I have a t-shirt folded and tucked into the back of a dresser drawer. It’s made the pilgrimage along with me cross-country and back. From the blue grass of Kentucky to the sun-kissed California coastline. It’s remained unworn. I folded it tightly on a cold December night in 2008, just so. The short sleeves tucked into the center, the body tripled over to make a crisp rectangle.
I never look at it. I never touch it. I simply know it’s there. It once smelled like lavender fabric softener. Now it probably just smells stale.
For a good long while I was convinced that the owner of this shirt was the love of my life. He was big and tall and sturdy and larger than life. He could do it all, and fix it all, and was my superhero in worn-in jeans. He had a smile that could melt butter sitting in an ice box and wrote handwritten letters – terribly misspelled, but eloquent. And I was oh-so-sure that loving him made me into the woman I wanted to be.
When it ended, I put his handwritten letters, our pictures, and a Ziploc bag of dried birthday rose petals, along with every other proof our our life together I could get my desperate hands on, in a box, and stuck the box in the dark, back corner of my closet. When I moved to L.A., the entire contents of my apartment went into storage as I downsized, including that box. But not the Christmas shirt. That I kept with me. Folded and tucked in the back of a dresser drawer.
He lingered in my life for years. In and out. I dated, started (and ended) relationships that didn’t stick. I cried, I grew, I questioned myself. And in the deep dark of the night when loneliness got the better of me, I’d clench my eyes and remember that he had loved me. And that loving him made me into the woman I wanted to be. Sparkling, full, dazzling, with reservoirs of emotion ready to be drawn upon at any time. He had made me into her, and I could be her again. One day, the right man would come along and I would meet That Sarah again. And if I was patient enough, and had enough faith, that I’d be her once more. Because loving him made me into the woman I wanted to be.
One day, the right man would come along and I would meet That Sarah again. And if I was patient enough, and had enough faith, that I’d be her once more. Because loving him made me into the woman I wanted to be.
We didn’t have to talk for him to be there. He was. Folded and tucked in the back of my dresser drawer was enough for me to evoke the proof when I needed the reminder.
Years passed. And then the text came from our mutual friend that he’d died. I crumpled to the scratchy blue carpet of my office floor and started a cry that didn’t stop for a year. And in the deep dark of the night when loneliness got the better of me I’d silently admit that I didn’t know what I was more sad about – losing him, or losing the living evidence that I could be the woman that loving him made me into? That woman I so deeply wanted to be down in depths of my core, that I’d never known I could even dream of being till him.
And so I talked to him. I desperately wrote to him in journals. Letters and pleas. Music playlists on heavy rotation. Anything to keep him alive. Anything to keep That Sarah alive.
The days became weeks, the weeks became months, months became years, and the times I reached for his memory in the deep dark of the night came farther and farther between. And as they drifted apart, a reality flooded in to the empty spaces left behind like water from a broken levee…I’d have to keep That Sarah alive all by myself.
I put it off. Leasing my heart out to candidates with low credit. Using unfulfilling relationships as concrete blocks I could stand on. Looking for replacements that would turn me into the woman I wanted to be. Except I came up empty handed. Made frantic, desperate decisions. Because I needed proof. I needed to be reminded I was lovable. Who was I without the evidence? And there was nothing to cling to.
That Sarah was someone who seemed so far away. That Sarah who was capable of deep, vast reservoirs of patience. Who made salty tapenade by hand even though she hated the individual ingredients. Who burst with delight at simple potted violets. Who could seemingly imagine a world where she cared for a person more than she did herself; where the possibility of life multiplied times two was the most vivid version of happiness imaginable. That Sarah who radiated a sense of purpose and pride that shouted out from every pore “I am loved. I am good enough. I can do it all!”
I spent a year in a Siberia of self-confidence. Stranded. Without landmark or Sherpa to guide me… And then, one day, it stopped. If I was going to be reminded that That Sarah was in me, I would have to be the one to do it. I’d have to stand by myself.
I deleted old text messages. Removed numbers from my phone. Said silent goodbyes that left wide open spaces of emotional terrain exposed and bare.
I removed every wobbly crutch I had been leaning on. Every man who’d ever told me I was “hot” but never uttered the word “beautiful.” Every friend who’d never returned a call. Every guy whose tree I barked up, who never matched a fraction of the affection I had lobbed over the net. Each and every prop I had clung to in the hopes of creating a better version of me, I released and set back to sea.
I removed every wobbly crutch I had been leaning on. Every man who’d ever told me I was “hot” but never uttered the word “beautiful.” … Every guy whose tree I barked up, who never matched a fraction of the affection I had lobbed over the net.
And the place made bare by them all, I replenished with a single message.
That Sarah is in you. She has been in you all along. And the power to be her is entirely in your hands. You are the person you decide you are. Worthy, lovable. And no man, no woman, no prop, can convince you of what you must already believe deep down to your actual soul. That you have the power to become the woman you want to be, if you simply let yourself.
I lifted it out gingerly, and held the cotton to my nose. A deep inhale, searching for a familiar smell long gone. In a split millisecond, I teetered on the edge of the cliff of my memories. Rather than fall, I decided what I was holding was simply lifeless, woven threads of fabric – nothing more, nothing less.
Though he had worn it, the t-shirt wasn’t the man I had loved. It wasn’t me. It was simply a thing. A thing I had given power to. A thing that no longer served a purpose. I had found That Sarah. She lived in me, every day. Without crutch or cane, evidence or proof. She flowed through my veins like lava. I had simply to call upon her myself, summon her and she was there.
And so I said my goodbye. Out loud. With tears running down my face. I let the shirt go, and everything that rode alongside it. For I held in my heart something far more essential— my own proof. My own belief. My own self-knowledge. That I was That Sarah. And nobody could take that from me.