Firsts, Lasts, and Always

The brisk air, nocturnal melodies, and charcoal smoke carried by a breeze from down the street make fall’s arrival undeniable.  Summer heat finally surrendered, having hung on far too long already, and autumn’s reign sees the colors changing.  Changing like I’m changing as I remember falling in love with fall three years ago while I fell in love with Charming.  Will carving pumpkins always remind me of our first date in Hampton?

It’s been nearly six months since I surrendered a certain future, an always and forever with him that was supposed to be the fulfillment of childhood dreams.  Like the smoke that appears from a chimney stack then disappears into the overcast, grey sky, I know that we were and that we no longer are, and in light of three and a half decades, three years might make for a handful of puffs of smoke.  Still, vivid recollections of moments when Charming and I first started dating seize me unexpectedly, and I’m not entirely sure what to do with the memories.

Is it strange that I’m simultaneously warmed and chilled when the breeze of Memory Lane settles on me?  I still smile in spite of myself when I’m reminded of bringing Charming to watch my nephew play soccer at Gosnold’s park or sitting on my front porch together reading G.K. Chesterton.  Though I tried to collect all the knick knacks from our courtship after everything fell apart, I still uncover some persistent reminder every time I clean the house.  We lived intentionally.  We crammed adventure after bucket list adventure into every weekend, making memories all along the East Coast from the Outer Banks to Upstate New York.  Now that it’s over, what should I feel when I think of the years we shared?

I don’t feel regret or disappointment.  There’s no anger or shame.  If I was going to experience that range of negative emotions at some point, it would have been with fall’s onset.  Maybe Charming will sneak into autumn winds for years to come, and I’m okay with that.  He certainly laid claim to all my best dates, and albeit the best of two proposals.  I remember keeping track of our dates the first few months on a worn receipt in my purse because there were so many amazing outings that I couldn’t keep track in my head anymore. The crumpled paper is in a box now, nestled between what remains of our three years doing life together.

The pitter patter of rain began moments ago, but it’s grown to a soft percussion band.  The weather is changing with my mood, or more likely, I with it.  The steady beat of raindrops on the treetops casts a net around my yard.  There is only this moment, this house, this laptop.  This life.  I’m still here, six months after Charming.  Fall still came, and it still inspires me.  I loathed this season all my life as summer’s kidnapper and winter’s promise.  Then, three years ago, it brought with it a man I would fall in love with and served as a stage to host the start of our relationship.

I bought bales of hay and welcoming pumpkins and scarecrows with smiling faces, arranging them beside this white wicker love seat.  An autumn wreath had seemed lonely on the red door once Charming came knocking, so I suppose I hoped it won me some good will to honor this budding relationship with some holiday décor.  With all our wedding plans and travel last year, I don’t think I even bought a pumpkin.  He agreed it would be wise not to decorate for Christmas given how many weekends I’d be away.  I should have realized then that something wasn’t right.

The best version of me couldn’t have compromised on Christmas, not even if I’d only be home one weekend out of five.  Eventually, I wound up decorating the yearbook hall with my staff as a winter snowman sales campaign.  I lost myself somewhere on I-64, driving back and forth from Hampton, the good life I’d built always in the rear view mirror, GPS drifting between the people I loved and those I would grow to.  Three years of cramming adult responsibilities into four days and enjoying the company of an incredible man on the weekends before and after one of us drove four hours… well, it took its toll.

I was living in Hampton, but I wasn’t mentally here.  It wasn’t visible – more like the transition of seasons where subtle changes collectively mark time’s passing. I gradually unplugged from my routine before Charming, typically declining invites because we had plans in DC.  After we got engaged, I stopped spending so much time with my brother’s kids.  I’d leave the soccer field and burst into tears as soon as my car door would muffle the sobs.  Every occasion was another “last”, and they collectively took their toll as well.

When I fell in love with Charming, I had everything I wanted right here within fifteen minutes of this white wicker love seat.  The rain had stopped, but the pitter patter is starting again.  On Saturday when I poked my head out the back door, the fresh scent of fall energized me for a cleaning spree.  While in the shed, the plastic bin of autumn décor caught my eye.  I pushed aside forlorn wedding decorations and, with them, the guilty tug of them collecting dust in the humid shed, discarded in disuse. There is always some reminder of him when I’m cleaning.  It was to be expected.  Path clear, I hoisted the tub up onto my hip and bolstered myself for the task ahead.

With every movement of my body, I was fighting a wave of nostalgia.  Surprisingly, though, the flood of memories wasn’t just the Hallmark movie type.  My nephew’s not playing soccer this year, and I was just chatting with a friend who coaches his kids’ teams about how much I miss watching him and playing with the twins.  It was good family fun.  While I positioned bales of hay and fake pumpkins, the loudspeakers declared from across the neighborhood that my old school’s team was playing, and I smiled recalling all the times I’d walked the two blocks with a camera in hand to snap pictures for the yearbook at Darling Stadium.  It was the way things had been before Charming in this good life I had built.

By the time I had propped up the smiling scarecrow to stand on its own, I recognized the merit of the fact that I was incredibly happy with who I was and where I was throughout the summer of online dating that preceded Charming’s introduction to my weekly normal.  While I wanted to find the right guy, get married, and start a family before my biological clock gives up, I hadn’t anticipated the fragmented mindset I’d develop when that guy wasn’t in Hampton.  I never really wanted to leave, but I had convinced myself and everyone else (a little too early on) that I was ready to start over with Charming wherever that would be.

I don’t want to leave Hampton; maybe someday I’ll have a desire to be somewhere else, but I’m not as young as I used to be.  I feel it more responsible to fall apart and face the disappointment than move across state lines.  I want to be there for as many of my brother’s kids’ “firsts” as circumstances allow.  I want to decorate for Christmas and be home every weekend to make the most of those lights.  It would have truly been a disappointment if last year was really a collection of “lasts” in Hampton.  I’d straddled cities for so long that I split, and I couldn’t get excited about leaving town… even if it was to marry Prince Charming.

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The rain stopped again, some time ago, I think.  The veil lifted.  I hear crickets.  The air is cooler now, too.  The sky is lighter having unburdened itself, and I along with it, where the setting and tone serve as unseen forces mutually acting upon each other as my narrative unfolds, driving me toward the peace of an honest, autumn night at home, alone on my white wicker love seat recalling memories with a smile.  Nothing lasts forever…. not relationships, not soccer games, not perfectly carved pumpkins.

And certainly not fall.  But another will be back next year, and it’s okay if it always makes me think of Charming.  The winds have stilled, and my front porch and I settle into the peace of another Tuesday night in Hampton.

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