The week I met him, we went snorkeling with a bunch of people. To get to the water, you had to climb barefoot down this cliff via a thick rope hooked precariously to a wooden bridge above, and once we were in, the ocean was cold enough to want a wetsuit, but it didn’t matter. This was one of the best days of my life.
Later, I watched him pause and play back all the parts of me from the GoPro videos we’d taken.
“He’s your soulmate!” my roommate had said to me when I got home and she saw the footage of us, passing the camera back and forth in a sea cave. “Stop,” I’d laughed, half joking, but I did mean it. I like the idea of an underwater twin soul just as much as the next jellyfish, but I didn’t want to mess this one up.
Later on, we talked about going again. He had learned of a spot just off the northern tip of the shore where there are leopard sharks that comb the eelgrass below the surface, harmless to humans, and he was curious. I was in; sharks seemed downright cute with him. I bought the swim fins he recommended so that I wouldn’t have to rent them this time and was ready to go.
When we went, things were different. For one thing, it had become clear in the previous eight or so hours that we were no longer going to be seeing each other. Though we hadn’t been formally dating, it appeared I’d been dumped.
This time, the climb down that cliff didn’t seem so thrilling. The water was technically warmer, but I found it to be the kind of cold that crawls into your bones, and I wanted out within half an hour. I didn’t spend much time looking below the surface at the fish or sharks or sea lions. I didn’t turn on the GoPro once.
When I got home that weekend, I called the surf shop I’d bought the fins from to see if I could return them despite having worn them once. I wanted every part of that experience – that day, that place – gone. They gave me a hard time for it, but the manager let me do it. I felt a terrible pang of guilt, but also some relief. Where we had gone swimming was, I knew, a place that I wouldn’t return.
So when a few weeks later I suggested to a friend that we make the two-hour trip down there some weekend and she was decidedly in for the following Saturday, I immediately realized that I had majorly fucked up.
You see, I probably hadn’t suggested this out of a healthy place. Anyone who’s ever gotten their heart broken knows that their judgment is not to be trusted immediately following said event. One second you’re looking to eradicate every sign from your life that this person was ever a part of it, and the next you’re looking to go to all the places that make you feel connected to them.
And things would be different this time, going back there with my friend; there was no question about that. There would be no bed to nap in afterwards. There would be no living room to play around with headstands and yoga stretches while we listened to music and he fixed his bike. There would be no walk home along the bay that night. Would going back there only remind me of an empty space in my life that I haven’t yet figured out how to fix or fill?
I thought it might be best to call the trip off.
But my therapist recommended we go. My friend was excited, I admitted painfully; while I knew I wasn’t ready to go back there, I didn’t want to take this away from her. My therapist agreed, on the one hand, that it might not be the best place for me. On the other, she was inclined to encourage me to go, so that this place wouldn’t become one that I avoided, so that I would make new memories there.
Emotional memory is a tricky thing. It’s incredibly pervasive and deep-seated. The places and people and experiences that come to mean something to us thus develop an emotional attachment for us and then become part of the intricate web of our memory. If we at first associate something with excitement and possibility and love, we’ll be inclined to want to return to it often; those aren’t feelings we need to steer clear of. But if we associate something with feeling hurt, we’ll do what we can to avoid re-experiencing it, to making ourselves vulnerable to it.
What’s worse is when something we initially created positive associations with turns on its head and adopts a negative association. In my case, suddenly a place that I’d found comfort and security and happiness in was laced with feelings of abandonment and pain and disconnection.
Once we start to associate a place with being left, we sure as shit don’t make it our next vacation spot. It haunts us because it’s still beautiful, and yet something about it is now cold and foreboding. It terrorizes us because it dredges up the most painful things we feel about ourselves, the things we try to avoid having to think about.
What’s so jarring about these places is not that they’ve changed, but rather that they’ve stayed the same, lovely and unbroken. What’s so jarring is that we’ve changed, that we’ve become hardened and scared and cold.
So we learn to associate a negative feeling with the place that’s changed us, and in not wanting to feel that feeling, we learn to avoid that place.
But in learning to avoid a place, what else do we start to teach ourselves to avoid by association? What do we teach ourselves about courage, about facing our fears head-on? What do we teach ourselves about resilience? What else in our lives are we letting slide or coaxing ourselves into thinking it’s okay that we shy away from?
Our lessons are there in front of us every day, but it’s up to us if we want to learn them. We can shy away from the places that we’ve discovered will make us feel pain, or we can walk straight into the discomfort of it all.
I realized as I debated calling my trip off that I was being faced, in that very moment, with that challenge. So infrequently are we handed such a tangible, clear opportunity for growth. So rarely are we gently asked, Would you like to collect this lesson?
I love the ocean, but this particular stretch of ocean was his, or ours, but never mine. Then again, where was I going to draw the line? – This particular city was his, or ours, but never mine too. Was I never going to return to it? Was I going to avoid stepping foot there? How far would I let myself take this?
So I went back there. Something so small – this one day out of so many in my life – may not seem like an act of bravery, but with our growth, it always is.
There was no bed to nap in; no living room headstands, no walk home that night. There was an uncomfortable sense of being displaced and uprooted, nomadic to a point that I didn’t want to be.
There also, as it turned out, was no swimming. There was a hammerhead in the cove and they’d cleared everybody out of the water, which we discovered when we got to the spot where you climb down to get in. We sat on a bench high up on the cliffs and looked out over the ocean, laughing a little at the turn of events, at how we’d gone into the day with “no expectations” but realized that, of course, we had expected to be in the water.
And so there were new memories – of trying and failing in some sense, sure, of sweating in traffic on the way down in my beat up Jeep that tends to overheat if I try to use the air conditioning, of driving in circles looking for a parking spot. But there were also new memories of being there alongside someone who didn’t ever become frustrated or impatient or negative. Not once did we revel in our “misfortune” or try to claim the universe hates us, uttering a sarcastic, “Go figure,” which seems to be a popular response when something goes wrong, as if the spontaneity of life could ever possibly be a deeply personal thing. How wonderful it was to sit next to someone who could say, “Well, this wasn’t good or bad. This was simply neutral.”
I’m not sure what kind of new memories I was expecting in going down there with my friend. I’d envisioned us in that cave, the same one where I’d once looked at him and felt something in the center of me say, Maybe. Perhaps I thought that by being there with her, I could make myself as open and happy once again as I was when I was there with him. On the other hand, the day’s passage from the daily meditation book I read every morning had been about going somewhere with a certain intention but ending up finding that you’re really there for some sense of healing. Perhaps I believed this to be a sign that I was headed there for one reason but was really going to find that healing.
Of course none of these ended up being the case, by the very nature of my having expected them in some sense. This day – having this friend with me – ended up being a gentle reminder that plans can go awry and that there’s still good to be found in the experience. As we sat in the place that he and I had once been, new, positive memories were in fact formed. They weren’t what I’d expected, but they were still lovely.
More than anything perhaps, this day was proof to myself that I can look my fears in the eye and – mostly – unblinkingly go towards them. Maybe in some sense that’s the healing I was seeking. Maybe I didn’t get what I wanted, but got what I needed.
So was I ready to go back there? Likely not. When I got home, a part of me felt strange and off-center. But when will we ever be ready to face the most painful and buried of our emotions, the feelings we fear the most? When will it ever be a “good” time to walk straight into the arms of rejection and desertion? Sometimes we have to welcome a push and take the leap.