Growing out of love is like a shell peeling off of you, I wrote on a speeding train. At first it encased you, I continued, it held you together, kept you alive. Then it starts to crack, it pulls away from your skin. And you weep and grieve convinced you need that armor. You clutch onto it so tightly it begins to crumble. And then at last, you outgrow it completely. It falls off of you, and your skin is tougher than you thought, and you are your own armor after all.
After my hand stopped scrawling, and I leaned back into the train seat, after I looked out the window to the speeding English landscape, I looked at Steele. On the opposite side of my messy unfiltered writing, I traced a line drawing of his slightly open mouth, his deep set eyes, his flop of hair.
I closed my notebook, trapping the words inside. That day I felt those words so deeply, but still I closed my book, moving the bookmark to the next empty page. I didn't want him to see. I didn't want him to know that, with that armor of love, we were crumbling too. The only thing that soothed me was the motion of the train. Movement was what I wanted, to run away.
That month we spent on trains. It suited me. Running away again and again and again. I craved that forward motion, and I feared returning home to the stillness. The path behind us was dotted with memories of hollow conversations, our emotional minefield. We left behind a slanted hotel room on the edge of France where in the dusk light I admitted some of the words hidden in my book. (I was careful never to say that I had fallen out of love, it seemed like jumping off the edge of a cliff I could never climb again.) There were several conversations in Italy and the south of France. At the time, I remember feeling that they were healing, that we had covered new ground. Looking back all I remember are my tears, his tightly closed mouth, and the words, I don’t know, wound on repeat.
In Cassis, we laid in our sun filled hotel room, pressed together head to toe. I can’t lose this, I wrote later in my little book. I can’t lose this voice singing to me. The eyelashes that brush my cheeks. The arms that wrap around me and pull me up. But right on the tails of these words would come pain, and more tears. The craving for even the smallest forward motion overwhelmed me, and I abandoned Steele on the bed to let the shower water pound over my head. I’m not here, I’m not here, I’m not here, I’m not here.
My earlier certainty from the speeding train was gone. I was consumed with the worst grief. Without that shell of love, my skin was tender and exposed. I no longer knew if I was my own armor. I wasn’t standing tall. Every time he brushed my hand, or pulled me to him in the night, or rubbed my back and told me to breath deep through the tears, my raw skin would bleed again. In my notebook, I drew myself as a tiny girl stuck between two mountains. Two impossible choices: staying, and leaving.
It wasn’t until that shower, my body racked with sobs, that it occurred to me I was crying as if Steele had been forcibly taken away. As if he were dying. And I realized, I didn't have to lose this—I wasn't losing it—I was giving it away—and I didn’t have to.
It wasn’t an admission of love. It wasn’t that I had pieced my shell back together. The tight knot in my stomach hadn’t untied completely. It was simply that I had decided to stay. That I had decided to fight.
There were still hard days after that. Afternoons where we didn’t know how to be around each other after all those tears. Days that we tried to pretend we were back to how we used to me. Hours spent asking back and forth, Are you okay?
After we returned home, to the stillness I had feared, to a new home and a new life, it happened slowly. It was like the houseplant I had bought and put in the corner of our new bedroom. The one that started dying before I could replant it. As long as it doesn’t die completely, I thought. I stopped holding my breath for the new growth. I stopped compulsively checking the dead brown shell at the top to see if there were any new leaves coming through.
As long as it doesn't die completely, I think, this love between us. We lived together, our bodies curled around each other at night, our raw flesh healed over. We made plans, we stopped pretending, because we had a new life to inhabit and it didn’t require our tear filled closed mouth discussions on the nature of love and change. It was a quiet life—filled with new sheets, and clouded skies, and on my part it was filled with the delicate nuzzling of the pale skin behind his ear—the skin that always smells of Steele soap.
And one day I awoke to find that I was encased in a new shell. Another layer of our love had grown up around me. Not the same shell, because you can't put the pieces of a broken armor together again. But a new one. In love, we’re always growing out of one shell and into another.
Our love is an old thing—this shell is something new. It’s not as if all our old sparks came back—not as if I hadn’t kissed him a million times. Not as if we hadn’t sat together on the bathroom floor of our old apartment—my body pushed against the door and my throat tight with sobs. No, this shell didn’t erase those things. It can’t make them new again. There are still the old problems and insecurities. There is still tending that needs to be done.
This shell will peel away from me one day. Perhaps it will crumble from a different touch. But when it does, when it falls to the ground, and my tissue paper skin is tested again, a new shell will grow up in its place. And I will always be encased in love.