And missing someone who’s standing here.

A surprise love note put in a workday lunch.

There’s a version of my ex that lives in a picture.

It’s a typical picture, the type anyone would have. A candid shot, snapped by a friend in the warm light of a late evening. I think he’s just told a joke — I can tell by the shape of his dimples.

I was in love with him then, when the photo was taken. I think I still am.

I won’t violate his privacy by posting photos of him, but I will use some of me looking at him.

With the photo anyway.

It’s been half a decade since that photo, a quick shot on a camera phone our friend’s parents must have bought. There are physical differences between that moment and this one, of course. For one thing, neither of us live in that part of the country anymore. For another, we’re older and we’re not in college. Since then we’ve grown and aged and gone to bars. Still, the differences I see aren’t in the physical.

I wonder what differences he sees in me, now. I dress differently, I’ve learned (grudgingly) about this crazy thing called makeup, and I’ve ever so slightly changed my hair. I think I must be different, particularly on the inside, but I’m afraid I can’t tell. When I look at an old picture of myself, I feel something almost maternal. There’s humor for my silliness, and a calm, detached perspective I never had at the time. There’s a comfort, knowing that I was okay then, and am even more so now. Perhaps I should remember that, the next time I get scared of the direction my life seems to be taking (or the lack of one).

Holding hands at a family wedding.

It’s selfish of me, but looking at old pictures of my ex fills me with a sense of loss.

I say selfish, because it absolutely is.

He didn’t suddenly start kicking puppies for fun. His changes aren’t bad, just the natural product of five long years of life. They’re differences we always had, grown large. Two distinct people, time moving us in opposite directions.

I realized first that we were going to breakup.

I didn’t want to believe it, at the time. I clung to my denial for months, “waiting to see”. I still don’t know what I was waiting for. He was hardly going to turn back into his younger self simply because he’d grown out of my love.

And I wouldn’t ask it of him.

Still, it’s a strange feeling. Being the one ready to move on, yet also the one looking back. Finding these pictures, and smiling.

Odd or not, it tells me I should never regret this relationship.

A true-eyed smile.

Obviously, something was right. Some intangible cord, struck in my heart at the sight of the smile on his face. Neither of us have smiled at each other like that in so long, really smiled, all the way up to our eyes. The closest was when he’d had surgery, needing someone to care for him a few days.

That’s how it always felt in the beginning, needing each other. Not quite like breathing, but like sunlight. A few days at a time, you could miss it, but you wouldn’t want to be without for a lifetime.

I still feel that when I look at pictures, a bittersweet flavored-nostalgia. It startles me, but in a way that manages to make me smile. I still love that instance of him, captured out of time.

I probably always will, as long as I love the version of myself who lived through it.

But the sad fact is, I don’t recognize him now. Not to imply there’s anything wrong with this version. There absolutely isn’t. But what emotions I had at the breakup cooled, and I’ve realized I never learned who this human is. He’s grown, for better or for worse, and I was too busy believing him to be stagnant to pay attention. I don’t know when it happened, but my eyes slide right by him now, when he used to be the center of my world.

It was just a month ago that he was my boyfriend. Now I can’t guarantee that I could pick him out of a crowded room.

If the man in my photo walked through the door, I’d probably still run to him.

Not that I believe we should date each other either, past him and present me. I’ve changed too much for that.

But I owe him a thank you. Or twelve.

And man, would I have some stories to tell him.

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