The problem with writing about someone you once loved—about someone you simultaneously wish never to be moved by again and to love forever (because you want to honor the part of yourself that used to love him and to remember the thing that fluttered and pounded between you)—the problem with this is that if you really want to be honest, you have to dive back in to that love.
About a month ago I submitted my final grades and set out to write every day—and that’s when I stumbled into this problem. I was trying to write about our best day: zipping around an Aegean island with the man I once loved. “Man, it must suck to be everybody else,” he said as we took the switchbacks up the hill toward our tiny studio. We agreed that we even felt sorry for the people we were before we arrived, with their busy lives that didn’t include riding a scooter past limestone cliffs in the long after-dinner light of late June.
More than once that week I woke up in a sweat, dreaming about house parties where, apparently, invitations were sent to anyone who’d ever broken my heart (and, oddly, one ex-boyfriend’s father…). Writing about the man you once loved means living with this man again. And living with the version of yourself who loved him, someone you know intimately, but might be better off forgetting for a while. It is a profoundly uncomfortable place to be. And I wasn’t sure how to manage it.
I thought of the ending of Francisco Goldman’s haunting autobiographical novel (slash fictionalized memoir) Say Her Name—a book about his young wife’s sudden death. He circles in on the moment of her accident for two-hundred-plus pages before revealing it. The book is a whirlpool of grief and at its center is not her death itself but the writing of it: feeling Goldman force his memory onto the page. He talks about the process in an interview with the Paris Review:
I have never done anything harder than write those last pages, her death scene. […] I have never cried while I’ve been writing, and had to write through tears. I had a knot in my stomach, a stomachache, I was exhausted, and I remember I wrote until about ten at night and I just wanted to go to bed. And I said, “If you go to bed you are never going to go back and finish this.” I pushed through, and at about three in the morning I finished, and I had a bottle of my favorite Mexican mescal in my room, and I went down to this lake by the Academy, drank half of it, and then—this was on May 4, and my fellowship ran until the end of May—I didn’t do another thing for the rest of the month.
My writing does not require that much of me, nothing close really. But still I was happy to get a break two weeks ago when I went home to visit my sister and parents and to watch one of my best friends get married. I hadn’t thought about it as a visit to my old life but that’s what the trip became in the end.
I go home a couple times each year without encountering any major revelations, but somehow this trip was different. I ate in my old kitchen. I saw my high school English teacher and my senior prom date. At the wedding, I spent a few days with some friends from high school, the same friends I ditched without explanation halfway through our senior year. There is no nice way to tell someone your friendship feels like an old dress that suddenly fits all wrong, and even if I could’ve articulated it, at seventeen I didn’t have the grace such a thing requires. But there they were, after so many years: all kind, fun, interesting adults. I looked around the wedding and felt full of gratitude for the drunk, dancing, cake-eating, unusually well-dressed friends and strangers around me.
I guess we are all sometimes haunted by who we used to be. Not Don Draper haunted, just aware of the time when the gap between who you were and who you wanted to be seemed entirely un-crossable. And it is easy, with a suitcase full of your best dresses and a return ticket across the content, to be confident. It is easy to be your best self in good company at an open bar on a long weekend with your best friends. But the revelation was this: when I was younger, I didn’t always have the confidence to be kind to the people I loved and admired (who have and have not loved me back). And now, years later, though it is easy to be kind to old and new friends, though I like myself much more, it is still sometimes difficult to be kind to my old selves.
I might’ve known after trying (and ultimately kind of failing) to go rock climbing a few weeks ago that those two activities—writing and climbing—were linked. It is hard to be brave at the base of an unfamiliar climb, or while writing honestly about someone you used to love. I’m not sure why I choose to do things that require putting myself in uncomfortable positions over and over and over again. But I do. I accept it–even if it means opening the doors to the heartbreakers haunting the parties in my subconscious. To write it well, for love to pound and flutter on the page, I have to give myself over to recollection, and I have to be kind to who I used to be–at least until I finish this draft; then I can pour myself a healthy scotch and sit on the beach and take the rest of the month off.