I will never forget the night before the afternoon that completely changed my love story.
My fiancée led me out onto a small bridge suspended over the Merced River in Yosemite Valley, California. It was late, and we wanted to get the best view of the stars on our last night before heading back to Los Angeles the following day.
“Turn off your headlamp,” she said, “and look up.”
We had been together for nearly 3 years, and engaged for 9 months, but our relationship had been approaching its end for a while.
We had begun slowly unraveling at some point, like a single thread coming loose in the arm of a favorite sweater. By the time we noticed, we had only attempted to remedy the situation by wearing fancier clothes underneath the gaping hole. Our love had become threadbare where it counted most, but we were still each other’s favorite possession, so we clung tightly to an idea of what our relationship should be, instead of acknowledging what it really was.
I switched off my lamp and was immediately swallowed by the pitch-black night. I remember feeling a little uneasy, thoughts of wild bears and axe murders and all of the other bad things that can get you in complete darkness flashed through my mind. Her arms slipped around my waist and she pulled me close. I felt safe then, realizing that I hadn’t allowed myself to feel that way with her in a long time.
“Its ok,” she whispered. “Just look up.”
I relaxed into her arms and we both gazed up at the massive sky. My breath caught and was taken away by the endless amount of stars that seemed to surround us on all sides, as though we were in our own world with its very own solar system.
I found her face in the dark with my hands and I kissed her and she kissed me back so long and with such abandon that I forgot about time and all of the things that had created the gaping hole of distance between us. And we just stood there on that bridge in the middle of our own solar system surrounded by nothing but love and each other and billions of stars shining their ancient light and I felt for the first time in a long time that maybe things were going to be okay. That maybe we were going to be enough.
“I love you I love you I love you,” I breathed into her ear.
It was a sentiment filled with expectation, one that I said over and over again in the hope that doing so would ensure stability I didn’t possess.
We walked hand in hand back to our campsite and sat by the fire we built together, talking quietly while she gave me one of her famous foot rubs. She apologized for that mean thing she said earlier, I said it was okay and filed it away in my mind as that thing she would probably say again. When the fire dwindled into nothing more than glowing embers, we went to bed, holding each other close for warmth against the chilly night.
The next afternoon during the 6-hour car ride home, we got in an argument about something silly. The argument turned into a fight, and we said the things to each other that finally unraveled us completely. Even though I had seen it coming, our breakup destroyed me while it was happening.
Every day during the 9 months we spent separating, I experienced a new level of pain I didn’t think I would be able to withstand. I was supposed to become a wife, and then a mother and someone’s everything and that was going to make me whole, and now I was to be none of these things. And so this nothingness began to erode away at my very being, and I was terrified and alone. It was as though the loss of “us” would almost certainly result in the loss of my whole existence. This was a feeling so tangible that after she had gathered the last of her belongings and officially moved out of our house, I could be found lying on the floor in the fetal position, arms wrapped tightly around my body, crying and begging myself not to leave too.
Soon enough, the sleepless nights, weight loss, car-crying sessions, and all of the other cliché responses to a broken heart got to be too much, and I set out on a solo mission of forgetting my hurt.
I went about this in the same way I go about doing most things in my life, to the extreme and with little to zero planning ahead of time. I painted every wall in the room that used to be ours a different shade of green and some other mystery color labeled “smoky lilac.” I bought a ticket to Thailand and spent an entire month there, making sure everyone on Facebook knew that I was having the time of my life. I hiked to the top of the 6 tallest mountain peaks in Southern California. I traveled to New Orleans in search of a real Voodoo witch who I believed would tell me what to do with my heart in the future (she only asked me if my mother breastfed me and if I always got what I wanted in life and then sent me away without any answers). Some of these adventures worked to dull my pain, but the more you try to run from it, grief has a funny way of showing up anyway. Sometimes I would wake up in the morning, my pillow soaked with tears I never remembered shedding.
The real piéce de résistance of my post-engagement saga came when I decided to leave the little Southern California beach town I had grown up in, where we had fallen in love, and where we would no longer have our wedding, and move to New York City where I didn’t know a soul.
I quickly became caught up in the excitement that is New York, the rush of the constant rush, the novelty of a change of pace in every way imaginable. The city which carries an energy with the power to make you feel like you can forget everything that brought you there in the first place was working its magic on me. I missed home, but I couldn’t help but be propelled into a new existence in New York City, one that bordered on an almost brand new identity. I learned how to just BE while being very much alone for the first time in my life, and how to be content when there was no one in front of me to change but myself. I found out about strength, and how it can lie dormant inside of a person undetected, until the very moment it is conjured up by a perfect combination of solitude and loss. This mysterious new fortitude went with me everywhere, and what was left of my wavering insecurities were suddenly replaced by a fierce independence. Eventually, I went a little power-mad. I began to silently shame the silly girl who allowed herself to be hurt by love. I angrily pushed the memory of that girl further and further away, until I almost believed that she was never really me at all.
After a few months of living in New York, my California friends reminded me of a camping reservation we had made earlier that year for the exact same campsite my ex and I had stayed in on our last night as a couple in Yosemite. I hesitated before responding, a flash of worry that even though it had been over a year, the wounded girl I used to be might still be lingering in that spot, waiting to remind me of what pain feels like. No, I thought, my newfound confidence taking over my irrational fear, I will be fine. That girl doesn’t even exist.
And at first, I actually believed it. I didn’t see her as we drove into the park with its breathtaking views. She didn’t show up on the epic and challenging day hike I took with my friends. She was nowhere to be found as we laughed by the campfire and stuffed our faces with s’mores late into the night.
But on the last night of our trip I decided to take a walk by myself and look at the stars. I headed out toward the back of the campsite and I could hear the Merced river water flowing over the rocks, and the light from my headlamp caught some steps and those steps led up to a familiar bridge.
I froze, this unexpected gut punch from my past rooting me to the spot. I looked out onto the bridge and a direct reminder of the hurt I had tried to forget stared back. Instead of taking another step I took a seat, and allowed myself to feel the pain. I cried for the loss of the beautiful parts of our relationship, and I cried because in the end I couldn’t fix what was broken with us. But my tears also began to wash away the wall of shame I had put up against myself for so long, and I was able to feel that as well. My anger at myself having loved so hard it hurt was replaced by a sense of gratitude that I had been given a beautiful soul with a capacity to experience that kind of love in the first place. Turns out that loving big and making mistakes and being broken and finding strength is what makes me who I am. On my journey to forget my pain I had become brave, but when I faced it I found acceptance and that made me stronger than ever.
I stood and walked out onto the bridge until I was standing right in the middle of it, in its darkest spot. I took a deep breath, turned out my headlamp and looked up. The same stars surrounded me and I exhaled into the cool night air.
“I love you I love you I love you,” I said to all of me. The wind blew softly through the trees and hugged me close.
“I love you, too,” My whole self answered back. And finally, it was enough.