When you run into your ex — and not just for the first time, or the sixth, or the 15th, which is right around the time you seriously begin contemplating moving for good — it will always feel like the first time you run into them. Not the first time you plot to casually wind up at the same party, looking fabulous and wonderful and witty, surrounded by people laughing at a story you just told, because this is not running into them, no matter how much you practice breezing past them, too cool to bother with reminding them what they’ve lost. No, when you run into them, really and truly run into them, you will look up from your phone or turn your head just a millimeter to the left, and there they will be and your stomach will drop to the floor and your mouth will go dry.
Even if it’s been 15 times. Even if it’s been years.
When you run into them, whether it’s at the park or the movies or a restaurant you both used to go together all the time, or the street or the grocery store or the subway or a coffee shop, everything will come flooding back to you and will all lodge itself in your throat. All the fights, all the bitter words, all the resentment, all the anger, and it will curdle and froth as you try to think up something equal parts clever, aloof, biting, and alluring to say if they talk to you, when they talk to you, because in your mind, maybe they’ll try to cross that bridge that was already burned.
And at the same time, the love comes back. Not the actual love — the memory of it, and somehow, it feels like a bitter second-handed copy. It’s the very specific feeling of looking at the complete stranger who once knew everything about you. It’s the unsteady ground on which you’re both scrambling to steady yourselves: do you pretend you weren’t once everything to each other, or not?
You see, in an ideal world, we’d wish them well. We’d say hello, and we’d put the past behind us, and we’d ask how they are, how work is going, how their friends are, if they’re seeing anyone new, and we’d be genuinely interested and genuinely happy for them. Because sometimes, we are. Sometimes wounds have healed and we can look back like rational adults. But sometimes, we’re still children who touched something hot and burned ourselves, kids who gave our favorite playthings — our hearts — to someone else to borrow, and got them back a mangled mess. And so we point fingers and we place blame, and we delete on Facebook and social media and avoid all the local spots where we might see them, if only for a little, and we mourn our losses and mend our hearts and move on. But we can’t ignore these places forever, and we will have to go back to these no-man’s lands, these memories, these yesteryears, when things were a little different and we were hopeful and happy and drunk on You and Me.
And it’s a little immature, and a little petty and proof that sometimes, you’re not over someone. And that hurts most, if you’re being honest with yourself — the fact that you can’t get over them, that you’re panicking and stressing out and wondering what you’ll say and what you should say and if they’re going to tell their friends later and if you look okay — it always happens when you’re a little disheveled, not when you look good — and how do they still have this hold on you when they shouldn’t? It’s not fair, you think to yourself. And deep down, you hope you have the same hold on them, too.
Because if their heart isn’t in pain and if their breathing doesn’t get funny and if all the scars you each inflicted on one another aren’t working their way up to the surface of their minds, too, why is it just you?
Deep down, you still want to matter. We all want to matter to the people we once cared for. You can’t ignore the ruins of great monuments, and you can’t ignore the fact that whatever the hurt, love existed there, in that body, in that face, in that voice.
And it was love for you.
But you won’t say anything, and chances are, neither will they, because actually saying something is never as satisfying as it seems in your head. Your carefully planned speech will come out all wrong, anyhow. And you’ll each go your separate ways, and continue on with your day, and continue the course of your lives without each other, but suddenly this town will feel that much smaller, that much emptier, that much more lonely. Even if you have someone new. Even if you’ve really and sincerely moved on.
And it seems, in that moment, as though you’re right back where you were, all those heartbroken nights ago. It’s important to let yourself feel that. It means it meant something. Imagine a life where nothing hurt — you wouldn’t be human. It wouldn’t be love. But just like this sudden, unexpected heaviness came on you out of nowhere, it will pass, just like their love for you came and went too. It’s the nature of all things. Today is when you’re reminded of what was, and you so clearly see the contrast between where you were and where you are.
That difference is what matters. That’s all there’s really left to see.