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There are these things that happen that we later look back upon with regret. Leaving my almost-fiancé was certainly one of these things.
Keith and I had once vacationed in Waterford, Marseilles, Gettysburg, Stockholm, Puerto Rico. We’d stayed at a bed and breakfast named for Abraham Lincoln and another for an old war colonel. We’d kayaked through Maine’s interior and spread jam over croissants in a Parisian hotel I remember now only for its spectacular view of Sacré Cœur. It was a surprise, that stunning view—we’d found the hotel for cheap and arrived late into the evening, and when we awoke to pull back the blinds, there it was, enormous along the hillside. The break-up was like that, too—suddenly, we were strangers. And when it happened, it happened fully, as if it had been that way all along. I didn’t know anything but our distance.
Of course, break-ups happen all the time and with such startling consistency that people are no longer interested in how they happen, or why. They just do, and are little deaths. Then those people go on to date new people, ones with extensive collections of pantyhose or dogs whose tags read Pepto-Bismol, jingling as they jump off furniture, and then they, too, break up, or else they stay together to the complete resentment of whomever came before. They host rustic, soft-lit weddings in the woods with strung up lights, or oceanic-themed ceremonies on wooden planks along the dunes. You know, the boardwalk lined with linen? The fabric draping down and towards the sea?
Keith seemed to know this the whole time—the idea of our temporal placement—or else he didn’t but it seemed that way. “Look back,” he was always saying, as if my memory was broken, a truth I’d later begin to believe. Look back, look back, look back, already mythologizing what we had. Now it’s how I remember him most.
It reminds me of skinning a knee—you know, how it hurts, but then that hurt is only amplified by the power of its own memory? The image of falling and that urgent pain?
I think now he must have meant at our past: how we met, my sweetest gestures, the view behind us on the road. My hand wrapping around a thermos. Our car tracing asphalt carved into earth. We wound and dipped beneath steely gray machinery as conveyers bigger than my body harvested minerals compressed by time.
Look back, he said so often, but I only ever thought, Regret.
As in the many things—both big and small—that already, we were leaving behind.
I’m okay with letting go, and if my memory’s bad, it’s just as well. But there are these things I don’t now what to do with: memories of life in France together, for example. We were twenty when it happened; it was easy to make the move. We were children in love with losing and what did it matter, how far we were? The absence of a homeland didn’t seem to matter. We agreed it would be hard to miss suburbia, plots of overdeveloped land. And we didn’t think it would ever end—the love, is what I mean. The choosing to be together.
And I thought, which now seems silly, that in choosing to live in France we were choosing one another forever. It didn’t seem the thing—it still doesn’t, when I’m being honest—that people in temporal love go do. Back then, we were interested only in what was essential, and we mimicked this even through language. L’herbe, we learned, l’air. Le soleil et la nourriture. Everything came with “the,” as if it was one kind, specifically, implying the element of choice.
He was l’amour, the love, my one and only.
We spent our days drinking in cafes, touring flowering valleys, viewing rocky cliffs that jutted out above the ocean while I snapped photos of poppy plants I thought to eat. When on Saturdays the cruise ships came, tourists unloaded like kitschy merchandise, moved awkwardly through our streets. What I liked to do most of all—I liked to sit in the square and ad-lib for them.
Would you like to eat a crumpet?
No, I am full from eating fart.
They reminded me of my parents: their evening shirts and slacks and loafers. Their cravings and how they seemed to have a need to buy one of everything: aprons and sachets and teacups, soap and olive oil infused with herbs. They moved densely in thick packs, their plastic bags shifting against each other, and their guides held up tall, white signs affixed with the name of their ocean liner. Tiny Statues of Liberty, is what I called them, on account of the way those men held those signs.
“Petites statues de la liberté,” I joked. “Les touristes Américains.”
“Mon petit chou,” he called me, smiling. My little cabbage, the French term of sweet endearment. “M’épouser.”
Etre ma femme. Je serai votre mari. Be my wife. I will be your husband.
Nous commencerons une vie. We will start a life.
We will start a family.
We will start a home.
I will put on an apron while he builds me to biggest fire.
Of course, you don’t realize when you’re in it that your life has already begun. That the best part—both now and always—is pretending you get to go back and hit Rewind.
Then you can’t and you get disillusioned, so we were nearly engaged and now we aren’t. He lives in a brownstone somewhere in Boston, and I live deep in the Midwest, where tornado sirens whine and wail and I pretend they’re our country’s heartbeat.
Look back, he says. Look back.
And I am, I think.
Amy Butcher is a recent graduate of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program and Gettysburg College. She was the 2012-2013 Olive B. O’Connor Fellow in nonfiction writing at Colgate University and this past winter she was twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, and Salon, among others.
Copyright © 2013 by Amy Butcher.