What Do You Really Love?

Maybe catastrophe isn’t always that bad.

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Knowing that relationships end doesn’t make breaking up any easier.

And the more intense the feelings, the greater the pain.

But we outgrow relationships, just as we outgrow places. Or they outgrow us. One day, the place or the person that once seemed so fascinating will be just another memory you picked up along the way.

And that’s how it’s meant to be. Change is the one constant, the guiding rule of existence, and if the sun never set, it would never be able to rise.

And maybe, what you love in a person or a place isn’t what you thought it was at all.

She cried when I told her I was leaving.

I mean red-faced sobbing, the ugly crying of a child that doesn’t understand why she can’t have what she wants. Why all the honey has turned to poison.

She was starting to dream, and it was starting to scare me. We were both young, but in certain ways that have nothing to do with the calendar, she was much younger than I was.

In the small town she grew up in, people married their high school partners. Her parents had started to make hints to their 20-year-old daughter. Maybe soon, she would’ve stopped protesting. And what an error that would’ve been.

This was all in a different world, in a different life.

The sun shone, and I never ran out of breath. The mountains were sharp-edged and magnificent as popes, and the sea sang at the edge of the city, forget, forget.

She sobbed when I left as though the world would never again be beautiful. And now, we barely even talk.

In spring, the streets of Vancouver are spotted with pink petals like drops of melted wax. Blossoms fall with the rain, the air filled with sweetness, and young lovers laugh at the weather as though they have a secret. Maybe they do.

We all know the feeling.

The sly smile tugging unexpectedly at the corners of your mouth. Something funny she said. Something dirty you did. It’s our secrets that keep us together, the brass rivets remaking the broken vase. No one wants a love this general. It needs to be specific to be special.

You know it’s all a trick, a hormonal high that comes from being young and in love. You don’t care. Just like how drunks don’t care that they’re drunk. Whacked out on acid and speed on some sun-scarred island paradise, you wouldn’t care either. As long as the words keep coming. As long as the pages keep piling up.

Looking back now, coldly superior under a crown of frost, I can see it was never about us.

We were both new to what is undeniably a captivating city, and it seeped like oil into everything, so that our long vacant futures smelled of cherry blossoms and rain. Falling in love with a place and time that would never be repeated, we mistook it for falling in love with each other.

And someday, this will be you too. In the red heat of heartbreak, that’s not only hard to imagine. It’s hard to even want. Letting go of something that has passed feels like letting go of something too precious to discard.

But the beauty will stay with you, burnished and softened by time. The bloody amphitheaters where men and animals died are now our favorite tourist attractions. Every beautiful thing has to end. But the fact that all beauty is temporary only adds to its heart-melting loveliness.

We never really know what others love in us.

Words only take us so far. We never know what it is that we love, either. A fleeting shadow at the back of smiling eyes, or the irresistible impressionability of wet cement.

In her tiny town, she’d never met anyone like me, and to her, I was the city, in all its outlandish magnificence. I was the future stretching on forever, her hometown and the sad little girl she used to be vanishing faster than the trail the jets leave in the fragile band of sky between the stars and us.

I loved the city too.

But I left her, and I left it, and then she left it too, and then I came back. But I don’t walk down the petal-strewn streets anymore. I don’t wander in wonder through the ancient trees.

Now, I drive the highway at night under the bright eyes of towers that weren’t there when the city was mine. Just because you live in a place, that doesn’t make it home.

The tight constellation of lights — the glow of the ski slopes, the shimmer of the stars — dwarfs the humans that move underneath the unearthly glow. But we don’t live our lives up there. Down here, people are too big to see past.

Mahogany John was the kind of man the wilderness attracts.

A trapper and mountain man with notches in his gun, he wasn’t the type that could stand close contact with other people.

Underneath the swaying trees, the world is dangerous. But the silence is glorious. Away from society, a man can become the creature he was always meant to be.

I’ve tripped over the thick root of that feeling myself here and there. It’s an idea I understand.

But we carry the contagion inside us.

All we love, we will destroy. Mahogany John found a spot too beautiful for him to keep to himself. Civilization came after him, the way it does for anyone who tries to get away.

Soon, a family moved into his sacred woods, building their own cabin not far from his. Others followed. When the railway arrived, he had to leave.

And now no one can afford to live in the town he accidentally founded. The ski slopes hum with wires, and the rivers have been conquered and concreted. A place, even if you love it very much, can outgrow you.

The skyscrapers sprout like mushrooms after rain, and the city you know, that seems somehow to know you, doesn’t even look at you anymore.

Except when she pops up from time to time on my social media feeds, I don’t think of her that often.

No more than she thinks of me. We’re friends, I guess. But the distance between us is almost comically vast, and our lives have taken different directions.

The cataclysm that had her sobbing on her bed turned out to be no more devastating than any of the other natural shocks that flesh is heir to. It’s part of the deal. And if pain is our portion, the inevitable cost of the sensitive parts that make the world bright, it’s worth it.

But you never forget the times you hurt someone who really didn’t deserve it. And you never forget the city where you were young and alone and the freest you’ll ever be, when everything you wanted seemed just around the next corner.

When the blossoms start to fall again this spring, someone else will occupy the space we used to take up, her hand warm in mine and our unguessable futures stretching out in front of us as we followed our shadows down a street polished by rain.

Written by

Novelist. Essayist. Former entomologist. Now a full-time writer exploring travel, art, philosophy, psychology, and science. www.ryanfrawley.com

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