sunday post: people who stay.
by Michael King
When people leave us, no matter how tidy their exit, they scatter behind them a trail of heavy absences. The drawer, top-left, we cleared for them to keep their things. The corner of the mirror we crowded with photos of them. Songs they sang to us, emerging suddenly at coffee shops and pulling us back to times we imagined them forever. Where once there were good morning texts, now we find our screens empty. The message is cruel but clear: We are responsible for our own rising.
We journey through our lives searching for evidence of our own magic. As children, when adults tell us we are smart or brave or strong, we believe them. Somewhere along the line, in the first of life’s startling jolts, we discover evidence to the contrary. A middle-school classmate whispers aloud that we are ugly. An older sibling offers us five dollars to leave them alone with their friends. Evidence of our mess, we discover, sticks to us far more quickly than the magic.
Breathing through the pain, we adapt. We train ourselves to second-guess the harsh words, to try and believe the kind ones. We inhale, we exhale, we venture beyond our comfort zones, and –– in pitoval moments –– we see our magic in action. We discover how to run in our own footsteps, sing in our own language, write in our own handwriting. We begin to believe it, underlining the idea with increasing intensity: We’re worth sticking around for.
Then along stumbles somebody. Someone who looks at us like we’re something, wraps us up in their being like they see exactly the person we’ve been hoping somebody would see, and, oh, we get addicted. The idea of somebody not only seeing us, but staying. Sure, there is mess in our making, but –– look at them –– what further evidence do we need of our magic?
All it takes, it turns out, for all our carefully gathered certainty to spill from our arms and scuttle across the floorboard is this: Arriving home to find they’ve gone, some empty explanation perhaps stuck to the countertop, crammed there among the infinite absences.
It took a village to make me believe in my magic again.
Of course, I tried my damnedest to heal on my own. Ardent believer in the power of writing my scars into stories, I pressed my convictions into paper, a hundred mantras, etched again and again into the walls. All around me, the ground was littered with inkpens run dry, pencils either snapped apart or worn down to the nub. “I’m enough,” I yelled into the night sky, mustering my most convincing tenor, and the sky only stared back in response. In the distant echoes, my voice shook.
Why, I asked myself, am I so haunted by somebody who didn’t want to stay? Why do I find him in every corner of my world?
Months later, in the middle of my bustling, I discovered the culprit was me: They were my hands putting his pictures back up on the walls, writing his name on the earliest pages of the morning. Letting go, I discovered, is tough to negotiate with a stubborn heart.
If my person who left became the night sky, then my people who stayed were the stars. My friend Chris, dropping whatever he had planned for the first Friday evening I was ready to venture back out to the bar. Dani, who showed up on my first night doing Brave Space, hanging out in the back and texting me later to tell me she was inspired. Lisa, drafting revenge plots with me and rolling her eyes knowingly when I insisted on throwing them away. Robbie, promising me that, though my heart was broken, my love still worked. Love notes sneaked into my office by my students: You heal our wounds. Equal parts poison and honey. You are made of stardust. My nieces breaking into a run upon my arrival home, hugs and tears from the heroes I call family.
One day, it dawned on me: Night had long since passed, his name rinsed free from my limbs, and all of them had stayed.
As it turned out, my life knew no absence of love.
This past September, among a sea of 60,000 people, my sister and I huddled together as Taylor Swift began playing the opening notes to New Year’s Day. Immediately, my face contorted, tears spilling down my cheeks. I’ll stay, she sang, when it’s hard or it’s wrong or we’re making mistakes. My sister wrapped her arms around me, and we cried together, singing along.
The song, a surprise acoustic finale to the electronic reputation, arrived to me in the midst of my healing. Suddenly, there at that concert, the faces of my people who stay began to flash across my heart. My best friends, my family, my students, opening up their stories and inviting me to stay with them. Staying with me through my messiest tangles, watching knowingly as I knot myself up trying to heal on my own.
When my story is done, I know it will read like a love letter to my people who stay. They rescue me, again and again, from the peril of forgetting my magic in favor of my mess. Through the forever nights, like stars, they push light across the unfathomable distance, determined to remind me I’m not alone in my living.