You got married this weekend. I just finished looking through your photos.
It’s something I’ve been doing diligently for four years now, with all the dutiful resignation of a military quartermaster logging the grim casualty figures from the day’s battle: looking at photo albums from your life’s events as soon as they appear on Facebook.
Birthdays, road trips, nights out with the crew. There wasn’t a moment you or one of your friends didn’t chronicle with an iPhone, and there wasn’t a moment I wasn’t happy to drink up. It’s like that scene from A Clockwork Orange, the one where Malcom McDowell’s eyes are calipered open and he has to watch reel after reel of gruesomeness and gore in some f*cked up version of exposure therapy. It was just something I had to do. It was my duty.
Of course, that wasn’t always the case. At the beginning – those first couple months, right after you broke my heart, when the days crept by in years dressed as seconds – it was more of an act of desperate compulsion than duty-bound chore.
My eyes had been trained to seek your face in a crowded room or a darkly lit college party or a blurry digital news feed. My heart had been forced to learn that your heart would never match all the ways it twisted and flipped and ached when I saw you and you saw me. But my brain, stubborn bastard, was still catching on. And so when I would catch a glimpse of you tagged in carefree photos with your friends, who used to be our friends, or in vain little solo shots of you looking contemplative by a rustic bridge or some such hipster sh*t, it would always be the same routine. Cue the manic synapse fire in my brain. Cue that orchestra of hope and wonder and fear that would blare right behind my eyeballs. Cue the searing pain. I couldn’t stop myself from staring at those pictures, and clicking through them one by one, ekeing out every last drop of raw sensation. I guess the rush was worth it.
But those were the early days. As time went by, the pictures I would see you in changed their settings and their supporting cast. I’m still not sure if that says more about the progress you were making, or the progress I was making. We were both moving far, fast, and in different directions.
For months and months, I used the ordeal we put each other through to define myself. It was useful. It’s easy to motivate yourself to do pretty much anything, when you underline your entire existence in terms of one throbbing cosmic grudge. You had done your damndest to hurt me, and it almost killed me, so that meant every little victory I ever had after that point – personal, professional, or otherwise – was a rebellion against you. It was all out war.
And looking through your pictures became a vital part of the rebellion. Back then, when I would see your pictures pop up, I would turn my phone off and pour a drink and shut my door and sit down in front of my computer and wait for the chills to stop sprinting up and down my spine. Then, once they did, I would click through all your pictures – every one – and just absorb. I would absorb who you were with and where you were and every one of your facial expressions. I’d follow your gaze and try to guess what was going through head, right then, in this moment frozen forever like some kind of traveling exhibit in my “This Is The Girl Who Drove Me To Cut My Wrists But Look I’m Still Alive” museum. It hurt – but that was assuredly the point. I was commemorating what had happened between us, because I needed to keep that wound as fresh and as decorated as possible. The Stars-n-Stripes never flew as proudly or in as great a multitude as they did just after 9/11. I never lived as deeply and as fully as I did just after I picked myself up from what you did to me.
That was all well and good, for a while. But there’s a big down side to picking yourself up, if you had previously given in to the urge to define yourself through your pain instead of the actual pillars of What Makes You, You. When the wounds finally do stop burning and you forget to keep pulling out the stitches, you face the same kind of world-ending existential crisis that you did when everything went all tits-up. If you subscribe to the mantra of Pain As Identity – “Recite: I am the coagulated remnants of a mistake and a tragedy and a shattered first love, and all that I do, think, and speak shall now and forever be a reaction to the same” – then you run the risk of losing your identity when the pain is no longer there to fuel it.
Your photos were the batteries that fueled this caustic Zen roadshow. Sure, I could get myself worked up if I just thought about you long enough. But there was nothing like a photo of you cutting loose at one of our local bars to refresh my fighting spirit.
But it didn’t last. It couldn’t last. In the end, you didn’t even have enough substance in your despicable parts to keep me interested. As I watched the way you failed to grow or morph, despite having all the advantages in the world, you became way less worthy of an enemy. As I watched the way you danced and cut through all those other guys you associated with, the catharsis that came from making you my wretched focal point just waned and waned. At first, I didn’t know how to deal with your pictures losing their edge. But now I see, I shouldn’t have been surprised. You had always let me down when we were together. Why was it at all shocking that you even let me down when you were gone?
So the ritual of forcing myself to look through your pictures began to lose its pizazz. I found myself with a little more time on my hands. I found myself with fewer sleepless nights. I couldn’t really complain.
Today, I came out of retirement and looked through all your wedding pictures from this weekend. Boy, was that something. You still look so young, even though you’re older than me. In fact, and don’t take this the wrong way – but it kind of looks like you’re just playing dress-up. You always were in such a hurry to grow up.
To fit the sort-of teleological story arc, the Saga of What You Did To Me, this should be the big finish. The grand finale. Your wedding day, starring You and Some Guy Who Isn’t Me. I should be able to close the lid on this volume. But here’s the thing:
I don’t have to. I have no need to declare victory and claim my long-awaited closure and say that it is now all well and truly over with. Do you know why? Because that need for commemoration – that obsessive desire I had for years to keep the torches lit and construct a monument to every single moment of pain you inflicted – is long since dead. And, when I’m really being honest, I can identify it as a big part of the reason I hurt for so long in the first place. It is why I cried. It is why I reminisced so often. It is why I cut myself. And, strangely enough, it has almost nothing to do with you. It’s all about me. I am, by nature, someone who needs to commemorate bad times, or else I feel like I’m not doing justice to the experience. But that’s childish, and I’m no longer a child.
So, in a big way, this is also your exoneration. This is your acquittal. I do not forgive you. I don’t ever really plan on it. In fact, I don’t think I am even capable of fathoming the root concept that this popular semantic structure, “forgiveness”, picks out. It’s never been in my repertoire. But I do acknowledge that much of the pain I’ve felt over the last four years has been my own creation, a Frankenstein monster designed to keep me sharp and give me purpose. And that’s on me. So, you know. My bad.
Keep posing for pictures. And take as many as you can. Take them for years and years and years, and take them all over the world. Fill them with love, and fill them with sorrow. Fill them with the faces of the people you may not see again tomorrow, and especially with those who you are positive that you won’t. Take pictures of your husband, and of the kids you have with your husband, and of the grandkids they have with their spouses. Take pictures of the hearts they break along the way. Keep all your pictures somewhere safe, but not somewhere vaulted away, where you can never get to them just because you’re scared they might get lost or damaged. Keep all your pictures, and keep the pictures you still have of you and me. I’ll do the same.
Maybe I can show them to you, later on.