radioactive decay beyond its natural half-life.
We became guest stars in each other’s lives. Each cameo, each little vignette, came loaded with expectation and tinged – but not tainted – by unvoiced grief. A hotel room in Amsterdam. A long, sunny spring weekend in Boston, starting on the day the volcano erupted, and ending just as we’d started to hope that the skies might never reopen. California by car, huddling up high in the Sierra Nevada, and chasing each other across sun-kissed beaches on the endless drive down the coast.
However, stasis can only endure for so long. Without realising it, we were anchored to our shared past, rather than using it to shape a better, happier future. We ignored the weight for as long as we could, but slowly it dragged us down…
We finally hit the bottom in December 2011. It was made worse by the fact that we could both feel it coming up to meet us, even before the first sad, stretched smiles outside the terminal at Logan – the ones that don’t quite reach the eyes. As they fell from our faces, the recriminations we’d spent years biting back came flooding down with them, bringing far more pain than we were able to process at the time. Instead we fucked and fought for five days straight, until neither of us had anything left to pour into the other. I flew back from Boston hollowed-out – almost translucent – and it felt like the perfect final chapter to a story we both knew would have no more sequels.
She lives in New York now, a student again at 37. She will never really be 37 though, not to me – there is a Peter Pan quality to her that I love and envy in equal measure. I think about her within seconds of booking my flight. It’s impossible not to – this city will always mean Thanksgiving in the cold, and spring in Central Park; oral sex on the Subway and hand jobs at the back of the Chinatown bus; her…and us.
Still, I almost don’t tell her I’m coming. What is there left to say? How can we sit and chat over coffee, as if we weren’t once each other’s everything? Far harder than a surfeit of emotion is staring into the void where it used to be; the footprints we allow another person to leave on our heart are never really erased. Whole lives are lived in the small, agonising silences that bubble up between two people who have forgotten how to speak to each other – or who know how much must remain unsaid.
How can I put myself through that?
How can I not?
I wait for 20 minutes in an Irish pub near Times Square, nursing a pint. My eyes flick from the TV above the bar to the door, then down to my phone; I feel 24 again, and my foot taps the floor with an impatience I don’t even try to control. Maybe anticipation is a better word for it – despite everything, I want to see her.
This time though, she has the jump on me. I look up to find her standing in the doorway, that familiar grin already splitting her face; she moves into the warmth of the bar, and I half-stand to greet her, my heart a heavy, tender lump in my chest. The blonde hair is long gone, and it tumbles down below her shoulders now in soft, chestnut waves, which I brush back when I pull her into a hug.
I can feel her breath on my neck. I’m wearing the same cologne she first bought me for Christmas nearly ten years ago now, and she presses her nose against my skin with a small sigh. I stand very still, one arm wrapped round her body, the other loose and awkward at my side.
Our story was never destined to have a happy ending – not many do – and it is too late to change that now; some damage cannot be undone, and we both carry wounds that even time will never heal. As I hold her though, I realise that whatever else this evening brings, it will give us one thing we haven’t had until now. Here in New York, on another cold, crisp, autumnal night, we have one chance – maybe one last chance – to make sure that we’ll never again regret the time we spent writing it together.
She steps back and hops up onto the stool opposite mine. She is still radiantly beautiful. We smile at each other in silence, for long enough that I have to clear my throat before I trust myself to speak.
“It’s so good to see you,” I say.
And I mean it.