There is a specific feeling which exists only when you run into someone you had long forgotten about. It’s probably most palpable when it’s an ex, but it can happen with friends who were once particularly close. It is comparable to a scab that seems to have been on your skin forever — a scrape which was once quite painful but has been so long in the healing process that you no longer notice its presence when you wash over it in the shower. You peel it off almost out of boredom and suddenly there is a drop or two of blood, something that vaguely resembles the wound it once was, now too distant to really cause any discomfort. These people are wounds which have healed over, which have never quite turned into scars but which have become just another part of your lived-in body.
Letting someone go — when it is a necessary act of self-preservation, something that has to come if you expect to move forward in life — is regarded as a kind of victory. You have successfully overcome an emotional trauma that once surrounded you like a kind of fog which prevented you from ever seeing the sun. People will tell you, always with the best intentions, that one day you are going to wake up and realize that you are okay, and your life is not immediately over because they are no longer a part of it. And this is true, though it’s not the net positive that we are so quick to label it as. Because it’s not as though you simply wake up one day and proclaim yourself fine, suddenly hearing birds chirp and children laugh after months of only your own oppressive silence. You simply start to forget, feeling the acute pain of the loss less and less as each day goes on. There will come a day when you don’t care, but you won’t notice it, because you will have other things to think about.
But in order to let that pain go, in order to remove this person from the place of power they have occupied for so long, you must let everything go. Perhaps in a very distant future, you will be able to pick and choose the memories you want to keep, but for a very long time, one memory will always bleed into another. You cannot simply think about the time the two of you sat on the beach for an entire night, talking about your childhood, drinking the second-least-expensive wine you could find in the store. Because when you allow yourself to think about that, it will remind you of them as a whole, and will lead into all of the terrible things that happened after that night — not the least of which being their eventual departure. They exist within us as whole people, stories with beginnings and endings, and in order to let go of them we cannot choose the things we want to isolate for nostalgia.
We have to stop caring what they would think if they saw us, stop worrying about running into them in the store, stop obsessing over the things we could have done differently to make them stay. And that means letting go of everything they meant to us, proving to ourselves that life can be just as good, just as beautiful, without them in it. When you realize, long after the fact, that you no longer care about someone — that what they are doing in life has no bearing on you, and vice versa — it feels very much like a small death. Who they were with you no longer exists, and you cannot even preserve it in your memory, for the sake of your own mental health.
I recently ran into someone I used to know very well. I hadn’t seen him in close to two years, and I barely recognized him when I crossed him on the sidewalk. I had forgotten that it was his neighborhood, had forgotten that we used to eat there, forgotten it all. And he looked different, different enough to be slightly unsettling. We exchanged words, but as people who had barely ever known each other. It was a spoken confirmation that things had indeed changed — that we had let one another go, out of necessity — and that the parts of ourselves we needed to erase to move on were just going to have to be forgotten. Of course, you never really forget anyone, but you certainly release them. You stop allowing their history to have any meaning for you today. You let them change their haircut, let them move, let them fall in love again. And when you see this person you have let go, you realize that there is no reason to be sad. The person you knew exists somewhere, but you are separated by too much time to reach them again.
We told each other we should get coffee sometime, but didn’t exchange our new numbers. We knew we weren’t going to see each other again.