by Alexandra Burton
That night, watching him in profile as he unbuttons his shirt, I regard him as one might a stranger: I see his face not as a kindler of emotion, a familiar image that squeezes something inside me, but simply as a collection of features residing together. This could be the face of somebody with whom I have shared no significant moments; a face I have never seen scrunched in agony, or slackened in ecstasy. To reach out and caress it with my fingertips suddenly seems unspeakably intimate, despite knowing I could recognise its planes and contours with my eyes closed.
I think: this is what it means to lose hope.
In the beginning, hope is a vast hot air balloon, soaring higher every time he holds my gaze a little too long. When he plants a kiss on my forehead as he cooks. When he first refers to me as his girlfriend, a swell of joy in his voice. When we mooch around Ikea one Friday afternoon and he begins a sentence with, ‘When we have a house—’ Hope grows faster than my rational mind can keep up with, swelling in my chest until I think I, too, might float away.
In these times, the future looks like an open plain upon which we can build whatever we choose. I imagine a city populated with all the ways in which we might succeed. Our adventures are a series of winding roads. Our marriage is a skyscraper, steady and proud. Our family a vast park with a lake so clear you can swim in it. Is there anything so intoxicating as potential? Every new person offers us a different life we might lead and, like all the times before, I am suddenly enamoured by the version he presents. I want to dive right in, forgetting all the effort that must first go into building, all the cracks and pitfalls we must avoid.
It sounds saccharine and fanciful, in the way early infatuation is wont to be. I get caught up in my confirmation bias, turning from anything that might threaten the hopeful narrative I’ve constructed. I call it ‘teething problems’, tell myself I’ll learn to love what rankles, berate myself for being hard to please. There are times I worry I have sold rationality in pursuit of a dream, and hope is merely the cousin of denial.
For months, I close my eyes when we disagree because I worry I might look down and see hope as a speck on the ground, and then I will know a single misstep could grind it into dust. Sometimes his words are so frosty I struggle to find the warmth of hope to wrap around my shocked body, like I have run a marathon to save us only to stand shivering at a quiet finish line. Each time I am knocked down, I allow hope to reach out and help me to my feet, and when I sense its grip weakening I hold on tighter.
When does our future surpass the limitations of hope, I wonder? When does the distance between us grow too cavernous for hope to contain us, to stitch our hearts once again into proximity?
It is often hard to pinpoint the moment after which we cease to hope. I have come to believe it is not forfeited in a single instant, something possessed either in its entirety or not at all, but instead a thing eroded over time, like a cliff face that crumbles into the ocean grain by grain, so slowly you hardly notice. Sometimes, the lack of a simple change of state – the binary of ‘hope’ vs ‘hopeless’ – makes me doubt my own feelings, like they too are shifting at such imperceptible speeds they may not have changed at all. In these times, I wish something would take a pin to my hope in one fell swoop. I want to eliminate the misery of not knowing what I believe.
Is there anything so intoxicating as potential? Every new person offers us a different life we might lead and, like all the times before, I am suddenly enamoured by the version he presents.
I know it is not enough to substitute wishes for hope; though you can wish a battle had been won, it is too late to hope for victory when you’re standing on fields running red. I try to make hope my duty, tell myself I’m failing if I let it slip between my fingers, but hope does not offer points for trying. You cannot will it to return once it has been claimed by the ocean.
Here is how we know hope is lost. When we seek to protect ourselves more than we seek to grow what holds us together, because a whisper within us worries our days in unity are numbered. When we swallow our thoughts and compartmentalise our feelings, putting them to one side to deal with in private, because we’re tired of our vulnerability being mishandled. When we realise the potential we envisaged was borne of our imagination – based only on the idea of the person we chose – and we dare to feel outraged that the steadily emerging reality doesn’t compare. Hope is lost when when we look at the open plain of our future and see a smoke signal coiling like ghostly serpents into the sky.
Alexandra Burton | @alxndrabrtn
Alexandra Burton currently lives in Leeds, where she works for the NHS. She writes a range creative non-fiction, short stories and poetry. She’s also a big fan of a lengthy Instagram caption. When she’s not writing you’ll find her on her yoga mat, at the climbing wall, or tackling her growing TBR pile.