A three-minute subway ride and a whiff of cologne were all it took for me to remember a part of my past I had been trying so hard to forget: the life I built with my ex.
It's an unfortunate truth that the past hardly ever stays in the past. And for most of us, the past is ridden with imperfect decisions and lost love.
When we go through a breakup, we lose little pieces of ourselves -- little pieces that, seemingly insignificant on their own, leave us feeling incomplete once they're stolen from us.
We're told that opening our eyes to new people, places and experiences will help take us further away from a life we used to know, a life we'd like to bury deep into the ground and never revisit.
So, in a brave effort to replace the pieces of ourselves that we've lost, we go out into the world with our hearts open and our heads high. We do our best to quell any and every emotion from our romantic pasts that presents itself as an obstacle to propelling forward.
But it's never that simple. Because if it were, we'd all be uncracked and unwounded. We'd never repeat our former mistakes. We'd retreat home after being perfectly poised all day, take off the masks that have kept us in tact, and be able to breathe.
The harsh reality is we're never able to breathe unadulterated breaths, because we're either freshly heartbroken, or riding the long road to recovery.
Even when we think we're finally free from our past demons, or when we're looking for our next big adventure and our next big love, we are not impervious to momentarily losing our way. One place, one idea, one man just slightly resembling the man we used to love can re-open the wound we've spent time sewing shut.
In my case, it was one smell. One stupid, malicious, intrusive-as-hell smell on a subway. One innocent whiff of the scent my ex habitually drowned himself in made me feel like I had taken a thousand steps back after having moved a hundred steps forward. One little accident orchestrated by the universe f*cked up all the big strides I had worked so hard to make.
There’s always one pesky thing that keeps us torn between the pain we want to forgo and the freedom that we deserve. We associate places we once frequented with an ex or a person we once met with him with bad vibes and sh*tty feelings. We deem a restaurant we'd go with him untouchable and tainted for the rest of eternity. We deem a song we made love to unbearable to listen to.
It isn't the fault of the place or person or idea in question; it’s our fault for associating those things with pain.
It's a weakness on our part to grant our past exes that much power over both our present and our future. And though that weakness is an inherent part of heartbreak - a trait that humanizes us - it should not be one that dictates the course of our actions.
So, one day, a day just like any other, I found myself on the train I take to work, feeling a feeling that was foreign to me. I hated that train. I hated my fellow passenger. And, most of all, I hated that smell. The smell of equal parts musk and man. The smell that traced me all the way back to nights spent holding my ex.
My thoughts on the train began to race. Is this the end of the line for me? Am I always going to associate that wonderful smell with a horrible heartbreak? Should I make it my life's mission to run from that scent forever? Was I destined to think of nothing more of that scent than my painful past?
But perhaps my greatest fear out of all my fears was: Am I only as strong as my most powerless moment? Why does one love still haunt me through everywhere I go and everything I do?
Despite how helpless we feel in our most vulnerable moments, we've got to remember that the amount of pain we allow ourselves to feel is inevitably up to us.
It's up to us to let our heads prevail over our hearts. And it's up to us to stop one experience we shared with one person from ruining everything with people we have yet to meet.
The one I loved turned out not to be The One. He stayed in my life for two years, but I let him live on through the neighborhood in which I used to visit him, and through the blond-haired, blue-eyed beauties I encounter who remind me of him.
But the beautiful thing about people and places is they don't have to be frozen in time. They can be novel, reinvented, and made over, like a vintage piece of furniture. They can be viewed in entirely different ways - unique from the ways you used to view them - and remind you not of what happened, but of what's to come.
Your ex will continue to burn through your memory and deepen the hole in your heart -- that is, only if you let him.