You’d been in my mind more times than I could count. But this time, it was different.
You always just seemed to show up out of the blue, without warning, while I was enjoying a night out dancing without you or staying up late, sipping on homemade mojitos.
When you came to my mind, you were so close, I could almost feel you breathe. You never spoke, but you had that look, the one you used to give me all the time, full of awe and hesitance and hunger. We hadn’t known what to do with each other, and so we’d wasted away, on again, off again—at least, I’d wasted away. You’d lived blissful and free without rules or restrictions as you took and relished whatever you could get from me.
After I finally ended things, it was torture. Every time I felt sad, I missed you and wanted you. Every time I drank, I craved you. I didn’t know how to be okay without melding my body into yours on the dance floor and feeling the medicating lull of the music, ushering my fears and worries away.
Even when I left the country, even when I found other dance floors far away, I still craved the warmth that had been you. I still craved the home that had left me both more full and more empty than ever before. I wasn’t myself without you. I didn’t know how to cope without reaching for you.
So I reached for other people. I tried to kiss your memory away. I tried to get addicted to someone else to break my addiction to you. But it only worked for so long—eventually they were gone, and my mind would slip back into you, finding your eyes in my memory, feeling your closeness, wishing I were in your arms.
That was all I’d ever wanted. It had never been about the sexy times. It had always been about that strange, powerful thing—that warm, beckoning lull that had enveloped me whenever you cradled me against your chest, touching my hair.
One dark night at a new salsa club, after two back-to-back dates and too much alcohol, I fled to the bathroom for refuge and there you were, my first thought—my only escape. I pulled out my phone and fired off a message, even though you were across the ocean and there was nothing I could do to make you care. Even if I gave myself to you like before, it wouldn’t make you show up for me—it wouldn’t even make you try.
And then, five minutes later, after giving up on ever getting over you, I walked out of the bathroom, looked across the dance floor, and met him.
He was nothing like you. He met my gaze with kindness, without fear. He wanted to learn everything about me. When I told him about you, it didn’t scare him away. He made me feel seen, like you never had.
When I fell in love with him, it happened little by little and all at once. He kissed my tears when I cried and told me I was learning to feel my feelings instead of medicating on you. He hugged me when I was impatient that you kept coming back, even though I was happier than I’d ever been with him. Because sometimes, in some ways, I still missed you.
I missed that gaze, gleaming with selfishness and excitement. My heart was still wrapped around the parts of you that had held me together for so long, even as you’d squeezed the life out of me without even caring enough to notice.
I cried on your birthday.
I cried on the year anniversary of our last night together.
I cried the day after Christmas, when a dark cloud enveloped my soul.
But little by little, something began to change.
I kept crying instead of losing myself in you.
I cried whenever I felt something, because for the first time, I was letting myself feel. I cried because I was happy, or sad, or remembering something. I cried because I didn’t have to forget anymore. I didn’t have to medicate on you.
And the more I cried, the more I came alive. I began to understand who I was, what I wanted, what I needed—and it wasn’t you.
You had only ever been a cloak to hide the pain, but the pain was never meant to be hidden. The pain was meant to be felt, to be expressed, to be transformed into a life that was bold and shining and whole. And that was exactly what he wanted me to be, what he’d always known that I could be.
And so this time, when you came, it was different.
I didn’t drop every other thought to hold onto you or dive into a sea of memories. I acknowledged you with a civil nod and continued on with my thoughts. Even that gaze, the one I’d always coveted before, was empty. There was nothing in you that I craved.
I didn’t need you to hold me together, because for the first time, I was holding myself. I didn’t need your non-love, because I knew I was loved, and it had everything to do with me and nothing to do with you.
You were the patchy glow stick that had never fully glowed in the first place. You were the oversized hoop earrings that had hurt to wear and got caught in everything. You were the dial-up internet that had always been sketchy and unreliable. You were no longer relevant to my life.
And then, like a shadow at noon, you faded into nothing.
I felt warm inside without you. I’d found love with him because I was learning to face the pain in me instead of medicating it away in you. When I stopped drowning in you, I could start breathing into me. I could save myself. I could love myself.
And I didn’t need you anymore.