I remember everything. I am full of nostalgia, something loosely held together in a body but mostly consisting of very specific moments in time. I like to remember the time we were all standing around pickup trucks lined up on the beach, eating hamburgers and setting off miniature fireworks. It’s one of those memories so vivid that if you close your eyes, you can still hear the pathetic little Chesapeake Bay waves hitting the sand. You can still smell the fire, and all of the things we deemed acceptable to cook over it. You can still see everyone laughing and running around in their underwear because no one remembered a bathing suit. I can feel you holding my hand, that new-and-scary feeling of someone else on your palm that you weren’t quite sure liked you back yet. I can feel the sand under my feet, and my head on your shoulder.
We were both 18, an age which feels at once incredibly independent and yet still allows you to cower behind the hem of your mother’s skirt. It was summer, and everyone was back together. We must have spent weeks looking at one another from across house parties, smiling over the rims of red plastic cups as we drank the shittiest beer that scraped-together money could buy. It was the last time I’d ever like someone and not really know what it meant, the last time I would be shaking off the dregs of high school just enough to see relationships as something that didn’t quite form organically — I was still very much a student of the “Are we going out or aren’t we? Let’s declare it.” school of thought.
I think that beach parties were — and maybe still are — a pretext to kiss the people you can’t kiss when the lights are too bright and reality too harsh. There is beer, everyone is half-dressed, and there is something about removing your shoes to feel the sand that makes everything slightly magical. And we took that opportunity, telling ourselves that we would blame the half-cup of alcohol if it didn’t work out on either end. You snaked your fingers between mine and we looked straight ahead at the water, too nervous to make eye contact and render everything that was happening between us real. As long as we didn’t break the moment, everything would be fine, and it would never end.
It ended, of course. Only a few months later, in fact. No matter how overwhelmed with cathartic joy we were on the night our palms finally touched, there was nothing of enough substance to sustain us through years of different educational paths and geographical locations. There probably wouldn’t have been enough if we had stayed in the same town. But that doesn’t matter. We were 18, and just the idea of finding someone not confined to your romantic radar by sharing a chemistry class was still a novelty. After a few months of stumbling through the closest approximation we could get to a grown-up relationship, we went our separate ways.
I don’t even think we’re still friends on Facebook, a move which 18-year-old us would have regarded as violently final. I sometimes forget your last name.
But we were special, you know. We were special because we met and fell into infatuation during a precious time where nothing had real consequences, where nothing was too serious. We were able to walk through the arc of a relationship which might today take us through years of tortured back-and-forth with not a scratch on us. Sure, it may have been sad for the few weeks following your exit, but I can’t remember it. Our end has been molded by the passing of time into something that barely registers as a footnote on the story of what we had between us.
I can’t say that for all of the people I know. Some endings are so explosive that they manage to eradicate all that came before it, showering it in a debris of hurt feelings and accusations. But not you. You remain a bright spot on my coming-of-age, a transition from the naive histrionics of high school love into the relationships which I would later come to consider as “real.” I don’t think you were “real” in the more abstract sense — I never considered marring you, in case I’m shattering any illusions I’m sure you don’t have — but there was something important about the person you were in my life. You stand as a constant example that things can be good, and simple, and leave you with wonderful moments to look back on for as long as you live.
And the memories don’t have to mean anything today. Our night on the beach is isolated, something that has no real connection to the rest of my growing up, something that “didn’t matter” in the long-term. We didn’t “work out,” as we say, so that day stands alone. But I am happy to have lived it. I am happy to have held your hand on that day, when you were that exact person. I am happy to have been that person with you, that person I would not recognize to do but on whom I will always look back fondly. You are important, even if the importance was never reflected in the duration of our story. You will always mean something, and you will have always given one random girl a night of holding hands on a local beach.