When the pandemic hit, most of my friends moved away practically overnight. As a university student, I had grown used to not seeing my friends for months at a time. Whenever summer comes around, one of us is always leaving. I’m used to periods of separation from my friends. But this time it’s different. I am a graduate.
As of today, I have a job. As of next month, I have to pay council tax. My world has truly changed.
I’m used to the people I love coming in and out of my life. I’m not good at texting back quickly, but I have sustained long-distance friendships. There are people I can go months or years without seeing, and love them just as much as I did when we said our goodbyes.
When both my best friends left the UK in March, I didn’t cry like I thought I would. I didn’t expect three months of lockdown, I didn’t expect everything to turn out like this. Perhaps I knew, deep down, that something had shifted permanently. But I wasn’t able to process it.
The feelings come in waves, brought on by old photographs deep in the recesses of my phone, or facebook posts by old friends I haven’t spoken to in months, as I witness from afar the different paths we’ve all chosen to take. Paths that crossed for three or four years, beautifully intertwining, or knotting infuriatingly like earphones in a coat pocket. Paths that may never cross again.
I’ve said my goodbyes. I’ve said my “I love you!”s. That doesn’t mean I’m ready for it to be over. As I dissect long-stagnant situations to my best friend for the millionth time, I scream (well, type) “THIS IS SUCH AN UNSATISFYING ENDING!”. It’s no longer my writer’s instinct of trying to tie the narrative neatly, it goes deeper than that. I’ve run open-armed at every opportunity that’s crossed my path, but I still feel like there’s so much more I could have done, more I could have said.
My memory plays out an endless loop of montages from 2018’s cringiest moments, and I learn the same lessons over and over again. It was a year of feeling abandoned, but, looking back now, the person who really abandoned me that year was myself. I felt like everyone left me behind, but I deserted myself so frequently I can’t even recognise the person I was then.
My plans for the next academic year aren’t set in stone yet, but if all goes well, I will be leaving Glasgow. I’m ready to write the next chapter of my life, to move on to bigger and better things. But there is so much I don’t know how to let go of. I’m used to being the person left behind, not the one who’s leaving.
I remember a conversation I had with a friend back in November, a lifetime ago. We sat in Tim Hortons and talked about our plans for after graduation. I didn’t want to do a masters, and I didn’t want to leave Glasgow. It was the only place that truly felt like home to me. A lot can change in seven months; the future I’m hoping for now is the opposite of what I wanted then. Who even was I in November? Last year’s Eliza is a blur of long hair and blue coats and purple lipstick. She, too, is a montage.
I want to say I’ve changed. I have changed, but if I say it, it makes it less credible. I look different, I act different, I feel different. If you’re reading this as someone who is, or has been, close to me, you will know that I don’t tend to let things go. If one spark of hope remains, I will see it as a whole bonfire. It’s not that I thrive on false hope, but that I’ve lived through so many phoenix moments that I recognise the lifeforce obscured by the dunes of ashes.
Because I don’t let things go easily, it can seem like my feelings don’t change over long periods of time. I store old love, old pain, old hopes in my heart like a hamster stores food in its cheeks. I’ve been empty enough times to know what sustains me. I grew up this year, and something shifted in me. You can’t step into the same river twice, and it’s the same with emotions, with people. I look at the friendships I’ve cultivated over the past four years, and they’re not the same relationships they were are the start. You can love someone for years, but the experience of loving them isn’t immutable. I’m learning to love differently, to love in a healthier way (I hope). I’m learning to trust that everything happens at the right time, and that the things I’ve lost were taken from me for a reason.
I replaced bitterness with acceptance, but it doesn’t mean I don’t ache for the things I’ll never experience again, the goodbyes I didn’t know were final.
This morning was the first time I’ve used public transport in three months. As I took the near-deserted train to work, rain poured down the windowpanes, and my sad girl playlist set the scene with the perfect soundtrack. I scrolled through a collection of photos from my second and third years of university, blurry drunken photographs that are such low quality I don’t know why I kept them. Except I do know; they captured a magic I sometimes tell myself doesn’t exist. Adele’s “When We Were Young” aptly played in the background, and I still couldn’t bring myself to cry. I looked at my dyed black hair and red eyes, my smudged lipstick, heavy eyeliner… I was a baby, back then. I still am, to a certain extent. Except now I have a backbone, and self-worth, and I know what I want from life and am willing to make sacrifices for it, even when it hurts.
I’ve spent half of 2020 wishing I could go back to 2019. I felt stuck in place. Nothing was moving forward in my life, and I wanted to go backwards. Good things are happening in my life now, and I’ve learnt there’s nothing for me in the past. I can look back, but only if I keep putting one foot in front of the other and walking the road I have built towards my future.
This time four years ago, I travelled to Estonia for the first time. It was my first solo trip abroad, and it was challenging and life-changing. I’ve gone back there every year since (with 2020 being the exception, for obvious reasons). Each time I go back, it’s different. Estonia is familiar to me, but it will never be easy. There will always be a language barrier, and no matter how many times I visit, I will always be a foreigner in that land. People are like countries, in that sense. There are people I’ve only known as a tourist, spoken with only in my broken attempt at their mother tongue. Do you ever think about how the English language only has one word for love? How I use the same word to describe the way I act and feel towards my friends, my cat, potatoes, my writing? I’ve spent so much of my life speaking in metaphors, because its easier to evoke a feeling through fiction than to find a single word to encapsulate what a place or person or memory means to you.
I visited Estonia every year since I was eighteen, because when I love things, I come back to them. There is so much in my life I’ve walked away from and only looked back a handful of times. But there is a special place in my heart reserved for the things I can never truly walk away from. Love is an umbrella term for a range of feelings that the English language can’t capture, but the most important lesson I’ve learnt about a certain kind of love is that it’s a choice, not simply a feeling. It is not theory, it is praxis. The things, people, places that claw their way into the most guarded part of my heart are there because I chose them and they chose me, and that is what makes them special.
Thinking back to the conversation I had in November, when I was so sure I didn’t want to leave Glasgow, my reasoning was that this was the first place that truly felt like home. I see it differently now. My attachment to Glasgow doesn’t come from a feeling, it comes from a series of choices. This was the first place I chose to live, and the first place where people chose me. My life here is composed of four years of choices, stacked on top of each other. I can’t pull unfortunate choices out like Jenga blocks, because the tower of my life would come crumbling down. I’ve built what I needed to here, and it’s time to make new choices, to build something new elsewhere.
I have time on my side. If I do end up moving away, it will be in a couple of months from now. I can say goodbye to this city in ways I never had the chance to say goodbye to my friends. Some goodbyes are sharp and sudden, and others are nothing, an ending you don’t see coming, a spark so small your eyes can’t see it fizzle out. I’ve known many goodbyes in my life, and I don’t know which kind is best.
I have two tattoos to remind myself nothing is permanent. One day, my skin will wrinkle. Another day, I will die. Further in the future, my skin and flesh will rot. My bones won’t bear a purple phoenix or a sun and moon cupped in outstretched hands. Tattoos are only permanent if I am permanent, and I am temporary. Permanence is an illusion. A goodbye is a release – letting go is the opposite of permanence.
There is a fist tightly clenched around my heart right now, because after three months of denial, I am finally coming to terms with the fact the life I’ve lived for four years is over. I’m not a student anymore, most of my friends have moved away. I can’t even get a hug. A few months ago, I wouldn’t have known who I was without all those things. But I have such a solid sense of self now, and I know I’m ready for the next step. I can leave behind the hopes that never came to be; I can accept that some phoenixes will never resurrect. Because there is more to me than the attachments I placed my bets on, the fixations I couldn’t let go of. I’m going to leave it all behind. And who will I be then? I will be Eliza. A new Eliza, of the likes you’ve never seen before.