this game called “when we catch fire”

I’ve heard people say that it’s awful watching an ex be happy with someone else, especially when you’re miserable yourself. But I wonder if it’s worse when the opposite is true.

What’s worse: Watching someone you love be happy with someone else, while you’re miserable? Or watching them be miserable with someone else, while you’re happy?
I don’t have an answer for that. I guess it depends on how much you loved them. Or rather, what kind of love you felt for them. Whether you subscribe to “true love comes once in a lifetime,” or if you’re more into “if you love something, set it free.”

I set you free. You ended things, and I made it simple for you to walk away. I didn’t fight you, I didn’t stop you, I didn’t cry and guilt-trip and complain. It hurt like hell, but I made damn sure you’d closed the front door behind you before I let any tears fall. Because I knew you believed it was what you wanted — and I probably knew, even then, that we weren’t right for each other. Not in the ways that mattered, not enough for forever. Love, ultimately, wasn’t going to be enough to save us in the end — whenever the end came for us. Sometimes the hardest thing and the right thing are the same, after all.

Fast-forward four years. It took me a long time to get past it, past you. Arguably, in some ways, I’m still not entirely over it — I admit a strong case can be made, given the fact that I’m writing this to you now. But now — four years after you walked out, after I went through hell and high water, through the literal hardest decision of my life — I can say I am, at the very least, at peace when it comes to you.

And here’s the crazy thing: I’m happy. Happier than I ever was with you, happier than I’ve ever been with anyone else. He challenges me, and makes me laugh, and pushes me to do better. It’s the first time I haven’t wanted to run. The first time it hasn’t terrified me to talk about the future. The first time I believe I have one.

But I still watch you,
(I loved you so much then that if you had asked, I’d have married you. It would have been a mistake, and it probably wouldn’t have lasted very long (that’s if we even made it to the altar, which I doubt more and more as I get older), but I would have said yes. I said yes to you even when I had doubts piling up around me like storm clouds, because I loved you too much to let them scare me away. Because I had fought too hard for you to let you go so easily)
and I don’t think you’re happy.

You left me, and six months later, you were engaged. Just like that. Ready to spend forever with someone else, after years with me. Years of “us.”

It broke me. I won’t lie to you because after everything you and I shared, you deserve better than lies. (You may deserve a few big ones just for the sake of balance, but I’ll resist the temptation). You broke my heart. I’ve never felt actual pain in my chest, never understood why they call it heartbreak, until you. Hearing you were getting married so fast hurt even worse than when you left. Of all the ways we’ve hurt each other over the years, that was the worst of it. That casual sentence, that flippant comment about your fiance when I didn’t even know you’d started dating again, broke me — in a lot of ways, for a long time. You’ll never understand how much. I’d never admit the extent of it.

But several months passed, and when I decided to remove you from my life for good, the farewell letter I wrote told you that I hoped you’d be happy. I wished you the best. And as much as I’ve gone back and forth about that sentiment since then — as many days as I spent full of hurt and anger, where I wanted to be vindictive and take that back — I can honestly say that I meant it. If you weren’t happy with me, I loved you enough to actually hope that you’d be happy with someone else. With this other woman, whoever she was.

So I still watch you.
Because I loved you once. Because your life and your happiness still matter to me, even if I’m not a part of either one anymore.
I check in on your life, now and again. I don’t contact you, I don’t intrude, I don’t even ask other people about you. I just check around, see what I can find, make a mental note of any major updates.
(Partially so that if I ever run into you, and you tell me these things, it won’t be the first I’m hearing of it and you won’t have to watch the emotion brewing in my eyes.)

Your engagement photos were the first place I saw it: you were uncomfortable.
In all those photos where you should have been huggy and kissy and all a-twitter with love, you looked…stuck. Like someone had asked you to pose in a photo with someone you barely knew. Like you didn’t know how to stand, or where to look, or what to do with your hands. When to hold her, how to look at her, where to touch her.
Some of that was just you; you always hated photos. But it got me wondering. It’s the first time I questioned that maybe you chose the wrong woman….again.

I wasn’t right for you either, I know that now. But we talked about getting married often enough that I knew what you wanted. We agreed on an old beautiful barn, with exposed beams and hardwood floors. You wanted bare lightbulbs hung in strands across the beams. Acoustic guitar and shoes kicked off, warm soft colors and everyone singing along to our first dance. Just the two of us, in a theatre of our own making — where, for one day, we’d been cast as the leads.

I saw your wedding photos. That was the second place I saw it, or rather, didn’t see it: I didn’t see your touch on anything. I saw stark white walls, floor-to-ceiling windows, crisp white tablecloths, shiny silver chairs — this buttoned-up, banquet-hall, country-club wedding. It looked flashy and expensive and cold, and you were nowhere. I didn’t see your warm lights, your soft comfortable colors, your hardwood floors. Your personality was strapped into an immaculate three-piece suit that someone chose for you, and I looked straight past you in all the photos because you weren’t even present. Someone took a cookie cutter to you and kept cutting pieces away until you fit. Until you were just the groom, irrelevant; just stand on your mark and pose. Your personality, your laughter, your warmth and charm, were invisible in that clean white spotlight.

Those pictures made me sad, but not for me. This time, I hurt for you. I wondered whether you were happy with your choice, or if you just wanted to be married so badly that the bride and the wedding and the photos didn’t even matter. Where was my laughing carpenter, full of bravado, who always smelled like sawdust, and smiled at me across rooms and winked? Where was the mischief and quirkiness that I used to know so well?
It was supposed to be the happiest day of your life — where was all your joy and anticipation?
I didn’t see you in any of your wedding photos, and it made me impossibly sad. I had hoped to see your smile again, the genuine one that started from your eyes.

When you bought your house, you were so excited to show me around. We walked through the back gate and around the yard and through the bedrooms. You kissed me in the kitchen and we watched Pulp Fiction on a mattress on the basement floor. We watched Blues Brothers curled up on the couch in the living room, and laid in your bed reading books late at night. We watched fireworks from your front steps and ate ice cream sitting by your garden in the backyard. You were building your man-cave in the basement, planting herbs in the garden out back, and getting a dog now that you had a fenced-in yard. You were so in love with it, every part of it. You said you wanted to spend forever in that house.

A month ago, you sold it.
I checked in on your life, expecting things to be the same, and saw it for a third time: the loss of you. Your house, I learned, isn’t yours. That house that you loved so much was just…..left empty.
I am that house. Loved, cherished, altered; then abandoned for something new. Part of you, loved by you….and then, all at once, not yours anymore. I felt the loss of that piece of you.
And I knew, the way you know from “hello” that a friend is upset, that it wasn’t your idea. I knew with every fiber of my being that someone else made that call. Maybe they even convinced you it was your idea. But I am absolutely certain that, isolated from outside influence, you wouldn’t have let it go.
I don’t know how many pieces of yourself you’d be willing to give up, for the sake of “happiness.”

I often wonder about your life, wonder if you’re okay. I hope you’re happy, even though that would hurt me too. But I would rather know you’re smiling somewhere, that everything you and I went through counted for something, that we both arrived at happiness somehow. If you’re miserable, I can’t — shouldn’t want to — save you. I can’t contact you, because I swore I wouldn’t. If you’re unhappy, it is of your own making, and there is nothing I could or should do to change that.

But the fact that I loved you for so long makes it hard to watch you be unhappy.

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