Things with my first husband, Aaron, ended the old-fashioned way. He died.
In 2011, Aaron was diagnosed with brain cancer, and three years later he died, leaving me a 31-year-old widowed mother to our toddler, Ralphie. It really was “till death do us part,” but the parting was unlike any other heartbreak I’d ever known, even the ones for which I’d also prayed and begged for a different outcome than the one I got. There was no erasing Aaron—but really, I didn’t want to. It was the opposite, actually. I tattooed his doodles on my skin and spent nights poring over his old notebooks trying to soak up everything I could from him.
Aaron was a collector. He left me boxes of stickers and buttons and, I’m not exaggerating, a stack of every business card he’d ever received. He left giant boxes of CDs and unopened action figures. He left bookcases filled with old comic books and dressers full of ironic thrift store T-shirts for T-ball teams he’d never been on. I still wear the Nike slides he once used as house shoes, even though my feet slip out of them when I walk too quickly. In the winter I slide my hands into his old gloves.
Aaron’s gone, and I know these things are not him, but I can’t let them go. I can’t let him go.
I remember, back in my 20s, I’d try to convince myself that none of the men I’d been with had ever truly mattered. I’d had two or three “serious” boyfriends (depending on your definition of serious), but the moment the relationship ended, I’d begin the process of wiping them from my life—not in the emotionally healthy, boundary-setting sort of way whereby I’d wish them well and release them back into the wild to go find their “person.” Instead, I’d erase them from my memory entirely, like I was clearing my internet cache. I deleted photos from Facebook and tossed cards into the trash. Doing that somehow seemed essential—as though any terminated relationship should immediately be stricken from the record. I’d tell myself that the breakup was no big deal. It was never that serious, I’d say. It was never going to work. And while some of these dalliances were nothing—or, at least, nothing much—some of those relationships were formative. They were my first orgasms; my first heartbreaks.
For whatever reason, romantic pain and the memories of romances past is just not something we make space for in our lives. We’re supposed to wash that man right out of our hair—or, for a more updated reference, let him know that everything he owns is in a box to the left. We’re supposed to become the emotional version of a tabula rasa every time a romance ends, a blank canvas for our next relationship. And that strategy worked well enough for me for a while—until my marriage with Aaron ended.
About a year after Aaron died, I met Matthew through a mutual friend who invited us both over on a cold November night to burn stuff—which is a very normal way to spend a Saturday night in Minnesota. Matthew came with two children and a brutal divorce. Since our courtship began alongside all of the traumatic anniversaries of Aaron’s death, I cried with him as often as I laughed with him. I loved him, but I often felt a resurgence of those instincts I’d felt in my 20s—that it was somehow wrong to hold on to my memories of Aaron. At the same time I felt like my blossoming love with Matthew was a betrayal to Aaron. Was I replacing him? Was my love for Matthew at odds with my love for Aaron?