The Air In Our Lungs, The Loves We Live For
In the hills of Terlingua, near Texas’ southern border with Mexico, there is a canyon studded with blackbrush and boulders. Along this dry riverbed, riparian oases offer brief respites from the sun’s intensity during the early morning. Sweetened wafts of mesquite juniper greet you from time to time as you travel its coarse snaking spine, into and around small mesas and gorges. The midday heat is strong, but dry as a bone, and the only sounds that greet you are the whistling wisps of wind, the gravel under your boots, the occasional chirp of a wren, and your own lungs as they heave in and out the arid scented air.
As the day wears on and evening approaches, the blue cloudless sky gives way to pastel lavender, and the daytime’s radiance recedes to a gentle pink brilliance on the endless horizon. Rather than watching this transformation with your neck craning and aching upwards, it’s best to find a comfortable flat spot to lay on your back so you can really take it all in. With this new focus, you can easily begin to make out flecks of pale blue and white stars announcing themselves in the afterglow above. Within what seems like minutes, the warmth of the day has completely dissipated and the cool night air awakens and moves in.
You are eventually enveloped in a total, formidable blackness, so much so that you cannot even make out your hand in front of your face. But to accommodate this new absence of light, your unpolluted vision opens wider and further than ever before, and reveals a miraculous tapestry of galaxies and constellations to your newly-trained eyes. An endless universe of billions of stars splattered across the desert ceiling, groaning under the weight of a dark, swallowing blanket of night.
I laid there under that awe-inspiring Texas night sky with my wife Anna, each of us marveling at the edges of our own solar system’s galactic swirl: a sight we had never witnessed, now visible with our own naked eyes in this complete blackness. Out there, far from the nearest gas station, parking lot, or lamppost, there was no artificiality to hinder our vision or dull emotions. That cascade of countless flickering stars brought a new glorious perspective, and we contemplated to each other about our place in it all: all of that visible starlight was incomprehensibly old. Most of those points of light we were staring at had journeyed for thousands of years, since before we were born, and the faintest among them were from stars that may not even exist any more. It’s the most connected I’ve ever felt to our physical universe, and the profoundness moved us to tears.
It was at that moment, at the culmination of our decade-long journey together, that we both knew our marriage was over.
For the last few years, my teenage sweetheart and I struggled with our direction. We married young: our first date was UDF ice cream on the way home from church. She was still several months away from turning 18, and I even promised her father - a burly, southern Pentecostal postman from a big family - that I wouldn’t touch her, a promise Anna and I broke constantly with a repressed fervor. The following two years were pure rapture: dreaming of the next time we’d be together, countless late nights wishing we never had to part. When I proposed to her on the Taylor Southgate bridge, fireworks went off above Reds stadium. We were immovable in our love.
As we grew together and examined who we wanted to be, we knew that our pasts were a source of ongoing struggle: traumatic events in our childhood were in fact what drew us together in the first place. We both had personal demons, both from that childhood and from church, specters of religious expectations and fears that caused considerable turmoil, but they only served to fuel our need, to cling ever closer to our love. Still, we yearned to be more independent, more self-sufficient, feeling shoehorned into a model of classical marriage that we didn’t necessarily believe in. We committed ourselves to becoming more than we had originally set out to be - not just a convenient union, but partners in each others’ success.
Shortly after we left the church, we finally felt as if the darkly of naiveté and dogma had been lifted from our eyes. We viewed our lives from a new perspective: hopeful, eager for all the wide-open world had to offer. But now, in this newfound mystery, we were both simply unhappy and tired. We still craved change. It happens to the best of us, we learned.
So we did what any desperate couple does when faced with such uncertainty: we made some dumb choices. We sold our upside-down house, banded together with friends. We spent more time apart. We met new people and cut some relationships out of our lives.
Ten years after our wedding day, our lives would’ve been unrecognizable to our younger selves. We had started our journey together so dependent on each other, and by the time we sold our house, we looked, sounded and perceived life more differently than we could’ve imagined. The nights of our early marriage were spent facing one another, thirsting for even more intimacy, addicted to the heart beating next to us. Too many nights since had been spent falling asleep facing away from one another, craving even more distance, needing more time alone to lick our own wounds while the other wasn’t looking. We were so alike, so trapped in each other’s respective prisons.
Long before we ever went to Texas, I’d been convinced that no matter the risk, barbecue was and is my passion, a tradition much more than a cuisine that I uncompromisingly believe in and want to dedicate my life to. I was also devastated by a recent potential restaurant deal that fell apart and destroyed my ambition.
Anna herself was deeply unsatisfied with the course of her photography career; she yearned for something more meaningful: a story yet untold in our natural world that was uniquely hers.
We didn’t vacation regularly; there just wasn’t the time. But we finally made a point - together - to get away to a place we could both reset and find our spark again.
You couldn't have picked a better place for both of us than Central and West Texas.
The history and the ethos of old barbecue institutions in Elgin and Taylor were revelatory and energizing, and she abode my strenuous eating schedule. We then oohed and aahed at the majestic natural beauty of the hills and expansive plains in Big Bend, driving for miles and miles all the way to the Rio Grande, the love letters of George Harrison our constant tour guide.
We spent a few nights in Terlingua: a ghost town only someone like Anna could've found. It was during those nights we awed at the drastic change of scenery, finding ourselves in a new magical place that we never felt like leaving from. Staring at that night sky, drunk on tequila, if we could've, we would've surely abandoned all cares back home with no question - if it was at all possible. But we knew, eventually, we had to come back to our real and unpleasant reality.
When we returned to our day to day lives, we found ourselves motivated. Hell-or-high-water, Anna pursued an ambitious traveling schedule to national parks across the nation, and I partnered with a busy local bar to sell my first plate of barbecue. We were determined to not hold each other back, but to live life to the fullest.
As we exercised our souls and found respite in some small semblance of individuality, we discussed how a potential future apart might work - together, but occasionally separated. It was a therapeutic exercise in theory, but it admittedly made everything much worse. It was a toxic mistake.
Self-preservation will make people act like animals, and the fear that comes with it will ruin the best marriage - fear of losing out on something bigger, of ending up alone, of finally turning into your parents. The poisonous jealousy and apathy that comes with fear will turn good people against each other, regressing further inward, falling over each other on a mad dash to be first out the door.
We had stood by and watched as the dreams we wanted for ourselves slowly and methodically diverted our paths and drove us apart - the thing we feared the most. Still desperately in love, but insulated from the other's affection. Still hopeful, but resentful. Surviving, but in agony. Dreamers, but still deeply, deeply afraid to our cores of the inevitable.
Less than a year after we sold our house, the papers were filed and we were living apart. We both said and did cruel things in the end. Those weeks were, and still are, the darkest of my young life.
I don’t regret leaving, and neither does she. But the pain of our loss is real, and eternal.
It’s a dream you’ve just woken up from, still vivid, just-remembered. Your senses so alert still to the scenery and the sounds, their visuals lingering with a brilliance that may as well be photochemical. A printed moment in time: the warmth on their skin, the perfect smell of their hair, the love so strong it makes you weak, the fears they helped conquered, the healing they gave you, the sunlight that hit their face that day they saved your soul. All memories and details, colors and lines, embedded in a polaroid that is fading every passing moment.
You are greeted each new day with a canvas of memories you can’t bear to look at any more - but in desperate, hysterical denial, you clutch them in your fingertips, pour and weep over for just one more moment before the reality you once knew really is gone.
The days float in and among each other. You get to experience your dream being stolen from you every time you remember it, until it completely gives way to nothing… a terrifying canvas of nothing. The scent of lavender brings no feeling, and the sound of your love's laughter is simply a noise you happen to remember. Just like that, your dream is gone.
There's no revelatory or surprising way to say this, but for me, it’s just a necessary admission: there are plenty of times I wanted to end it all. To some that may be a shocking surprise. But to me, it's something I've battled with my whole life.
My own father attempted to take his own life when I was fourteen, and my relationship with both my parents has never been the same since and probably never will be. I grew up scarred from that experience, tortured with unanswered questions. Do I have a choice whether or not I end up like my father? Is there any part of him in me that’s good? And the question I obsessed over the most: Does it matter?
After converting to a life of skepticism, I deeply, intensely struggled to accept any convincing argument as to why it matters at all whether or not any of us live or die, or that this is anything other than a vast cosmic accident.
The whole experience of Anna's and my separation was something that weirdly drew us together as we were facing the unavoidable. Staring through glassy bitter eyes into that night sky with the love of my life in Terlingua, both of us hurting, desperate, confused, angry, inhabiting the same space, lost in each other's’ arms but somehow incapable of healing each other, I wanted it all to end. I wanted it to end when we were signing those papers. I wanted it to end on those nights alone, hopeless, and terrified of what I might do to myself.
It felt like the anxiety over the inevitable incoming loss of my marriage, the effort required to find happiness, and writing a story worth remembering, was so much more than I could bear.
Turns out, I bore it, as did Anna, through acceptance, change, and a healthy realistic understanding of your own meaning in it all.
If I really ever want to know myself, I thought, to be honest and true to my own fragile humanity, it starts with accepting your imperfect existence, no matter how ugly or disturbing. And sometimes that means just saying those terrifying thoughts in your head out loud to yourself in the mirror, just to see if you really mean them. Often, speaking the words out loud to yourself while observing your own terrified eyes, it will remind you how often your own thoughts betray you.
I never once - never - wanted to actually hurt myself or lose the potential life I have. Ever. I also know it’s a battle that’s not unique to me. Everyone faces it. I may agonize over the questions of my past, and still be unsure about the question of my own future, but I know that the longer I obsess over them, life will keep passing me by, and time will become just a tragic record of the potential minutes and hours.
So here I am. Thirty-one, divorced, counseled, slightly medicated, and scared shitless. This is my life, full of blank portraits.
The chance to start over, to set out into the great unknown and take the risk for risk’s sake - the much younger me would kill for this opportunity, to find myself at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere. But this directional divergence and assault on my disposition is a little unsettling. What would others do in my position? Some people would just as soon keep going, figuring that the road they’re already on is right where they’re supposed to be. Some get scared and turn back, attempting to cling to whatever semblance of familiarity they can. Some take a left and head for the mountains, lustful for a quiet life. Some take a right, yearning to be surrounded by the city and the sea. Some yell “Fuck this choice,” and go off road, forging their own path, denying the universe any hold on their own destiny and leaving a scorching trail of pure energy in their wake.
Me? I’m still stuck at the intersection, broken down, looking at the map, scared at the sound of my own lonesome breath against the silent unconcerned wind. I didn’t set out to get to this place, this sprawling landscape of unintended consequences. I just made it here, and now I don’t know where to go.
However strange this may sound, I am completely comfortable here.
In Christopher Hitchens’ final memoir, the aptly titled “Mortality”, as he found himself reflecting on his own impending end in the later stages of an esophageal cancer diagnosis, he comes to sober terms with the revelation that our self-important struggles - if we’re really being honest with ourselves - are borderline invisible blips in just one corner of an otherwise unaffected, endless universe. “To the dumb question, ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply, ‘Why not?’,” he argues.
To some that may sound harsh. To me, the coarse reality of it is the only thing that truly gives me comfort.
The war we all must face within ourselves is not necessarily to find importance per se, but to accept the reality of our accidental existence with a finesse that measures us all. Every moment, in our grand obscurity, that we can affect one another, to find ourselves suddenly significant to one another, and to marvel at the mere chance that our paths crossed at all, is a truly remarkable repudiation of meaninglessness in and of itself.
In that empty life-sized indentation left on the other side of the bed - the warmth of which is just another one of those endlessly fading memories that bring torture - in those miserable nights when there aren’t enough pillowcases to capture our tears, in those office stairwells that are home to our panic attacks, in the frightening echoes of your and your father’s mistakes, in the bottom of another empty bottle that can not possibly satisfy, and in every dark corner of that uncaring goddamn Texas night sky… there is still a life right here and now that is commanding me to live it.
If you are reading all of this now as a person whose own thoughts scare them sometimes, I believe that what you’re battling is real, difficult, and probably a lifelong journey, and I am forever your friend and ally. There is little solace in just words. Just know that there is a real person on the other end of these words: hurting, dumb, numb, but surviving.
I ache for Anna’s happiness. We know that this chapter of our lives is written, and that the next one will be very different. Instead of groaning over the what-ifs of the past, though, we made a deal: to not squander these what-ifs of our unknown futures. What if one day, she does get to that mountain top to tell a story that’s never been told… what if one day, I get to cut that ribbon at the front door of my business and serve my community… what if one day, we wake to new families of our own, and feel the heady warmth of someone’s embrace again. On those days, we will be ever more present in each others souls, a reminder of the love we found, lost, but still forever live for.
The intimate Sarah Kay floored me once as only she could: “getting the wind knocked out of you is the only way to remind your lungs how much they like the taste of air.” Those now-blank canvases can be reused and repurposed to print new ones. Growing, taking risks, being vulnerable to romance with a full heart, creating new and different portraits for yourself, with the realization that they, too, may pass one day. That vast emptiness after loss is not what makes life an indifferent and capricious mistake... it’s what makes life impossibly beautiful.
And in the wild and terrifying silence you sometimes find yourself in, the sound of your solitary, still-struggling breath will no longer seem to you like a futile gasp. Instead, eventually, with newfound grace, as you fill your lungs with the cold beauty of life and exhale your demons, it will sound to you exactly how a lost and wandering human being living an imperfect life does sound like: