The Last Time You Ever

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 Hours ago he was there, but he’s been replaced by a vacuous stare and a stale voice, a cold sack of bones and the last time has come and gone without your permission.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. TC mark

image – Shutterstock


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    So very true. The worst bit is, with all the false last-evers, you eventually convince yourself you’ll become desensitised when the actual one comes around.. So you neither prepare yourself for the onslaught, nor make use of the chances you have left.

  • SusanDerkins

    I’m so incredibly glad that someone else mulls over last times and minutiae and why-can’t-the-rules-be-different and how much the unpredictability and lack of control can stab at you. I cried. It felt good, man. 

  • Riya

    You, Stephanie, are probably one of the few here in TC who are consistent in being good at this.

    Thank you for making TC a good place for me. :)

  • ANON

    It’s really uncanny that my iTunes was playing Ingrid Michaelson’s So Long while I was reading this article, and it all started to feel too real and almost tangible for me.

  • Jennifer Fallingstar

    I like your articles stephanie, sometimes hurts to read.  

  • Anonymous

    I would sooner my parents put down one of my siblings than move somewhere they couldn’t take my 17 year old cat. Loved this so much though, you never write a crappy article.

  • Salina

    This is the best article I have read on here… maybe almost ever. Thank you.

  • Sophia

    This is so heartbreakingly real. You are amazing.

  • Anonymous

    I just spent the weekend with what I knew would be a short term relationship, but he came to my city to visit his friend, gave me a kiss before we said what I thought was a temporary goodbye, and is now treating me like garbage. He’s still here but says he’s done with me and doesn’t want to see me again. The planned last time was supposed to be on Monday, when I was going to leave his hometown by myself. I wish he hadn’t come to my city with me, making me think the last time was far away. It’s just not fair.

  • Anonymous

    The last time, for anything, is so haunting. The feelings from that last time will always trail you through your life, and creep upon you during those quiet, lonesome moments.

    I keep reflecting on a recent/probable last time. This article broke my heart.

  • Steven Timberman

    Your conclusion (and really, the whole piece is a thing of beauty, esp. that opening paragraph) got me thinking about big picture things.

    The older I get, the more I think that all of my issues go back to questions of “control”. A fuzzy term, to be sure.But some time ago I figured that if I could control things I could change them. That if I dug deep enough, if I really put my shoulder against the wheel, if I spent hours deconstructing my life with the dispassionate analysis of a for-hire quarterback coach – that life would suddenly crack open a window and I could bask in the power of preparation.

    Yeah, that’s a load of shit. Doesn’t matter if we prepare ourselves for loss or get blindsided by it at 2:05 pm on a Wednesday. Life has a way of making you feel what you’re meant to feel, one way or another.

    Somehow I find that deeply infuriating. That even though I know that every day my decisions boil down to a push-pull between the romanticism of leaving and the seduction of staying, it doesn’t change that dynamic. I am still me.

    • lr

      couldn’t agree/relate with this more.

  • Steven Timberman

    Please delete.

  • Shawn

    Oh, sweetness, you have such a wonderful way of tying in mimetic phrases into nostalgic moments it makes me think of not only all the last times but the many lasts of firsts. Really, all first times are just last times.

    The first time you put all that coke up your nose you thought your heart would explode, was also your last.

    The first time you put a dick in your mouth and realized you weren’t gay, was also your last.

    The first time you had sex was also the last first time you would ever have first time sex.

    The first time you blacked out after drinking way too much you swore/hopped it would be the last, but really…it wasn’t.

    Much love…keep it coming.

  • yvonne

    “Ask anyone who’s loved a traveler, a man with restless feet and a restless soul. ”
    I love this piece, sums up how I’m feeling these days – which is a little sad to let go of the bit of my heart I left on my last backpacking trip. The last time indeed, wished we didn’t have to say that.

    • Domino

      aaaand you just described my current situation also. backpacking trip, traveling man. maybe i’ll see him in the summer, maybe i won’t. but i know things won’t be the same.

  • Emilia

    The part about going to sleep with one person and waking up with someone else entirely different really resonated with me. It hurts to read, but sometimes we have to accept the fact that people are gone and we’ve missed our last chance– our last time. 

    Thank you. 

  • Brignett Gray

    This is so relevant and so sweet. Love it

  • Dee Roe-Bose

    Moved me to tears, Steph.

  • Guest

    This is so beautiful and hearbreaking

  • Enah Cruz

    Always beautiful Steph G. Always.

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