We broach the subject in a shade-cloaked backyard after drinking three glasses of wine with a friend who has never met them, will never meet them. We begin slowly, carefully, flirting with ambiguity and speaking in fat generalizations: this guy I once dated and it was a long time ago. But there’s something so intoxicating about remembering what we fought to forget, isn’t there, so we speak in finites and details now, we won’t quit while we’re ahead. That has always been our problem. We get into the way he fixed pasta and his dried, storied hands; we get into the things he’s confessed to crying over, the death of beloved pets and the divorcing of parents. We speak of the films we watched in bed together and which of his friends we miss the most; we wonder what they’re doing now.
We talk about black nights giving way to pink mornings and half-planned vacations that never came to fruition, we talk about nicknames and restaurants and cigarette brands. Bad haircuts and live jazz and suitable names for a cat and fights about nothing. We talk about how easy it is to trick yourself into believing that being good together is enough, that it will only get better, that some piece of him knew what we knew. We talk about disappointment, about holding our tongues, about losing what we never had. We talk about endings and how to recognize one coming from a mile away.
And now our chattering slows and our friend — who was listening intently and smiling and maybe remembering a person they don’t know anymore — will stop smiling so much. Our friend is familiar with dread, the way it sounds, how it creeps into our voices when we talk about our strangers. And a chill runs through us, through our friend, through the shade-cloaked backyard; it punctuates the abrupt conclusion …and that’s it, as if that could ever be ‘it,’ as if this story isn’t still unfolding this very moment as we sit here reciting it for entertainment or punishment or to remind ourselves that these kinds of things happen to people like us.
We talk about them hesitantly, tiptoeing around specifics and avoiding his name as though saying it aloud will resuscitate something better off dead, as though five random letters strung together in the correct order could summon the most lifeless parts of us. We talk about them in whispers, like making it difficult for our audience to hear our regrets will somehow make them easier to say. We talk about them cautiously, because we might get carried away and remember them like a human and not like a topic to avoid at dinner parties and birthday celebrations and other places where we’re supposed to be happy. When we talk about the people we no longer know, we do it timidly because we’re prone to remembering things better than they were, because we know we’re saying all of the right words to the wrong ears, because we never really knew our strangers to begin with — a truth our hearts can only acknowledge in the quietest and smallest of voices.