Your Past Isn’t Always Best Left Behind

Photo by Leslie Finlay
Photo by Leslie Finlay

“There’s this certain scotch that I’ll choose over any drink, ever. It was introduced to me by a man who made me learn more about myself, more than I realized at the time. More than he’s even probably aware. Not that my liquor preferences were ever in serious jeopardy.

This brand of scotch, while not restrictively priced, was sparingly found even throughout New York. So when I stumbled across a bar in a sleepy, neon-soaked corner of central Korea, my cheeks all but flushed. Over the summer the bartender grew conditioned to pour me a dram on sight, his arm extended, politely crossed to his opposing elbow as is the courtesy in Korea, his inner arm tattooed with a Bible verse in Mandarin. Every time, without fail, he brought out Google Translator to explain to me what it means. I liked to hover in that moment, embrace the illusion of lost-in-translation connection. He always kept a list of the Western songs I’d requested during the previous few months, and as he edited his playlist to reflect these suggestions I’d pull my knees to my chest, heels balanced on the edge of the barstool, elbows fanned out, hugging my legs. It was our de-facto pose at that bar in New York, and the bartender there would always make fun of us. “This isn’t your damn living room, girls.” Wasn’t it, though? My memories have gotten so selective the longer I’ve been gone. This new bartender just grins and puts out my favorite garlic pretzels and a dish of Hershey’s dark chocolate chips, fresh from the freezer. The scotch smells like home.

Photo by Leslie Finlay
Photo by Leslie Finlay

Usually people don’t smoke in this bar, but it’s too hot to go outside, so they hover in the doorway under the A/C. The smoke circles and clings to patches of air, the dim light scattering at contact, manufacturing a glow. It’s the closest thing to my East Village dive bars I’ve found overseas, and the faint smell of smoke dissolves my will to remain at present moment. I’ve never been a smoker, but it reminds me of his fingers when they touched my face, the way my hair absorbed the ambient nicotine of Brooklyn rooftops and stayed with me for days. It’s a physical conduit to the things I no longer have, but it reminds me that they were real.” – August 2013, South Korea

That journal entry was from a year ago, when I still visited that Korean bar regularly, luxuriating in this certain brand of nostalgia. Of course I now recall those nights differently, illuminated, bright moments of addictive banter and laughter flanked by the surge and swell of those ex-pat friendships, cross-stitching themselves together with a ferocity only enabled by the spirit of those displaced together in a strange, alien land. Together we shuddered with confidence and resolve, until, well, those despondent moments in which we desperately didn’t. And then we held each other together. We relied on this system to commandeer this total unbelonging, drowning it in whisky-soaked rants and “wait, what the…” cultural faux-pas stories of the day, each undoing the last. Until the laughter came back, which it always did.

This contrast of context, nesting dolls of memories within memories, it’s like a wormhole of my own timelines. On the odd-day of loneliness my currently life affords me, with both of these amazing chapters behind me, the grief can be extraordinary.

Sometimes moving forward with your dreams means having the courage to leave these things. Taking the wheel and leaving these precious moments and people and places. And we can get so focused with resolve to let it all go that when we have actually moved on, against all odds, we’re left with what looks like empty schematics of this new life we must fill in. We break down what defined us before: that relationship, that job, that lifestyle, that bar – and wind up trying to emulate it all, replacing pieces with whatever is lying around, available now.

But there is no trading out. Everything of importance in our various chapters of life has irrefutable value, and trying to rewrite it undermines that. That Korean bar had the right whisky, the right smell, the right music, the right people, but it was all wrong. And it had better be.

Because the new bar will never be that drinking-establishment-turned-living-room on the other side of the world. The people you meet will not be continuations of your old relationships, and they’ll take patience to reap the same rewards. The new person in your bed will not live up to what you loved about the person you still miss. And they shouldn’t have to. They’re new. Sometimes you’ll hate them for this.

You can’t pick and choose what you loved about your old life and try and find replacements somewhere else. You closed that chapter because the pieces didn’t fit together properly anyway.

Photo by Leslie Finlay
Photo by Leslie Finlay

“Another miniature family dismantled altogether too soon. We’ve hidden ourselves away in the aircon for the day, exhausted from the last night spent atop an ancient Burmese pagoda, counting the satellites fading in and out and across, matching shooting stars with swigs of rum. The Brit looks up from his copy of Shantaram and smiles, like it’s just been like this forever, right here, right now. I beamed with reciprocation. I have, after all, shared moments with this duo of pseudo-strangers more powerful than times with people I’d known for years. Just like the Aussie from last week, the Swede from the islands, that grab-bag of Dutch-German-Canadian-American from a month ago. I’ve left hundreds of people behind at this point, and it really never does get easier.

A distinct taste of melancholy rises to my mouth each time I move on from this decadence of comfort and connection, hurdling me into an uncatalogued mess of 20-something nostalgia, blurs of memories, non-chronological, featuring non-sensical flashes of faces of those who have built up my life for years, protecting my soul from the steady decay of cynicism your 20s so often doles out. I could stop the stream, reclaim my consciousness, but it’s so wistful… and bitterly addictive.” – July 2014, Myanmar

I’ve spent this year washing my clothes in sinks, ringing the tepid fabric until the water runs clear as I scrub and scrub. I take showers under a minute’s-worth of freezing water, rationed in quick, strategic spurts, geckos scampering across the thatched roof. I endure night after night sleeping on buses designed for people half my height, survive on a cocktail of rice, sweat and sunscreen, and am basically just always tired and/or hungry. But I’m deliriously happy.

Yet I think on all of those people who I miss every single day, even 18 months later. I long for my city(s) like it’s a person. And these aren’t sentiments exclusive to a traveler like me, but universal to anyone who has made a big change, a leap of faith. The nomad in me, the vagabond, bent on building her life and career on the backbone of travel – I’m supposed to tell you it gets better. That the ghosts of your past eventually retreat into the mausoleum of your mind. I used to think it would. Like getting over an ex-boyfriend whose own role and impact on your life simply fades, my past would just box up into nice, neat little packages, versions of myself that just now cease to exist.

Photo by The Raw Photographer. Used with permission.
Photo by The Raw Photographer.
Used with permission.

But separating out your past like that encourages the practice of trading out selected memories for the new, trying to manufacture replacements for what you miss – a practice that results only in failure. Instead these ghosts, they become a part of you. As we move on, physically or otherwise, those moments of panic arise; how do we measure when we’ve been gone for too long? When the vacuum of our absence has all but evaporated?

The instability can be maddening, especially as our alternate-realities spiral onward back [home,] wherever or whatever that might refer to. You can leave these places, these people, that bar, that apartment, that job… and they change, absent of your influence. But those who I love, those who I thought by now would exist firmly in my past, just crossing my mind every few months or so when a round of Skype calls were due – even as their lives power forward, they are here with me daily. With the new people, experiences, places shaping my life, there they are. And I think that in a way, they know that. At least I hope that they do.

Homesickness, nostalgia, call it whatever you want. It’s always with you. When I first left home, in those early days of I’m-constantly-on-the-edge-of-a-nervous-breakdown-in-Korea (hey, friends, remember that?!) that would have been the absolute last thing I’d have wanted to hear. But if I’m honest, all this time and travel later, some days it’s all that I have. And it can be everything. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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