“I called up Daisy half an hour after we found him, called her instinctively and without hesitation. But she and Tom had gone away early that afternoon, and taken baggage with them.
“Left no address?”
“Say when they’d be back?”
“Any idea where they are? How I could reach them?”
“I don’t know. Can’t say.” (Fitzgerald, 9.4-10)
2020 is almost here, which means that there will be infinite parties themed around The Great Gatsby. If you haven’t read it, go read it. To this day, it is one of my favorites, the kind I return to and remember that this is how I identified the style of writing I liked. The text above is from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s the post-climax departure of two characters, Tom and Daisy Buchanan.
The Buchanans– a glamorous couple epitomizing the old wealth of New York’s East Egg– are all conflict, no conclusion, all presentation, and little substance. We feel this in the way the narrator, Nick Carraway (who is narrating the section above), writes about them– with equal parts admiration and suspicion (the latter growing as the plot unfolds). In the end, Carraway’s attitude toward the couple is a hollow and deep disappointment.
I read The Great Gatsby for the first time in 2010, as a junior in high school. The Buchanan’s departure tolled like a bell in my chest for people leaving, a lack of accountability. I empathized with Gatsby’s overcompensation and opulence on the West Egg, the soil of new money. And like the titular character, I found myself chasing people who were running from the consequences of their actions. Like Carraway, in the end, I realized that the Buchanan’s didn’t deserve all the headspace I gave them, that life would go on and I can’t waste worry on some karmic retribution.
Some people leave and there’s no Dear John letter narrating the departure. So we draft narratives, draw conclusions. I have outlined my flaws in a thousand different ways hoping to construct a map leading to why you left but there wasn’t one. Sometimes, people are incongruent shapes. Sometimes, people build a whole life they don’t want and grow so desperate, so trapped, that they only way they know how to go is by setting it all on fire.
I have been known to project onto people before. Conjure a carriage from a pumpkin and wonder why it lacks wheels. The pumpkin is still a pumpkin no matter how much glitter is thrown on it. And it’s still going to roll away or rot. The pumpkin cannot take me anywhere like a carriage can because they are not the same thing.
If you recall, Daisy wasn’t terribly compelling and Tom was a racist. Still, I crave these people. I want them to want me. I see when my loved ones place the glasses of Dr. TJ Eckleberg so I can see the Buchanan’s faults. I can. Like a lactose intolerant buys the ice cream, I still want the Buchanan’s to like me.
Of course, we know that Daisy did have amorous feelings for Gatsby. And Tom only had complicated feelings because he viewed Jay as a threat. Neither harbored malice because of Jay Gatsby’s character. They judged him for being poor, an aberration of new money tainting the economic pedigree looming just off shore from NYC. It was never about Gatsby. The Buchanan’s behavior has nothing to do with him and everything to do with their own deficits. More than likely, the Buchanans perpetuated the cowardly behavior that pre-existed the novel. Jay Gatsby was a casualty in the crosshairs of two reckless people seeking something they never quite put their finger on. They are seeking the American Dream, but it’s a myth, all smoke and mirrors and bodycounts.
Rejection isn’t about me. It’s about how other people see themselves. It’s about their vision for their lives, and sometimes, I don’t fit. People can only meet me as deeply as they have met themselves and some folks quiver at the notion of passing three feet. The best parts of you aren’t at three feet. You gotta go deeper.
I used to romanticize leaving. I mused at the power of being the person who abandoned someone else. But departure isn’t about power. It’s about desperation. It’s about seeing no other way to continue. That can be valid. I don’t think anyone is obligated to stay, with the exception of parenthood. In situations of abuse, leave. Run with scorched earth from what is scorching you— an ashen trail from your scars to your safety. But the specific way of dropping people, of exiting unscrupulously can be avoided. We don’t need to please people in being kind to them.
That’s why I haven’t been able to Buchanan anybody. I would be haunted by who I left. I’d fear seeing their faces. I’d fail at confronting them (post-act) and find myself a fugitive in my own life, in my own town. Id casually peruse their social media in gloomy curiously, a digital penance for how I hurt them, checking to see if they are ok. Homeostasis ensures that people are typically ok. Abandonment is a quick and easy fix. Largely, we regret the shortcuts in the long run. Our consequences run raster than we can. They catch up to us. So I don’t envy the Buchanan’s. That doesn’t make me a victim. It doesn’t make me honorable or a better person. It just means I’m playing the long game. My only game in life is to treat people (including myself) as compassionately as I can, to live as true as possible, and own/ right my wrongs as they arise.
For the record: while I’ve never Buchanan-Ed, I have faced the people I’ve failed. It’s humbling and humiliating. But those you face aren’t monsters. They’re people. They are doing the best they can like I am. Nobody owes you their forgiveness. Nobody owes you their presence or an explanation. But if they are willing to face you or hear you after you screwed up, that is a divine thing. People respond to the admittance of fucking up because everyone has. We are all a villain in someone’s eyes, the dark matter of a story we cannot rewrite. So we draft the epilogue in amends.
I’ve thought about what I would say to someone if I got the chance. Would I take the low road and ask what blind fool treats gold like tin? But the thing is, a poor man in search of metal will not recognize gold. And also, do I care? Really? And the answer is no. The good ones stick around. The real ones don’t leave you wondering. There are people who nourish you and then there are those who feed you with empty calories that just leave you starving in the end.
I’m not the arbiter of adult behavior. It’s not my job to tell you that you did something bad, and it is not my responsibility to soothe your guilt about how you treated me. Often, our feelings about those we lost touch with are souvenirs of how we treated them. What I have turned into two drafts of Dear John letters to my personal Buchanans, the first is poetic, the second is what I would actually send.
Dear Personal Buchanans:
There are days I miss you, days I contemplate where you are, and what I did wrong. But most days, I just hope you’re ok. Grudges are these heavy things that require two hands—a might that must be lifted using our legs, not our backs. But like a hometown you moved out of, our geographies are imprinted on one another. Even if you forget the address, you remember the landmarks. Perhaps you are the twang that re-enters my assimilated accent in a blue moon or that local dish trendy restaurants try to recreate. All of this is to say that I cannot erase or absolve you. I’m not consumed by you. You are a soft grief. A drizzle of rain. One that use to engulf me in a tsunami, a hurriane, this inescapable tidal wave– you disappear with a windshield wiper now.
Dear Personal Buchanans:
Don’t feel bad for me. You can feel bad for how you treated me, but I’m not the way you treated me. I am all the things I said I was when we were close. I hope you are the things you say online. I hope you’re happy and fulfilled. I’m not mad at you. I’m not wishing you bad things. I wish you all the things I said I did before everything happened. I’m not here to make you feel better about what you did, just to let you know that you can’t crack a diamond.
It isn’t a unique thing to be left. Whether it’s a friend disappearing, a love interest ghosting, an adult who was supposed to be the grown up but couldn’t fill the shoes– it happens. There isn’t an equation, preventative measures making roots where wings might sprout. We’ve all been in somebody else’s discard pile. That somebody can’t be us. We have to pick ourselves, allow the Buchanan’s behavior to be something other than our own biographies. We aren’t how other people have treated us. We are how we treat other people. The other half of this is that leaving is the physics of life. We cannot hold everyone in our existence forever. Sometimes, they’ve already left when we let them go. Like the currents Carraway describes at the end of the novel– departing from the grizzly opulence of that summer– life goes on. We go on. Even when we feel left, we are moving forward.