There are things he told me that I believed because they were things that I had thought first.
We’d get married.
We’d stay in this love as if it were a room.
Once he’s gone I think of us at the beach. Me, spread on a blanket, letting him go a little more every time he’d wade into the sliding surface alone. Me, lifting an arm, waving. Smiling as if it were a happy thing just watching. Him, restless as the flashing sea. Both of us squinting out across the water, waiting. Until he’d return to me wild with that other life.
I don’t know what it’s like to leave a person, but have spent years trying to understand. The shock of wanting it. The moment itself. The men I’ve loved would know. First, my father going from my mother. Then, this. It was last October when he said everything over the phone. His voice was saturated, rushing. The white noise of his words reached me like waves. With a soaked emptiness underneath. I shouldn’t feel like this. I don’t know. I’m sorry. The cooling sky, chaotic and formless. The apartment complex stuck in a quiet heat. I remember that burnt orange glare of light, that stab of color setting fire to distant trees and the parked cars of our neighbors. Crashing at my skin. The late sun splashed there where my life was. Over and over against the stucco walls of the patio, the railing, the chairs with the faded flowers.
After the call, I walked into my father’s arms at the bottom of the staircase below what used to be our unit. I still feel that shaken hug. The end, crystalline through tears. Also an October. Also so specific in its devastation, in a way that would extend, I knew, throughout my life. The afterglow of us was already haunting in its symmetry of my parents. Too young to survive something as ancient and overwhelming as love. For too many years he and I mistook the act of reflecting for the act of shining. And still, I watched him in the water as if I’d never seen something dissolve.
Since then, every memory of him overlaps, clear and barely there. Like a dream forgetting itself. Rearranging, sloping until we’re indistinct shapes just motioning the way couples do. Him staring over his shoulder before turning away and away again. Whenever he looked back at me on shore, half his face was halcyon. His ocean eyes stirring. The starry water endless behind him. I would look at all that moved before me, looking for the tight muscles of his back against the smooth blue. And now someone else lives in our apartment, and in my parents’ house, and who do they say they love. And what will become of them, these ghosts of us.
The story I trust is this: nobody is loved by one person. Every heart has more to give to someone else.
I loved him too easily. I knew we would live the way other people lived. There was a familiarity to us that seemed imitative, a performance we’d memorized before meeting. We’d sit on the same blanket on the same beach. My book next to his towel. He’d kiss me quick on the cheek and I’d smile into his shoulder. Then, he’d lose himself in the water and I’d spend the slow hours alone. It was learned, how we came closer only to fade behind the other. All our lives we practiced this treading, and always we were sinking. I go over how it happened. Inhale. Lungs fill. Love inside of, instead of. Then, letting go.
But, maybe I imagined more than I felt. His voice through ocean sounds, Are you coming in. The vastness glinting like a sapphire. The water was so opaque that I only saw the fin of his foot kick away before losing sight of him. Is this what it was really like to love like us. Can I use that word—us.
What I mean is, my heart never really belonged to itself until it belonged to you. There isn’t a word for this. I’ve tried to find one. Soul mate, husband. You are my life, I tell you. But even such an inclusive word—life—is punctuated by a death of some kind, a parting.
Let me start over.
However we come to know loss is how we come to know love.
My father doesn’t know heartbreak the way I know it, the way I witnessed my mother’s. Their ending moved her away from herself in waves. A tireless pull. It scared me. To be destroyed in front of anyone. To drop that far down. To enter a depth that finally revealed itself. She had to gather herself only to come back to it. But he was able to flicker, to flash through the surface and shine for any expanse of space. To swim through her. To breathe.
What was it all for, giving my mother a secret rose during school hours. Not having his hand reach specifically for her; only something unknown being pressed quietly in her direction. Her, shifting herself to face him, becoming my mother. Him, keeping himself to himself. Other flowers. Other secrets. The first thing he ever showed her, with the rose, that gesture, was that he’ll only give her what appears stunning in its mystery and that would have to be enough. My life gives a name to her sadness, lets it be in the world beside them as something they could hold against their bodies, to hold on to each other.
This emptiness—hers—is also mine.
It is also anyone’s I’ve loved.
Even now, I see his damp hair crowding at his forehead. His eyes, cerulean, the same as my mother’s. Him, favoring the skin of any water to me. I remember him moving with it, and staying. That ripe light and intermittence. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever stop looking for him there.
Where is the beginning, really.
We died in water. Like any fire would.
When he left and I hugged my father who had also left my mother—the same time of year, the same way, in tears, in such certainty—there was a stillness after. A vivid silence. It’s all I can think of when I think of him now. That, and how we’d stand in front of the same ocean feeling such different things. How I shook my hand in the salted air, and maybe from where he was it seemed like another, impossible life. There I was, this dry unmoving girl. There I was, contained and looking at him—a boy dripping with freedom, glittering there, wanting to be alone in the startling openness.
And because I did not know that, how could I know anything else.