Tribute to an Old Flame

The last couple of months have offered me a little bit of everything: some of the happiest, most hilarious, laughter-inducing moments served as a timely chaser to the most heartbreakingly sad, snot-and-tear-soaked moments I’ve lived through. You’ll hear all about my trip to India in due course I’m sure, not least because I finished reading my 100th book of the year while I was there. But this was prefaced by some terrible news and a funeral of such sadness, such complex layers of grief, that I’m not quite sure where to begin.

Luke was my on-again-off-again boyfriend, ages 15-28. In the interest of clarity, we were together less than we were apart; of those 13 years, I think I celebrated three birthdays where we were romantically involved, five or six where we were just friends, and during the rest we had little to no contact at all. I don’t wish to overstate my significance to him, but we were important to each other during our formative years, and seemed to orbit one another the rest. He introduced me to some of my favourite musicians: Tori Amos, Smashing Pumpkins, Bright Eyes, and he gave me the complete Nirvana collection for my 21st. More importantly, he got me onto some amazing authors. I doubt I’d have come to Milan Kundera on my own, and it would’ve taken me a while to reach Haruki Murakami but for his recommendation. When he worked at Borders, he’d borrow books he thought I’d like as long as I promised to read them carefully and within a week. Another time he bought me a book of Courtney Love’s letters and artworks, then hastily reneged on the gift: having miscalculated his finances, he’d accidentally spent his rent money and had to return it the next day. A very sweet gesture nonetheless. When he worked at JB Hifi he bought me wireless headphones and a waterproof Bluetooth speaker so I could listen to audiobooks in bed and in the shower. The dude provided books and encouragement to read them. Easy to love, right?

He was easy to love, but hard to be in relationship with for all that. He seemed to struggle to identify his emotional needs, making it damn near impossible to communicate them. He was a quiet boy and a private man, struggling to maintain relationships on his own mysterious terms. Much as I value quiet and personal boundaries, his were too rigid for me and I felt like the only one emotionally engaged, which obviously wasn’t true by his reaction when I’d then pull away. We’d break up, spend time apart, see other people, commit to other people even. One way or another though, our paths kept crossing and we’d end up back together. He was my dead-body guy: I lived with full certainty that if I showed up with a corpse in tow, he’d help me get rid of it. Turns out, however, that an eager accomplice does not a soul mate make: it would be far more helpful for the other party to discuss one’s options and diplomatically urge you to alert the authorities. Still, there’s something deeply comforting in the knowledge that there’s someone out there who will take your side no matter what. That doesn’t mean you’re right for each other though. And while I don’t regret getting back together with him time and time again, nor do I regret finally calling it quits. We weren’t really that good together, in the end.

He wanted to stay friends; I didn’t. It’s hard to bear helpless witness to such a struggle, and I didn’t have it in me anymore. I knew he’d sought professional help with his mental health since we broke up for the last time, and I was glad for him. Relieved for him. He had been struggling for as long as I knew him, reluctant to admit it and terrified to face it. As far as I can tell, he was doing well for a while. He went back to art school, something he had given up and longed to return to. But evidently it didn’t last. News of his suicide hit me like an iron-fisted punch, but it didn’t come as a total surprise. It wasn’t a fear I had entertained in recent years, but it fit the rest of the picture. And the fact that I first met Cate through him, who took her own life three and a half years ago, brings an awful sense of symmetry that seems too painful to be fair.

His funeral was a heart-rending reunion and outpouring of grief for the old gang, the worst reason for getting the band back together. Ellie took the day off work to accompany me and pay her own respects – she had been friends with him too, back in the day. I brought along a copy of When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman to give to an old school friend, Mia, who is a bookworm like myself. I had a feeling she’d like it (she did) and I wanted at least one of us to walk away with something other than a heavy heart. She rose to give me a hug, elegant in her sadness. I trod on her toe as my tears fell onto her shoulder. “I think I stepped on your toe,” were the first words I spoke to her in person in nearly a decade. “You did,” were hers to me. Then I said I had a present for her, which everybody thought was a feeble attempt at a joke. I reached inside my bag for the book and pulled out instead a half-eaten packet of chocolate pretzels I had brought for the drive then promptly forgotten about. I offered the pretzels around, which made everyone laugh more than it should’ve. I guess I wasn’t the only one worried about breaking the ice at such a miserable assembly, but I think I succeeded, albeit with spectacular awkwardness. I gave her the book, which she appreciatively accepted, and again offered around the pretzels, which were politely declined. Just as well, really, as I hadn’t offered any to Ellie and we were hungry on the drive home after all the grieving.

The chapel itself was adorned with relics from Luke’s life. Artworks, photos, his soccer shirt and year 12 jersey. His coffin was carried in to a Smashing Pumpkins song. For one last time, he was everywhere. The service was as sad as they come – it could never have been anything else. At its conclusion, we were invited up to his casket to share some final private moments with him. I was thinking Deep Thoughts in his direction while Ellie stood by my side. Things like, “I’m sorry for the parts that were my fault,” and, “I forgive you for the parts that were yours.” But because the coffin was positioned left to right rather than top to tail, I wasn’t sure if I was addressing his head or his feet. So I switched, which obviously didn’t solve the problem. Instead I directed my parting missive somewhere in the middle, which was probably right at his crotch, which I think he would’ve liked. So I laughed, because he would’ve laughed, but tears and snot were pouring from my face so it came out as a breathless choke, and that’s how I said goodbye to Luke.

I met up with his brother a couple of days ago. He hand-delivered a folder to me that had my name on it and was filled with half of Luke’s and my history: the half I cared less about, which was my own. I already knew the secrets hidden there, but was deeply moved by what he had kept. There was a photo of me aged about 15. One from his year 12 formal. A Valentine’s Day card I made him with a wry, brief attempt at poetry: “I love the way your mouth fits mine, will you be my Valentine?” – seriously, I’m not making this up. And letters. Lots and lots of letters. Letters that I had written, of course – he kept them all. I don’t have his replies anymore. He was never as wordy as me anyway. But it’s nice to remember the time when I still called and he still responded. And in the middle of it, a letter he had written me post-break up and never sent. That one was particularly hard to read. I don’t know what to do with these memories. Writing it out with sadness and fondness seems as good an option as others, any past hurts now so thoroughly eclipsed.

Luke: the boy who made me mixed CDs, the man who kept making them for me well into our 20s. The deeply flawed lost boy. The guy who would muscle his way to the front of a crowd so I could have the best spot at every gig. The only person ever to buy me a bouquet of cats. The boy who loved me first. The softest spot in my heart.

I hope the world sees the same person that he’ll always be to me.

 

 

Here we are, ten years apart. Age apparently did not help us look any less awkward.

 

 

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