The morning that I was to leave for a long weekend trip to Nantucket with my new boyfriend, I received a text message from my best friend. “Good luck <3” she said, knowing more than me that I’d wake up under a heavy blanket of anxiety, only to get on the ferry with more baggage than my current boyfriend could see.
The last time I was in Nantucket, I was with someone who I thought I was going to marry. He took me around to all of his favorite spots and showed me what beaches he wanted to bring our future kids to. When we broke up, I vowed to never go back. The cheery island was remastered in dark shades of grey and untruth. And despite the fact that he had moved on and married, and I had moved on and fallen deeply in love, (and that the concept of the island having any sort of lasting hold over me seemed ridiculous) I couldn’t ignore the way the wind stung my eyes just a bit more than it should have on the ferry out.
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When a relationship becomes a sinking ship, there are things we leave behind — things we jettison just to get out alive. Despite the fact that pad Thai existed before one ex-boyfriend broke my heart over it, the greasy, peanut-dusted noodles that once made me feel so full, alerted an emotional gag-reflex. And that one particular Thai place we used to go to in Williamsburg that looked strangely like a Las Vegas hotel inside is on a street I came to avoid altogether. And while I couldn’t help but tap my foot to the “Ho!” and “Hey!” of The Lumineers’ “Ho Hey”, my stomach would slink when I did, for another ex had once proclaimed it would be our wedding song. House of Cards? I couldn’t even tell you who killed Peter Russo. Post-breakup, I couldn’t bear to queue up our favorite show.
If I really looked at all of the things that had become off limits to me because I experienced them in relationships gone sour, I wouldn’t be able to leave my couch or eat anything other than beans. Oh wait, I made love with one ex on that couch. And another ex grew beans on our windowsill — couches and beans, too, would be tainted for eternity.
When a relationship becomes a sinking ship, there are things we leave behind — things we jettison just to get out alive.
A few years ago, it seemed like everything was a danger zone. I couldn’t walk down the street without seeing something that made me wince. I had become a self-proclaimed victim of all of my relationships, and yet created a prison around myself. I couldn’t move on or take back what was mine without feeling overly sentimental and heavy about it.
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On the ferry, I blinked away the scratchy feeling in my eyes and took a deep breath, sucking in as much fog as I could, hoping it would clear away the view and mood. My boyfriend stood behind me and wrapped his arms around my chest. “This is my favorite part” he said, of the ferry pulling past the low speed zone and taking off toward the island. I could feel how wet his face was as he pressed it into my hair. He should have been colder than me, but even under my sweater, I felt a chill I knew I shouldn’t feel. When we returned to our seats, I pretended to sleep. With my eyes closed, I recited an incantation, “I have to go back to move forward, Nantucket is just an island.”
“It’s just because it’s off-season,” I told myself. There’s always something eerie about a vacation town in a shoulder season. But even with the cement skies and spanking winds, he was enjoying himself. When the sun would make itself known between cloud parades, he’d throw his head back and catch the light like a chef flipping an egg in a pan. And while I was excited about the prospect of taking Nantucket back and building new memories on the island, there was no denying how tacky my feet felt on the ground. I conjured a psychological quicksand, and it wasn’t long before we were both sinking in it.
First, it came innocently, in the form of some fatigue during a bike ride. He wanted to show me his favorite places and I couldn’t peddle fast enough to seem interested. And then the quicksand started to bubble. Unsure of how to manage the feeling of impending doom, I ignited it.
While out to a nice dinner with our hosts, I picked a fight. Under the table we sent venomous text messages. “I want to leave,” I hissed, just as I had hissed before, the last time I was in Nantucket. Relationships go to Nantucket to drown right? So why not just get this ship out to sea? His posture slumped, as the charade went on. Us, entertaining our dinner mates while ignoring each other’s existence and for the first time imagining our lives without each other — for no reason of our own. When we left the restaurant and walked towards the car, he lagged behind. I saw him look up and down the cobblestone streets, watching the light dim on the island and our relationship; I had done it. I couldn’t handle the suspense, and so I fast forwarded to the alternative ending. And then there we were in the car, shaking over the upturned roads on the way back to the house, looking out opposite windows at a scene gone dark. At a distance, a lighthouse shook a hula hoop of illumination around itself, serving as a reminder that no matter how many times you sail a sea, you’re destined to crash if you don’t look for the light.
We made it off the island — barely. With fragments of our relationship in tow. Our bags couldn’t pack the same way they did on the way in and so we carried plastic bags and totes filled with loose ends we didn’t know what to do with. It wasn’t my ex that had ruined Nantucket. It wasn’t my ex that poisoned pad Thai. It was me — it was my inability to separate superstition from reality. My last relationship wasn’t haunting the island, I was. In the same way I was sentimental over noodles, I had become superstitious over the island.
It wasn’t my ex that poisoned Pad Thai. It was me — it was my inability to separate superstition from reality.
And no matter how hard I tried to test the bounds of my current relationship, it wouldn’t budge. I had infused the island with so many bad omens that I actually convinced myself that my new relationship would die there by the sea, too. Despite how perfect my relationship felt and how enlightened I felt before I left, some part of me still believed that Nantucket had something to do with my last break up. But places don’t hold meanings, people do. And it was time to let go of all the lingering attachments that were no longer serving me — before I actually turned Nantucket into a self-fulfilling, relationship-ending prophecy. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until we were on the way home that I had this realization.
At a distance, it’s easier to see that a very important part of moving on is freeing up mental storage space and closing certain connections. Learning how to return to a place that once held one meaning and giving it the opportunity to hold another is crucial. Our hearts will only beat so many times in our lifetime, so it’s a shame to skip songs we like, to avoid streets that are convenient, to push away dishes we enjoy, or to create a bunch of juju around a physical space. Sometimes it takes going back to clear the cache and move forward. And sometimes it takes going back twice to move forward, and with my new love still intact, I now know Nantucket is really just an island again.