It’s hard to identify “the last time” until it happens, and even then. Ask anyone who’s loved a traveler, a man with restless feet and a restless soul. He’ll rip the heart from your chest and run with it to the far corners of the Earth; he’ll disappear in a city with no vowels and no running water, a city with no cell phone service. After months of silence you’ll come to terms with his absence; you’ll picture the last meal you ate together and convince yourself it was the last dinner, the last time. Years might pass; you’ll forget the details that separate fact from fiction, like the laugh lines and the grey hairs and just when you’re about to forget the way he likes his coffee, that’s when you see him again. Turning the corner or eating at a sidewalk café or standing behind you in line at the bank. Because travelers are like homing pigeons, returning to where it all began — even if they don’t return for you. The first time you see him again it’ll shock you, it’ll seem meaningful, serendipitous, but after the third or fourth or fifth time it will begin to register: the last time is elusive, it cannot be predicted.
Last fall, my parents were preparing to move south. My brother and I chose a Sunday to visit and figure out what we could unload before they sold the house: furniture, books, records. After spending the day excavating the garage, we sat down for dinner at a table where we’d passed countless holidays as a family. This was no holiday, though — both of my sisters were notably absent and the mood was more somber than celebratory. We ate in silence until my dad pierced through our thoughts to give voice to what we’d all been thinking: “Whenever I do anything around the house lately, I can’t help but think it’s the last time.”
The last time can be imminent, sometimes, but it can also come when you least expect it. All it takes is one phone call and suddenly you’re scrambling to recall the minutiae of five minutes ago — what was our last conversation and I hope we didn’t fight and did I say I love you? Because I did, I do. The last time can happen while you’re sound asleep, like you went to bed next to someone you loved and woke up to a stranger who’s saying something like “You should go,” or “Do you need to turn the light on to find your things,” and it sounds like he’s speaking a foreign language, like he’s talking in tongues and how does this happen? Hours ago he was there, but he’s been replaced by a vacuous stare and a stale voice, a cold sack of bones and the last time has come and gone without your permission. Had you seen it coming, maybe you would’ve done things differently. Maybe you wouldn’t have come over at all.
After dinner we talk about Pepper, the family dog. She’s thirteen; too ill to survive a trip to Florida, too old to become someone else’s pet. “I think you should put her to sleep,” I tell my dad. She sits five feet away, dazed and joyless. I suspect I’m unfamiliar to her now; she’s experiencing bursts of recognition but for the most part I’m a stranger. I can tell by the way she growls. My dad breaks his own silence with a sigh. “I’m glad you said that, thanks.” And I know it’s genuine, that he needed to hear it from someone else, that he knows it’s the right thing to do. We both kind of stare at nothing for a while, then I scratch behind Pepper’s ear for the last time and prepare for the ride home.
You can set an alarm, mark it on a calendar, tattoo it on your skin and still the last time doesn’t need your permission. What you count on is that you have the power to end things, to label people ‘never again,’ to say farewell forever and mean it. What you count on is having a choice. But you don’t, and you’ll know that when you allow your heart to get broken again despite the protests you made and the caution you took; you’ll know that when you see The Ex at an airport bar even though you swore you’d never set eyes on her again. You’ll know that when you look at a loved one’s funeral face and whisper goodbye and shut the door only for that person to haunt your dreams; for that ghost to find you in the one place where you can touch him, laugh with him outside the bounds of reality.
I hadn’t planned on it, but my brother and I took one last trip to my parent’s house before they locked the doors for good. Everything looked the same as it did two weeks prior, except for the room where Pepper had been. That room was empty, quiet. And sure, I’d said my goodbyes already, I’d pet her and comforted her and thought of it as our ending, our closure. I’d known, the last time I walked out of my parent’s front door, that I would never see her again. But if I knew how quiet the house would be without her, how empty that room would feel, maybe I would’ve done things differently. Maybe I wouldn’t have come over at all.