There was a friend you saw every day when you were little. They were the friend with whom you built forts, told scary stories (trying not to fall asleep first), and ran around in the neighborhood until you had to come in for dinner. All of the most thrilling, scary, confusing parts of growing up and navigating a world three sizes too big for you seemed manageable with them. Catching fireflies and wiggling around in sleeping bags, setting up a tent in your backyard, seemed like the stuff of a dangerous safari. You were sure you could catch a lion together, if only provided the proper equipment.
But things happened. You moved away, or they did, or seeing each other just got too hard. Even a simple change of school can do it. Before you know it, you’re an actual adult, and the person who knew you best for such an enormous part of your life—the only person with whom you share such an extraordinary quantity of childhood memories—is gone.
There was the person who taught you how to love. The person with whom you felt more alive and real and full than you ever imagined possible, who seemed to love even the dark, ugly corners of yourself you were constantly trying to squirrel away. They licked your wounds and told you that you were beautiful. They took you on adventures that didn’t even require you leaving your house. Between the bedroom, the kitchen, and the plush, perfect couch, you existed in a kind of seclusion from everything else in the world. You didn’t need anyone else. You lost entire days kissing, talking, laughing in the car holding hands over the stick shift. You remember the things they showed you, things you were certain that no other human had ever been privy to. With them, you were some kind of royalty, protected from the ugliness of the world outside.
But things happened. And one night, you found yourselves at the rough, tattered end of a conversation that spanned several hours and had clearly been overdue for weeks. You had both said things that stung, that made you question whether or not this was all some sort of mirage, that you could have imagined such a beautiful interlude out of such a crippling need to feel loved in some way. You feel the tears welling up and burning the corners of your eyes, but promised yourself a thousand times before arriving that, no, you would not cry tonight. But you do cry. And they cry. And you hold each other and cry. But in the morning, it’s still over. It’s gone.
There was the friend with whom you came of age. Learning how to kiss, how to sneak a beer, how to run away quickly if you heard an authority figure coming—they made the education seem easy, even comfortable, learning everything by your side. You swapped tips, you grew, you started to figure out life in a way that adulthood would eventually demand. You started to understand what it meant to save money, to make hard choices, to worry about your future. Without realizing you were doing it, the two of you held hands and waved goodbye to the childhood that was clearly fading into your past. Though the future was scary, unclear, and full of all the tedium you knew would wear on your spirit; knowing that someone just like you was taking the step as well made it alright. “Everything is gonna change,” you would whisper at night, staring up at the stars, passing a single bottle between the two of you. “I know,” they would reply. And you knew, just knew, that it would always be the two of you seeing the change together.
But things happened. You had failed to account for the changes that would literally pull you in different directions, that would make you a sort of new person, that would leave one or the other longing to forget about their wild days before adulthood and everything that came with it. From a distance, emotional or geographic, the rate at which you come together to share everything dwindles to nothingness. Eventually, it’s been too long to just call them back. Things have become strange, and there’s a certain metallic taste in your mouth when you think of the memories that have evaporated into thin air behind you.
Where do these people go? What do they do? Is there some kind of colony in which they all live together, holding hands and thinking of the time they spent with you? Of course not. People are whole entities with their own struggles and histories and reasons for not calling back, and they can’t spend the rest of their lives thinking about how great it was when you two were together. But it was great, wasn’t it? And the idea that they can go a whole lifetime without ever looking back and feeling that aching, sinking feeling in their stomach, that crippling nostalgia—it’s almost worse than the ending itself. The separation is so much more bearable when you know that you both look back fondly, and would always want to meet for a coffee, should the occasion arise.
Just because you two are no longer the comic book duo that you once were doesn’t mean that you don’t want to see a Christmas card from their new family, or hear about their big move, or hear whatever became of their incredible talent for drawing. This isn’t about a broken heart. A broken heart implies a kind of shattering, a searching the hardwood floor for pieces that might have gotten lost under the couch. Yours isn’t broken, it’s long-since been patched together and, despite the occasional stutter, functions quite well. This is about a heart that aches with memories too big for its fragile little form, that is bursting on all sides from love that longs to be accepted, to at least be vocalized. This is a heart that dies a slow, quiet death from this awful need we have to pretend as though something never existed the second that it is over.
And where does the love go? Because it’s impossible to believe that it simply ceases to be a part of our universe, that it falls into some pinprick-sized black hole and no longer floats amongst us, making the world brighter for its once having existed. Things are better because you caught fireflies in your back yard, because you kissed under a blanket with your hands on their chest, because you drove around in circles in your parents’ car, blasting music. This lost love must still exist somewhere, transmuting into more love and better love and love for people who haven’t yet felt it. It must be there, because you still remember it.
Maybe we just need to hear that they do, too.
Chelsea Fagan is a writer and editor at Thought Catalog, and lives in Paris. Excerpted from Thought Catalog (July 5, 2012), an online showcase of relevant and relatable writing.