Relationships end as Daenerys Targaryen was born – amidst salt and smoke.
The salt of tears. The smoke of a flame extinguished, left to smolder as the residual exhaust dances aloft before disappearing into the void.
We see smoke from a distance and assume it leads to a fire. Follow it and we might just find one, or discover what we thought would be there is gone. Either way, the smoke we initially saw will dissipate, eventually.
Relationships are a bit more tricky. Throw water on such a fire and the smoke will not only engulf you in the moment, but linger, endure, and reappear when you least expect it.
We know this to be true. The idea that the memories of a relationship, for better or for worse, stay with you, is nothing new. Some call it baggage, others scars, or even demons.
I prefer smoke. Memories, especially those from a relationship, can take a variety of forms. They’re malleable. They can stink, fog your eyes, cloud your judgement, and seemingly fill up a room. They are almost never welcome, and their appearance can usually only mean bad things.
Smoke and hard memories are analogous in one more important way – their existence can also, sometimes, remind us of good things, if reframed through a particular lens.
It ended on a bench.
It’s a crisp spring afternoon in the Shenandoah Valley, and a flame is about to be extinguished.
We both knew it was going to happen. The fire had been waning for months. We hadn’t properly taken care of it, nurtured it. We hadn’t been honest with each other about how burdensome it had become to keep aflame.
And so, on that spring afternoon, we met at a park. Neutral ground. Why we chose that park in particular, I can’t be sure. Why we decided to sit at that particular park bench positioned near an empty soccer field, I am even more unsure.
Park benches invoke a variety of images. A daybreak warrior, pulling together the laces of her running shoes, inhaling the morning dew before putting rubber to the track. A beaming parent, watching his young child scurry amongst the horde, chasing a ball up and down the field. A panting dog sitting next to his human friend, coercing some pets after a nice, long walk.
Rarely do park benches solicit memories of a breakup. But for the life of me, every time I saw a silly little bench in the following months, I could think of nothing else.
Sitting on that bench, at an end – it was the first time we cried together, she noted. After over a year together, it seemed long overdue, and was happening under the most dour of circumstances. While sitting on the most normal of benches.
Smoke can appear out of nowhere. Same goes for stumbling upon artifacts of love lost. An image, a sound, a feeling, a park bench. The smoke from an ended relationship, that once led you to fire, now leads you to gloomy memories.
A few months before our flame exhausted, we had just finished Game of Thrones. Her favorite character, Daenerys, born amidst salt and smoke, seems poised to conquer the world.
For us, it was time to conquer a new show. While browsing the endless options, the colorful carousel of productions I’ll never watch zooming by, I land on one in particular that I felt she would like.
It had the telenovela themes she grew up watching with her mother. It had been endorsed by my sister. And it had gotten good reviews. We had nothing else to do on a rainy Saturday night. Why not?
We would end before the show did.
The night of our final episode, the salt of our tears rubbed away, we sit together in pensive reflection. She brings up a time when we were snorkeling in the salty Caribbean that summer.
I remember that day well, because it was a really good one. After fun-filled underwater exploration together in the morning, the tide picked up, and she was too tired to go on. Knowing that I was keen on reaching a far out abandoned pier that was a known hotspot for turtles, she urged me to go on without her.
“It’s kinda like that day,” she says. “I know I have to let you go, to go chase that turtle, whatever that may be”
For a while, it was not marine life I was chasing. In fact, it was the ending of the show we never got to finish.
It was a good show. I learned new Spanish words every time I flicked it on. And I really wanted to know what the f*** happens to Rafael, my favorite character. I wanted to watch it, I just couldn’t.
Those final episodes haunted me. I knew what awaited me when I pressed play. Smoke.
Sometimes we can control the memories we choose to relive. Like characters on a telenovela, we have a script we can follow. We can return to places, physical or emotional, that we once frequented with our partners, or we can choose not to. No matter what, the smoke will linger, and it’s up to us whether we follow it or not.
This is how you lose her.
On our first night in Athens, we gaze out at the Acropolis ruins overlooking the city.
The Acropolis fell under siege in 1687, when the Venetians descended upon Greece’s capital with fire and fury. They launched a cannon ball into the ancient citadel, where gunpowder was being housed. The result was destruction, smoke, and the fragmented ruins we see today.
Eventually, the fire we had would turn to smoke, too. Some of which she placed in my two hands.
Indeed, before we parted ways for good, she gave me a book.
This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz.
To the unfamiliar eye, it might seem a suggestive choice. But I knew her. There was a reason she chose this tome of words, and it was surely more thoughtful than what the title evoked.
It took months before I finally peeled open the pages. To my shock, I found that she had highlighted certain passages. Imagining her analyzing every word, sentence, and page, every event, character, and theme, all in an effort to underscore a derivative meaning to me, it was too much to handle. It was extremely thoughtful, not at all vindictive. And I totally wasn’t ready for it. This particular smoke had a voice, too. I had to let it collect dust for a while.
When the smoke mostly cleared away, I did make all the way through to the final sentence of the book, which she highlighted:
“Sometimes a start is all we ever get”
Breakups often leave us with nothing but smoking ruins. These ruins are painful to revisit, not because they are saddening, necessarily, but because they remind us of what was left undone. Paths we never walked. Words we left unsaid. A start we had that never finished. The smoke that lingers from a flame long extinguished inevitably leads to the dark side of nostalgia.
But does it have to?
If you’ve been through one breakup, you’ve been through one breakup. Same goes for relationships – no two are the same.
Some end because the fire simply died out. Others end in malice, in destructive fire, perhaps sparked by one party. For the latter, the following does not apply.
Those that end amicably are hard to endure in their own ways. If I’ve learned anything from dating in the millennial era, it is that you are never far from your memories. Often it doesn’t even take a bench, a show, or a book. These days, all it takes is a Facebook notification.
*Bzz* “Today you have memories with…” (a whole mess of smoke clouds)
Our world is ever interconnected, and we are constantly reminded of our past lives. As such, it’s that much more important that we learn to deal with heartache in a healthy way.
For me, that has meant not thinking of failed relationships as baggage, scars, or demons, but as smoke.
Like smoke, difficult memories are unwelcome, surely. That said, they are also reminiscent of the fire itself. The fire that you toiled over, sourced, and built, together, with your own two sets of hands. Something that started with two people and a bunch of fragmented pieces, and at its best, burned bright with a fervent intensity, made you warm, and left you proud of your shared creation.
Even when the fire dies and the last of the smoke dissipates, you are left with what you learned, whenever you’re ready to build that next fire.
Don’t be afraid to follow the smoke. It’s hard, it’s messy, and it takes time. But eventually, you might find it leads you to good things.
Read that book. Watch that show. Sit on that bench. Memories breathe meaning into our lives, and provide us with the kindling for what comes next.
Thank you for reading the long form of “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened”!
If you’ve been following this space for a while, you know my M.O. is travel writing. That hasn’t changed, but this year I’ll be trying out some new themes and narratives from time to time. Swing by again soon. Quack on, friends.