Every night we tuck ourselves in as though it’s a given we’ll wake to an unchanged world.
Vulnerable in first light, we turn to ritual. We stagger and brew coffee. We eat toast. We brush teeth. We attend to headlines, familiarity a feeble talisman as we read about a world barreling toward an end that’s uncertain only in its particulars.
Over days and weeks we fall into certain rhythms, and we sentimentalize them as though they matter. As though they’re something. And if we suspend them now and again, we also return to them eagerly, like old friends. No matter what happens, a day will come when you’ll wake up and say, I think I’ll go get the dry cleaning. And they will say, good, she feels better.
Under this thick layer of static, we reel and lurch like we’re on a three-day drunk. Some of us notice and some of us don’t.
And every night, as though fueled by uneasy dreams, the inscrutable world shifts and bends a little at a time until one weird morning we wake to a stranger.
Two years ago, when someone broke my stupid heart, I became interested in the idea of transience.
First of all, w/r/t my stupid heart, please know I’m not trying to be melodramatic or charmingly self-deprecating (though I am often both of those things). Unfortunately, my heart is actually retarded. If e-Harmony were to assess my 29 dimensions of compatibility, it would probably just spit out the addresses of correctional facilities so I could go ahead and start courting prison boyfriends. I frequently fall for people who are peculiar, unstable, and/or totally inappropriate. Also, I really like writing letters.
Secondly, w/r/t the breakage, let me assure you this story isn’t about the whither and why. (Lord knows I have learned the hard way those particular topics aren’t all that interesting.) It is less about someone dropping out of my life suddenly and more about the weird realization that event led to, which was that everyone in my life is a transient. They’re all just passing through.
I mean, sure, some people hunker down and stay for a while, but you never know how long someone—anyone—will be around. I don’t mean that in the we-all-die-alone-sob-sob-barf sense. But we have all had friends, family, and paramours who were, at one time, important people in our lives before they were demoted to lesser roles due to distance or circumstance. People are fickle: they die or marry or move. They have kids or they get divorced. They have drug problems or demanding jobs or bad moods or clinical depression.
They have fights.
Losing someone can be a gradual process, like high school friends who grow apart over time. Other times, we lose people under duress—someone important is ripped from your life so abruptly it borders on violence.
Either way, more often than not, in the fullness of time, someone who once meant something to you will one day become a stranger who stares up at you from a pile of old photos like someone off the back of a milk carton. It’s sad and a little unsettling.
That strange sense of clinical remove is the reason I can now comfortably adopt a breezy tone through the next part of this particular case study, which was total personal apocalypse. It felt like a death. And, because we were in the unfortunate position of sharing both a neighborhood and a group of friends, he was like the Ghost of Bad Decisions Past haunting my entire miserable life.
Whoo boy, I was bummed. I was also furious with him for being a dick, disgusted with myself for acting like a solipsistic teenager, unhappy with my friends for staying friends with him, and a more than a little mad at the whole darn indifferent universe. And, you know, above all, I was literally sick with grief. I had a case of insomnia that lasted for about a year. It felt like choking.
Let’s just say it took a long time for this fellow to make his way to the back of the milk carton.
The point is he got there eventually. Everything ends. That fact made me sad two years ago, but it’s also what helped me feel better. And not to get all Philosophy 101 (dude, what if our BRAINS are in VATS?!), but isn’t it weird that the same principle that gives our lives meaning is also the one that takes it away?
I have thought a lot about this pervasive impermanence and the strange structures we build on its shifty base.
I have thought about the stories we tell ourselves and the ways in which we assign the people in our lives certain roles. It’s human nature; it helps us understand and manage our own narratives. It helps us feel in control.
People can change roles within our lives at alarming speeds. The course of a single conversation can transform someone from a hero to a villain. But they don’t have to be one or the other.
Letting go of those categories takes a lot of effort, but the process is what gives our lives texture and depth.
Remember high school? You read The Catcher in the Rye and thought, “This is my life.” Then you read The Stranger and you thought, “No, wait. This is my life.” I think you become an adult in the moment when you realize you’re glad those books aren’t your life.
That’s when you start to learn.
Once upon a time, we used to sweat through long summer nights in a stuffy dive bar, cooling ourselves with pitchers of watered-down beer. At home, we sat with glasses of melting ice, listening to muggers do their work a few streets down. Their voices filtered through the screens of our half-open windows, diffusing their menace.
In winter, sometimes we drank stronger stuff. There were days when the short walk to the bar felt like an arctic expedition, the kind with reindeer jerky and a thermos of coffee. I tottered down the sidewalk in a puffy down coat I broke down and bought my second year here, when vanity yielded to grim utility.
It’s funny how all these memories are tied to bad weather. In the months before I moved to this town, it always annoyed me when people went on about Chicago winters.
“Gee, it sure is cold there,” they said.
“Yes,” I replied. “It seems like I have heard something about that.”
Then I would quietly hate them for their small talk and worry that no one ever discussed anything interesting, much less important, in the way you worry about things when you’re 23 years old.
What I’ve since learned is that, in Chicago, matters of the heart, like everything else, are inextricably tied to the weather.
Other things come to mind—the angle at which he held his cigarettes, the way some of his sentences went up at the end, like a Brit—but I remember most his big homely coat or the particular way he pressed his palm against his brow. Here, the weather stamps itself on our most intimate characteristics and maudlin memories, and now I’m too old to worry that mine is nothing more than small talk after all.
For a while I wanted to take to my bed like a lady from a bygone era.
The first summer I ran into him all the time. I stifled the urge to scamper from door to door like a rat. On good days, I’d imagine running up and kicking him in the shin. By winter, I surprised myself by skulking past old haunts, actually hoping for the chance to strike.
Long after he moved back east came that painfully bright spring day I thought I saw him a few blocks away and raised my hand as though to wave.
I think the worst part about betrayal is that one moment can color all the years that came before it. Suddenly, your own happiness seems like a thin fiction. It’s sort of like getting robbed. Or finding out you have been fucking Santa Claus.
And, yeah, I believed in something that never existed. For a long time, that made me feel foolish and angry. I felt sad and, worse, I felt stupid for feeling sad. But how important is historical accuracy, really, when it comes to our lives? Just because something isn’t real doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Think about a novel. Fiction can be moving, even when it’s far-flung or farfetched or far out. It can make you cry or get you into trouble. Occasionally, it can change the world. And it can even change us, if we let it.
So that’s how I learned that the glass is never half empty or half full; it is always both. Eventually, the villain in this story transcended his role. He was good. He was bad. But, above all, he was just passing through.
We’re all transients, despite our best efforts to fix each other with pins.
This life, it won’t be contained. It squirms against your grasp. It trembles. It peeks through your fingers. It’s fickle; it licks then it bites.
One of these days it’s going to slip your greedy clutch and shine its light right through the cracks.
It will turn to bright spots that morning burns behind your closing lids.
The thing is, you get to hold it in your hands before you bury it in your heart.