If Youth But Knew, If Age But Could

Do you want to know the absolute worst I have ever felt? The absolute worst I have ever felt was in early September 1999, boarding an American Airlines flight from New York to London, crying in the way you never thought you'd actually cry in public, with the snot and the snorting and the heaving and the shuddering. A few minutes earlier I'd said goodbye to Sean at the departure gate. I actually thought I'd felt my heart break.

As in all indelible memories, I remember exactly what I was wearing: a woolly grass-green sweater that, two years later, my mother would pack in a suitcase that a mover would accidentally take home with him, thinking it was the suitcase of old clothes she'd offered him when he was packing up our belongings to ship across the world. In that suitcase would also be the brand-new black dress I had bought for my 21st birthday and never got to wear, a dress which I tried to imagine was instead being worn by some appreciative teenage girl in Queens, and which I would always try and be happy about (but never could.)

On that night, I was flying to London to start my first term at university, and Sean and I had decided to call it quits. There were no problems between us, nothing that should have neccessitated us breaking up---in fact, we were the happiest we'd been for a while, having just got back together in May after a three-month break during which we were both unequivocally miserable---but we had decided to sever ties anyway. We thought being officially unattached would make it easier for both of us while I entered an entirely new chapter of my life, a chapter Sean envisioned would be filled with New English University Boys I would take a fancy to, leaving me to resent him for tying me down from all the way across the pond. We should both be single if we were living thousands of miles apart, we decided. It would be easier. A clean break, we said. We'll still be friends.

So we said goodbye. We said goodbye a hundred times, starting the night before I left, when we went out for a drink and tentatively skirted around the subject of the future while I marveled that the bartender hadn't asked my nineteen year old self for some form of ID. We said it a little later, sitting in an all-night diner at 2am (I ordered a chicken salad sandwich, he had a Denver omelette, a detail I still remember with great clarity eight years later.) We said it in the car on the way to the airport, we said it at the check-in desk, we said it in the American Airlines Business Class Lounge, standing in front of a large picture window, watching planes taking off and landing, taking off and landing, taking off and landing, while my father---whose enormous collection of frequent flier miles seem to get him in anywhere---sat quietly at a table on the other side of the partition, nursing a G&T and trying not to intrude.

The ending was horrible. If you've ever parted with someone you love, for even a short amount of time, you know the absolute wretched depravity you feel, the bottomless sense of desperation, the choking panic of being alone, being one half of a whole. Hugs don't work. You embrace, you say this is it, I'm leaving, but then one of you takes a step back towards the other again, and it's over, this brief second of dignified self-restraint. So you hug again. You say I'm leaving now, I've got to go, I'm going to miss my flight. You embrace. He says alright, you've really got to go, let's just do it, come on, like a band-aid, let's just say goodbye. You hug. You can't do it. They're calling your flight, you're going to miss it---hell, why don't you just miss it?---and still, you just can't part. Why should you part? You don't want to part. Why are you doing it if it feels so awful? Why are you doing it willingly?

On the plane, I had an aisle. The woman next to me offered me a tissue, and then another, and then another. "I've left my boyfriend," I said by way of explanation, and it sounded so hollow, so tinny, and then I thought "but he's not even my boyfriend anymore." For seven hours, I cried and slept, cried and slept. In the parking lot at JFK, Sean sat on the hood of his car and watched the planes take off until the time came for mine to leave and he left too. He'll want me to tell you that he didn't cry. He did.

Two months later, I took out of my savings account the entire chunk of babysitting money I'd earned over the summer, and spent two hundred and fifty pounds on a return trip from London Heathrow to Norfolk, Virginia. I didn't know what I was doing---we weren't even boyfriend and girlfriend anymore; we weren't even anything. But what else was I going to do with that money? (Well, a lot, come to think of it now. I used to take a calculator to the grocery store to ensure I never spent more than eleven pounds a week on food. I was perpetually broke and perpetually cold for pretty much the entire three years I lived in London. It's a testament to the city's breathtaking greatness---and the several perfect friendships I made---that I look back on those years with such fondness)

On that flight to see Sean, I sat next to an English guy in his early twenties who was going to Florida to work on a Disney Cruise. "I'm going to visit my boyfriend," I told him. "Well, my ex-boyfriend. Well, my....I don't know what he is." I confessed to the Disney Cruise boy that I didn't know how I should greet Sean when I saw him: should we hug? Should we kiss? The Disney Cruise boy told me he'd faced the same dilemma upon visiting his ex-girlfriend the year before. Well, what did he do? I'd asked. He'd got flustered, he replied, he hadn't known what to do. In the end, he'd stuck out his hand for her to shake.

I'd like to go back to September 1999, to my nineteen year old self in that woolly grass-green sweater, weeping as she walked down the beige tube that separates terminal from plane, and I'd like to tell her to stop crying. I'd like to tell her that it'll all work out, that these things just do, that she should give it a few years and she'll get the boy in the end and he'll be the kind of boy who'll never make her change the kitty litter trays, and that she'll never really miss that sweater because it was old and misshapen anyway, that she'll find an even better dress for her 21st birthday and, besides, it'll be on sale. But what fun would that be, you know? We suffer, we learn, we appreciate. It's the oldest story in the book.

Nov 08, 2007

I'd appreciate somebody offering me tissues right now..

Nov 08, 2007

Dude, did Sean pop the question or what? I'm in the midst of INTERNET HELL so please say yes so I can have one reason NOT to hate the internet right now.

JB at Twice Five Miles
Nov 08, 2007

This is lovely, Holly.

Nov 08, 2007

Beautiful post, Holly.

Nov 08, 2007

And what DID you do when you saw him? Hug? Kiss? Shake hands?

Or is that part of the story still coming?

Nov 08, 2007

If someone has an extra tissue, could I have it? Now, please?

Nov 08, 2007

This beautiful, and now I'm crying in public.

And I just read Little White Liars call for memories they can't forget, and here you go with the perfect entry.

Nov 08, 2007

You and Sean make me smile.

Also making me smile? That you're reading Gossip Girl. (I am addicted to the show.)

Nov 08, 2007

This is my favorite post EVER!!! What a lovely testament to your love and its journey. And how wonderful that you're still just at the beginning. Best wishes, and thanks for sharing with the Internet......

Nov 08, 2007

Oh the tears. And the delight! Beautiful.

Nov 08, 2007

This is so sweet. And heartbreaking. The same thing happened to me when my boyfriend went to school in Canada and I went to school in France, except we didn't get back together. But you guys... wow.

Nov 08, 2007

What a lovely post! I kept waiting for it to end with a story of you & Sean eloping last night. Oh well.
I do like that he doesn't make you change the kitty litter trays. Its a beautiful life you have, Holly.

Nov 08, 2007

What a beautiful post!

I think we all would agree it would be nice to go back and tell our younger selves so many things. But that's what makes life so great! The learning throughout the journey!

And seriously, what did you do when you saw him? Hand shake? Kiss? Hugs?

Nov 08, 2007

How wonderfully written this is. Lovely story, lovely thoughts.

Nov 08, 2007

What a beautiful post! Does it still make you sad to remember it, even though it all worked out so perfectly in the end? It still makes me sad to think about walking away from the man I loved at an aiport in Boston, knowing he was on his way back to England and not knowing what our future would be. And we're married now! But I think the emotion was so incredibly strong then that it lingers with the memory.

Nov 08, 2007

This was a such a beautiful post. Tears in my eyes... at work!

Nov 08, 2007

This was an incredibly beautiful story. I remember this feeling, leaving my boyfriend in the Greyhound Station when I was on my way back to Minnesota from Wisconsin. I also had a lady offer me a tissue. We were still a couple at the time but the long distance relationship didn't work. Plus, you know, his mom wouldn't let him come see me. Did I mention he was 17 and still in high school? And I was somewhat older (seven years)? And yet, 16 years later, he still is the one that I wonder about because he was arguably the best man I've ever dated, despite the age difference.

Okay, now I'm crying at work. Great.

Nov 08, 2007

I love how incredibly sweet your writing about young you and Sean is. Really any time you write about Sean. Without knowing anymore more than what you choose to share with the world on your little piece of the internet, I am positive your love is true and you have found who makes you complete.

Nov 08, 2007

*snerkle* Hooray for people who give other people tissues! They are a force for good in this world. (Sadly, I have to get my own tissues, because I am the only one in my house just now.) You are such a tease, leaving off the ending; though I suppose this is right and proper, and leaves us coming back for more.

She Likes Purple
Nov 08, 2007


We all have our version of this story. We all wish we could tell it so well.

Nov 08, 2007

Beautiful post Holly! My beloved and I went through something similar and now we are married. I too remember the heartbreaking wretchedness of it all and the buckets of tears shed. And I say unequivically now that it was all worth it. Ain't love grand!

Nov 08, 2007

Don't kick me, but I feel I would be cheating you if I didn't admit that I was hoping this story would end with a picture of an engagement ring.

Even if that's totally not your thing, which I have no idea whether it is or isn't, I was still hoping for it.

Nov 08, 2007

Awww...I have tears in my eyes. I had a leaving like that once only we didn't break up and I was coming back in four months. Still, I cried and cried. To this day feel bad for the guy who had to sit next to me all the way from LA to London. Your story sounds worse though. I don't know what I would have done (seeing as I was a mess and I was only going to be away for a short time).

Thanks for the beautiful post!

Nov 08, 2007

I want that clarity now - to look back on what I am struggling with right this moment, the safety net of knowing that my marriage, which is shaky, will end up okay because the foundation is good, the love is there. I want the future me to smile down and yell "Hey, it's okay! It works out! We're so happy now!" Even though I guess living through this kind of stuff is what makes you stronger and knowing takes away some of the strength, right now? I don't want to be strong. I want to feel safe.

jive turkey
Nov 08, 2007

Oh, how I've always hated those goodbyes. My husband & I were a long-distance relationship from the time we met up until the day we got married. One of the most exciting parts about the wedding was knowing we'd actually get to stay together FOR GOOD this time.

I gotta admit, 7 years later, I still feel grateful that there are no more awful goodbyes on Sunday evenings after spending the weekend together.

Nov 08, 2007

Oh happy tears. So many things I'd love to go back and tell my 20 year old self, but I guess if I hadn't gone through it I wouldn't be where I am today.

Nov 08, 2007

If I told you the story of how my husband and I got together, could you retell it like that?

Carol Snider
Nov 08, 2007



natalie 42
Nov 08, 2007

That was wonderful, Holly. I went through a similar situation almost 4 years ago when I moved from one state to another. A very awful feeling, indeed. Everything works out in the end. Thanks for the post.

Nov 08, 2007

What a lovely post. You two were obviously meant to be together.

Nov 08, 2007

Absolutely sweet and lovely. Was it a hug, kiss, or handshake?

Nov 08, 2007

Superb writing, as usual. But I can't shake the thought that there is more to the story. What's wrong with me? Why can't I just enjoy that little vignette and leave it there, ended just as it is? Because it is sweet. And yet... is there more? IS THERE?!?

Nothing But Bonfires
Nov 08, 2007

Well, there's the fact that we're living together! There's the fact that we've been solidly together -- no breaks, no breakups -- since January 2001, that we figured the long-distance thing was worth it in the end. There's the fact that it all worked out (eventually, after many other partings and heartbreaks and dalliances with other unsuitable partners.) There's THAT!

And I think it was a hug. Definitely not a handshake, although we did laugh about that afterwards.

Nov 08, 2007

There's really no need to "make it official" when you both already know that it is, is there?

Lovely story Holly. You're a lucky girl.

cathy walker
Nov 08, 2007

I agree with smallstatic. Love like you guys have is just beautiful and rare

Nov 08, 2007

We should all be so lucky. Thank you for sharing this!

Nov 08, 2007

Absolutely your best post, ever, and that is saying a lot.I

t's the goodbyes, though, that make the hellos that much sweeter, although of course you couldn't have known it at the time. Ben and I can't even stand to be separated overnight; I can't imagine you saying goodbye to Sean, knowing as I do how much you love each other, seemingly forever. I think if I thought I was parting from Ben for good, I would react not only as you did but go into pure hysteria. It must have been like an amputation. I'm glad you were reattached, as you are clearly MFEO (see Sleepless in Seattle).

Nov 08, 2007

God, I love you two.

Rachael W
Nov 08, 2007

Sigh... man, I wish some future self would come and tell me everything will turn out all right. This post made me remember when I left my then-boyfriend to go study abroad in Madrid. Being apart from him for five months was pretty miserable. And then again when he dumped me six months ago, which I still don't get...

But, yes, not to be a downer on your wonderful post. You ARE very lucky!

Nov 08, 2007

Great post. I remember those tears when I used to leave my then boyfriend (now husband). We even had a park that we would stop at prior to my flights out that to this day we still refer to as the "crying park"

Nov 08, 2007

Beautiful. Simply beautiful.

Nov 08, 2007

aw. AWWW. god. now i am like on the verge of tears here at work.

Nov 08, 2007

I can so relate. After several rough break-ups, my boyfriend and I have been together for 6 years now and live together and couldn't be happier. It was all worth it.

(We also have to constantly field the "when are you guys getting married" questions which....ugh. Get annoying.)

Nov 08, 2007

If you're not engaged by Monday morning, I'm outta here.

Nov 08, 2007

I'm sorry that you wrote this lovely post and now everyone is asking about engagements. Who cares about questions and rings when you have true love? Not being engaged doesn't make your entry any less poignant.

You're lovely just the way you are.

Nov 08, 2007

I love all your writing, of course, but I love the posts about you and Sean the most. The two of you are just enough to make anyone believe in real love.

Nov 09, 2007

I've been reading your blog for a year now and this is the best. entry. ever.

Nov 09, 2007

That is so incredibly touching, Holly! Your sweetest posts are the ones about Sean. The same thing happened with me and my boyfriend (the one I'm coincidentally moving to the Bay Area for after Christmas!) - we met in Europe and lived together for a year, before parting ways: for him to go to the West Coast, me to go back to New York. Nearly a year passed and we still kept in touch frequently via phone, text and e-mail. Then he asked me to be his date to his cousin's wedding in Hawaii, and it was then that we realized that 3,000 miles apart was just not a good enough excuse to not be together. And here we are today. So I could completely relate to this, because that day I said good-bye to him in Denmark was my saddest day ever. And two years later, here we are as happy as we can be. Thanks for saying what I've been thinking!

Nov 09, 2007

Thank you. This story of your life was perfect for me now as I have also just said goodbye to the man I love.... the only man I have ever been able to see in my life when I am old and have run out of things to say. I do not know that love will return when let go this time but I do know that this is what needs to be and only time will tell. I was wearing my favorite "Look out Lodge" shirt and the perfect jeans.

Nov 09, 2007

hello holly, ive been reading your blog for the longest time but never left a message before but this post made me want to say something. im a singaporean living in toronto and when i left singapore two and a half years ago, i said goodbye to my boyfriend the same way you did but this january, he moved to toronto and we're living together and it feels so good.

Nov 09, 2007

This is the most beautiful story. Is it weird that I thought about your Dad and how I would feel watching my daughter's heart break like that?

Nov 09, 2007

Beautifully told. My college boyfriend was from Holland and we had a tear-filled airport good-bye two weeks after graduation. Three and a half years later I am married to someone even more awesome, but thinking about how I felt on that day still makes my heart ache.

Nov 09, 2007

Just beautiful.

Nov 09, 2007


A magnificent love story :)

Nov 09, 2007

Jesus Pete, Holly. That was awesome.

Nov 09, 2007

That was so beautiful...*sniff*! Aww, I can totally feel that wretched pain in my chest that you perfectly described. It's awful, almost as awful as it's sister emotion, complete joy, is wonderful.

Nov 09, 2007

I'm going to go ahead and admit it: I should NEVER have got on that bus.

But I AM very (VERY!) glad to see that your story of departure and returns worked out.

End of story.

Nov 09, 2007

Ok. That's a really good story even if we didn't all know and love you and Sean.

It's a testement to the romantic in us that so many want to the story to end in marriage.

Having married the same woman twice and having been togethor with her for 28 years + 4 years of dating - 5 years off for bad behavior = 27 . . . I'm a big fan of marriage.

At the same time it's all symbolic and until that symbol becomes the thing. that. can. not. be. denied. it's a bit moot - so I will pass on the encouragement to tie the knot, but really . . .

Nov 09, 2007

Hello, I've been reading for a while but haven't commented til now. I'm a Singaporean, still in Singapore, it's my boyfriend who's gone to the UK to study. This entry, and all the 'me too's in the comments, helps a whole lot. :)

Nov 09, 2007

Moving in together IS a big thing! My boyfriend and I have been skirting around that issue for almost two years now. Dating since 2001, with a few faux breaks and then a Real Break where we dated other people and when I found out about his new girl (that he was going to break up with, but whatever), I sort of lost my shit and we've been together ever since.

I'm amazed and humbled that we've even made it this far. I used to change men like I change shoes and purses. I'm not waiting for my ring (although my sister and mother certainly are - any time I tell them that I have news they have a heart attack). I'm proud of where we are now, and that's enough.

Nov 09, 2007

good lord, i'm weepy. that was absolutely lovely. i have to agree with others that i thought a big ending (i.e., engagement) was coming. i even covered the last paragraph with my hand to keep from reading ahead. (yeah, yeah, whatever, i know that's what the scroll bar is for.) can't help it. i'm a total dork for stuff like this. you two are just the best.

Nov 09, 2007

Wow! I didn't realize we (your faithful readers) were such a bunch of marriage...afficianados. Now the rest of this is actually to/for Sean:

Sean: No pressure, dude. You just keep doing whatever it is you're doing (esp the cat box) to keep your lovely girl happy. Because anyone who can write such wonderful, tear-jerkingly romantic things about their Person? Has clearly been treated very well. Good for you!

PS. Sorry to be such a girl about this, but you guys would have the COOLEST wedding and....(cough, sorry for saying this, I hate it when people say it to me) the cutest babies EVAH!

Nov 10, 2007

I loved this post beyond words, and you two are perfect just as you are.

Nov 10, 2007

Redundant comment number 348: the tears, the immediate need for tissues, the deja vu, the wildly in love with you and Sean, the guilty of having mentioned the "m" word in comments past so not gonna do it again this time, nossir, and mostly the happy for you parts from all of the above. I think your readers all just really love you back, Holly, and I bet you can feel it. Thanks for the memories, some bittersweet, and for yet another reason to appreciate our happily ever afters :-)

Nov 11, 2007

That's beautiful. I often wish I could go back ad tell my 19yr old self to not cry about the boys that didn't deserve the tears and instead wait, because the right one was out there.

Nov 14, 2007

Holly, you posted this at precisely a time when I needed to lay eyes upon it. Thank you. Also, tears...

Nov 16, 2007

Sweet post. As a father of someone your age, I'm thinking, "I wonder if she remembered to say goodbye to Dad?" ;-)

I'm not too old, however, to remember those Peter, Paul & Mary moments at airports (and bus stations).