Remember when social media first became a thing? We logged onto Facebook or Classmates and added our best friends and immediate family and then what? We looked up our old flames. It’s okay, most of us did it. Curiosity gets the better of all of us sometimes. I looked up a few. I was happy to see one married with kids, living not far from her parents; satisfied and unsurprised to see another as single and vapid as I expected; and was concerned when neither Google nor Facebook could report on a third. I hope she’s okay.
It’s important not to loiter. I didn’t pine for the old days or wonder what could have been. And I wasn’t jealous. Nor did I have the urge to go High Fidelity and seek them out, wondering what it all meant.
Then again, I’ve been in love with my wife for over half my existence without a single regret.
I’m also head-over-heels infatuated with the little corner of the world in which I live. And not just my town, but the region we proudly call Cascadia. My soul soars each day I look to the mountains ringing my town, I thrill at the bounty of recreational options that lie minutes from my front door—and the collection of cultural, creative, and culinary outlets that exist a few miles downhill to the west, in Seattle.
Yet western Washington isn’t my only geographical love.
Of Maps and GPS Tracks
I was loading a new cycling course onto my GPS recently and saw that the device’s memory was nearly full. I opened the course folder, wondering how that could be, and saw dozens of files with names like Kalamata_Mystras, Istanbul_Ephesus, and MalayPort_Singapore. The files dated from 2015, a list of start and finish locations outlining the last several thousand miles we cycled on our two year journey.
My mind traveled halfway around the world, envisioning the roads leading in and out of each town, the meals we ate, the people we talked to. It felt like a lifetime ago, something we did only in the fog of a dream seldom remembered.
I opened Google Maps and panned to the Mediterranean, zooming in on whatever was centered. The country didn’t matter to my homesick heart.
Kefalonia came into view, that sizable Greek isle off the west coast of the Peloponnese. And there was the road we took south from the ferry, beginning a mountainous circumnavigation of the island in the scorching July heat. I dragged the little orange man onto the map, depositing him atop a hill on the southern side of the island. By luck and the peculiarities of my at-times superhuman memory, I landed a few mouse clicks from a dusty bus stop we sheltered in during a midday snack break, a short walk from a convenience store where I bought several liters of water.
A flick of the mouse brought me east, to Turkey, near the city of Konya, the country’s most conservative. I paused for a moment, thinking back to the day we arrived in Konya, trying to envision the route to our hotel. I recalled the high-speed descent, my rear tire running low on air, the approaching thunderstorm, and eventually the pelting rain that had us seeking shelter at a service station.
My eyes watered at the memories.
The Little Reminders
When I really feel like depressing myself, I wonder what it would be like as a widower. I know, I know. Why would I do that to myself? Sometimes I can’t help it; the downward spiral sucks me in.
I don’t linger on the big things, the aspects of suddenly being without that would challenge my desire to go on. I know those feelings would eventually fade. Or be so ingrained in my existence I wouldn’t think of them every waking moment. They’d be normalized. Instead, I dwell on the little things, the reminders of the inside jokes we share, the peculiarities of our relationship, and the eccentricities that make her her. Those would be the hardest to suffer reminders of.
We spent a weekend at the coast last month, a chance to get away with our puppy and let her run and frolic on one of the widest, flattest, beaches in North America. We arrived late Friday night, after a four-hour drive through torrential rain and driving wind. Next to the soap and shampoo in our room was a small toiletry kit containing a bevy of items, including a small packet. It was a makeup remover towelette. Just like the ones we collected from hotels around the world, an insignificant item I never noticed in my prior years on this planet, but became something I hoarded on the road. They were perfect for cleaning greasy hands after working on the bikes.
Neither oyster shooters nor pints of local beer could brighten my mood. I hit a funk. The makeup remover reminded me of what no longer was, and how our plans for after had melted away. How our return home bore no trace of the post-trip life we envisioned.
I wondered aloud if I would be happier today having never even had those experiences. I posited that knowing precisely what we no longer could do was worse than never having done it in the first place—that ignorance, pardon the cliche, was truly bliss.
It All Leaves a Mark
Though I never spend any time thinking of the past girlfriends I looked up on Facebook several years ago, there are, of course, the occasional reminders. A particular song on the radio, for example, or a line from a movie. I smile at the memory, enjoying the moment, and carry on. No part of me wishes things were different. Yet, I also know those people and the experiences we shared helped shape who I am.
Everyone we encounter, everywhere we go, and all we see leaves its mark; a million tiny asteroids bombarding us, our imperfect slate, at all times, from all directions, indenting our being with impressions of themselves.
Sometimes the impact is painful. Other times, it’s the separation that leaves us reeling.
I’m often referencing places I’ve been on Google Maps for work on my novel. I zoom in tighter and tighter on the alleys and storefronts, panning the crowded roads of Google Street View, and I get jealous. In my imagination, the people strolling the piazzas in Florence are always there, forever traveling, immortalized by the car with the crazy camera on its roof.
These people, licking their gelato and sipping their Chianti, are where we were. Where we’re no longer. Where I wish I was.
It hurts, the constant reminders of what no longer is. Yet I stalk the cities and roads we traveled, leering from the far side of the Internet, checking on the places we’d been, jealous of those now there. As if Street View was real-time, I curse the people I see, like a scorned lover watching intertwined shadows outside an ex’s bedroom window.
And I’m left with a choice. We all are. Every one of us who has ever had and lost or loved and been hurt, we all must decide whether to risk it again.
Do we add to the memories and invite new impressions on ourselves? This, I realize, is to risk future heartache. For even the most benign objects in our life — a hotel toiletry, for example — can stir up memories that remind us of what no longer is. The more we invite into our lives, the more places we go, the more we open ourselves to future pain.
Is it worth it?
Absolutely. The future pain lets you know the past was worth living.