When your heart is broken, it’s simple: “I will never love again.” After a night of overindulgence, one swears to never drink again. Post-high school, we hope to leave and never come back. Or, as Poe prefers, “nevermore.”
For me, it’s simple. “I will never pole vault ever again.”
The last time I did so was in 2004. It was at my high school, which I’ve visited occasionally since graduating. I read “The Cask of Amontillado” there, not “The Raven.” Hearts might have been wounded during those years, but none were really broken. I got drunk with classmates maybe twice, max. But I pole vaulted a fair bit, and wasn’t terrible at it. I topped out with a personal best of 12 feet and once won third place at a track meet. Not bad.
I’ve since hung up my jersey, though not to be dramatic. I’m just being practical. After all, there are plenty of things I likely won’t get the chance to do again Two years of launching myself over a horizontally-lain beam with a fiberglass pole seems sufficient, anyway.
Still, the realization stings. How could someone in their mid-twenties be certain they’ll never do something again, ever? Young as I may be, I concede that when it comes to some things, I’m as good as dead. Perhaps I lack the resources, or the time. Often, I don’t even have the desire for a do-over. Other times, I’ve just forgotten about it entirely. Let me get a few out of my system:
- The last time I ever recited the Pledge of Allegiance. (It felt weird.) 2001.
- The last time I ever crowd-surfed. (Ska concert on Long Island. Also stage-dived.) 2005.
- The last time I ever played spin the bottle. (I got to kiss a girl I secretly liked.) 2003.
- The last time I ever had sex with a virgin. (Can’t really be sure of when exactly.) Perhaps 2006.
- The last time I ever played a sincere game of hide and seek. (It must have been fun.) 2002.
- The last time I ever paid for booze using only pennies. (I was poor in Paris.) 2011.
- The last time I ever took a trip somewhere with Dad. (Well, we had a good run.) 2010.
Thankfully, finality can come as a relief.
- The last time I ever worked for minimum wage. (It was bad but not that bad.) 2004.
- The last time I ever went to a church service besides for weddings. (Oppressively boring.) 2003.
- The last time I ever ate a mango. (I had an allergic fit on someone’s bathroom floor.) 2008.
- The last time I ever hit a girl. (I was still young enough for it to be okay; it was my sister.) 1998.
- The last time I ever made a joke about Terri Schiavo. (I felt kind of bad about it.) 2010.
- The last time I ever pissed my pants. (It’s not what you’re thinking.) 2008.
- The last time I ever wore rain boots. (They gave me blisters.) 1996.
If there’s a first time for everything, then there must be a last time. Certitude deserves poetry, it seems, and there’s an adage for every “last time” you can think of. The most interesting ones of all — and perhaps the most confusing — are those events we’re completely capable of experiencing again yet never find the opportunity to. The final badminton match. The concluding handjob. The last Macarena. That ultimate batch of homemade beef jerky. One last cruise vacation.
I’ll never fit in the kitchen sink again, so having my grandmother bathe me there is out of the question. Grandpa had a heart attack, so I won’t even see him. Mom never breastfed me to begin with, so I won’t get one last nip. I’m too heavy for Dad to pick me up. Those are the last times of another variety. I’m interested in moments which retain possibility, if but slim.
It’s incredible how acutely we govern our lives by what we will and will not have the chance to re-encounter. It’s incredible that every door is kept open just in case; every receipt held onto and each acquaintance friend-requested. It’s incredible how we perceive permanence, and the choices we make as a result of it. It’s incredible that there’s a last time for everything. It’s incredible how much that idea can hurt.
Incredible yet understandable, really.
We’re frantic beings, after all, frantic and mortal and efficient. With each passing event, we’re forced to speculate: what’s next, and when – or if? Then we calculate. There is a secret mathematics to everything.
I wonder if this fear is what drives our need to photograph everything. Family portraits keep everyone in one place; travel photos keep part of us elsewhere; and self-portraits preserve youth, beauty, and identity. Each image ensures that we have fragmentary yet permanent ownership over a passing instance. To hold something in one’s hand is to deny that it has expired.
Storage units and suburban attics are lined with evidence to this fear. Monthly fees and square footage is a negligible sum compared to the regret we would feel not having something we might one day want – let alone need. The things we keep – but don’t use – hover between real and imagined; we trust they exist and keep them close enough to make use of them when the time comes. We consign them to an invisible future, and find comfort in their possibility.
Years ago, I came back from a weekend at my mother’s house to discover that my stepmom had emptied a good portion of the cluttered contents of Dad’s basemet to the curb for bulk-trash pickup. Boxes upon boxes with no more detailed a label than my name, my sister’s, or that of a holiday, all rain-soaked in the back of some giant truck. Gone.
My stepmother meant no harm in her actions, but never realized how heartbreaking this was for us. She wanted to make way for her first-times, which I understood. Yet in starting new, my sister and I were denied the chance to recognize the last times we’d spend with toys, clothes, half-filled notebooks, and an abundance of now-anonymous somethings. The fact is, we’d probably never use most of that stuff again. But the potential we would – combined with their instant disappearance – was unbearable. No goodbyes, just tears. We resented her, forgave her, then forgot.
I still experienced one last game of catch with a black leather baseball glove that was likely among the discarded. I just wasn’t conscious of it at the moment, though, and made a final diving catch without fanfare. I figured I’d pick it up again, because why not? But I never got to. Perhaps that’s for the better, though – imagine bidding farewell to everything you’ll never again encounter. Overwhelming, to say the least. Also impossible, and ridiculous. But it’s nice to have the chance for a proper send-off.
Saying goodbye is a tricky thing. The majority of people we bid farewell to we will see again. They’re exempt. But what about old acquaintances, friends-of-friends, and former colleagues who relocate countries, change jobs, or just aren’t close enough to us to justify the effort of seeing again? We seem to follow the same course of action. Sometimes we make vague plans for someday soon, other times we exchange emails or business cards. Usually, we just add someone on Facebook and have them linger there, neither close nor far, in an awkward digital perpetuity.
In some instances, we’re stung with the preemptive regret of losing touch with someone, of abandoning possibility. Of rudeness, too, because “well, have a good life” is a brutal way of seeing someone off. But perhaps it’s better than keeping everyone we ever meet on hold. “See you never, but I hope the best for you” isn’t so bad.
Maybe we let go of some things so that we can hold onto others.
Tonight, I’m going to draft up an honest, earnest note to some Facebook acquaintances wishing them a happy life with no stipulations. Then I’m also going to make homemade beef jerky one last time, find some rain boots, and go dive off the stage at a punk show. I’m going to wear a tattered band shirt and get drunk with kids from high school and eat mangoes until my throat nearly closes up. Then I’m going to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and, hand-still-over-heart, I’m going to have sex with a virgin in a church. Finally, I’ll set fire to the memory of it and, in my ill-fitting track jersey, pole vault over it.
After that, though, I’m truly finished. Seriously. Nevermore.
Illustration by Julia Lavigne