I first met Belén after one of the hardest breakups of my life. Not long after, she got broken up with too, in an eerily similar way: Our partners felt emotionally distant, and then they cut things off. Although I barely knew her, I met her for coffee one rainy Sunday in Barcelona with the pretext of working — I was researching an article; she had some catching up to do for a graphic design project.
In the end, we spent the afternoon taking turns crying and talking about our frustration with toxic patterns in romantic relationships. We both had this feeling of having fallen short at something society had told us all our lives to aspire to: find a monogamous partner, settle down. We were nearing 30, after all. All these unsuccessful relationships were reflective of us as failures, as women who couldn’t be loved.
We said all these things as we held each other, gave each other advice, ignored text messages from people near and far asking how we were, if we needed anything. We felt unloved as we were all but surrounded by love. But it didn’t matter who loved us, platonically. It mattered that we were not loved, romantically.
Our friendship was founded on broken hearts, but it quickly evolved into something deeper. In the romance world, I suppose you’d call this period “falling in love,” but there apparently isn’t a word for whatever it is friends do when they get to know each other and start to like each other more and more. Before we knew it, we were texting each other every day and making plans to move in together. It was the friendship honeymoon phase.
We spent the hot and sticky Barcelona summer at the beach during the day, squeezing in our respective freelance work in the evenings and eating pizza in plazas at night. We’d often meet up with other friends for dinner, but as the night progressed and people went home to their partners, we’d end up just the two of us, drinking too much vermouth and laughing at the drama of our heartaches. Sometimes we’d dance in clubs full of college students until 6 a.m. Sometimes we’d cry while eating tapas. Sometimes we’d frolic in the street while our phones’ small speakers played Destiny’s Child.
One day, we decided to buy rollerblades. It was Belén’s idea, so we could do something different; I followed along. It had been over a decade since I’d last rollerbladed. After a couple of days doing practice runs in narrow, pedestrian streets, we went to the beach, where the wide boardwalk was smooth and the cool night breeze of an ending summer would keep us from overheating.
“Boluda,” Belén called after me in our native Argentine Spanish slang, still latching on her blades. I already had mine on and was taking off into the dimly lit boardwalk, which in the darkness seemed to go on forever. “Stop going so fast, wait for me.”
She struggled to keep up. She, unlike me, had not spent an entire childhood on rollerblades. She grew up in Buenos Aires, where skating is somewhat limited to small apartments; I lived in the Argentine capital until I was 9, when my family and I moved to a suburb in Texas.
“Sorry,” I said. “Here, let’s put on Janis Joplin.”
The Texan’s raspy voice, which for me seemed out of place standing by the Mediterranean Sea, blasted out of our portable speaker with fervor and rage. Belén put it in the outer pocket of her backpack, which muffled the sound.
“Let’s skate until the end of the boardwalk and go over that bridge,” I suggested. Belén looked at the bridge and made eyes at me. The bridge was basically a small hill.
“Okay, we’ll turn back around at the bridge then,” I said.
We took off, arms clumsily swinging by our sides, our backs bent over. After a few rounds, Belén began to take up confidence, and I began to more easily fall into the rhythm of putting one foot in front of the other: of moving forward, with intention. We skated faster and faster, all the while the sound of crashing waves collided with Janis’s voice egging us on. To keep moving on. To cry, baby.
I felt like a teenager again, eating ice cream for dinner and rollerblading late into a Tuesday night, ignoring responsibilities. After months of crying over someone who did not want to be with me, I had forgotten what it felt like to want to be with myself. I had, in a way, forgotten myself. And here I found her again, a 29-year-old rollerblading next to her best friend, yelling songs at the top of her lungs and laughing in that particularly reckless way one can only laugh when one is completely at ease, completely at home.
That night will always be engraved in my memory as the night that I came back to myself. I had never actually left; in these moments of disconnectedness, we’re always there somewhere, lying dormant underneath the sadness or helplessness that has accumulated. And I did not do the digging in one night; I had worked at it for months, in big and little ways (paying a lot of money for therapy, buying plants). But that night was the night that, after so much digging, my callused hands, full of dirt, found myself again.
When it happened, contrary to my expectations, my body seemed to remember everything. And there was Belén, laughing in front of me as the wind made her head of curls dance, digging herself back up, too.
It was almost exactly a year after that night — a year filled with growth, dance parties in our shared apartment, the constant questioning of romantic love, the allowing ourselves to fall in love again — that Belén left Barcelona to move back to our hometown of Buenos Aires.
Before she left, we decided to take a road trip north, just the two of us, to Spain’s Basque Country, where Belén’s ancestors are from.
We spent five days in all out there, driving in a rented car through dark forests and sleeping in rural houses. On our penultimate night, as we were walking back to our car in San Sebastián, we came across two Victorian-era-looking chairs set down next to a trash can. They had been inexplicably thrown out and put out there for passersby to take home.
It didn’t take long before Belén convinced me to take one of them. It would be a souvenir of our trip — or, perhaps to a larger extent, of the period in our lives where our story lines merged.
On our ride home that night, with our chair safely buckled into the backseat, we listened to Taylor Swift at full volume, yell-singing about boys and lost love and relationships going up in flames. As I’d so often felt with Belén in the last year and a half, I had the sensation of being a teenager again, of not having a care in the world, of letting my guard down completely. Of being the truest and most liberated version of myself.
This time, the feeling wasn’t new. Without the constant need to dig, I was able to reach that state a lot more frequently. Belén and I often talked about the looming threat of being buried again; or rather, our fear of being buried and not being able to fight back. Of having to do the work all over again.
So what if we ever found ourselves, after a difficult time, once again unable to breathe, unable to find ourselves? What if we get buried again?
Chances are, we will be, at some point in our lives, in some way or another. But digging is not unlike rollerblading. You need the persistence of putting one foot in front of the other, one hand underneath the other. And if you look hard enough, you realize you’re never digging alone.