Sometimes I think that if I weren’t so rooted in the place I call home, I’d pack everything up, take out an obscene loan, and disappear into the mountains. I was not born in a place where you can easily sever ties, not some podunk town in Wisconsin or a sleepy little burg in Ohio. I hail from the Deep South, and when you’re born here, your DNA knows it. But after you and I called it quits, I somehow managed to forget that after the panic attacks at Walmart, the endless nights sitting in the dark in my new and alien apartment, I still had to go out into this city I had called home for more than 30 years and have to see all the ghostly imprints of you and I. We walked together for a decade. There’s not a lot of ground we have not touched. The city glows with our footsteps.
On Saturdays, we’d wake up early, get breakfast, and run the town, and nine times out of 10, we’d end up at the mall. This routine was so frequent that sometimes I’d tell you we had to mix it up because the monotony was draining. The first time I went to the mall after things had ended, I got as far as the bottom floor of Macy’s before my throat grew a rock and I had to hurry back to my car, promising myself I could get whatever I needed from Amazon. That was my life for a few months after my hand slipped out of yours.
And Target? Forget Target. It’s attached to the movie theater, so we would wander around there waiting for our show to start, scoring cheap candy to hoard in my bag, looking at the t-shirts, the books, the DVDs. We had been together so long that if I happened to lose you in the store, I’d know exactly where to go to find you, wandering down the toy aisle with the Transformers and Star Wars toys that you never bought but always searched through. I used to look at you and think, “I belong to this person, no matter where we are in the world.” It was the emotional equivalent of living inside of a self-sustainable fortress.
Being movie buffs, we used to go to the theater almost every other weekend, and now I can’t go on my own or with someone else, because I’m always going to seek out our seats—middle row, last two seats on the left. You on the outside, because you always needed an escape route. I went to see a movie a few times afterward and automatically took my old spot, but when I’d look to my left to share a laugh with you, I’d be laughing with an empty seat. That put an end to the laughing very quickly. So, scratch movie theaters. All of them. iTunes exists for a reason. It never once occurred to me to find a new spot. When I go to the movies with other people, our old seats draw my eyes like a dead body.
I wonder if I’ll ever be able to sit down at a restaurant and not order your drink for you, or if I will ever be able to cross the threshold of a Best Buy without following a phantom around, watching you pick up things and put them back. Go anywhere in a store without turning around to ask you, “What do you want to do next?” or “Can we go here?” Taking items out of your arms so you wouldn’t put them on the shelf, trying to convince you that you deserved to treat yourself once in a while. And restaurants? It’s a feat of mental gymnastics trying to remember a place where we haven’t eaten, and we live in New Orleans, where there are more restaurants than good sense. Whenever I eat with someone else at a restaurant, I never sit with my back to the door. Just like you. Stepping into your shoes so I don’t have to be in mine always makes me feel as if I still have a piece of you left, however tiny.
When I drive home from visiting my parents, I always get over in the next lane, preparing to take the exit for our (your, I remind myself, your) condo. And when I get on the interstate, my thumb automatically hovers over the call button on my steering wheel to let you know I’m on my way home. When I pick up the phone at work to call my mother, I always dial your number. Still. Always. Even after a year. Maybe forever. I don’t know. This feels like it might be forever. One year of a new life against 10 of routine is nothing, pennies to our millions.
We used to go on little trips to Biloxi to cleanse our palette of the daily routine. Nothing big—cheap hotel room with a pool, a few bucks left after bills. We’d go to the cheesy souvenir shops and splurge on a nice dinner at our favorite steak place. We’d walk the beach and take silly pictures of each other, wade into the light green water, search for squids, fly the drone, get sunburned. At night, we’d take advantage of the delicious sensation of being in a new place and melt into one another. I went to Biloxi a few times after we went our separate ways and it was a war zone. There’s the hotel we stayed at where we thought we’d lose our kidneys, the one you teased me about because you had to keep your gun on the dresser. There’s that stretch of beach where we took that selfie—you know, the one where I’m laughing at you? There’s that gas station where we stopped to fuel up before going home and I found 90 bucks under my car, which bought us gas and groceries for the next week. I drove for 1 1/2 hours, sat on the beach for 20 minutes, and wandered all the way back home, a hazard on the roads because I was sobbing harder than a human being should have a right to.
On days where the mall would lose its luster and we’d have a little money in our pockets, you’d suggest we go to New Orleans, a place you always claimed you hated, but you were always the one suggesting it, so we’d go. I always drove, because I know the city. You could drive to the same place a million times and still get lost. I never minded that, because that meant that you needed me.
We’d walk the French Quarter, peruse the art in Jackson Square, buy a muffuletta at Central Grocery, and meander from the tourist traps down to good old Royal Street, where we could spend several hours wandering in and out of the art shops. We always stopped at that store that sold the old Civil War muskets, and you always said you’d buy one day, but never did, and now I wonder if someone else will have the power to convince you. Every experience I ever had with you lines the circumference of my heart like a miniature museum, the contents under bomb-proof glass, riddled with fingerprints, as if it’s always my first time visiting.
Comic Cons, cemetery walks, Houston, Destin, Gatlinburg. Gatlinburg, where we survived a hellish family vacation with my parents, where you saved me and your entire family from dying in a fire. Gatlinburg, where I will never be able to go again because the only way Gatlinburg exists for me is right next to you. We had a special place on the Roaring Fork trail, a secret little waterfall behind the Ephraim Bales cabin, where our initials are scrawled in Sharpie on the walls, binding us together in time if not in reality. On your last trip to Gatlinburg (sans me, post-breakup), per my request, you brought me rocks from that little waterfall. Sometimes I hold the smallest and smoothest of them all in my palm and roll it around, as if it will whisk me back to the past like the tiniest Delorean, you and I alone in a forest with nothing but time on our side. Gatlinburg was a place where our problems did not exist, a way to bridge the gaps without having to resort to uncomfortable conversations. It may have been a Band-Aid over a bullet hole, but we were our best selves there.
I know that there’s no way I can avoid these places forever. You haunt my heels wherever I go, and I would give anything to look behind me and find you there. I chase that feeling of safety like a tired vagrant after a train. I’m afraid that it’s a feeling that you and you alone can give me, but that does me no good now.
It’s one thing to be terrified of the entire world and the ghosts it plays host to, but my biggest fear is that one Saturday I will go to the mall for something inconsequential and I will glance up and you will be there, just not alone. Or that I’ll turn around a corner at Comic Con, and you’ll be showing that someone a lightsaber, and they’ll be convincing you to buy it. I’ll be scrolling through Instagram and you’ll have your arm around some other girl on the Roaring Fork trail. When that day comes, all of our ghosts will disappear for you, and I’ll be the one left with all of our memories, stacked haphazardly on the curb, destined for the garbage, my arms thrown defiantly over them, not caring that they’ll be too heavy for me to carry alone. This is a big city but a small town, and the idea of watching you share our life with someone else will be a very bitter pill to swallow. Amazon, here I come.
Not knowing where you are or what you’re doing—or more importantly, who you’re doing it with—is a lot like being left at the bottom of a pit or free-falling without a net. Whenever I’m running errands or doing something new and interesting, the entire experience is lessened because I can’t tell or share it with you. I can’t add it to our war chest. I can’t call you to say, “You’ll never believe what I saw at the mall” or “I wish you were here” or “I’ll be home in 20 minutes, do you need anything?” I live 30 minutes away from you, and it feels as if you’ve never stood beside me, never been inside of me, and all of the experiences we ever accumulated over the past decade belong to the dust now, like a project I’ll never be able to see to fruition, all that hard work wasted. A pretty dream in my head.
I know that I left. I wish I could tell you and the entire world with a straight face that I left our problems, not you, but that’s splitting hairs and I won’t say it for the sake of sounding profound. I don’t know what I want, but I want you enough to know that this is not what I want. I want to turn around and find you there. I want to know where you are, because even if I’m not there, I want to know that I will be.
Everywhere. How can you be everywhere when you’re not here?
And where else can I go when you’re gone forever?