Love by the Tracks

Photo By Tina Nord

A green field, purple hills in the distance, a vegetable garden, a place for hay. This was the view from the farmhouse where we were going to live.

“I want a dapple grey horse!” I said. We were sitting in the car making plans for our life together.

A train flew past. Paul liked to sit next to the railway tracks. I counted each one of the clattering freight cars. 23.

I met him when I started working at a new school. I was setting up my classroom when he strolled in to say hello, tall and handsome. I was a 38 year old teacher with long red hair.

“What’s your name?” he asked. He was distracted, his gaze traced the corners of the ceiling. I watched his eyes behind dark-framed glasses fall on a patch of cobwebs.

“Sarah,” I replied, nervous.

“Paul and Sarah. Sarah and Paul.” 

I stared at him. Butterflies inside me. Were we going to get married? The thought came fast, without warning. I wanted to run.


“Better to have loved and lost than never loved at all.”

My mother recited the mantra to comfort herself about marrying my father on the rebound from her one true love. She kept his old crumpled love letters hidden inside a black shiny handbag in the kitchen cupboard.

The mantra established the coexistence of love and loss. You can’t have one without the other. Love is quantified through loss.

I lost my mother to breast cancer when I was thirteen. I never had the chance to grow up and individuate myself from her. Instead, she lives inside me, as a ghost. It’s not really fair on her. She deserves to be a ghost who is free.

Navigating my path in romantic relationships is difficult. From the start, I am afraid of losing myself in the other person. I rig up barricades and make-shift walls, erect scaffolding. When I hide myself, I am hard to read and fully know.

In time, the fear of losing myself merges with the fear of losing the other person. I dismantle the scaffolding. But I grow mistrustful and watchful. I keep a terrible score.


With Paul, I threw caution to the wind.

On Sundays, we went to the marsh. Purple and yellow wildflowers stretched out of view, cattails cut into the sky. Bird calls filled the air, herons and cranes took flight overhead. We walked along the wooden boardwalk holding hands. The sun transformed into a deep orange orb.

We stopped for drinks in dark velvet bars; I was deep inside a fairy tale.

We started going steady. Fate was tempted. We fell madly in love. We’d lie on my futon sofa for hours, peacefully entwined. My heartbeat entrained with his.

“We’re arguably the poster children for tantric sex!” Paul said. We almost died laughing. 

Time flowed unbroken when we were together.

“You’re my person,” he’d say, enfolding me. I’d stand on tiptoes at the back door to kiss him goodbye.

While apart, we emailed back and forth throughout the day, texted late into night.

Paul’s house was in the shade of a hill next to a railway line. He kept bird feeders of different sizes in his garden, hanging from the tall pines with soft bluish-green needles. He knew the names of the birds and their songs, their migratory behaviors. So many black-capped chickadees!

“First one to find the new feeder every time.”

In bed one morning, he decided I had a pretty bird mouth. We laughed.

“I love you Sarah.”


Toward the end of the relationship, he fed me from his plate. Crusts of sandwiches, a french fry, into the pretty bird mouth. I was restricting food to remain the tiny size I believed he had prescribed for me. It wasn’t his fault; I wanted to disappear. It was an illusion of control. My insecurities and self-doubt were taking over.

Falling in love was following a well-worn path: an abdication of self. I handed over the most scared and vulnerable parts of me for him to look after.

The woman he had fallen in love with, filled with wanderlust, up and left.

In every relationship, I summon my mother’s spirit when the unraveling begins. She’s skilled in the art of sabotage. Just like her with my father, I’d storm out on Paul after a few drinks, walking home with my small shoes in one hand, a cigarette in the other. 

“Get in the car!” he’d yell, pulling up the car next to me.

One day, walking along a pier, he let my hand go.

At the five year mark, we broke up.

We spent the following seven years as best friends, always saying goodbye with a silent tender embrace. One day, we would get back together. 


I saved the remnants and mementos of us in a bright green cardboard shoebox.

“This is for the “Paul & Sarah Box,” he’d say, early on, handing me a handwritten love note.

Even as just friends, I couldn’t imagine my life without him at the center of it. He was the first person I instinctively turned to. He was the arbiter of my reality. We were quagmired. Unable to let go; unable to hold on.

One night, we sat huddled over a small round table, grabbing a drink. It was November, the days were growing shorter. Inside there was a warm glow.

“I met someone.”

When I heard the words out loud, the room spun. I felt still and empty, as if I was standing on a desolate platform. I had been dreaming. No more songs for the playlist. 36 songs. Two Hours. 46 minutes.

We continued as friends for another few months. Doing so slowly killed me. I no longer recognized him, eyes blank and distant, the love diminished to charity. I didn’t recognize myself: thin and enervated, black under-eye circles. The soft yellow light that used to surround us darkened to nothing.

I couldn’t see him anymore. I would not call. I promised to stop playing the song “Love for Granted” by Phoenix.

I stopped hanging on a small chance.


One night, about a year after I last saw him, I decided to burn the Paul & Sarah Box.

I rehearsed everything in my mind, imagining a solemn ritual of carefully taking out each item, waking up the memory, and then releasing its hold on my heart.

I considered the emotions I might feel. Regret? Remorse? An engulfing cathartic sadness.

I built a beautiful fire: dry wood stacked perfectly, burning slowly with little trails and tendrils of smoke. I tended the fire with love, feeding it small twigs and branches to keep it going.

I went inside to get the green box. I had hidden it on a high shelf in a closet.

Instead of the performance I had imagined, I just placed the box upon the fire. It marked the end with an irrevocable decision. I watched as it all went up in flames. Pages rustled, pictures curled. Within a few minutes, the fire had consumed the box in its entirety, its contents reduced to a fluttering heap of silent ashes.

I didn’t really want to burn the past, I wanted to burn the future. I wanted to burn any bridge that would lead me to the aching yearning for our shared past because every time I went back, I could not picture a future without him. I wanted to black out the pain, give in to the intrusive thoughts of wanting to hurt myself. My failure to be honest with myself had come at a high price.

I burned the way back and the way forward.

I burned all the cards he ever gave me signed as “Your love, Paul” then “Your dear friend, Paul.”

Gone were the scribbled plans of all our trips. Nova Scotia, Cape Breton. Quebec City. The summer drives to Trempealeau on the eastern banks of the Mississippi River. A place called Harmony Beach.

My sketches of the marsh birds.

Tickets and maps. The tattered pieces of time I had once treasured.

A bright green St. Patrick’s Day beaded necklace and ATM receipt from our first drink together.

Tiny bits of paper promising he loved me most of all. “My dear woman. Love you always and forever.”

I tried to burn my own sentimentality and belief that a man who loved me would be there forever. I wanted to immolate my inner hopeless romantic, the one who had led me into this mess in the first place. But she was indestructible.

But even after the fire, I could not destroy the love, even though it had almost destroyed me. Love is a quantifiable force of the universe; it cannot be destroyed. You can try to burn it in a fire but it will get stronger, like iron refined to steel.


I can still picture the two of us together. Paul and Sarah. There’s me, running into a coffee shop early in the morning to get cherry Danish pastries and coffee when we left on a summer road-trip to Canada. I was happy. Our love was easy.

There we are! Standing in the wide expanse of a river, milk blossoms falling all around us in the water. We can’t stop laughing!

I could still catalog all the things small and large that might bring me to his mind. I never come up empty. Song of a chickadee. Trill of a robin. Snowfall.

At the tin ceiling bar, where we once sat, he pulled me in close, wrapping his arms around me. I wonder if we knew the future would drag us apart.

Our time together, now gone, can still evoke a bittersweet longing. But the deeper love is for the exiled parts of me who loved and lost him. I took back wanderlust, the woman with long red hair, the pretty bird mouth.

I opened a door in my mind for my mother to come and go.

Love is the vestige in which the sweetness of all things lost remains.

Sarah Harley

Sarah Harley is originally from the UK. She works at Milwaukee High School of the Arts where she supports her refugee students in telling their own stories. Sarah holds a BA in Comparative Literature and French, as well as an MA in Foreign Language and Literature. Her essays have appeared in Halfway Down the Stairs, Idle Ink, The Thieving Magpie, Quail Bell Magazine, Litro Magazine, and elsewhere. You can find her online here:

Sarah Harley is originally from the UK. She works at Milwaukee High School of the Arts where she supports her refugee students in telling their own stories. Sarah holds a BA in Comparative Literature and French, as well as an MA in Foreign Language and Literature. Her essays have appeared in Halfway Down the Stairs, Idle Ink, The Thieving Magpie, Quail Bell Magazine, Litro Magazine, and elsewhere. You can find her online here:

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