Never Ever After
‘The saddest thing about love is that not only that it cannot last forever, but that heartbreak is soon forgotten.’
Lessons Learned: Memory
I still have the memory jar from our first anniversary in college. It has a special reserved spot on my nightstand. In a box I keep on my bookshelf I have every card, note, Post-It, drawing, scrap of paper she ever passed to me. I have our travel itineraries from Philly and Cabo, along with the hotel reservation confirmations, map of the resorts, and souvenir coasters we snuck back to our room. When we started taking those Instax photos of our dates when we got back together, I kept them safe too. One of the very last and most precious things she ever made for me was one half of a red heart shaped pillow. She made two and put magnets on the edge so when they were brought together it would stick and look like one big soft heart. On one side she had sewn on ‘I love Baby’ and on the other, hers had a cartoon drawing of me and mine had a cartoon drawing of her. It now rests with a collection of stuffed animals by my bed. After we first broke up, I kept all these things as a reminder. The worst thing then for me was the fear that I might one day forget the intensity and passion of our love. I had been part of something great, gained insight into a love and experience that people dreamed about. I was the protector of our love, and these were the precious artifacts that served as evidence of who we once were. For four years after we separated in college I lived with these in my room. I held them dear to me and even though it pained me to see them and even though the sight of them would sting me with longing and sadness, they were irreplaceable. Sometimes, when I felt despair or disappointment, when another girl had gone and left and another relationship inevitably dissolved, I would dig up all the old letters and read the promises we made to each other long ago. I just wanted another chance, another life of love.
When we got back together later on in life, I did ask her if she still had any of our old keepsakes. She was not as kind or merciful. Secretly my heart sank when I heard that she had long ago tossed everything out. Our stuffed bear, the one she slept with every night in college, was in some landfill somewhere, never to be held or cared for. The memory box I had worked so hard on to create and personalize and memorialize our love had been scrapped. No record or trace of any love letter I had written every month exists, recycled a long time ago. I did try to understand it from her perspective. I knew why she felt she had to do this. While my memories were tinged with shades of longing and regret, hers were tainted with disappointment and betrayal. After all, I was the one who left. She told me she felt it necessary to help her move on. She couldn’t bear to be around so many reminders. Just because I could understand didn’t mean it didn’t hurt any less though.
I’ve learned how important is not only to remember, but to think of why and how we remember. Unlike the inevitable future and the immutable present, we have liberty and power over our past. We can shape these memories, sometimes without even knowing, to fit our designs. I spent four years romanticizing and idealizing this young woman into the pinnacle of romantic love. All I could do to continue on and move forward was to continue to lay tribute to her. I accredited every failed relationship to some magnified, gilded version of who she was. My memories of her were the fuel upon which I built up my old love and burned any chance of the new. I wanted everything to be as it was. To return to the source of what I could only remember as pure love. She had no place for such memories. She needed to cast them aside. They burned too bright and too hot for her to hold. I left Beautiful when she was still a shining pristine version of herself and believed in the best version of our love. She had no chance, no opportunity, to disappoint or hurt me. I built off of that, year after year, until I could think of nothing but her in every romantic desire. I left her with no warning, no explanation, and with too many broken promises. She wanted, needed, to forget me. Maybe she regretted it later, when we were together again, and she had to face that all of these precious objects we had shared were gone, and all of her memories were too faded. I tried to revive them. Share with her all I had held onto. Told her stories and brought her back to who we once were. Maybe I had made it so the real her could never have compared to the Beautiful I had enshrined in my memories.
The last time I saw her, all she could say was what I was just too naïve to know on my own. She was not the Beautiful of so many years ago. She was a completely different person now. But she also told me to forget about her, to forget about us, as if that were possible, and as if that would help. I know she took that route. I see where it took her. I wanted nothing of that. I could never forget love like the love we had. I would never relegate it to the dark recesses of my mind, never bringing it back out to the light of day if just to breathe a little bit. Maybe I had doomed myself from the start with this impossible standard, but I couldn’t ever say I would have been better off to forget about her. I know she threw away everything that had ever meant anything between us. But that was all the more reason that I needed to hold onto what I still had managed to save.
What is painful about all of this is how she left me with such bitterness. She’s tampered with too many of my memories. I can no longer simply long for her. When she left me she tried her best to take everything. I have so few memories that I can look on still with uninterrupted happiness. Everything is just a few shades darker and grayer, the life slowly leaking out. I don’t want to forget what we once meant to each other. I don’t want to forget what I once had. But that means I have to constantly live with the reminder of the pain and the disappointment. I don’t hate her. I have written off many people in my life because of hate. I’ve thrown away their memories, forgotten their names and faces. I will not surrender what love I once had to hate her because it would be easier. I will keep every thorny memory and hold it in my hand, tightly, clutching it to my heart, and I will squeeze it until it cuts. I will cut myself and the scars will remind me of what love is supposed to be. I will take all the hurt and the scarring because when the time comes once more, I will remember not only the love but the pain and I can give someone all of one and protect her from all of the other. I never really wanted to relive the past. I never asked to have to be put through all this. I wanted to protect my past and these memories. I wanted to be left alone to cherish and savor them. To have a story for my friends, my family, my children, and my children’s children. I wanted to know how to tell them about love. Maybe what I was left with after college was too idealistic, too rooted in fantasy, to benefit anyone. Beautiful tainted our story. Now I am haunted by the ghosts of our past, fearful of letting the memories get too close and losing myself to them again. At least before in my world I could have lived in the comfort of who we once were. It was an ethereal fantasy built more on illusions than substance at this point, but it was my illusion about love. The real world disappoints me, disappoints me in who we actually turned out to be. But I will never forget. I still need these memories. Love once lived here, between us. It may never grow again, but it was once special and wonderful and beautiful and I had the opportunity to experience it all. Sadder than forgetting would have been to never had had it at all.
‘I know so many last words. But I will never know hers.’
-John Green, Looking for Alaska
Lesson Two: Words
More than the ruined memories of the past, I pain the most for the future Beautiful and I will never get to have. I will never get to dance with her at our wedding, or even plan a proposal. I will never get to build a home with her, or watch the years go by, side by side, or watch as the passing seasons slowly paint across her face. We had, at most, only five years together. It seems like such a tiny speck now, but it was ours. Of course there is still so much love in me to have and to give. I just really wanted to be able to give it all to her and when we were reunited, I thought I had finally gotten my chance. It hurts to know that the love you have to give is not the love someone wants to have. There are so few remnants now of the beautiful words we once shared with each other. All of the letters I wrote her back then are gone and I imagine she has no place for the ones I wrote her later on. I think of her now even and wonder, when she speaks of love, if she ever speaks of me still. The last words I ever heard her speak were of her telling me to forget about her, that I had wasted the past five years longing and pining for someone who no longer existed. The last words I ever read of hers were of and for another man. I know the inspiration that comes from love. I wrote and spoke of it for years. I can recognize it in others. I don’t think she ever wrote like that for me, and I don’t know if she ever could have. A few times, some months after it all, I would still visit her website, hoping and wishing to see her mention me. Of course it was just wishful thinking. She had moved on. It was just me still lingering in the past. Even now, I find myself sometimes imagining her voice, trying to hear them say my name once more. Instead I hear her talking about her ex over and over again. I imagine the words she says to him, of him, for him. Of anyone else but me. For all my sweet and romantic and moving words of love, I could do nothing to keep her. All of the promises we made to each other were carried away with the wind.
For better or for worse, I may never hear her voice or read her words again. There isn’t anything left for her to say that her actions have not already driven across. I know she has nothing for me, that there is nothing left there between us. I am the one who remains burdened, because I cannot and will not love her, but I cannot and will not forget her either. I can’t find in me words of anger or bitterness. I cannot find the vitriol that would make this easier or relieve me of this weight. I carry not only all the words we once spoke, but all the words I never got to say, and all the words I will never get to hear. Our love was too short, and I will carry it for too long. I will continue to write of love and higher and nobler beautiful things, and hopefully maybe one day I will be able to write them of someone else as well, but I know right now I speak only for myself; a sad, one-sided conversation of love.
I think it is important that those who experience love and those who lose love never lose their ability to speak of how they felt and what they experienced. Some of the most moving pieces of writing I have ever read have stemmed from either tragic heartbreak or great love. What we romanticize and idealize about love is too sickeningly saccharine sweet we find it hard to digest. Real love is more than enough but it is too easy to want to forget or to move on. I thought that the great words of love would be enough to protect what we had, to strengthen and ensure what we had. I think the truth is love finds its voice through great honest and pure relationships. I spoke of real things when I loved Beautiful, yes, but I can still one day say the same things of another who moves me in the same way. Until then I can speak of what there was to cherish and value.
I speak better now of love and loss because she gave me both. Though one day, I hope to write my last lines of her.
‘Perhaps some day I’ll crawl back home, beaten, defeated. But not as long as I can make stories out of my heartbreak, beauty out of sorrow.’
Part Three: Where to Go Now
The two greatest lessons I learned from my experience with Beautiful was 1) that I could not survive by consuming relationship after relationship as I have been and 2) that there were no guarantees about what made a great love last.
The last time I was in Philly I was there for a work trip. I decided to walk around the city a little bit on my last day before heading back home and ended up back at Shane Confectionery, the chocolate and candy shop I had taken Beautiful twice before. I wanted to make a gift box to take home. Here I was, on a quest, striding from one display to another, inquiring about the flavors of different chocolates, buttercreams, truffles, and ganache. I wanted to know taste, ingredients, popularity. I wanted to build a bouquet of the best they had to offer. When all was said and done I had a gift box filled with their best and we wrapped it up in a pretty white bow and I was on my way to…
To..what? To give it to whom?
The situation at the time was this: Beautiful had broken up with me about a week prior and I had just met an attractive coworker and we happened to be talking and exchanging messages with increasing frequency. At the time I did not know about Beautiful’s real, hidden feelings still for her ex, that she was already recanting everything about us to pine after him again. To give him the honor of calling him her greatest mistake. I did know that my coworker was pretty and single and looking and active on dating sites. I did not know that she was also already talking with someone from the city, or that they had already set up a date with each other that weekend and that he loved to make silly puns and play her favorite games. The only think I did know was that my heart gave me equal reason to give this box to either of them.
See I could give them to Beautiful, remind her of the times we spent in Philly, and maybe try to change her mind and convince her there was something here worth wanting, worth working for. I could surprise her at her place on my way home and overwhelm her with chocolates and a rose I could pick up along the way. I was always sweet to her, always the romantic, always wanting to surprise her with unannounced visits. What better way to show her than with this gesture. That I was thinking of her even when she wasn’t thinking of me, and that I see her beauty in everything I do and every place I visit. I wouldn’t make a big show of it. Just show up at her door, hand her the chocolates and the rose, and leave. Acknowledge that we are no longer together and therefore have no obligations to each other. Let her think about the weight of the gesture and her decisions.
But that wouldn’t change the reasons why we were separated. And even though at that time she was hiding the most egregious and painful reasons why, what she fed me was still relevant, still bitter enough, delivered still with enough sting. So no, perhaps this was really not meant to be, and maybe I would be fighting for borrowed time, and maybe I really did not want her back. Had I really thought about what it was I wanted to save. Was it her or the relationship or just me from being alone?
So I could instead give them to this new person in my life. I’d show up at her office, stroll in, leave the chocolates at her desk with a cleverly written Post-It ‘don’t let the others give you flack for eating like a Bird’ which she would love because it worked on so many levels and I was such a clever bastard for coming up with it. The office would make fun of her for loving to eat and always having food and snacks around, which is torture for a self-conscious young woman who has to live under the constant watchful judging gaze of a Korean family and community. And her name is a type of bird, hence her nickname, and it’s ALSO a play on the fact that people say ‘eating like a bird’ means you eat very little even though factually speaking birds eat twice their body weight during the day to handle the intense metabolic load of flight. It would have been a tactically brilliant move to undercut all the digital suitors after her and remind her that I was here, physically, immediately available, and clearly interested. The chocolates would segue into future interactions and I wanted to take her to a Filipino restaurant (she had expressed interest in trying Filipino food as she had never had the opportunity before). I would drop off the chocolate, give her the note, and she would of course mention it and thank me later on that night when we would normally start exchanging messages. She would mention she owed me, and I would tell her she could buy lunch. Filipino of course.
Bird represented a new start. A chance to get over old pain by opening up the potential for a new wound. I thought the best way to get over a stubbed toe was to cut your finger. The idea was new pain helps you get over old pain quicker. I was ready for another mistake. She was attractive, into video games and anime (Beautiful never was, and I never pushed her into it), was an adventurous eater, and had a similar sense of humor. When I first met her I was single and too self-conscious and self-deprecating to do anything about a very strong initial attraction. So I was my usual cold and stupid self, which she verified once we actually got closer and started talking. She thought I hated her for some unknown reason. We discovered that we had lived in the same town our entire lives and even went to the same elementary school, but she was four years my junior so I had never noticed her (as is appropriate, I honestly wouldn’t want to have thought about a sixth grade me going after a second grader). We had the shared experiences of youth and the present, working for the same company. I was attracted to her and I knew she was attracted to me because she had said so. You never forget that rush you feel when someone you like tells you they like you back. Well, to be fair, she admitted that I was cute and attractive and that if I weren’t she wouldn’t have been talking to me anyways.
But the timing was just never right. When I first met her we were both single and available but I couldn’t make the move because I wasn’t confident enough. By the time we met up again and actually got to know each other she was still single but I was in a relationship that (I thought) was going to last the rest of my life, so this was an attraction that would go unreciprocated and unpursued. When I was ready (I thought) to pursue her, I was just out of another relationship. Whether my interest was honest or not, whether my feelings were legitimate or not, it did not change the fact that I was superseding honest, genuine interest with a desire to cover hurt with more hurt. I was just running away and doing what I usually do hopping from one to another and despite how honestly and intently I felt these feelings, it would have no chance to blossom or grow under those circumstances. My wounds were too fresh and needed proper dressing. It would have been awkward and unfair. And though I thought I was ready I really was not, and though there may have been something, there was no reason for her to wait around and so she pursued something else with someone else to leave me my space.
So what happened to the chocolates?
They melted. They rotted. The box was never even opened. The ribbon turned gray. The box is bent and creased. The insides have long lost their appearance, their sheen, their appeal. I wasted money, time, effort, and valuable commodities. I pondered and considered my options the entire drive back home and couldn’t come to a satisfying solution. I had bought these candies for the sole purpose of giving, but I had no one to give it to and no one who would want it. So it went bad, unappreciated and unenjoyed. Neither of them even ever knew I had bought it in the first place.
I have spent my entire life trying to be a better person. I have cultivated the best parts of me and I have, through reflection and honest introspection, come to terms with my shortcomings. I have gained the wisdom to accept the things I cannot change about myself and the humility to amend the ones I can. I believe that every good person in this world has lived a life of betterment and self-improvement, and that we are all incredibly appealing packages of a wide assortment of goodies wrapped up in a pretty white bow.
But do not do what I have done. Do not throw your package at the first hungry passerby. Do not let yourself be consumed by those who wish to just consume. Love yourself, appreciate what is inside of you, know the assortment of sweet, bitter, salty, and rich that makes you so enticing. Know who this was all meant for, or at the very least know who it is you want. I was at first content simply to offer what I had to anyone who would have me. I would continually throw myself at the masses and make destiny out of chaos. Until there came the point when no one wanted me, and not knowing how to move forward, how to measure my worth, I spoiled and went bad.
The second lesson I learned was not to believe in all of the representation of love and relationships I had seemingly built my entire knowledge off of. The tragic misunderstanding and misrepresentation in the media is that the ingredients and the story come first. We spend so much time trying to find just the right pieces, meet in just the right way, and date just the right person, that we mistakenly fool ourselves into believe that having all the right ingredients mean that this is love.
Love is not a recipe. It is not a formula or a plot with just enough variables to keep the story fresh and the audience hungry. Love is not like baking. You cannot expect that just by having all the ingredients in one bowl that what will come out will always be a cake. Add too much of one or too little of the other and you can end up with anything from a very cakey omelet to a very runny pancake. I just wanted the story, to collect the pieces, and turn them in for my reward. I bought into every story and every iteration of the same story. Love never promised me a return on my investment.
Love is more like alchemy. It isn’t a matter of having the right ingredients and mixing them up together. It is a matter of transforming the ingredients into something completely different. This is why I could either be inspired or bitter of relationships that seemed to have so much more but started with so much less than what Beautiful and I had. There is an undercurrent of hard work, determination, cooperation, and compromise that runs steadily but strongly underneath every relationship. Though Beautiful and I had ever element seemingly necessary, though we had the story to tell of love, we did not have the ability, or perhaps the strength of will, to transform what we had.
I still choose to live in a world of soulmates and meet-cutes and ‘types’ and of romantic do and don’t lists. I can still reconcile the bleeding heart romantic in me with the man who had to seriously reconsider his understandings and assumptions of love in the face of sinking disappointment. I live in a world where true love can exist and Beautiful can break my heart like no other. This is not a love story. It was a lesson. Of how to construct a much more convincing love story. The mathematical odds, the history of stereotypes and tropes, the science, even the crippling betrayal, are not enough to deter true love in the world. I have to admit I still wander around wondering how I will meet the one I will love for the rest of my life. I wonder if she is exactly as I pictured her to be or if we will do everything right or make it up along the way. I remain blissfully indignant at the bitterness of disappointment. I am just much more wise now, and I can speak of Love in gentler terms. This is not a love story. But it is a love letter to Love. I know what she looks like now, what she feels like, what she sounds like. I can see love for all of her flaws and imperfections and still, I love Love. Beautiful and I was not the story Love wanted me to tell. This was me wanting to share it all. I sincerely and desperately hope that Love still has greater plans for me yet.
Final word count: 57189