The situation was the kind of cooked-up irony I expect from the scripts of romantic comedies. We were at the engagement party of two mutual friends from college. The future groom had proposed seaside and they spent the weekend in private bungalow swimming under the stars. Their blooming love contrasted with our ruined, forgotten one.
Since the invitation arrived, I had imagined every scenario for this afternoon. In one, he saw me and recognized he missed me. In another, he ignored me entirely. In yet another, he would show up with a new, svelte girlfriend.
When I did see him, though, we hugged. I noticed that he wasn’t wearing the cologne I knew, the Tom Ford Tobacco Vanilla he had adopted years ago after seeking my approval. Instead, I didn’t smell anything. Even as we embraced, our bodies remained inches apart.
We exchanged pleasantries.
So, what’s new with you?
He demurred. Same old.
Have you been traveling?
A bit. South Africa. For work.
That’s definitely on my list. I just came back from Japan.
That’s cool. Where did you go?
I listed off five cities. We used to spend nights watching documentaries about Japanese food. He had taught me how to use chopsticks at the unassuming sushi joint in our college town. I was terrible at it then, but adept now. Years had passed.
I waited for him to ask about my life. I wanted more. Instead, we settled into silence. He crossed his arms. We averted each other’s gaze from behind our sunglasses.
He excused himself to get a drink. Our one requisite conversation was over.
The blankness of his sunglasses stare and the unsettling monotone in his voice made me question my sanity. Had I imagined our entire romance? I wished I had seen some mischievous, jovial glint in his eye. Some small chuckle. I used to make him laugh. He had told me once that I belonged in a sitcom. Now, it was as though I had never existed for him at all. Those maddening, wildly happy years carried off in a hearse. It occurred to me then that to be erased is worse than to be remembered for the bad things.
I watched him on and off across the party for the remaining three hours, craving a glimpse of something familiar. Yet every body movement seemed foreign.
I had spent so many years in listless longing and wondering over someone who was now before me, essentially a stranger, sporting a broader figure and a new, thick beard I didn’t like.
We moved through the sunny afternoon squintily and phlegmatically. I forgot to put on sunscreen and my entire chest burned hot. I got drunk on sparkling rose. Around a communal table on the patio, I talked to 20 people I didn’t know — about our jobs, our thoughts on the new Michael Jackson documentary mini-series, our dating lives or lack thereof — and that small talk was more intimate than any conversation I could imagine having with him right now.
I smoked a single cigarette on the roof, leaning over the railing, and admired the expensive apartments with private patios next door, with their white lawn furniture and green turf yards. Far off, I could see the Bernal Heights summit rising like an isolated, formidable guardian above the city. The view was breathtaking. The first sun of spring, sparkling over a town split into neighborhoods of valleys and peaks. The breeze, a magical concoction of warm and cool, carried the smoke away in elegant wisps. I didn’t feel sad, not really. Seeing him and not feeling sadness was new.
Some hours later, he left unceremoniously. From a distance, I waved as his body wavered in the doorway. He waved back. I turned away before the door closed.
When friends have said to me “I’ll never get over him” about their respective exes, I’ve nodded with empathy, but maybe now I’ll dismiss it kindly. Time is relentless in its forward pursuit, and inevitably the most precious moments and memories just fade when not reinforced. Even if you don’t want to, even if you milk every last drop of melancholy out of the situation, it happens. You’ll notice it when you listen to a sorrowful Adele break up song and sense only some vague remembrance of a past ache. Sad songs stop seeming personal. You see him talking to someone attractive at a party, and brace for a wild rush of jealousy, only to feel nothing, and turn back to the conversation you were having — a previously unimaginable task.
Life is split into many smaller lifetimes that we move through, and we never know exactly when we leave one for another, becoming someone markedly different from our past selves. It’s not until you are so far down one path that you cannot return that you realize. And when you do realize, those past selves are all but dead; you left them back there at the fork.