I wrote this story about four years ago. It was accepted for publication in a collection of stories about modern dating. However, being a major procrastinator, I completely forgot to turn in my edits, and I missed the deadline. Meaning, my story would not appear in the collection. (Something that was only mildly disappointing, seeing that, the editors wanted me to rewrite an ending in which the narrator expressed more regret over having given “so much to a person who was never really there”.) At that point, I think my conscience had taken over, because I didn’t want to re-write the ending. I didn’t want my narrator to express regret. (I’ve learned, none of us ever lose anything in trying to get to know someone, or love someone. Not even when we wind up heartbroken, and the other person proves himself to be kind of crumby. If we can grow from it, and come out of it with the understanding that we did the best we could with the knowledge we had, then—in my opinion—it’s an opportunity to obtain new insight, empathy, and perspective.) Furthermore, I’m a very different person now from who I was when this was written. My happiness and self-worth used to depend, way too much, on my expectations of other people, and I allowed anger, frustration, and disappointment, to control my reactions to the world. I lacked boundaries, discernment, and proper self-care. And this had me believing I was powerless, with no control over my life, or the things that happened to me. As the years have gone on, however, I’ve slowly learned these life skills, and I am capable of conducting myself, more gracefully. Which brings me to my point: Grace is something I never would have learned had I not encountered hurtful and difficult situations; pain, failure, rejection, major breeches in judgment—all of it. This is why I’ve decided to share this story here. It’s one of my favorite pieces, and I feel like I’ve been hoarding it for too long. I hope you enjoy it!
Our generation doesn’t like titles, formality, boundaries; we exist on a blurred line. You and I were not exempt from this collective preference for ambiguity; although I have to admit, I kind of wanted to be.
I said, “I just don’t know what I am to you, and at this point, I’d like some idea.”
You gave me a non-answer to deflect responsibility, even though we both knew it wasn’t my choice anymore, “I don’t know. My nature is really mysterious, and I’m a defensive person, so I’m kinda intimidated by the idea of scheduling my life around someone else.”
I clung to the word as I started mentally constructing a grudge around it. I remember thinking: You work at Zumiez—the McDonalds of skate shops. You like to look at pictures of the ocean on Tumblr when you’re sad. You have the kind of hair that’s cut intentionally so you can slick it back as you light cigarettes and slam your Mustang’s door shut. I wanted to burst your bubble of ‘mystery’ with this list of facts. I wanted to say with conviction, “You’re just selfish.” But the words got caught in the filter that was my affection, and instead, I wound up saying, “I’m sorry, I know you didn’t ask for any of this.”
You said, “Thank you…Thank you so much for understanding.” And I went home, fully aware of the fact that you were never going to speak to me again.
Two tallboys of Lime-a-Rita later, I was joking about the guy who ‘mysteriously’ rolled away from me on his skateboard, “…and then he ollied out of my life into a sunset of his own narcissism.” This was the story I told all my friends. I didn’t need them to hug me as I cried, I just wanted them to laugh.
I’m always surprised by how quickly I can turn my own pain into a joke—Oh is that the sound of my heart breaking again? No, wait, that’s just a Whoopee cushion deflating under the weight of my current disappointment. The humiliation sucks, but at least it makes a funny sound.
Here’s the thing, I have a knack for loving losers, and the fact that I know how to laugh at what makes these losers, losers, doesn’t change the fact that I love them. So whenever a loser winds up hurting me, I immediately start thinking about how I can deprecate myself in relation to said loser in an attempt to make my pain less like pain, and a little more like something people would care about.
For instance, one time, I had sex with a guy whose skin felt like it was covered in pinpoints—probably because he shaved his body hair. When everything was over, he cuddled up to me, and in an attempt to tease him, I said, “You have a body like a cactus.”
He didn’t laugh. Instead, he pushed me away with an indignant “I’m not like a cactus!”
I felt kind of sad that we could have sex but we couldn’t joke around with each other; that we were both so foreign to one another that the notion of having a cactus-like body was a serious point of contention and not just some dumb comment to laugh about.
Obviously, when I tell this story, I leave the sadness, the staring at the wall, the general disconnect, out. People like to laugh, but no one likes emotions that stagnate when they shouldn’t. No one likes the grey area that is somewhere between heartbreak and indifference. So I edit to avoid redundancy and to feign control over my own hurting.
What does any of this have to do with you?
I’d like to turn what happened between us into a joke, but I’m having a hard time doing it because, unlike a lot of the losers I’ve loved before you, I think you beat me to the punch. I can’t quite convince myself that you deserve the loser-label, and when all the laughter passes, my awareness of your existence still remains like a dull, aching cliché.
I had to scrap the first draft of this essay because I realized I made you too likable. Or, I guess I should say, you are likable, and I emphasized that fact beyond deserving. It started off with the moment you sang along to Blink-182 in my ear, “Angel from my nightmare,” how you giggled like a little kid before you backtracked and said, “wait a minute, I’m getting ahead of myself.” How I chose to believe the former over the latter because the dreamy look in your eye was telling me, secretly, you meant it—but let’s be real, the giggle was just a side effect of the whiskey, and ‘angel from my nightmare’ is code for: You wear a lot of black, and I think you’re kind of pretty.
You weren’t fooling me, but you did fool me.
That night I followed you home and you pretended you wanted me to come into your room to look at a wax skull—what? Yeah. I know. I fall for the weirdest pick-up lines—Hey girl, wanna see a really cool candle?—but that’s what happened. I held the thing in my hand, and played along like we were two kids in an innocent exchange of show and tell. Right then, you scaled the bridge of my nose with your forefinger. You said, “You have a nose like one of those clay girls from the Puffs commercials.”
“That’s funny,” I said as you traced my mouth and I tried to pretend like your touch felt natural, “Someone once told me I reminded him of the Corpse Bride.”
You slid your hand up the back of my neck, twisted your fingers in my hair, and said, “She was clay, too.”
It was inevitable. Seconds later, your mouth would be on mine, and I’d drop the skull on the floor, allowing it to roll away like some horrible allusion to Snow White’s poison apple. I pulled off your white shirt as you peeled back my tights, and gathered my hair in one fist like a bouquet of flowers. You pulled me close and, the moment I said, “That kind of hurts,” you came, and the fucked up part about it is we both laughed.
If I Google, Is my boyfriend a sociopath, I’m linked to checklists, and quizzes; psychological articles on defining characteristics, or blog entries with aggressive headlines like: “IT HAPPENED TO ME: I DATED A SOCIOPATH!”
The question crossed my mind with you—Is he? I think he might be. But then again, I don’t believe in using the term ‘sociopath’ lightly. I’m careful because sometimes I think it’s easier to believe that a person’s brain is broken than it is to believe that they just aren’t attracted to you; to say, Oh we’re just wired differently, especially when his wires are the ones that aren’t working.
All that being said, I still kind of thought you might be a sociopath.
So after our ‘break-up’ I consulted Google and tried to remain as unbiased as possible as I read, “all sociopaths are narcissists but not all narcissists are sociopaths,” and begrudgingly accepted that you never struck me as “too good to be true”, and had no apparent “desire for control” over anything. It became pretty clear that you probably weren’t a sociopath, so for fairness’ sake I decided to search: Am I a masochist? But all I learned about myself was that I definitely don’t enjoy it when cats scratch me, and the time I bruised my tailbone and said “It feels kind of good” wasn’t a legit enough story to prove a pain fetish, mostly because I was drunk at the time, and nobody got off after I said it.
Your brain wasn’t broken, and I didn’t have an abnormal sexual psychology. Still, I wasn’t ready to accept the truth. So I consulted Google once more–my apparent magic 8 ball for making sense of life, post-breakup.
I researched the seven stages of grief because, I have to admit, it kind of felt like you’d died. I concluded that I was still in the throes of stage two, denial, and subsequently decided to read all about your Mustang online.
I learned that your car can go from 0 to 60 in 1.5 seconds; that it has a six speed auto-select transmission; that this means you can choose between automatic and manual control at your leisure; that Ford had created a woman named Delena Henriques with computer graphics so whenever someone searches her name, all they’ll find is your car and a pair of digitally enhanced legs. I read about all of this as if knowing any of it could ever make up for all the things I never got to know about you.
My initial reaction to your car was, “What is this, a Lana del Rey music video?” Then you grinned and slicked your hair back because you knew exactly what I meant.
The back of your car was loaded up with skateboards and Hurricane malt liquor. You took me to an abandoned parking ramp where I watched you Ollie, nollie, tailslide, frontslide, 50/50 railgrind. You cracked elbows and bent ankles until blood speckled your white shirt. But you were resilient; you bounced back in one fluid motion, as if the consequence of gravity was something you’d gone numb to.
I shivered, despite being wrapped in one of your hoody sweatshirts, and you looked at me from across the lot right before you gave a trick another go. Your blue eyes were always wide and ready to accept life as it is, and I longed for you in a way that I can’t explain. You were free of me in a way that I wasn’t free of you, and it filled me with jealousy and dread and an admiration that had me wondering what it was like to be the cigarettes tucked in your back pocket—what was it like being that sure of a thing to you?
That night, on the ride home, I stared out the window and tried to pretend to be less fascinated by you than I was, counting the street lamps as they passed, hoping to memorize the way the amber light flooded the gutters. I started to project the idea of you onto the overpasses, the graffiti, the neon glow of restaurants and strip mall signs. You took my hand and placed it on the gearstick.
Stupidly, I said, “I can’t drive stick.”
With your hand still covering mine, you said, “Don’t worry about it.”
Then you switched gears and all I felt was You.
It’s a shame that Google can’t provide any answers to the specifics: What does it mean to be the angel from someone’s nightmare? Someone’s clay girl?
I can find step-by-step reassurance in articles that divulge the secrets to overcoming heartache for someone I was never actually dating, but that’s about as specific as Google can get. Through some blogger acknowledging that the pain is in the fact that ‘angel from my nightmare’ is just another way of referring to a romantic hiccup; to the person who bridged the gap between last break-up and next relationship; a nice way of saying: Non-girlfriend.
It’s a low blow, but it’s the truth.
Being the non-girlfriend meant everyone looked at me like I wasn’t allowed to be as upset as I was. It meant everyone questioned my questions. How could I possibly care, so damn much, about a person who was just sex? What gives me the right?
And I agreed: Yeah, what gives me the right?
But I wondered anyway.
I wondered, Was every kiss a calculation? Are you just some construct designed to get laid? Did you mean it when you said it? Do you think about the things you say? What’s it like being the cigarettes in your back pocket—what’s it like being that safe and tucked away inside yourself?
I promised myself that I wouldn’t address your faults with too much assertion when I began the second draft of this essay. I know break-ups are a double sided coin for any number of reasons—there’s my side and there’s your side. There’s one side tainted by anger and the other side consumed by sadness. There’s a battle between the itch to forgive and the steadfast grip of a grudge that is hesitant to let go and scratch that itch.
Of course I went through all the motions of any break-up. I sent you drunken, stalker-esque “I miss you” Snapchats that were taken in the dark and only lasted two seconds. I listened to “Youth” by Daughter at least fifty times. I cried at the end of Her, and had a one night stand with a guy I met on OkCupid. I even eventually went back to your apartment while you weren’t there—your roommates invited me. We all got drunk and high and laughed; it was fun, but it wasn’t the same without you.
At one point, the door to your room was cracked, and I caught a glimpse inside. I saw your brown comforter all crumpled up on your twin bed, dresser drawers left open, empty Corona bottles, jumbled X-Box wires, holey Vans sneakers repaired with auto body putty, plates with half-eaten sandwiches. And when I drove home, I sobbed uncontrollably at the thought of it all because I just didn’t have it in me to be mad at you anymore.
I said it once, and I’ll say it again: You are likable. And, for a moment, you made me really happy. You brought the magic back into my life. You drove a shiny car that looked like it belonged on a plastic neon Hot Wheels track. You weren’t above laughing, smiling, sprinkling cinnamon on my cider, watching otters somersault, or pretending soda caps were hats for lizards.
And I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, but here’s the thing: Our generation is enchanted by the word ‘stay’. Stay with me ‘cause you’re all I need…All you had to do was stay…Stay, just stay…Kiss me before they turn the lights out! (Yes, these are all lyrics from pop songs.)
We don’t know how to let go.
We’re all confused and lonely. We don’t know where we’re going. Maybe that’s why we don’t like titles, formality; maybe that’s why we’re more comfortable on the blurred line—it’s too hard to get anyone to stay. We’ve all got shit to do, lives to lead… we just want someone to kiss before they turn the lights out.
I know it’s not that complicated: We’re two okay people who didn’t work out.
I just really wanted you to stay.