When my first love died, I learned a lot of things. Things I didn’t ever want to know, things that have changed my life, crashed and burned my life; even, eventually, bettered my life in small but significant ways.
I was twenty two and he was twenty six, and we weren’t together when it happened. We weren’t ever officially “together,” though there’d been a decade of intense and passionate connection between us. Of secrets, and sex, and infatuation, infantile and otherwise. He died in another girl’s home, in a fire, and she died too. I never asked if they were together. I never asked anything, except How am I going to live without the one person I could never imagine the world not containing?
I don’t think I have ever answered that question quite to my satisfaction, though it’s eighteen years and several loves later.
I wrote poems after he died. Book dedications. Had near-constant dreams where he came back to me, kind and generous as he never was in life, wanting to be my husband. I could smell his scent, and then, after a while, couldn’t. Remember the way he said my name, sweet, or cajoling, or even reproving as the mood took him. The way sweat would bead on the top of his nose when he drank or got up to no good. The booming sound of his cough, the wild and ferocious gleam in his blue eyes when he got an evil idea in his head. These things I haven’t forgot.
The whole first year after was just me, poleaxed, trying to breathe and not scream, not tear aside walls with my fingernails until, somehow, I might find him.
And for seven more after that, I sought him in bottles, and strange beds, and bulimia.
I didn’t find him, but I did, in pieces, find a greater understanding of life. I understood true unfairness for the first time, and powerlessness, and, in a certain way, strength. You survive the loss of something you think is impossible to lose, and yet, there you still are. You are, whether you like it or not. You stand on two feet, however wobbly, and your blood still sloshes around your body and your lungs still billow with what passes for breath.
My lungs, my lungs. Somehow, with loss, it is always about the breath.
After he died, I was able to quit smoking. I just told myself that cigarettes were dead like him, and nothing could bring them back. I could mourn, and ache, and sweat it out, want them fierce like nothing else, but they weren’t coming back and I had to live without them.
I had to, and I did. And eighteen years later I still don’t smoke.
And I still miss that boy, who died around this time of year.
Now I’ve lost another love, though this one to sanity and circumstance rather than death. The loss isn’t the same scream of disbelief; it’s not the cry of shocked anguish (everyone and their brother saw this one coming), but it’s again a rent in the fabric of my breath, my sangfroid, my fantasies of a future together. I can long for this live boy, it seems, every bit as deeply as I did for the one who died.
Somehow knowing I survived this and worse once before is no comfort. I had forgotten what a wound it is, how a thousand times an hour you can find your breath stopped in your chest, a bargain with the universe brewing behind your lips to make it just not true, just not today, just please, can’t I have what I want this one more time?
And when the answer is no, you can’t?
There’s no air left when you know that answer. It’s all turned into a fist inside your throat, a stranglehold that suffocates and makes you think, no, this time I won’t survive.
Or worse, you will, but it won’t get better. It’ll always be this loss-loss-loss-loss-loss.
But that’s silly, says the voice of reason and time and experience. Take a deep breath. You’ll survive.
I know I’m looking at long weeks, or months before I’m totally okay. And maybe “totally okay” isn’t even what it will be. I met a man recently who told me he’d had his heart broken not that long before. I said, “How did you get over it?” and he said, “You don’t get over it. You just find a way to carry it with you.”
It wasn’t the answer I wanted. I wanted, “Take two of these and call me in the morning,” or “The fever will break in a couple of weeks, and you’ll be back to yourself in no time.”
You’re never back to who you were, though, are you? You’re someone new, with a life that took a left turn and isn’t going to look the way you expected it to, not ever again.
Yet it’s not the expectations I miss. It’s those blue eyes, then those brown eyes, that each in their own time made me catch my breath.