It was two days after Christmas and we were standing on the platform of Tokyo Station. It’s become one of those moments that I continuously torture myself with, replaying it in my head over and over again, each time wishing I’d done something different. There were so many things I had wanted to say. I came here, all across the world to see you again. Don’t leave me. I still love you. As the metro arrived, all that slipped out of my mouth was “Goodbye.” The bustling crowds washed over us and I watched him get onto the train, off to his next destination.
We met at a summer program in Beijing. He was Dutch and about to move to Japan for grad school. We met, clicked, believed ourselves to be in love, thought we could take on long distance and the 14-hour time difference, and I was naïve enough to love him more than he loved me (he was my first love, to be fair).
Watching him disappear into the crowd, it hit me just how gently people can walk out of our lives, how fleeting love can be. Sometimes we just need someone, to learn something from them, to feel something, to remind us to live in the moment, to grow—and then to move on. Every so often, we come across someone who touches our lives, makes an imprint, and leaves behind something beautiful.
“But what is love? How do you know what you feel is love?” he asked me once, over one of the phone calls that comprised most of our relationship. We were determined to figure it out; maybe it was something poetic like giving someone parts of you that you didn’t even know you had. Maybe it was just the emotion that you feel when you want something you can’t have. I was curious about how people threw around the word “love” so eagerly—but whatever it was, I knew it surely had to be more than mere comfort or infatuation. We couldn’t figure it out. A week after that very conversation, he told me he didn’t love me anymore. If this was love, it was only fleeting. And maybe that was OK.
We had tried desperately to find reasons to stay together, yet in the end we drifted apart. Like much else in the world, we were impermanent. We lasted, but not long enough; we were close, but not close enough—but it was enough for me. It was enough to have caught a glimpse of another person’s soul, to have experienced caring for someone more deeply than I ever thought I could. It can be too easy to chase after meaningless things that we think are important, too easy to forget to slow down, take a deep breath, and reflect. We, particularly at Columbia, like to put on cool façades and hold back our emotions, afraid of the vulnerability that love brings. But when I did let go of that and let myself love someone so deeply that it hurt, I discovered so much of myself that I didn’t know existed before. It strengthened me. It was worth it.
That day in Tokyo Station, when we stood in front of each other again, for the last time, I realized that it was impossible for us to be any more than temporary. Four months had passed since we last saw each other. During that time, he was immortalized in dreams and poetry, as perfect and intangible as the idea of love itself. In the end, he was nothing more than just another experience, and I was just another person who lived through it all.
We’re sometimes told love lasts and people stay if it’s meant to be. And we believe it so dearly that it only causes pain when the people in our lives choose paths different from our own. It hurts so much that we don’t always see the beauty of people coming gently into our lives, and leaving just as softly. But maybe that’s just the point. We make memories with other people, so we can remember them when they’re gone. We exchange experiences, so we can learn something valuable in between. We learn; we grow into ourselves. Just as we learn to let go and embrace change as it comes.
Love is fleeting. But this fleetingness and fragility is precisely what makes it meaningful—it’s what makes life beautiful. It is what defines us and what opens us up to do it all over again.
The author is a Barnard College sophomore majoring in political science-statistics. She has worked as a nude model in Paris and New York and she is currently producing a play with the Columbia Blue Glaze Theatre.