And so it is. The end that was always coming. I arrived back in BA from Brazil yesterday afternoon, and had a last dinner full of laughter with my friends. Today I took a last walk through this place that I’ve grown to love. Then I sat out on the terrace of Palermo House and turned these words over in my head, watching the night lights of Buenos Aires sparkle across its skyline. Just under a year ago I first stood here, fresh from the airport, the pain of separation like a fresh cut, and saw those same lights burning, just as fierce and clear. Now I write this last missive from a decrepit computer terminal in the airport, that weirdly barren place that provides the anticlimax for every arrival and departure. There will be more stories from here, of course, all the ones that I couldn’t write down for you during this year. But this is the last time I will write from the soil that produced them. Tomorrow the next stage begins, whatever that will be. Today I miss Argentina already.
There’s a song by Damien Rice that begins with those words: “And so it is.” It’s the theme song from a movie called Closer. I didn’t like it, but it was effective: an emotionally brutal and depressingly realistic portrayal of just how badly people can treat each other in relationships. I don’t love the song either, it’s the plinky-piano sad-sad-sadness song to match the film. But it is very effective at making you feel utterly miserable, and it is pretty in its way. So somehow that line has jammed in my head from the one time I saw this film, and it comes circling back when I find myself in an unavoidable situation. Sitting on the terrace feeling a deep slow sadness at leaving this place, the refrain popped up again. And so it is. This is how your life is panning out. You know you’ll miss this place, but you’ve had your time, and there’s nothing that can be done.
So did I find what I was looking for? Essentially, I came here to force an end to a relationship that had worn us both ragged. She was accustomed to being worn ragged; rather seemed to seek it out. I wasn’t, and while it took a long time, eventually something gave as it had to give. But a love like that is a powerful thing, and I knew it would take a long period of quarantine to try and force that break. It pays to know your own weaknesses, and decision-making in the face of love is an epic one of mine. It wasn’t just doom and gloom though. I had been wanting to come here for years, and wanting to learn the rhythms and sounds of Spanish for even longer. The cussedly mono-lingual culture of my own country had been a growing source of frustration.
So I can claim success on the second objective: the learning, the getting to know another part of the world. The connections I’ve made have been many and worthwhile and wonderful. The fact that I can now speak another language while hungover or half asleep, and that I sometimes dream in Spanish, gives me so much joy.
The first objective has had its progress too, though slow and certainly difficult. At least these days I actually feel glad to be out of that situation, rather than just knowing that in theory it was for the best. The difference between knowing and feeling is a gulf beyond description. But there’s still the creeping hangover of it, the greasy sick feeling in your stomach that keeps coming back throughout the afternoon every time you think that you’re ok. I still love her, and miss her to varying degrees depending on the day. Many people won’t be able to believe that it’s still an issue after a year, especially one so full of people and adventure. A lot of my own friends have voiced frustrated urgings to just come on, drop it. And I wish to God and all his flaming angels that I could be one of those people who is sad for a week or a month or two and then shrugs it off. I don’t want to carry this any longer. But I know myself, and I know I will. I know the way it’ll stay. She was a huge part of my life, and I can’t just shake that off. I know that in six months, I’ll see her unexpectedly at a party or a show and something will wrench inside my chest, like someone jamming the water mains closed so hard they’ll never run again.
And I’ve seen friends suffer through problems, real problems – I know how self-indulgent it is to let something like a girlfriend make you mope so hard, compared to the real pain they’ve been dealt. But as much as I know this, it doesn’t make me feel it any less. Sadness tends to expand to fill the available space. Sure, if I had worse problems, this would be reduced in importance. But I still think it’s something I’d feel pretty powerfully. The intensity of a relationship isn’t relative, and a relationship with that kind of intensity takes a long time to get out of your system. I hate to succumb to a writer cliché, but Bukowski said, paraphrasing, that some loves are like serious illnesses, the kind from which you never fully recover. I’m pretty inclined to agree.
The illness analogy is a good one. The post-relationship feeling is certainly debilitating. All that stuff about adversity making you stronger and experience making these things easier is so much horseshit. I have loved before and each ending has got harder. There’s some relief to knowing how it all will run, but each time the structure seems weaker, the cracks deeper and more widespread, the muscles of the heart more worn and threadbare. You carry the knowledge of it bone-deep. And in many ways it’s easier to have something taken from you. When you have a say in walking away from it, there will always be that voice asking, what if you’d stayed? What if you’d tried a little harder?
Before I left, she gave me a St Christopher’s medal, partly because I’d been reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s and partly because St Chris is the patron saint of travellers. I hooked it onto the bottom chain of The Soldier’s dog tags that I wear for luck, and there it stayed. Until I got to the airport tonight, and it was gone. The bottom chain had given way and both the medal and the tag were nowhere to be found. Bizarrely enough, it must have fallen off in the taxi. Aside from being gutted at losing one of her final kindnesses, the symbolism is hard to avoid. I have worn it next to my skin in waking and sleep for a year entire. In my last few hours, on my way back home, it has let go and fallen away. Apparently it has decided that I don’t need protecting any more.
So much of what is happening now is bookended with my arrival. Arriving to and leaving from Palermo House, its terrace and the night lights. Then to the taxi, to the airport, the plane. But there’s more than that as well. She gave me the medal on the sea wall in Newcastle a year ago, during the writers festival there, on my birthday, just before I left. Today it parted ways with me, just before I’ll arrive. Tomorrow I will land and go straight to Newcastle to the writers festival. It will be my birthday. I will probably sit on the sea wall, as I’ve done at this time of year for each of the past five. There will be nothing worn against my skin. I will be blank paper.
And so it is. Right at the time when my mind was telling me I’m going back closer to her, the world has made me leave another piece of her behind. We’re always moving on. But that past still seems so close, and if I squint, this intervening year with all its magic can almost disappear. Argentina has held me and sent me friends and given me so much happiness. But my strategy of putting distance between me and the past has only been partially successful. It’s distracted me for this year, but at the point of return, that past seems almost as close as it was at departure. Perhaps instead of moving forward in life, we really just move round in circles. So the start of each new cycle in some way takes us further and further from where we’ve been, but at the same time it always stays right there with us.