It was a breezy summer romance in Arizona. Sunny, fiery, cool, quiet, calm, loud, and restless all at once. I was a Connecticut native living with my sister during the summer of my junior year of college, relentlessly pursuing a legal internship in my quest to become a civil rights attorney. He was a 24-year-old Boston transplant, having recently drifted to the desert to find work installing solar panels in search of some inner redemption. We spent our time entwined in bed and clasping hands through the desert cities. Within the first month, we admitted to loving one another, deeply, passionately, purposefully. I met his friends and loved them almost as much as him; he met my sister and patiently tolerated her fierce protectiveness.
It felt like a forever love, something that comes once, maybe twice in a lifetime. It felt like a place of permanence, a place where we could sit down together and breathe in the nauseating world of adulthood.
Except it wasn’t permanent.
I was leaving at the end of the summer, headed off to study abroad for the semester in Spain; he was staying in the desert, bound by the cryptic obligations of the adult life I wasn’t ready to enter yet. It was a reality we both faced, both knew was coming, and even at the end were not prepared for.
After our last kiss at the airport, I cried for five hours, so hard that my breath stayed ragged, my eyes swelled shut, and my backpack had semi-permanent tear stains. Even through a brief Spanish affair and rendezvous fueled by loneliness with the first boy I ever loved in college, he was always in the back of my mind: that quiet Boston boy with the quiet smile, who never wanted to stop holding my hand and knew just when to kiss me.
We stayed friends on Facebook and had a brief reunion lunch when I messaged him during my visit to see my sister in the spring of the following year. We stared at our sushi, making sparse conversation interspersed with polite smiles and the click of his smart phone as he photographed his artfully-placed meal to broadcast to his friends. My throat felt thick with unspoken emotions.
He awkwardly hugged me at the end of the meal and walked back to his car without a second glance. After that night, I’d occasionally (stupidly) drunk text him, to which he’d patiently reply, but remain distant. Eventually, the correspondence faded altogether, and all I had were Facebook pictures: pictures of the boy who grew up into a man through the trickle of photos from various Arizona goodbye parties, snapshot introductions to new friends at his job teaching English in the Dominican Republic, picture links to his travel blog.
I’d click through them in a half-hearted attempt to find our intimacy in his work, but found nothing except a passing reference to “a girlfriend” who had once lent him a David Sedaris essay collection that he found relevant to his existence in the Dominican school system.
As the months passed, his photos began to include a young woman I didn’t recognize, but judging by the dynamic, I assumed was a girlfriend. She was strikingly beautiful, the kind of beautiful that beamed from skincare commercials and laughed from glossy magazine covers advertising health regimens.
Based upon their interactions on his posts, she seemed effortlessly flawless and kind, a perfect match to his affable nature. She had none of my vigilant anxiety and ambitious discomfort wrought from an upper middle class New England upbringing that he found to be occasionally exhausting. She made me all too aware of my iron-wrought battle for the achievable aesthetic, armed with decades of acne medication, tweezers, bottled hair dye, delicate bottles of creamy ivory concealer, and carefully constructed haircuts to mask my box-shaped face. I felt as though I had fought to become a woman that someone like him could admire and love, but I was still too easily swept away with the wipe of a makeup towel. She, on the other hand, was his without protest or preconception — a choice that warranted no hesitation.
The pictures slowly but surely became more frequent on my newsfeed: them kissing, holding hands on a far-away beach, laughing at some unseen joke. Their eyes and smiles melted into each other in tranquility, and her arms were looped in a sultry ring around his neck that made me feel as though I were a passerby stumbling into an innately intimate moment. Their constant and consistent public admissions of emotions for one another hummed from my computer screen, piercing the shields of my friends’ words of disparagement toward him and the necessary distraction of aging responsibility.
Eventually, I made the decision to cut the stream of photos from my life. After all, he was a part of my past, and though it was a wonderful past, it clearly could not be replicated. I reluctantly navigated to his profile and selected the “Unfriend” button, hoping that it would sever the unrelenting ache of watching another woman absorb all of his smiles, his kiss, his off-beat rap soundtrack, his terrible imitation of a Boston accent that made me laugh every time.
Months later, on a particularly grey day in my apartment, I found myself navigating to his profile, out of curiosity as to what he had been up to. My fingers eagerly flew across the keyboard in anticipation of seeing his face, while my mind throbbed with the uneasy need for instant gratification. Once I clicked, every part of me wished I hadn’t.
It was a wedding photo. Their smiles were as bright as the green background behind them, and they were laughing in the kind of blissful happy moment that every person who has ever dreamed of getting married would hope to have. She had the triumphant confidence of a bridal stock model, with slightly hunched shoulders in a catalogue slouch, a diamond tiara nested delicately in her neatly swept-up bun. He had a careless, easy smile, leaning against her pearly cheek in the excitement of a new life, new possibilities, newly forged commitments of love and honor.
Every moment of loneliness from our breakup came instantly crashing back, leaving me breathless for the briefest minute. It was only logical that he would move on, but the tiny corner of my mind reserved for ex-boyfriend memorabilia had locked him in a time-box, perched on his desk chair in the same Arizona house with the same friends and the same K-OS and J Dilla songs blaring from his laptop, waiting to murmur “Hi young’n” and kiss me when I came over.
In that moment, for a single second, I wondered what that photograph would have shown if I had never left, if I had made the choice to stay in the desert and stay in love, or if it would have existed at all. I brushed off these thoughts; they were silly. I never would have stayed; I would have been embroiled in regret and resentment at not having pursued my ambitions to their fullest, and he would have gotten tired of my sullen silence and crippling regret, and our relationship would have ended in a far less amiable manner.
Meanwhile, the photograph flashed at me accusingly:
In a moment of abject smallness and delusion, I clicked farther back through his photos. I wanted to see if he had saved anything from our history, an artifact of his pre-marital bliss. Given the distance that now separated us, both physically and emotionally, I was doubtful. Still, something pressed inside me to look.
When we had been dating, he’d kept a small album of mobile uploads: me swimming, us eating, places we’d visited together. The pictures were the kind that were snapped instantly, an attempt to capture a fleeting moment that appeared at an opportune moment and was gone almost as quickly as it had appeared. At one point, one of the pictures had been his profile picture: us sitting together at some restaurant, relaxed and tan, his arm lazily draped around the back of my chair as I leaned back into his chest.
There was nothing. No photos of us, no snapshots of the Tucson skyline or the Tempe house or the food we tried at different restaurants. The entire evidence of his life in Arizona had been completely eradicated, and I along with it.
It was not an unreasonable thing to do, yet it was surprisingly painful. It is one matter to undergo a breakup, to deal with the aftermath of having loved someone and having to leave them because the time wasn’t right; it is another matter altogether when the person erases your memory from their life, as cleanly as the wipe of a spill from a countertop in a paper towel commercial.
I clicked out and spent the next few minutes in stunned silence, listening to “Hallelujah” by K-OS. It had always been my favorite on his playlists; it was soulful, quiet, and lamenting, and brought up feelings of lazy sunset walks against the Phoenix skyline.
I didn’t know how to feel: embarrassment at trying to stay in touch after our breakup, anger at life circumstances having separated us, sadness for a door definitively closing. He’d often told me that I was a person who made him better, that I was the Splash Woman to his Mega Ran, that I was the Girl Eyes to his Eve 6. His poetry to me was in the lyrics of the songs, and he often encouraged me to listen, to dust away the catchy melody and uncover my significance in his life. It was now obvious that they were poetry uttered in the foolish optimism of fleeting romance, the mobile upload snapshot of loving words that could be swept away with the click of a button. It was an uneasy feeling that I tried to push down as quickly as possible, as I had done for years since we had broken up.
I called my sister, one of the few personal witnesses to our romance, and told her what I’d found out. She was surprised, but said the encouraging words you say to a loved one when they’re hurting: “Not good enough,” “always blogging,” “bogged down doing stupid sh*t.”
It felt sincere, and I listened, but the pain was still there — a dull weight in my chest, as if someone had dropped a small kettle bell on it. It pressed down heavily and unforgivingly, a stark reminder of the pain that heartbreak can inflict years down the road, magnified by the bright lens of the Facebook glow.
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