My truck sailed up the coast on the northbound 5 toward Los Angeles. The waves’ crests, like stars in the sea—pierced the midnight expanse with dull, white bursts before they smashed back into the black and disappeared. While the wheels rolled forward, my acrobat mind was tumbling and contorting — the way it does when it’s unbending dreams.
I was trying to forget the bookshelf I’d told him I’d build for our living room, and how he said his mom would love me when we went to visit. Unlearning those things you spent so much time memorizing, turns out, is crippling: the favorite songs, how he takes his coffee, which way is most comfortable to sleep. They warned me about sex in church when I was growing up, told me not to have it until I was married, that it was special, intimate. They never warned me about dreams, though, never told me they weave you together the same way. I was trying, especially, to forget Paris, this bastard of an image we’d painted together that buried itself deep in the folds of my brain and proved difficult to undo.
It looked something like this: we’d been in the city a few days already, and woken up early to head to our favorite café. We were sitting on the patio and my palm was resting on his leg while we read books and wrote and laughed. By noon we were tired, and ready to head back to the apartment we’d rented.
“We’ll walk back holding hands,” I remember him saying.
“And when we get to the door,” I continued, “I’ll run ahead up the stairs, and you won’t catch me until the landing between the third and fourth floors, but when you do, we’ll kiss.”
It had been three weeks since I’d found the letter he left on my doorstep—the one that said he respected me and was sorry for the sadness he’d likely imparted, the one that was resting on top of the crisply folded sweatshirt I’d let him borrow months before, the one that made me blush, embarrassed that I’d loved deeper, the one that said Paris would never happen. I was on my way to LA for a friend’s birthday party, hoping that enough alcohol or romantic attention might numb the fabled pang of rejection that was humiliatingly gnawing at my confidence. When I reached San Onofre—forty miles north of my home in San Diego—I turned the radio off and let the hum of the tires tearing over the road fill my cramped cab. The stories settled in my mind, and amidst the chatter of frustrated dreams, like some long-awaited realization, one voice spoke.
“I’m lonely,” I thought, and knew that another night spent at a stranger’s side wouldn’t make it sting any less. “I’m lonely, and I’m tired.” When the green-and-white sign for the next exit reflected in my headlights, I veered off the freeway and turned my truck south. An hour later, I was on my couch watching Harry Potter, alone and sober.
A friend of mine — one who’s wiser and kinder and more thoughtful than I — knows the difficult, painful unweaving I’m talking about. She, too, was carroted down the rabbit trail of a hope-filled future shared with someone, only to discover her bed was left just as cold as the promises she’d so earnestly trusted.
“Falling in love is totally magical and beautiful and gives you this insane ability to operate on 4 hours of sleep a night for a long time,” she said. “It chooses you and that gift is one of life’s best ones. You have to choose it back, though.” She paused, her voice cracking, and I knew she meant it. “At some point, you become more real to each other and the hard work sets in. So you try and try, and even then, sometimes it doesn’t work out. And when that happens, you’ll be ok.” I was looking at her across the table.
“Just let it be sad,” she concluded. “Ironically, sadness will be your guide out of sadness.”
Naming our hurts and fears and doubts is an infinitely more difficult task than numbing them, I’ve learned. Naming them makes them real, gives them breath and pulse, and—clothing them in flesh—lets them walk around our consciousness for a while. Numbing, though. Numbing feels so good—the overworking, the beer, the sex, the school: it quiets them for the night and gives us momentary pause from their persistent gossip. The problem is they never go away, these vices, not until we look them in the eyes, at least, and explain why they don’t win.
Four months later, I now know she was right, my sage and clever friend: that if we take her wintry, ancient hand, Sadness will lead us through and teach us to smile again.