I wish you wanted to take my picture, I said, and I tried not to pout. I knew he hated that.
Baby, he said. He didn’t try to argue, though.
He was a portrait photographer. A good one. He took photos of actresses and models and fashion designers and musicians and sometimes normal people. Usually girls. Always beautiful, often in an unusual way. I figured that’s why he hadn’t ever taken me to the arboretum when the light was perfect around four-thirty on a quiet Wednesday afternoon, why he had never asked me to sit on the little wooden chair in the living room while the early morning light filtered through the warped glass windows of our 1940’s apartment. I wasn’t anything like beautiful.
His hair was shaggy and usually unclean, and he had a bushy beard. His skin was tanned from hiking and running and sailing outside. The weird thing about him was that he was this New England-raised, super wealthy, snobby, kind of awful guy, but he was so damn cool, and all of the controversial contemporary artists and indie rockers just loved him. I hated that.
I put the kettle on for tea. I measured out the good green tea from the little tea house down the road, and pulled out the Japanese tea set. I felt like we hardly spent time together anymore. The tea was steeping and I went to the bathroom to comb my hair. I’m heading out, he said, as he opened the door. He didn’t wait for me to say goodbye. I heard the door shut and I said it anyway.
I’m afraid to think that I might make a decision that would lead me away from you; that I would return to from where I came, and this time, you would not go with me. You’ve told me, and I know it, but I wonder at what point I have to start making decisions for me. We’ve both made sacrifices, I know. I love you deeply, but I’m afraid of your immaturity and the way you can be so lazy and how I think you might never get a job. (Nor may I, but at least I’m trying.) I want you wholly and completely, but I don’t know if that can continue to define me. Then again, I fear I may realize I’ve made an awful mistake if I leave you for a city I once loved. Our life has grown comfortable, but it is still warm and vibrant and full of love. Wouldn’t I be so foolish to give it up for sunny weather and friends who don’t answer their phones? For a city I can navigate easily and bars where I’m a regular and a place that made the most sense when I existed in it with you? I feel so lost, darling, and so confused.
Only every once in a while do I wonder what things are like for you now. If you’re truly in love. If you’ll ever be over me. Or if he scarcely thinks of me, either. If she’s skinnier and prettier than I am, which of course she is, because most any girl would be. Only sometimes do I wonder where I’ll end up in relation to where you’ll end up, and what it meant when I thought we were soulmates. How you could be mad at me when I haven’t done anything. Why you still send me photos that remind you of me. When you love her. And I love him. Only once in a while do I think of that night in that motel and the things we did and didn’t do. And all of the gifts you used to buy me, and how I never returned the favor. The time you came in your hand and were so embarrassed and I didn’t even realize it was anything to feel ashamed of. I was so young then, and I’m older now, and I see you in a different way. I don’t love you, and I’m not sure I ever did, but in the sickest way I’d like to know that you’re holding out for me, loving me always for the rest of your life and I am cold and callous and I don’t give a shit.
I read through the pages of my journal, the things I’ve written about him all these years. I’ve been cruel. I love him, but I’m cruel.
He puts on a record—the first track reminds him of me, he says, and he asks me to dance, and we’re spinning in the living room next to the fire and he spins me and kisses me and loves me. I wonder why.
We fell asleep on the couch last night, and I woke cold in the middle of the night. He brought a blanket from the bedroom and held me tight and I fell back to the most gorgeous, blissful sleep.
In the car, I suggest he might look for a part-time job, in addition to his music. He says I think his dream is impossible, and then he falls quiet, sullen. I wonder how I can attach myself to a man who doesn’t concern himself with the realities of life.
I hope my mother isn’t right.
At night, when we climb into bed, he says ‘pillow’ in a funny accent, our little joke. I parrot it back. We cuddle close and he shakes his butt the way he does as he settles in to sleep and my heart melts. My sweet boy.
He tells anyone who asks that he never intends to marry and I try not to dream of myself in a white dress, stomping on peanut shells in cowboy boots at the best ever dive bar in Montana, the perfect wedding I’d dreamed up for us.
I reach for his hand during the movie, and I look away from the screen and bury my face in his shoulder. I can’t get comfortable. I have nightmares for weeks.
We’ve climbed up a mountain in the snow and it’s swirling around us, the air is thick with it, and we’re losing daylight. I’m scared we won’t make it down. I imagine the two of us huddled together in the snow, in the dark. I wonder if one day we might die together.
It’s sunny, which is more confusing than it ought to be for a girl from Florida, and very cold, and I’m strolling across town without a coat. A man, older and a little strange, says I must be freezing. I am. I give a little smile and he says he wishes he could warm me up. Somehow it isn’t creepy. I keep walking and he turns to say have a nice day and I mumble, you too. At the same moment, a man leans out of his open car window and tells me I should have given him my number. He was cute, he says. And I’m not used to being seen or noticed, and it’s so strange. All my life I’ve thought myself unremarkable and very ugly. I assume no one sees me or looks at me or cares to speak to me, but this. It’s enough to give me pause, enough almost to make me wonder if perhaps I might be beautiful. I wonder if that’s something I could be without knowing it for all these years. Certainly someone would have told me, a boy in a bar, a beau, or anyone other than my grandmother. I dismiss the thought from my mind and I walk on, wishing I had my coat.
I woke from a dream. The strangest thing. It was still dark out, and I told myself over and over that it was just a dream, but the thing is that I was pretty sure that if I kept thinking about it—and I couldn’t not—that I would go crazy. Like in the dream. My mother had asked me once, when I couldn’t stop crying that winter break spent in Spain, if I needed to be admitted to the hospital. I tried to laugh and I said no, but maybe the answer was yes. I was always a little worried that I might become insane.
In the dream, my parents had invited a man into my life. He was older, foreign, comforting. We spoke endlessly, about everything. Mostly about me. I told him my thoughts and dreams and fears and secrets. He made me feel whole. It wasn’t romantic. He was a confidant or a counselor or a friend, not a lover nor a crush. But the thing is that there was a plan in place. He used everything he had learned about me to break me, utterly and completely and tragically. I was nothing, a shell. My parents had known the plan, they had crafted it. For money. My husband was in on it, too, I suspected. I looked at him in the depth of my despair and he gave a sheepish, small smile, and I knew. He had known. He hadn’t warned me. After my downfall, my parents invited the man back to our home. The deal wouldn’t work otherwise, they said. I said, I never want to see him again. They said that I could tell him that, but they had to play their part. Otherwise, they wouldn’t get the money. It’s always money with them. The man strolled into the house while I baked cookies in the kitchen, probably all that I would ever be able to manage again. My voice trembled in that awful way as I told him: I hate you. I never want to speak to you again. And he made the pain and the humiliation even worse as he told me coolly that he didn’t want to speak to me ever again, either. Everything was a lie.
I woke up, and I wondered if I would go crazy, and even now I know that I’ll never be quite the same after that goddamn dream.
I’ve wasted my whole life wanting to be someone else. It’s such a damn shame. I’d like to be tall and pretty like Paul’s girlfriend, beautiful and charmed and carefree like the actress of the moment. I’d like to be someone who people describe as: Gorgeous, funny, sweet, caring, beautiful, special, smart, lovely, poised. I’d like to be better than me. I’d like to have big brown eyes and perfect wavy hair and an easy sense of humor and a quick wit—it always takes me so fucking long to come up with a clever response. I wish I could disarm people with it all. I’d like to be a perfect specimen, and I’d trade most anything for it. Isn’t it wicked? I’ve never settled into being me, and I’ll never like the person who I am. The truth is, I’d like to be you.
The rain started falling and it didn’t stop, and that’s when I realized that I probably wasn’t going to be okay. I had realized it any number of times before, of course: wedged into the middle seat, Aisle 29, descending into Narita airport; lying on the floor in a lonely apartment I lived in for two years during college; New Year’s Eve, at a concert—the way everyone was celebrating and all I could think was, it had been another year, and what the hell had I done? Of course, the plane landed and I dried my tears and explored Tokyo for two weeks, feeling like the tallest, strangest girl in that enormous city. I didn’t renew my lease in that awful apartment. I’m sure it was haunted. Instead, I moved into a house with friends and we drank wine and sat by a fire at night. The concert ended and it was the new year and I started over, again.
But now, the way the sky is always gray and the rain never stops falling and the water seeps into my boots: it’s unbearable, and I know I can’t endure it. I’ve bitten my nails down until my fingertips ache and I’ve stayed in bed all day. I’ve put my phone on silent so I don’t have to deal with the probing questions: Are you okay? I try to let my voice tilt up when I talk to my mother on the phone, and she says she’s so glad that I’m enjoying my new life, and when we hang up I cry some more.
The problem is that everything feels so far away, sometimes. The problem is that I can barely remember the way it felt to lay in your arms. The problem is that I am tired and restless and very lonely. The problem is that I feel like I’m withering away and I don’t know how to stop it. The problem is that your letters are so damn sweet, and you write about how wonderful things will be when we pack our things up and make our way out west, but the truth is that I am fucking terrified.
Before you left I said, maybe you could write me a letter, and you laughed. I decided I wouldn’t send you a letter to spite you, but here I am, writing this goddamn thing. You’re twenty-two and still sort of a boy, if you know what I mean, and I’ll be twenty-six in a few weeks and I wonder if you’ll ever stop needing to leave, go, ramble when the summer rolls around. I’m making plans, you know, for me and you. I’m ready. It shouldn’t seem so strange to load my things in the car and tell my parents not to worry, everything will be okay, even if I’m not really sure that it will be. It’s not so strange, is it, to follow you and my dreams of you—I wonder if they are the same?—to struggle to pay the rent and to sleep on thrifted furniture that gives me the creeps.
I wish I knew what it is that you’re looking for. Why is it that your feet set to wandering come summertime? I wonder why I’m not enough to make you hang your hat up and build a little home with me.
Anyway, I love you.