Eight years after breaking up with Sean, he invited me to his dad’s funeral. His father’s heart gave out after we mended ours. Sean texted me from his home in Portland. Al’s funeral would be in Fargo, the same town in which Sean and I fell in love and where I eventually married someone else. I texted Sean that I had to work on the afternoon of the funeral, but I would try to be there. I wanted to be there, not just for him, but for me as well.
At 21 years old, I ended our four-year co-dependent relationship. I marveled at people who cut lovers out of their lives as easily as an ill-fitted coat. The obsession that bound us together failed to shrink. Several months after we broke up, I contacted him via email, and we started hanging out again. Over time, we worked through the discomfort of our residual feelings, ultimately arriving at a new place of understanding: platonic love.
As I enter the funeral home, the scents of robust perfumes and fragrant flowers drift toward my nostrils. I drop my card in the designated basket and search the room for Sean. Spotting some familiar faces, my shy nature implores me to avoid any awkward conversation. I decide to look for Sean after the service and settle into an empty bench toward the back.
Tears sting my eyes as Al’s ex-coworkers and siblings tell anecdotes. I am relieved that the service is focused more on his life and less on recruiting Jesus followers.
Here is what I remember about this man: he worked at a bank before his retirement, served in the military as a young man, told awful pun jokes to watch people squirm, and watched Walker: Texas Ranger, non-ironically. This man gave Sean pounds of venison for our freezer, cooked us delicious meals, and went to bed at 8 pm. He often greeted his only child with a “Hey, buddy” and offered farewells that did not include a hug, for me or his son.
Sean and I moved to St. Cloud, Minnesota before my freshman year of college. Any time we came back to Fargo to visit, Al stocked Sean’s trunk with grocery bags full of condiments, laundry detergent, and other household items for the apartment we shared. We collected enough ketchup to organize a college orientation BBQ, enough Gatorade to host a local marathon.
On one occasion, after learning that Sean had threatened suicide, Al responded by buying him a new pair of shoes. This struck me as a tragic, misguided reply. I assume this man needed to pretend things were fine when they clearly were not. I assume he believed men should keep their feelings locked up inside. Perhaps if the stigma surrounding mental illness died, more of those who suffer beneath it could live.
When the funeral ends, I run into Sean’s half-brother, who directs me to Sean. Outside? Of course. It’s April, and in true Fargo fashion, the weather is cold and blustery, not spring-like at all. I spy Sean a few yards away, chatting in a semi-circle of people, with his back facing me. He is smoking, presumably a Marlboro Light. These were the brand his dad smoked, the ones Sean used to steal off the top of the refrigerator before our walks, the same ones Al replaced without chiding him. Sean’s wearing a beanie, something he does even in the summer to cover up his receding hairline, the one he inherited from his dad. I walk toward him, ignoring the icy gusts raging through my hair and clothing. A windy day never could compete with his warm embrace. I tap him on the shoulder.
“Oh my God!”
Sean throws his arms around me, holding me as if he’s been waiting for this moment. I love this about him. I take in his familiar frame, his Old Spice deodorant. I think of the last time his hug felt this urgent, when we were still together, how he makes a hug feel like an event, like home.
Sean finishes his cigarette, and we head inside. Downstairs, guests drink coffee and eat pastries while a slideshow featuring pictures from Al’s life project onto a screen. Near the doorway, I hug Sean’s mom, who is always happy to see me. I smile, because the feeling is mutual. Sean and I sit at a table with his best friend from childhood. We reminisce about old times, gossip about the people we used to know.
After condolences are exhausted and the refreshments are depleted, people start streaming out of the funeral home. Sean’s mom gives me an untouched veggie plate and potted plant to take home. I am amazed by the beauty of human connections and the complex nature in which they form.
I am not ready to say goodbye, so I offer to drive Sean wherever he needs to go. He asks me to bring him to Al’s condo: the one Sean is now in charge of selling, the one where our relationship began and almost ended, where Sean packed his belongings to begin a new life with me, and where his family has begun the process of packing up the remnants of his father’s life.
I often long to inhabit old spaces: previous places I once lived, classrooms in which I sat. It creates a comforting illusion, shortening the distance between then and now. A science teacher once explained that if we were able to travel faster than the speed of light, it might be possible to go back in time and watch ourselves being born. I want to build a nest inside this notion: our younger selves remain, accessible in an alternate universe.
We pull into the driveway of the condo, and I am greeted by ghosts. Our silhouettes up on the balcony, disappearing down a nearby alley—holding hands, locking eyes, and linking hearts.
Here I am, nervously knocking on his front door for the first time. I am wearing my Dark Side of the Moon tank top, feeling cool. Here is Al graciously leading me to Sean’s bedroom for guitar lessons.
Sean unlocks the door and we step inside. It feels sacred to reenter this building, as if a past life has been opened to me. I follow Sean up a flight of stairs, steps that lead from the front door to the rooms above.
One day, shortly after Sean and I started dating, I arrived to find his ex-girlfriend standing on these steps. For several weeks after they broke up, she often let herself into the condo, utilizing the garage code she’d memorized (1-2-1-2) when they were still together. She showed up unannounced, pleading for Sean to take her back. I studied her checkered Vans sneakers, pulled-back dark hair, and furious expression. She was pregnant on that frigid day in February, as she reluctantly descended the steps toward me, toward the exit.
Here I am on his couch, carefully maneuvering my body to avoid waking his infant daughter who’s fallen asleep on my chest. Here he is, telling me it’s the most attractive thing I’ve ever done.
I sit on the floor as Sean lights a cigarette, opening the balcony door for ventilation. He lurks near the mantel, puffing away. I tell him about my current life, and he fills me in on the details of his. The exchange feels natural, yet foreign in this setting: our lives acknowledged as separate entities in an environment where they once fused. My gaze settles beyond him, landing outside on the balcony’s wooden plank floor.
Here I am sitting on the balcony with Sean. We’re staring at a magnificent sky, blazing orange streaks colliding with brilliant pink accents. Here’s Sean telling me our divorced parents don’t understand the meaning of real love. Here’s me believing him, desperate for the moment we would redefine it.
I silently chastise myself for not insisting he step outside, for exposing myself to any amount of secondhand smoke. Here I am again, sacrificing the things that matter to me to appear impervious to this boy. Will I never grow out of this?
“Guess what?” I say.
I rub my belly, “I have an alien growing inside me.”
Sean expresses genuine happiness for me. I have been married for four years at this point. Any animosity Sean held toward the love interests who came after him have diminished. Those intense feelings expired when he rediscovered his ability to fall in love with others.
We whisk through the rooms, noting the packing progress.
We walk through Al’s closet, discussing his gun collection. Sean tells me stories as I study Al’s bedroom, remembering the day Sean and I drank until the wee hours of the morning, arriving at the condo still awake from the night before. For some reason I can’t recall, Sean’s room was unavailable, so Al let us sleep in his bed until four in the afternoon. I appreciated Al not grilling us about where we had been all night.
My eyes focus outside his door, aligning with the room on the right.
Here’s where they discovered mold growing up the side of the wall, hidden toxins circulating. Here’s the cabinet where Sean found a bottle of anti-depressants, unveiling a mutual cord between him and his father that Al never revealed to him.
Further down the hall, our spirits are howling with desire.
Here’s the tub in which we showered together, the slippery suds removing stubborn friction between our bodies. Here’s the small hallway where we left our clothes strewn about. Al must have noticed as he delivered a laundry basket in the adjacent bedroom, but he never mentioned it.
Here we are lying on his bed: minds conjoined, limbs intermingled, lips never satisfied. Here I am sobbing on his floor, where I almost ended things, but didn’t. Here’s the same bed in which I dreamt about kissing someone else, guilt-singed while lying beside him.
Sean announces he is ready to leave. He will be coming back to go through more items with his family on a different day. We descend the steps leading toward the front door. I ponder how lucky I am to have this opportunity, to revisit these ghosts I chose to abandon.
Here we are at the bottom of the stairs, giggling and kissing goodbye, floating in a time-space continuum unique to only us. Here we are holding each other as if a tornado threatens to pull us apart, lips never satisfied. Here I am lingering, never wanting to say goodbye.
I do not linger. I am ready to say goodbye. Somewhere in an alternate universe, Sean and I are falling in love right at this moment, and I would hate to interrupt.
Justine Cadwell is a former blogger at TheHungryGuineaPig@wordpress.com and ParentalAdvisorySite@wordpress.com. She is currently writing a book of essays centered around the various shades of her neuroticism (in alphabetical order). Justine lives in Minnesota with her husband, daughter, and feline friend. To read more of her work, follow her on Twitter.