First, you need to be ruthless. You need to take a count of every hand you’ve ever held, and of the mixtapes, and the letters, and the messages you typed and then deleted. You must remember you at fourteen, and you at eighteen, and you right now. You need to feel how tightly your fingers are wrapped around those not meant for you, and you must begin to let them go.
Start with the “not so” love. The one that got away because you were too young to know any different. Remember how the air was knocked out of your lungs when they called and told you it was over. Remember how young you were and how big that felt. Dig out the box with the dried corsage, and throw it in the trash. Think of how he was movie dates, and butterflies, and how some days, even now, you imagine what it would be like to run into him in the middle of a crowded city far away from who you’d once been. Take him for who he was, and one last time whisper “thank you, thank you, thank you.” Roll up all the clichés you’ve ever heard about teenage love, and let go of the boy with blowtorch hands.
Now you have to let go of the ‘small town’ love. It will take more than throwing out dried flowers, and it will feel a little like trying to scrub off a tattoo in permanent ink. Remember how easy it was. Remember all the years, and the moments in those years, and the heart in those moments. Try to forget the smell of bubble gum, and fireworks on the Fourth of July, and all those night drives home on country roads. He was pep rallies and sweet sixteens. You clung to him even when you knew you would leave. Forgive yourself for leaving, forgive yourself for the forever you some days believed in, forgive home for growing too small. Think of how good it was, how, in a different universe, that might’ve been it: then let it go. There will be bruises when you finally uncurl your fingers from his bicep. It’s time to let those bruises heal.
Next think about the boy that came after. The one that showed you a world beside the only one you’d ever known. Remember the way he talked about the South and how you wanted in on the mystery of it. Remember starting new, and being alone, and seeing him. Think of how his gaze felt like fire, and how you knew all too well that’s what you were playing with. He was eighteen, and freedom, and sitting on a bench alone at 3 AM. Put space between you and the color green. Let go of every night spent inside a whiskey bottle, and know the difference between love and lust.
And then the boy you never asked for. He walked into your room one night and it seems he never left. Wonder where he is right this second. Find those letters and read them one more time all the way through. Read them aloud. Remember all those lazy afternoons and the awkward pauses and running home in the rain—how you were on the ground, bleeding knees, before you ever even knew you’d fallen. Close your eyes and relive a few more moments: that night with the honeysuckle, or the postcard in the mail, or New York City in June. Understand that even if you had a choice, arms can’t stretch across oceans.
Revisit the boy you met lost in the middle of jet lag. How he smiled, and he felt a little like home, and there was nothing else you needed in that moment. Remember those red busses and the way the air rushed to meet your face as you held hands running down into the underground. Think of the rainy days, and the river, and the smoke in your lungs just to test the boundaries. Unclench your fists from the nights spent nine stories about the ground. Know what you were to each other, and how good that was while it lasted. Think of him whenever you listen to that song.
While you’re at it, let go of those you could have loved if the weather had been different or you hadn’t been running late that morning. Let go of missed dinner reservations and saved voicemails and all the scraps of love that you saved because you thought you might need to remember one day. Now look at you, how brave you are, to let go of all that love and the pieces you left with them along the way. It is baby steps. It is deep breaths. It is knowing that you have always been nothing but whole. Somehow, too, it is knowing that letting go doesn’t mean forgetting. It just means there are no more dried flowers underneath your bed.