This is the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to write. But I had to do it because I don’t want to forget.

***

It started with dancing.

I was feeling somewhat unstable at the time, but nevertheless off we went.

It was a monthly event, one that I’d attended many times before. Of course, this time was different.

The night began with a beginner’s lesson, and as always I did my part to make the new folks feel good about themselves – especially the ones lacking co-ordination. It was a more difficult lesson than usual, but I used that to help people. Telling someone who was doing well that this lesson was particularly difficult served to boost their confidence further. Telling someone who wasn’t doing well that it was a particularly difficult lesson made them feel that the trouble they were having was understandable.

After the lesson came the social dancing part of the evening. For the most part, everything went as it usually does: Good music, good conversations, good company, and good dances. There were a few differences though.

Partway through the evening we did a little Secret Santa gift exchange whereby everyone who put a gift into a sack was later entitled to take a gift out of the sack. I didn’t get anything special, but looking around and seeing dozens of people opening gifts together was really nice. That was the most Christmasy I felt this year, though that isn’t saying much.

With some effort, I was generally able to keep my emotions under control on this evening. I had to go to the bathroom a few times to compose myself, but I didn’t have a meltdown.

I wasn’t the only one struggling that evening. Her friend was having a difficult time as well. I don’t know what was on her mind exactly, but I knew it was partly to do with me and that made me feel awful. She has enough to deal with already, and the fact that I was contributing more anxiety to her life – the day after her birthday no less – made me feel like everyone would be better off if I just disappeared. To top it off, I failed to participate in her birthday jam. Well done me.

And yet despite all of the emotions (or possibly because of all the emotions), I was on top form that evening dancing-wise. I rarely have as many dances as I did that evening, and I’ve never danced as well as I did that evening. I think I only danced with two people all evening, but on that particular evening all I wanted to do was dance with those two women who have come to mean so much to me over the past five years. I threw in moves I didn’t know I could do, I ended with stylish leans, I rarely mis-stepped. I was on fire.

The very last dance with her was the best dance we’d ever had. I knew the song very well, so I was able to actually match moves to the music. We were both laughing and singing along for the entire two and a half minutes, but at the same time I felt like crying because I knew it might be the last dance we’d ever have.

Saying goodbyes at the end of the evening was difficult. The questions were the same as always: “When are you leaving?” and “When will you be back?” At the time, the correct answer to both questions was “I don’t know”, but I answered with “Sunday”, and “I’m hoping to be back in April”, which both ended up being true. All I could think about was how she had shown up with me for the December edition of this event, and she’ll be showing up with someone different for the January edition.

The night came to an end, and we headed home. Did I give her a massage that evening, or were we both too tired? I can’t recall. Eventually we drifted off.

I woke up crying the next morning, as I’d done many times before on this trip. This time was worse though. I was crying because I knew it might be our last morning together. Today was a day where a decision had to be made as to if I was leaving the next day or staying for Christmas/New Year’s, and how the two of us would proceed going forward.

She wanted to take a break. I didn’t. But she gave me the choice between taking a break and breaking up, so I gave in. I felt sick. The thought of her being with someone else – emotionally, physically, and sexually – made me feel grossly inadequate, but what choice did I have? It was going to happen either way. We set out some basic rules, and we put a 90 day limit on it, with her having the option to end it sooner if she wanted to.

And then a strange thing happened. Rather than tearing us apart, once the decision was made we got closer together than we’d ever been before. Physical intimacy was the one aspect of the relationship which had been noticeably absent during the previous two weeks, but that morning was different. That all-consuming carnal desire came back as if it never left. And at the same time, the emotional intimacy was there too. Neither of us are particularly lovey-dovey, but that day we were.

I decided to give her a gift then. It was a gift that I was hoping to give her a few months later, under much better circumstances. It was supposed to be an engagement gift.

See, she’s always thought that it would be better for her to pick out her own ring. And I agree; although I know her general tastes, all engagement rings look pretty much the same to me, and there’s no way I’d be certain that I was picking something that she would like. As such, the plan was to propose with this gift, go for a nice dinner, and then go ring shopping with her the next day.

That was the plan anyhow.

But the gift was something special, something I couldn’t give to anyone else. And so I knew I had to give it to her anyhow. It was an advance proof copy of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, perhaps the oldest surviving copy of that book in the world. Her favourite book.

I bought it the moment that I was sure that I wanted to marry her. That moment was at some point during the summer of 2015. I’m not sure how I reached that conclusion exactly, but at some point over the last two years I really started to look at my future. And when I looked into the future, I saw a lot of uncertainty: I saw myself in a lot of different jobs, and different cities, and even different continents. But the one constant was her. No matter where I was, no matter what I was doing, I saw her there. And so I knew that one day I would marry her. And I knew that she would say yes.

So I gave her the gift, telling her that it was hers to keep regardless. But if she wanted to come back to me, she would have to give me the book back temporarily so that I could properly propose with it. The surprise of the gift itself may be ruined, but the proposal scheme is still a mystery to her, and it remains a great one (involving a Ioan Gruffudd cameo, no less).

She described it as the single most thoughtful gift that anyone has ever given her.

We stayed in bed together into the afternoon. Talking. Holding one another close. Crying. Kissing.

At one point she went to inform her mother of the situation, and shortly thereafter I saw something I’ve never seen before.

You see, her mother and I get along really, really well. Personality-wise, I’m a lot more like her than I am my own mother. We have similar senses of humour, we’re both very easygoing, and we’d both give anything to ensure the happiness of one particular girl.

There is, however, one way in which we differ: She sings.

She has been through a lot in her life, but particularly so in the last few years. It’s a wonder to me that anyone in her situation could find the strength to keep going. But not only does she keep going – she sings through all the pain. It’s very rare to go more than half an hour in her house without hearing her belting out one tune or another. Whereas I just break down and cry, she sings. It takes a heroic effort to sing through adversity, and yet she manages to do it every single day. She is a truly remarkable woman; I can’t imagine a better mother-in-law.

But that morning, she was not singing as she walked into the bedroom. Tears were streaming down her cheeks.

Seeing her like that broke my heart. Even as I type this a whole month later, I can’t remember it without breaking down myself. It was heart-wrenching.

At some point after that her friend came over to drop off a Christmas gift for me. She was aware of the situation, and so we all knew that this would be more about saying goodbye than anything else.

The three of us sat on the bed, content for a short time to talk about absolutely anything else and ignore the elephant in the room. And then I said “Alright, I’ll start crying first”. And shortly thereafter we were all crying. Her friend assured me that she would always be my friend, but I knew that I couldn’t let her be in the middle of the situation anymore.

This friend of hers is a truly special woman. Of all her friends, she was the most keen to meet me five years ago, and she was also the friend who I got along with best. As the years went by, I came to love her more than many of my local friends. As I mentioned above, she struggles a lot with keeping her own anxiety in check, and yet despite that she’s constantly going out of her way to make people happy. The way she cares for her best friend so much is inspiring. And to top it all off, her hair is the definition of perfection.

And on December 17th, I had to say goodbye to her.

I can’t tell you how devastating that was. I held her and squeezed as tightly as I could. I sobbed into her shoulder. At one point I heard my girlfriend cry out “I can’t believe how much pain I’m causing”. I cried more.

And then she was gone, leaving me with new pairs of socks and a Christmas card that I still can’t bear to put away.

At any other time, this would have been a singularly devastating event. On its own it would have made for one of the worst days of my life. And yet it would be topped twice in the next 12 hours.

The next decision we had to make was whether I would leave the next morning as scheduled, or stay an extra four days. An awful decision to have to make.

On one hand, with the decision made to take this three month break, would extending the visit for four days just feel like delaying the inevitable? Would we be able to be happy at all knowing what was coming?

On the other hand, not extending the trip meant leaving, perhaps forever, in less than 12 hours.

With great difficulty we decided not to prolong the inevitable. And so the next step was to pack.

Packing to go home is something each of us has had to do many times in the past. It’s never a pleasant activity. The way the drawers reserved for the other person are vacated, leaving an empty space behind, is an apt metaphor for the hollow feeling it leaves.

But there was a particular sadness this time that went beyond anything that we’d previously experienced.

She helped me fold and pack my clothes, as she always does. But this time, before she put every item in my suitcase, she buried her face in it and inhaled.

I made fun of her for that, but I understood why. You can re-experience familiar sights and sounds just by closing your eyes and envisioning them, or humming a tune in your head. You can’t do that as easily with smells. So I understood.

I later found out that she had secretly stolen a pair of my (clean) underwear during the packing process and kept it. Again, I made fun of her for that. And again, I understood.

We had dinner at some point. I can’t remember what we had, and that bothers me. I feel like that’s the sort of thing that I should remember. But I can’t.

In the evening, we decided to watch a movie. We decided on The Muppet Christmas Carol. We snuggled close together and sung along.

The hours kept ticking away as much as we wanted them to stop.

We talked long into the night. About where we’d been. About everything the other meant to us. About the future.

I asked her what she would have said if I’d asked her to marry me back in June. She didn’t want to tell me because the answer might make me sad(der). I asked her to tell me anyway. She said she probably would have said yes. I knew it. I knew it back in June. I’ve known that would be her answer for a long time.

Eventually, our eyelids started to grow heavy, and we knew we had to sleep soon. We took our clothes off. I stared at the beautiful woman in front of me, illuminated only by the red Santa lights on her bedroom window. How many times had I seen her like this before? Hundreds and hundreds. And yet every time feels like the first time. I was just as excited, just as speechless, just as awed upon seeing her on that evening in December 2016 as I was in the late hours of a night in early April 2011 when I saw it all for the first time.

I moved my hands over every curve, every bend, every valley. I had to have her one more time.

 

And then we slept – my arm around her chest, our legs intertwined, as we’ve done on almost every night that we’ve been together since the beginning.

The alarm went off too soon.

We stayed in bed for as long as possible, but eventually it was time to get up. I think I ate something but I can’t remember it.

And then I had to say goodbye to her mom.

Oh God, of all the things in life I never wanted to have to do, this ranks very high. I felt completely and utterly devastated.

I thanked her for everything. I told her I loved her. I told her how badly I would miss her. I told her to take care of her daughter for me.

She told me not to despair. She told me she loved me. She told me how badly she would miss me. And she told me that she looked forward to when this would pass and we’d see each other again.

And just like that, two very important people had vanished in a span of less than 12 hours. And the most important one was yet to come.

We got into the car and began the short drive to the airport. Never a happy drive, but again, this one was worse.

A song started to play on the radio. And once we heard the lyrics, we both silently reached for our respective phones to try to record as many of them as we could so that we could listen to the song later.

It perfectly encapsulated the situation.

At the airport, I said goodbye to her dad. I’m not sure how aware he was of the situation. He certainly didn’t show any signs of feeling particularly emotional. I didn’t really get emotional either – no more than I already was anyhow.

We walked into the airport. The line for baggage drop was longer than usual in the normally-empty Cardiff airport, leaving less time for us to say goodbye. Sod’s law.

Off went my luggage. We climbed the stairs to the departures lounge and sat in an empty part of the airport near the gate.

How can I possibly describe the twenty minutes that followed?

There just aren’t any words to convey the depth of emotion that both of us felt in those moments. Our sadness was infinite.

How many times did we tell each other we loved each other? How many different ways did each of us say it?

“I love you.”
“You’re my best friend”
“I’m really glad you came over.”
“You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

If you eliminate the context and just look at what was said, any outside observer would conclude that these were two people deeply in love. And they would be right.

It felt like madness to me. How could two people this devoted to one another even contemplate this course of action, much less carry it out? What benefit could come from depriving ourselves of the best part of each other’s lives? I asked her one last time if she really wanted to do this. She maintained that she couldn’t see any other way.

I told her numerous times that I had to treat this as if I would never see her again. And every time I said that, she told me that although she recognized I had to think that way for my own self-preservation, she wasn’t going into this break with that mentality. To underscore the point, she gave me a ticket from one of the game centres on Barry Island. This was an old tradition of ours, where I’m meant to keep that ticket until the next time we see each other, whereupon I redeem it in exchange for permission to share a bed with her again.

And then it was time to go. But I didn’t want to. We hugged. We kissed. We cried. We smelled each other. And then we did it all again. Over and over. We couldn’t pull apart. Not for a second.

She said that if she changed her mind at any point, she would be on the next flight over.

She walked with me right to the gate. I turned to walk through.

And I couldn’t do it. I took two steps, and then my feet turned into lead, my knees started to tremble, and I couldn’t take another step away from her. I turned back toward her and hugged her again.

I told her there was no way I could walk through that gate. She would have to go down the stairs. It was selfish of me to make her be the one to walk away, but I just couldn’t do it.

And so finally she walked toward the stairs. She blew a kiss. I blew one back. She mouthed “I love you so much”. I mouthed “I love you too. So much.” She put her hands in front of her chest in the shape of a heart. I did the same.

And then she walked down the stairs and out of sight.

I considered running after her. If this was a movie, I would have. But in real life, what would it have accomplished other than to delay the inevitable by another three minutes? She had made it clear that she felt that this was necessary, and nothing I could do at this point would change that.

Even still, I stood in front of that gate for a moment, hoping beyond hope that this wasn’t the end. Hoping beyond hope that she would reappear, and run toward me, and tell me not to go, and tell me that all of this was a huge mistake, and tell me she’s sorry for taking so long to realize what she wanted was right there in front of her all along, and tell me that she wants to be with me.

And I…

I’m still standing at the top of those stairs, waiting.

 

And Barry, if you’re listening, I still love you.

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