When our parents were young, they went to summer camp. They went at the start of summer and made summer friends there, and at the end of summer, camp was over, and everybody went home. Maybe they’d return a few years in a row, and see familiar faces. But never everyone — the end of each summer always meant “goodbye.” Back then, goodbye was real.

It was still possible to lose touch with someone, and more often than not, you would. Phone numbers and addresses changed, records were left un-updated, years passed, and summer friends became memories.

Goodbye is dead. I came of age when it died. I got an email at age 12, my first cell phone in 8th grade, and Facebook as a high school sophomore. I remember when I was eight — like it’s etched in stone — playing hide and seek in the woods in my backyard and riding my bike to my best friends house two blocks away and feeling like there was nothing else in the world. 

Now when I meet someone, we trade numbers, social media follows, and texts. We go home and “creep” each other. We’re given the option to weigh our option, and we take it. Now, at the end of the party, “goodnight” is never “goodbye.” Hell, I went away for a few years to travel and I still knew what all of my friends and family were up to back home daily.

I fantasize about those days as a kid, when goodbye was real, the same way I do about old novels and love stories. It’s a fantasy of life made clear by fate, and the romance of ships that pass in the night. “Goodbye” meant fate was real. I’ve imagined Romeo and Juliet with smartphones. They don’t transcend. They’re just two dumb, sad kids.

A few years ago, I started saying goodbye again. I was tired of my heart jumping when an ex popped into my Instagram feed, and of guilty, furtive check-ups into old friends lives online while I was off traveling and they were back home. I was tired of everything being captured and displayed forever on the internet for the world to see. I was tired of all the unannounced visitors. I wanted end-of-summer goodbyes and stone memories. 

So I said it first to a job, and then to a casual fling, and then to a great love, and a few old friends who showed their true colors. I would explain how “ this isn’t a begrudged act,” and how “keeping you around makes you feel like a ghost.” And then I’d delete – the phone numbers and social media friendships. I blocked the calls and tossed the rest.

I got good at goodbye. Hell, I even started telling other people to do the same because it felt so good. At first, I felt a rush – like a foreign fling, or the perceptual clarity of traveling far away from home and starting over somewhere new.

And at social gatherings, I’d say, “I don’t take numbers.” They’d ask me why the hell not?

“Because I believe in goodbye, and things that are bigger than me.”

Sometimes it was a winning line, but it didn’t make me any happier. I didn’t feel any freer, or truer. The past would say hello with a song, or over six blocks on a certain avenue, and my heartbeat still got quicker. Past failures, people, memories, and habits snickered at new opportunities. 

My head, as it turns out, is a social network, every object a referent of supposedly forgone cares. I felt sick. I had said goodbye to nothing, and I had made myself very very lonely.

Fate can be cheap beauty, a stand-in for choice, an excuse of responsibility. I had tried to avoid it, but goodbye was always real. It just had never lived where I thought it did — in texts, on social media, as apparitions on screens avoided and avenues bypassed, and in options chopped away.

No, goodbye had always lived in me.

I don’t say goodbye much anymore. I accept social media friends, and I’ve let some ghosts reappear on my feeds. I’ve let the past creep back up, like slow summer sunrise. It looks nice so far, I think. 

Goodbye is a matter of heart, and fate is less about chance than conviction. My life is much more like a childhood summer now. I know there will always be ships that pass in the night. What I’ve learned is that the distant voice in the darkness…it’s mine.

Emma CunninghamComment