you remember her walking into english class, on your first day at your second high school. this is not a romantic memory, it is a factual one: she walked in, sat down, and in that, everything was different. you were both singled out by your teacher as the only students who had skipped the middle grade and so were the youngest in the senior english course. that was how you learned her name.
you became fast yet cautious friends, sharing a closeness that was thrilling even in the tension that accompanied it. years went by before that tension was acknowledged, years in which you each committed great acts of devotion in one another’s honour. a flight to france, a 14-hour hitchhike, a 3-day bus trip, an illicitly-borrowed car: you’d cross huge distances to say hello, to say goodbye, to argue without ever saying what you really meant.
and what did you really mean? did you ever figure that out?
at least you tried: two years after high school ended, you finally put your thoughts and feelings on paper, and mailed it to her from the home you’d made for yourself on the west coast. she had stayed in your home province, and moved to a small town near the big city where you’d both grown up. your letter found her there. she wrote back.
you had thought that was the end of something. the tension between the two of you was gone, so you were half-right. but it also turned out to be the beginning, because what replaced the tension was something much bigger and more unwieldly.
it was over a year since you’d sent the letter, and you lived with your partner, whom you’d met while travelling with her. you went east to spent the winter holidays with your family, and you saw her. it was another liminal moment, one that set off an eruption of change which continued for a long time. you committed adultery, you tried polyamory, you learned non-violent communication techniques, and you lived for talking with her on the telephone. it was exhilarating, and it was painful, and it was all worth it.
or at least it was for a while. but as the drama of the situation forced you to learn how to articulate what it was you wanted in life, you realized that that sure as hell wasn’t it.
you broke it off. after that, you never talked with her, and barely emailed. what was the point? she didn’t understand you, and you didn’t understand her.
another two years passed. you travelled, you studied, you loved others, you were hurt, and eventually you got a new perspective on how it was between you and her. your bitterness faded, and the next time you are in your home province, you call her. you have a nice conversation, but don’t meet up because your travel plans don’t fit her work schedule.
that was at the end of the summer. the winter holidays approached, and you had plans to visit your family again. you email her right before you leave. yes, she writes back, she would like to see you. and then she tells you that she has hodgkin’s lymphoma.
so. you find out that the first girl you fell in love with has cancer, then get on a bus for a day and two nights of solitary contemplation. the bus heads eastward towards her province. merritt, banff, calgary, medicine hat, swift current, regina: you have no one to distract you from your thoughts, no energy to engage your fellow passengers, no romantic associate to hold you when you’re sad as fuck and trying not to cry.
winnipeg: the first leg of you journey ends and you are welcomed into the home of friends. you dumpster-dive good bread, find a massive pumpkin frozen solid on the street, cook soup, go to church, and read aloud from emma goldman’s autobiography. you tease and are teased, love and are loved, share and are shared with. you talk about her with them, and they are undertstanding. you feel better, or at least distracted.
while your friends have a house meeting, you have a shower. naked for the first time in days, you are shocked by your body. it is amazing. it is healthy, it is strong, and it is yours.
your romantic associate calls to say goodnight, and the sound of her voice brings tears to your eyes all over again. you’ve had too much time to think about how you would feel if it were her that was sick, and that pain of the thought has made you neurotic. or at least more neurotic than usual. you miss her, you love her, you wish she were with you, you wish you were biking down a street somewhere together, you wish the two of you were chasing her dog around at the beach. you wish you could make certain that she knows how much you appreciate her presence in your life.
you leave winnipeg, and arrive in toronto. family surrounds you, and you are engulfed by them and their plans. it would be easy to stay that way, to devote yourself to reconnecting with your siblings and parents. you are tempted.
the first girl that you fell in love with lives a two-hour bus ride away. you once swore that you’d never go back to her town, that it was too much. but that was at least a year ago, and things are very different now.
you check the bus schedule. you write to her and tell her when you could come. she replies: she will meet your bus at the station.
and then you think of your life.
you think of the things that have mattered to you that you’ve let fall by the wayside: your writing, your poetry, your drive to learn how to tell stories as best you can. you also think of the things that you’ve never done because they scare you too much: dance lessons, open mics, any competitive non-team sport. you believe in living without regrets, and now wonder at what regrets you might end up with despite your best intentions. how easy it would have been to never write to the first girl you fell in love with, to never learn that she is sick, to just let the past lie still and to believe in the false calm that comes from separating yourself. how easy it is to choose what does and does not matter, simply by being too busy to let the important things make themselves known to you.