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Oh, Fuck…

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They say when one door closes another one opens. That may be true, but it is also fucking inconvenient sometimes. 

November 2017.  You’re back. I wasn’t sure if you were coming. You had been gone for three weeks and I was nervous I wouldn’t see you again. Mainly because you were my friend but also a little bit because of something else that I couldn’t quite put my finger on…or I could but I wasn’t ready to consider it.

Things were okay with me after you left. I say “okay”….. “okay” to me means surving but not thriving. The only person I told about my findings on Will’s phone was Ruth. And even then it was in passing over a few wines and statements of “I’m not the jealous type”, “I’m sure it’s nothing”, and “it’s been six years, I trust him.” I was downplaying a sadness that had been bubbling in a tiny but boisterous whirlpool at the pit of my chest since August. 

I’ve never had feelings for someone else while I have been happy in a relationship. For sure I have found people “attractive” and encouraged my single friends to “go for it” with mutually agreed upon passing hotties. Twit twooo. I’ve even had day or weeklong crushes, but that always passed when I got to know them and discovered the reality of that human was nothing compared to the reality of my loving relationship. Every imagined future with them was nothing compared to tea and crumpets in bed on a Sunday morning, playing I Spy out the window with the person I knew I loved. Even out of a relationship, it has always seemed to be true that while I hold a candle for one person, all my energy, my fire, is for them.  Nobody else gets a look in.

I realize now the on the day I found the messages after the disaster camping trip a door closed inside me. The flame was blown out. I just didn’t know it. 

You’d always been my friend. I can’t say I never thought you were attractive, but it was never a problem. You had a girlfriend. I had a boyfriend. They long predated us. I liked her. You liked him. We would hang out, drink beer, laugh. You’ve always been very funny.  The thing is though, now I think about it, I’ve always had this strange ability to know exactly where you are in a room. I’ve always been lit up by your presence. I’ve always been sad when you have gone home because it always signified the end of the party. You’d always stay to the end. 

In October your world came crashing down. I had no idea you were unhappy too. We didn’t talk about it. And then suddenly It was all very dramatic. You text me asking if you could come and stay with us and I didn’t ask any questions I just said yes. I know I felt something strange inside though. I knew before you told me that you must have broken up and I was sad for you… and for her because like I said, I really did like her. But another feeling too. Like someone had just plucked a string and walked away. A note vibrating for longer than it should. 

You came and you went. You stayed two nights then got on a plane. The first night I made spaghetti and then we sat outside and drank whisky and talked it through. The next night I walked you to the bus that would take you to the airport and I told you I was scared you weren’t going to come back. You promised you would and I hugged you twice. You disappeared and I breathed a sigh of relief. You were gone. Back to England. From whence you came. A few weeks apart and I’ll have talked myself out of you.

But then you came back. It was a few days until I saw you. And then I did. And then I knew was in trouble. Real trouble. I had spent two weeks ignoring it. Blissfully ignoring it. But there you were and I knew before I even hugged you.  The string was still vibrating. Something had cosmically shifted and you were standing there in front of me, an open door.   Oh, Fuck.

TBC. 

 

 

The Sun

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Last week I wrote to you about the moon and the first time I felt it’s gravity. This week I want to tell you about the sun and the first time that, amid it all, I realized everything was going to be okay.

December 2017. Over a week after the car crash in Tucson. It’s Boxing Day and we’re driving from Venice Beach to San Francisco up the famous Pacific Highway. The sun is out. The views are glorious. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were good for us, although there was something still hanging unspoken in the air. I cried when you gave me my Christmas present late last night and I think we both knew why. 

We had planned to get up early enough to watch the sunrise but we hadn’t quite managed it. Life on the road is exhausting. We did manage to pack sandwiches, though and after an early breakfast we were off and away on our final leg of the trip that didn’t save us. 

If you ever get the chance to drive the Pacific Highway, take it. I still think about the views outside my window that day and the blue skies and the ocean and the hills and the birds and the little towns and the feeling and smell of it all, the air that drifted through the open windows. One day I’d like to come back and do it all again but this time with a healed heart and my forever accomplice.      If. Of course.

We made a few stops and I loved each and every one of them. We had planned to get to San Francisco by late night so we didn’t make too many. I could have spent weeks stopping and exploring, ducking in and ducking out of little towns I’ve never heard of and will never see again. We stopped in one town for ice cream and we sat on the beach to eat it. It was lunchtime and the sun was at its highest in the sky, giving us its best California winter warmth.   You always loved mint chocolate chip and I always loved to try something new. That afternoon I was digging my toes in the sand and licking dark forest gateaux from a cone. 

Back to the car. I already knew in an unspoken cavern of my chest that I was going to miss you terribly. So terribly. 

We drive through more rugged terrain, dipping and climbing, rising and falling, watching eagles spectacularly sore above us. We talked about things we liked and people we knew and we even talked about you…the other you. Him, I suppose. I wondered if he knew? How could he, I barely knew myself. 

As the late afternoon crept in, I asked if we could feel the sun and dip our toes in the ocean again before it got dark. We stopped at Cayucos State Beach and ate our sandwiches, sharing a beer in silence. I fed my crusts to the seagulls. 

The ocean has always been my place. Any ocean. The crashing water, the ends of the earth; it’s always filled my heart with a pure wild joy. It wasn’t really warm enough but I took off my shoes and socks and padded softly into the water. The sun was coming down low now, midway above the horizon and it felt as if it was there just for me in that moment. To warm my chest and remind me I am just one of the creatures that exists on the planet because it exists out there, 149.6 million kilometres away. All I could see was the ocean, the sky and the sun, and all I could feel was the sand, the cold water and the warm, glow of the sun on my body. The sun found that place in my chest, that unspoken regretful cavern and it asked for a word. I let it have one.

In short, the sun told me everything was going to be okay. In longer terms, it told me my problems were small compared to the magnitude of all living beings and that life is gift enough in itself. Cool. Everything will work itself out.  No matter how dark it gets, the sun will continue to shine. Somethings are not constant, but the sun is. I think about that moment a lot and I remember that if i can just stand in the sun for a few moments, I will be alright. 

It was time to go. I picked up a shell from the beach to remind me of that moment. It sits on my window cill in full view of the sunlight today. 

You said there wasn’t time to stop again so I watched the sun set from the car window. The sky burned red and I watched the light disappear behind cliffs and water. I didn’t want it to go, but it had to.

Later that night our journey was met with a road block. A landslide. We had to drive back on ourselves and around the cliff. It was a two hour detour. I was sure there was a metaphor in there somewhere but I was too tired at this point to think it up. We checked into a motel in the middle of nowhere. We ate bad Chinese takeout and slept at opposite sides of the bed. By sunrise we were on our way again, and a few hours after it set that night I would let the words that marked the beginning of the end tumble out of my mouth and slide down the lemon rind in my martini glass never to be returned. I’m not proud of the timing or the setting…but I think it had something to do with that moment in the sun. 

An Epilogue. 

The winter was long and appalling. I hurt all over from the cold and sadness. Those few weeks in the sunnier states were some of the last I saw of the sun for a while. But then, in late March in my new house with big windows, the sunlight started pouring in my windows. I stood with my face to the glass and breathed it in. I counted to 60….then to two minutes…and then I stopped counting and just existed. 

It’s winter again, a year later, and the sunlight still has the ability to stop me in my tracks on a frozen afternoon. The sun cutting away the arctic conditions and bathing me in a spotlight of warmth…I bask. I always bask. 

Right now I’m still in bed as I write this. The sunlight is dancing across my bare legs and freshly washed sheets. I’ve been reading all morning and drinking coffee and eating chocolate. A tear rolls down my face. A happy one. I made it out alive.  Thank you, sun. 

The 18 Cigarettes of 2018

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I’ve never been a smoker. Although that isn’t to say I’ve never smoked. A few puffs held tightly in my mouth then blerted out up the school field at 12 years old, shivering in the cold sharing a Lucky Strike between two at a teenage house party held in an affluent Cambridgeshire village, sucking in a few drags of Christina’s roll-ups outside Goldsmiths College Library age 21, my synapses alive with literary stress. WE. CAN. DO. THIS. We did.

All of these experiences, while not definitely anecdotes that accompany the highlights of my life, were all shared experiences with friends. They are something we look back and laugh at. Smoking a puff or two amid a girl gang became something we did. Reading Festivals weren’t the same if you didn’t have a drag by the fire at night and god help the 18 year old non-smoker in the nightclub when their entire friendship group trots outside. Bye then. The choice between toxin free warmth and sips of WKD blue versus braving the British winter to stand with your mates in a chilly square cage was a surprisingly easy one to make. I didn’t want to miss out. I think all of our best juvenile flirting came in those grim grey squares, with romantic views of the carpark and the obligatory lightweight vomiting up a brick wall. Those were the days.

Luckily as we got older, the majority of my friends stopped smoking. Nights stomping the sticky dance floor at DeNiro’s were swapped for wine bars and tapas and I didn’t hate it. I’ve always been a bit bougey, preferring to bake a Camembert than order a pizza. By my mid twenties smoking was part of those “oh how young and stupid we were” anecdotes. Only for me, it was around this time that I began smoking alone.

Don’t get me wrong, the amount of cigarettes I have inhaled in the past six years would equate to a slow day for some heavy smokers, but that’s not the point. One particularly stressful summer, my second out of Uni, a time I expected I would have my shit together but absolutely didn’t, I smoked two whole Marlborough lights while driving down the fast lane of the M25. Rings of tarmac, rings of smoke and endless rings of discontent.  What.Am.I.Doing.Here?!

Then came 2018.

It wasn’t until 2018 that I realised that smoking is a thing I do when I think I’ve hit rock bottom. It sounds strange to say, but when I am in a deep, deep mental hole, having a cigarette is the only thing I can do to stop myself from crying. It’s like the bitter taste of tobacco and tar are enough to remind me that actually life tastes worse than this moment.

In March 2018 I had been apart from my boyfriend of six years for a couple of months. He had a new girl,  I had started having an ill advised fling with a friend and had just moved in to my own furniture-free basement apartment. In the first few weeks, the adrenaline will get you through, after that, you’re own your own.

This crippling loneliness, the kind you can only feel during the dust settley aftermath of a big, terrifying transformation in your life, THIS is what lead me to lay down $18 bucks for a pack of 20 Ashfords in the late throws of the seemingly endless winter. These became my depression crutch of 2018.

The first one I smoked that same night as I walked home. As I breathed in the horrible, throat tearing plume, it joined a less distinguishable chamber of utter despair inside me, they mixed together and then I blew them out. Gone. Fuck, that felt better. To be able to pinpoint something so horrible and to simply breath it out became something I allowed myself to do only when I hit absolute lows. Writhing in my bed, tearing out my hair, huddling at the bottom of the shower. There was something I could do now to put and end to those nights. They weren’t every night by any means. Sometimes just the thought that I could do it would be enough to calm me down without having to suck in the dizzying vapour poison. Sometimes, it wasnt though and I would find myself sitting on my front step listening to Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah, cigarette in hand, quietly ogling the moon and hoping for a better day. 

The better days came and the better days went. One night I stood in the soupy thick Orlando Heat, looking my physical best and feeling my physical worst, drowning a double vodka soda and burning out my smoke to its dying embers. What the fuck was I doing? 

It was around this point that I had a worrying diagnosis that put an end to it for a few months. How could I be sick and sitting outside on sporadic nights inhaling smoke? I’d have to be a royal twat. 

That good motivation kept me in kale smoothies and vitamin supplements for the most of the summer, but then Autumn came. There were six cigarettes left in my box and one night, when I couldn’t make sense of you, I was back at my step, Jeff Buckley warbling in my ear and my teary eyes firmly fixed at the stars. I wanted so much to be better and to do better, I just couldn’t. 

I think the real low was smoking an entire cigarette on a frosty grey day outside of work in early November. I never did it in daylight before. The winter was rearing its ugly head once again and I had no idea how I was going to do it all over. Please, not winter again. Please. Usually my lows would come at night when I was alone, but that day the only thing that allowed me to get up and get ready for work was telling myself I only had to keep it together until lunchtime, then I could cry in the toilets for 10 minutes and then go outside and burn my throat shut. My mouth shut, my heart shut. I could keep it all under lock and key until nighttime. 

I actually hated you for doing this to me. But of course, I hated myself more for allowing it. I don’t think it was actually really about you at all, just the hole left inside my chest and trying to find a way to fill it because I knew I couldn’t close it. Or I could, but it took so much more time than I was willing to bear. So I puffed my time away.  

There came a day in late November when I realised I wasn’t the only one struggling. There was hurt beyond mine in a friend too. I gave her one cigarette and told her my trick of feeling the worst you can, to stare rock bottom in the eye, in order to feel better. I don’t know if she ever smoked it, perhaps it was enough for it to just be there, like it had been for me some days.

Come December I was trying harder. I was doing better. Suddenly the end had a beginning in sight. 2019. I had three cigarettes left and I took them with me to New York, and to London and to my family home. Christmas can be a hard time, a lonely time, and I didn’t know if I would need them. I didn’t. 

Back with me to Toronto they came, and like me, they were a little battered from the transatlantic haul.

The problem with going away is that you have to come back. I returned to Toronto to realize that my problems were still there and now was the time to cut the strings tying me to them once and for all. You needed to go. You couldn’t be a part of my new narrative.

The evening of the 29th December was my last bad day. So bad it deserved two cigarettes. I threw up in the toilet bowl. 

December 31st came and I had been fully prepared to smoke my last disgusting stick before midnight; a cheers and farewell to a bad year I was so ready to put behind me. But in the end, the opportunity didn’t come.  I never smoked it. 

I found the tattered pack in my kitchen on New Years Morning as I was tidying alone with a lemoncello hangover. I stared at it…sad and bent and flaking. Not this year, mate. Not this year. 

Head pounding, lonely but determined, I crumbled it between my fingers and threw it in the bin. I washed my hands clean and I started again. 

Goodbye, old friend. I won’t miss you.