You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, But You Can Never Leave

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man pulling luggage by pexels
No matter how beautiful things look up ahead, it’s hard to find a place to set down the heavy stuff. That’s why I mostly keep it shoved away in a closet. (Image/Pexels)

I’m good at hiding it.

The emotional baggage I drag around all the time.

Most of the time, I forget it’s there until something triggers it. I don’t like talking about it, because people sometimes assume it means I’m hung up on my ex-wife and pining for a life that I’m nearly six years removed from and barely remember anymore.

I remember being married, of course. But I don’t remember ME when I was married. I don’t remember what I thought and felt in my everyday baseline emotional state of being.

Those life choices led to the worst thing that ever happened to me, happening. So I’m not sure why pursuing that would make sense to anyone.

I also don’t like talking about it because it makes other people uncomfortable, like all those nights when I was freshly divorced and intellectually aware that no one wanted to talk about it and see me cry in the middle of a bar on a Friday or Saturday night. I used to always say to myself: “Don’t talk about your divorce, don’t talk about your divorce, don’t talk about your divorce.”

And then, without fail, I would talk about my divorce like a massive, undisciplined asshole.

So when I was walking around Las Vegas last week with two work friends, they couldn’t have known that underneath my calm exterior, I was triggered and distracted by more than all the flashing lights.

The past doesn’t always cooperatively stay hidden in the closet.

It was the week of July 6, 2007.

Our close friends were getting married at Bellagio in Las Vegas on that day. My wife and I were the maid of honor and best man.

They wanted to get married on 07-07-07 (because Las Vegas), but a million other people had the same idea (because Las Vegas), so logistically it made sense for them to move the wedding to the day before.

I don’t know what my marriage was back then.

Good? Bad? Average?

She’d have a different perspective, anyway. We decided to start the trying-to-have-children process not long after that trip, which might signal that she was already unhappy at that point and thought having a baby might make things better.

Regardless of how okay I thought my marriage was at the time, 39-year-old me today would have totally pegged us for a future divorce.

She was hanging out poolside with friends at Caesars Palace and shopping in the Forum Shops.

I was playing in a poker cash game at Harrah’s, warming up for an afternoon tournament at Paris.

This past week in Vegas, I didn’t play one hand. Not one. I chose to go out with coworkers and be social, rather than sit at a table with nine strangers.

But when I was in Las Vegas for the first and only time with my wife, I ran away to play cards and do what I wanted to do, rather than invest my time connecting with my wife and friends.

If writing is my thing now, poker was my thing back then.

I was running through everyone at the afternoon poker tournament in Paris.

My wife stopped into the poker room on her walk back to our hotel room to see how I was doing. I was at the final table. Maybe five or six players left out of a field of about 200.

I was on the cusp of victory, and instead of sitting down to cheer for me to win, she said she’d see me back in the hotel room when I was done, and left.

It kind of hurt my feelings. That she had so little interest in this thing that mattered to me.

I was too dense to recognize the 500 times I had made her feel that exact same way over the years, and make that connection that might have saved us later.

I won the tournament.

And I wanted her to be proud of me. I wanted her to think I was good enough.

The tourney winnings paid for the Vegas trip, and then some.

I didn’t know back then that money couldn’t fix what was broken.

I didn’t realize back then how bittersweet it must have been for her to watch me succeed at an activity that adversely affected our marriage because I usually invested more time in watching, reading about, and playing poker than I invested in anything constructive, or proactive, or meaningful to our marriage.

Still. It was a good trip. Fun. Reconnecting with old friends. Making new good memories together, including a fun night with the bride and groom having lots of drinks and laughing at a Lewis Black comedy show at the MGM Grand, and then a memorable laugh-filled walk back to Bellagio afterward.

I hadn’t thought about that moment for years.

And then fast-forward to a week ago, when I found myself walking through the MGM Grand 11 years later.

Even though I LIVE IN THE SAME HOUSE that we lived in together as a married couple, and see and talk to my ex-wife several times per week and it’s super-normal and functional, here I was in Las Vegas on some random casino escalator having a moment.

Then, my friends and I walked north up the Las Vegas Strip. The same walk the four of us had made 11 years earlier on the Vegas wedding trip.

And involuntarily, I felt it.

I don’t know why that mattered.

I have no idea why it made me feel.

But it did.

It just did.

A couple of years removed from divorce, I spent a few days at Disney World and the Daytona 500 with friends, including a woman who liked me.

We were walking around the Magic Kingdom together, just the two of us.

It was cute. I liked her.

But, inevitably, we ended up walking right by the spot where I’d proposed to my ex-wife. We were talking about something, my friend and I. But walking by that spot on the bridge felt just like driving by a place where someone you know died in an auto accident.

Your insides recoil a bit involuntarily.

If you stay cool, it remains invisible to people who don’t know you very well.

The engagement-spot trigger. At Disney.

I don’t know that I’ve ever told anyone about that.

And then a similar thing sort of randomly happened again in Las Vegas.

I’m not sure what to do with that.

There’s luggage—an invisible suitcase—where all of the memories live.

The good and the bad ones. The laughs and smiles and triumphs. But also, the guilt and fear and shame.

It’s baggage. Human baggage. My baggage. But I think everyone else has a little too.

It’s the kind of baggage that single people don’t want to deal with while dating because baggage usually contains or requires a little hardship.

Baggage contains surprises, because it’s full of all the grimy, ugly history that sometimes tarnishes things that looked beautiful just the day before.

The thing about baggage is that you’re supposed to be able to set it down. Just set it down and walk away. It doesn’t matter anymore.

Baggage is something you’re supposed to be able to lose. Or give away. Or destroy.

But it’s like the longer we stay alive, the more things we shove into our suitcases. They just keep getting heavier and more difficult to drag around with us.

Maybe we will be able to set them down someday and walk away. Or maybe we’ll trade them in for new ones.

I don’t know.

And maybe it doesn’t matter. Because it’s always hiding in the closet.

Hardly anyone knows it’s there.

Most of the time, not even me.

20 thoughts on “You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, But You Can Never Leave”

  1. Wow…very poignant. Hard, but good. Two thoughts.

    “Baggage,” meaning old emotional wounds, like physical injuries, mostly never go away. The physical wounds may stop bleeding and may go back to something that shows up as a single piece on an x-ray, but they are not the same, and they do impose some limitations on “normal” life and they do continue to hurt. With the emotional wounds, like the beatings and other abuse I suffered when I was young, although they will never go away or stop being “baggage” I can work on, and succeed at, being aware of them so that most of the time I’m not off-loading them onto my wife, kids, boss or friends. And when I do, I can be conscious enough to do some repair work quickly.

    But I have another thought, too. This is probably quite personal in several ways, and it took me decades to really grasp this. Yeah, a long-ago break-up with a wonderful woman still has baggage almost 40 years later – it hurts, for a lot of reasons. I can now look at those with compassion for both of us. But more than that I can see that the love was real. Even though the ending was not good, the love is still real. Love is not a zero-sum thing – I have come to see that it was real and still is real and the fact that it was and still is real does not limit in any way the love I have to give people today. I have come to a point where I can hold the pain and the joy and the love in the same container and be grateful for all of it. But the path there can be very long and very painful…

    I hope that makes sense. “Baggage” is what we get from living a real life – none of us is unscathed. Bravely be the Velveteen Rabbit and be real. 🙂

    1. “But more than that I can see that the love was real. Even though the ending was not good, the love is still real. Love is not a zero-sum thing – I have come to see that it was real and still is real and the fact that it was and still is real does not limit in any way the love I have to give people today. I have come to a point where I can hold the pain and the joy and the love in the same container and be grateful for all of it.”

      Yeah, this is very true. The ability to love doesn’t get “used up”.

  2. If only we could bottle this wisdom you’ve gained up into a pill! I’ve had my son-in-law read your blog. The writing is on the wall. But my daughter loves her boys more than she dislikes her husband and she’ll wait until the boys are grown. It’s heart breaking to see their relationship so broken. We just try to love and support them anyway we can. But he’s a hard head and thinks it’s all her-that he’s the good guy, the one who gives the most. He’s who you were back then….

    1. I didn’t “like” that because I like it. I liked it because you see it and get it.

      And the biggest problem we face is that so many people—often men—are so blind to what this really is.

      It masquerades effectively as innocence when you can’t feel pain from the damage being caused.

      I’m so sorry you have to watch this from your seat where I’m confident your love for your daughter and grandchildren (and probably him to a large extent) makes it very difficult.

      Thank you for sharing, Debbie.

      1. Thank you for your reply back! I know, sometimes it’s a conflict “liking” a post that has some bad stuff in it. For me, it’s just letting the person know I liked the fact that they responded!
        Yes it’s painful watching, but we have faith and are praying for them!

  3. Sometimes I think that the memories and “too late” realizations are worse than the actual break-up itself. I’ve been through it a few times over now and for me personally, those are the pains that everlast instead of the awful event itself. For example, back when I was with the love of my life (and see, there’s an example because I can say that now but didn’t know it then…), all I ever did was complain and worry and whine that things weren’t the way they ought to be, that we weren’t happy, that we needed to break up. It’s only now, just about six years later, that I’m able to fully realize that I was just spoiled and filled with girlish expectations. Things weren’t the way *I* wanted them to be. *I* was the one who wasn’t happy, but it was more of an illusion. If I’d only grown the Hell up and faced reality rather than hanging onto stupid fantasies and expectations, I wouldn’t be sitting here now wishing I could go back in time and appreciate everything I did have and just didn’t know it. I wonder if that feeling ever goes away because like you said, when it hits you, your insides just quake and you feel it all over again. Kinda makes any future opportunities with people very iffy. I’m with someone now but I can safely say that it’ll never be what I need it to be – and I guess I just settle and accept it now because I feel I deserve it for the way I obliterated the wonderful thing I DID have back in the day.

    Karma is maybe what we all get in the end, I dunno =\

    1. I think I might have solved the secret-identity mystery. Your story turned on the lightbulb.

      Regardless, thank you so much for sharing here. It matters.

  4. You have a way with words Matt. I’ve written about this very thing as well, only I likened it to a train you are always on. Sometimes, you look behind and you just see a boxcar. Other times, the track goes wide and you see you are carrying multiple cars behind you (all the way to a hidden caboose). Reminders are everywhere. Sometimes, we just feel them more than others.

    I’m happy to read you aren’t the only one who experiences this too. Just know, time does make them occur less frequently. But I’m convinced we will carry these memories till our last breathe.

    1. I don’t think we are ever the only ones experiencing anything. 🙂

      Good to see you. It’s like reunion and kind-words day around here. Getting all kinds of nice bonus emails too.

      Thank you for contributing. And the nice words. Excellent to ‘see’ you. Feels like it’s been a long time.

      1. Good to ‘see’ you too! Yeah I’m still here…just lurking in the shadows. I don’t comment much, because usually one of your followers has already beaten me too it. One thing to consider: I think in life, we get to certain points where we purge our baggage. Where it shrinks and no longer consumes that same amount of space it once did. Sure, its still there. And always will be. But it changes over time (if that makes sense).

        It’s over 4 years since I started blogging (can you believe that?!). And in that time, many have come and gone. I kinda miss the old crew. It sure made for some lively reading. But, four years has given me a different perspective. Much healing has occurred, but what I’ve gone through will always be a part of me…a part of my story. Good and bad.

    2. That boxcar and going round a curve thing is great! I may steal that and use it with some of my clients.

  5. Insightful, heartfelt musings, once again, Matt . . . I think that LIFE gives us all ‘baggage’, not just relationships . . . and I think the older that I get the more okay I am with those bittersweet moments where the past aligns with the present and you are flooded with memories and old feelings and yearnings . . . I can now look back with compassion on the years-younger-very-clueless me so full of hopes and expectations and SO so clueless in many, many ways . . .

    Sometimes I am just so grateful to have LEARNED what I have learned through the twists and turns of life at ALL . . . even if learning some lessons sooner might have saved me from heartaches and very real, soul-searing pain . . . That I AM learning (maybe way too slowly and maybe way too late in life) is GOOD . . . and I am grateful for my journey and the direction I am headed NOW . . .

    And I am (mostly) content with that . . .

    1. I feel the same.

      I feel gratitude for the worst things I’ve ever gone through because of the incredible perspective and wisdom they’ve granted me. I wouldn’t want to give that up.

      So. It’s how I’ve made peace with the bad things. 🙂

  6. I shop at a different mall. I can’t set foot in the mall we used to be regulars at. Not sure when that gets easier.
    Lovely honest post. x

  7. Yes, great post!

    “I remember being married, of course. But I don’t remember ME when I was married. I don’t remember what I thought and felt in my everyday baseline emotional state of being.” That’s pretty profound.

  8. I just had a conversation about carrying baggage with my therapist this week!
    I remarked that we all have baggage, especially those of us who’ve been around the block once or twice. But the trick is to use a carry on bag as opposed to dragging around steamer trunks. Carry on bags may be like Hermione’s magic bag that hold everything, but are simpler to wield. And as we embark on new journeys we need to make room for the new things we’ll have.
    I don’t know, it seemed to make more sense on Wednesday.
    I do know that we all have past life baggage, I’ve got steamer trunks full!
    Perhaps it’s as simple as being more able to accept your loved one’s baggage if you’re only carrying a small bag yourself.
    And that goes both ways. All ways!

  9. ladyinthemountains

    It is amazing how memories can hit us like a 2×4 sometimes. I just spent a week in Phoenix and was there once with my ex. There were a few small things that triggered with me. Keep tracking along. That is what I keep doing. I appreciate your well thought out words again

  10. A man once described this to me as your basket of roses. You pick the buds as you pass trough life, and at some point, when your unconcious has decided you are ready, -they will bloom. I suppose people are afraid of being different from others, and marriage in particular is filled with cultural expectations of norm. So we don’t tell our partners of the blooming flowers of emotion, realization, ability and hurt we picked trough life. We don’t tell it like we would excitedly tell our first boyfriend or girlfriend, we don’t pull our wife our husband out of the routine to look at the stars and share the experience of these things happening within us. Because we know they too follow the routine. And being shushed or ignored when trying to share these kinds of experiences…it breaks something we cannot be sure of repairing. But trust takes courage. Also when explaining the breaks and hot glue in our experience to a new lover or friend. And I don’t think not sharing the brittle reality of life in all it’s bittersweetness will ever lead to connection. We need to be wounerable to be honest.

  11. Saw something here I had missed the first time:

    “Hardly anyone knows it’s there.
    Most of the time, not even me.”

    Well, yeah… That luggage can be the “normal” that we learned as kids from our parents – who were not necessarily healthy people emotionally, nor involved in a healthy marriage or other healthy relationships. That luggage is, in effect, programming – a complex system of skills (or more likely, skills deficits), adaptations (or maladaptations) and unrealistic expectations.

    All the in-love chemicals conspire to hide these from our partners, and because they are our “normal” they are outside of our conscious awareness.

    Get yourselves a few years down the road and all the defects in the programming that were latent become blatant, and the two sets of programming instructions likely clash with each other, sometimes very badly – the autopilot that we were relying on to fly the plane instead puts the aircraft into a steep dive…we crash and burn, and sometimes no one survives. 🙁

    But here’s my point: we CAN discover that “it” is there. If we’re lucky, we do it before we lose control of the plane and crash it. Or, next best (but a distant second choice), we learn from the first crash and realize that we need to go back to flight school and do a serious skills upgrade so we don’t crash again.

    I want to say it again – we CAN make ourselves aware of our baggage, our programming. Do it now!

  12. Ouch. Just had a triggering event a month or so ago, at the spot the 18 year old “us” – the now soon-to-be ex and I – both *knew* we had a serious future together. As the NY divorce process drags on, I crossed over that spot with another woman I care for and it just hit me like a flying 2×4 to the forehead. I was completely unprepared for it.

    35+ years later, that future we both saw at that spot – and lived – has come crashing down and it hurts. A lot.

    There’s nothing that can be done now, except to reflect back on what *might* have been possible if we both had recognized things for what they really were at the time, and had acted differently. Maybe we can be friends. Maybe. I hope so. Its hard looking back at a 35 year stretch as a black hole in your life.

    It’s gotten easier in the past year. I can drive down streets and not have flashbacks of conversations we had while passing stores and houses. Maybe one day I’ll put that baggage down completely. For now, success is just taking some of the items out of the bag and making it a little lighter.

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Matt Fray

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