The Thing I Didn’t Understand Then Is That People’s Lives Go On When I’m Not In Them


I can’t see in the mornings. My eyes are so full of eyelashes, my mouth so constantly red. I wake up to a fake sunshine light, the kind that people buy in the desperation of a dark winter, or perhaps they add it to their Amazon carts early in effort to beat back the oncoming blues. This light doesn’t make me feel any happier or any sadder.

So many boys have watched me dress from the welcoming vantage point of my bed. They’ve watched me wind up tights in my hand and gingerly slip a foot, a leg, a hip in, careful not to tear the fabric and ruin another pair. I wear the snagged ones out to the bars. They watch me step into black and into pumps, shimmy into bra, tie up my hair or swirl it around a curling iron. We’d part at my front door and I’d sway down the sidewalk to my waiting, purring car, and go.

I used to watch him dress, and it was something I loved. I’d lay in bed sipping at my little cup of coffee and watch him decide who he was going to be that day, and then he’d kiss me goodbye and I’d be there still, quietly shellshocked by that easy kind of love and routine.

People move in and out of your life like that. They depart in so many different ways; they kiss you hard on the mouth in the middle of a dance floor at First Avenue and then leave for years, but return to do the same thing on a street corner.

Some people just fade away, and you don’t miss them or think of them until they pop up on your Newsfeed. Or they go, draping big blankets of steely silence between the two of you, and then one day you both decide that it’s time to stop acting like children and piece yourselves back together. You find yourself next to someone at the bar that you thought you’d never want to speak to again, someone you wished would get hit by a spiky, murderous bus, and you laugh because isn’t that the lovely balm of time? Time just flies, and someday we’ll all be obituaries in our newspaper of choice.

When I was in college, I counted on the dependability of life back at home. I’d come back for holidays, for summer, and my uncles were still moving from place to place like clockwork. The mail came at the same time it always had. My grandma was still in her place, rocking away in a navy chair, under a wall of pastel portraits of her children. So much of my life was a rollercoaster, always changing and looping up and down, that the stability of North Dakota, the simple way time flowed, kept me comforted. I always thought that things would stay that way forever, but my grandma died and we boxed up her house and it sits there quite cold and sad, sagging a little, waiting to be taken away. I know she’s not in there and that without her, it’s just a house, but I still can’t step inside without gagging on my sadness.

I moved between wanting to go, go, go – saving money in a little kitty for Los Angeles, the dreams I thought would come true there that I’d never find in Minnesota – and wanting to stay, to plant the big, strong roots I’d grown up with. I didn’t go to Los Angeles, told my 25-year-old self still smarting from a heartache to grow up and stop thinking a new city would calm her brokenness, and I stayed. In my early twenties, I wrote about painting myself into my bedroom and hiding until things worked out the way I wanted, asking my friends to slide their treasures under the door the way the Kennedys placed trinkets in JFK’s coffin. I wanted to wait out the bad in a safe little place and emerge like a Disney Princess to a rescuing prince. I thought he’d be waiting outside the door, but he wasn’t.

The thing I didn’t understand then is that people’s lives go on when I’m not in them. You can love someone so much, want to consume their very soul and their whole messy being, want to hide out with them forever, but when you’re not together, the world still works, still moves in its own ways. The selfishness of youth starts to fade when you realize that time isn’t really on your side.