I KEEP A LITTLE space for him. Like the memory box tucked away in the basement of my parents’ house — only it comes with me everywhere I travel.
I first made room for him that night along the harbor in Rushcutters Bay, where I waited patiently for him to arrive by the second park bench from the boathouse. I had just moved to Sydney from San Francisco and was looking for friends, tour guides or really anyone I could connect with in this new city. When he greeted me with two bottles of cider, a warm hug and a cheeky smile, I knew instantly he’d be staying for a while.
That’s when that little space for him was created, and in the weeks and months that followed, the access I had to it was a 24/7 arrangement. Whether we were together or apart, he had permission to consume my thoughts entirely. You never anticipate anything less in the heat of love.
You see, he provided everything I was looking for in a Sydney companion — becoming my best friend, my Australian tour guide and eventually my housemate. He opened up his life to me, and I took it all in. I allowed him to bulldoze my brain, seizing every inch of real estate so we could hurry up and begin construction on our new life together. This was our new life in Australia — where I was 10,000 miles away from my home back in the states, here on a one-year travel visa. The thrill of the unknown and the dream of new adventures together split between our respective home countries was lustful.
In hindsight, it wasn’t the most sustainable or realistic approach to building a stable future together. So once we pulled our heads down from the clouds, we were finally able to see the cracks in our foundation, which quickly went from hairline to hazardous. After eight months of building a fantasy together, we decided to call it all off and go our separate ways. He would stay in Sydney, and I would start over in New York.
I really thought it would be easier to move on, especially given there was an entire hemisphere and fourteen different time zones between us, but I still had him, omnipresent in my mind. The new nonexistence of “us” weighed heavier than any newness I was experiencing in New York: the city that you love but doesn’t love you back.
He was always with me, holding his weight, carrying just as much of me as I carried of him. Our friends used to joke and say that we were attached at the hip — and maybe they were right. Our conjoined limbs had worked together so effortlessly back then, back when dinner together was an assumed nightly ritual and invitations to social functions came two for the price of one. This was back before showering alone meant something was wrong and texting non-stop banter through the workday was totally acceptable.
Now the space he occupies is just a quaint little corner of my mind; it’s there whenever I want to reminisce through the contents of our memories — a custom-built place exclusive for him, one with over a hundred different ways to access it. Simply typing the first letter of his name into any search field unlocks an entire timeline of memories. Damn the Internet for being so smart. Some consider this stalking, but I call it active remembering.
It’s just that they make it so convenient these days. I can try to unfollow, hide and delete everything about him that comes across my screen, but in the digital world, I can never fully wash away the residue of his existence. I sometimes think there’s a conspiracy of Instagram followers who rummage through my entire photo history only to “like” photos I took with him. I’m not sure who’s to blame here: me for my impressive filtering and hashtagging skills, my ex for being so handsome or the rogue follower who won’t let me forget it. Little reminders like this make it hard to escape him. Thanks to the Internet, the time it takes to heal wounds lasts as long as it takes to fill my archive with enough new memories, pushing him off the proverbial homepage of my life.
Entrances to this emotional minefield, foolishly mistaken for memory lane, appear in real-life everyday conversation, too. There’s no better indication of my readiness to move on than how often I catch myself thinking about him in a casual conversation, making him the secret subject of everything. It’s as innocent as when I met someone with his name at a party, where that insignificant fact slipped out of my mouth before even stating my own name. There was a brief pause and an awkward laugh from everyone, and I tried to save myself with and an absurd punch line about how I could think of a few nicknames if he stuck around long enough. I sealed it with a campy wink.
Another time, I misinterpreted a harmless question about what good movies I’d seen lately as a backhanded way of making me confess that I had not been to the cinema since before the breakup. Basic translation: “I’m not emotionally available to indulge in these pleasantries, so ask me how I’m doing instead. Ask me about the last movie I saw with him and how he always had to have his own tub of popcorn and how nice it was to hold his hand in the theater and when I think I’ll work up the courage to see another asinine rom-com again.”
Yeah, definitely not ready.
Over time, these methods of proactively keeping his memory alive occur less frequently, but I can still stumble into that space unexpectedly, as if through a series of trap doors. It’s always without warning — and usually at the most random and unwelcome times. I fall into it while on a third date with a guy I meet on OKCupid. He who seemingly can do no wrong tells the waitress he “despises” Brussels sprouts and wants to substitute them for “any other seasonal side.” This is before turning to me and making a face that suggests he’s about to puke right there in front of me — as if he knows that Brussels sprouts were our favorite and he is testing how deep the thought of him still cuts.
I fall again on the dance floor, when I’m blissfully taking cues from Robyn’s guidebook on how to be single, but then Whitney suddenly shows up and reminds me that on my own is not how I want to be dancing, but with somebody who loves — or loved — me. Going back to these unpredictable times feels like falling into a vortex of inescapable truths.
When he and I were “us,” the memories we were building seemed unbounded and inconsequential. Now these relics are the breadcrumbs that lead me back to “then,” like the shirt he let me keep because it looked better on me anyway, our secret code word for sex, the wallet he gave me for Christmas or the names we chose for our fictitious children. I don’t think I will ever be able to disassociate these things from him — every time I see or hear them, I’m immediately sent back. I’m sent back to Australia, back to Rushcutters Bay on the second park bench from the boat house, back to the promise I felt from the first date and the first kiss and the first time I told him I loved him. Back to the cubby where I store all the mementos he left behind.
Some days I wish I could empty the trash and clear him from my head for good, but the reminder that “this action cannot be undone” heightens my apprehension and makes me retreat. Keeping him there means the occasional resurfacing of wounds that I know are still healing — but I have to admit, there’s a comfort in the tortured recollection of what we had. It’s reassurance that all the time it took to fill that space wasn’t for nothing, even if the weight of it is hard to bear.
So I carry it. Everywhere I go — Bryant Park, on the train, the park bench where I sometimes eat my lunch on the East River, morning runs over the Williamsburg Bridge — he’s still there, waiting.
I keep him for a number of reasons, post- rationalized perhaps. There’s that sliver of hope for the fairytale ending we’re promised in every Hollywood depiction of “love.” It’s hard to escape the temptation of those “what ifs” especially when trapped in denial. There’s the hope I hold on to for the day when the thought of him doesn’t make me want to vomit — or worse, grab my phone and text him to tell him that I thought of him and it made me want to vomit. Experiencing nostalgic thoughts shouldn’t require a sedative. I’m getting there.
I think I keep that little space for myself — and for my own satisfaction of knowing that I meant something to someone once. I don’t need to hear him say these words to know it’s true. I think maybe that’s the real purpose these memories serve. It’s my reminder that no matter the length or complexity of the relationship we experienced, I have maybe left an impression that’s just as meaningful as the one he’s left with me. The space I keep for him is more than just a time capsule; it’s part of the definition of who I am.
And I hope he keeps a little space for me, too.