I wouldn’t say I was falling for you so much as starting to stumble but picking myself back up again. It suited me just fine to not see you for five months. The mortifying last email I’d ever sent you was under the influence of codeine-spiked cough syrup during that bout of bronchitis that you gave me the night after we got very drunk, or rather, I got very drunk, or maybe, you got me very drunk. I don’t know if it was just because Mercury is about to retrograde or bad luck, but there you were, and there I was, at the smallest party in the history of humankind. We were feet away.
I didn’t want to say anything to you but you came up and said “Hi Emily.” Following you was a tall skinny girl wearing fancy black clothes with bone-straight bleached hair to her shoulders and brown hipster glasses and a raspy smoker voice. Seeing her solidified my suspicion that my taste in girls was superior to yours. Then again, you’d chosen me, so what did that say about my self-esteem and insecurities back then?
You had grown an ugly beard yourself and I tried to focus on it instead of looking at those curls on your head, which I can still remember burying my head in. You make small talk, too loudly, with the people I like who still don’t know how to really pronounce your name like I do. I hear them butcher it and wonder why I got to know your real name if you knew all along we’d end up not speaking.
After I had a beer and a glass of nice Italian champagne, I wanted to loudly proclaim, in front of all the guests and the ugly stupid girlfriend, “Hey, remember that time when we had sex?” Or more accurately, those times, but that wouldn’t be appropriate. I wouldn’t have cared about hurting your feelings, I was so mad. I held my tongue because I liked the other people at the party, even the ones I’d just met. I held my tongue because my history is of keeping the words inside.
During a toast, I intentionally clinked glasses with you and almost made eye contact. It was too much, too tear-inducing on my body. I wanted to cry anyway. Having you here multiplied the bad feelings by four and the good ones by two and divided them by confusion and subtracted hope. I didn’t count on that.
For a week now, I’ve been thinking about you and feeling about you, these blocked up feelings that stick in my center like snot in a congested allergic nose. That is to say, they are not pleasant feelings, and I wish they would clear out so I could breathe again, but even breathing sometimes makes me think of you. The idea that you worked at a clinic for people with lung conditions and still smoked always bothered me, because you knew you were slowly committing suicide, even after seeing your patients, and you told me you could maybe get me that injection for people with bad asthma that lets them breathe better but has huge risks, like maybe dying if your insurance doesn’t cover one-thousand-dollar-a-pop respiratory shots.
It’s sad to me to see you now with her. I don’t know exactly what this feeling is. It might be jealousy, but I don’t want to be with who you are now. Maybe I want to be with who you could be now, or who I wish you were now, the potential you. Maybe I want to be with who I thought you were before I saw that you weren’t at the same point as I was. We’re both still growing, but you are taking longer, though I’m the one who has the so-called developmental disability.
You were standing there with your ironic Bushwick hipster girlfriend and talking about her and you as a “we.” You want everyone to believe that the two of you are boring and that all you do is watch Netflix together. A few seasons ago, we were sitting on the couch in your house, watching a good documentary together while eating chocolate ice cream that you bought just for me. Weeks later, after you broke up with me, we watched Netflix again, just some dumb TV show you liked.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” you asked me. So the promise to not smoke in front of the sick asthmatic was just if you got something out of her, or rather, put something into her. The promise was broken as soon as her tangible physical worth was gone.
“You can do whatever the fuck you want to,” I said, quiet, detached, defeated. I didn’t think I was angry when I said it, but now I wonder.
You didn’t smoke your marijuana that night, but you never got me the asthma injection either, and “we can still be friends” was just the polite thing to say to the girl you didn’t know took words literally. As we fell asleep in your bed, you held me in post-break up cuddle position. I didn’t tell you I could feel your hard-on.
Following this event, I contemplated how I had ended up being involved with a pothead with a penis who wouldn’t follow his dreams, but that’s not all you were. You were sweet, and gentle, and at the time, attractive to me. I liked how you were with the kids, and I liked that we could talk about genocide and war and oppression, and I was oddly flattered when you bought me meals and drinks. I liked when you told me about parts of your self-expression that you never shared with others—the nail polish and the jewelry. Allowing myself to see the nuances instead of categorically rejecting you as a terrible person hurt me. It meant that I missed you.
Today, with this girl, you didn’t look “in love,” or passionate, or even happy. You looked comfortable. No more, no less. Not comfortable like I am with my old pajama tops that are so soft from being washed over and over since age ten and have head-sized holes all over the place to the point where I can hardly wear them anymore, either. Comfortable like if I tried on a pair of sneakers at the shoe store and they weren’t a perfect fit and they did have some disconcerting green neon stripes but they were cheap enough and good enough for now. Seeing you with her, I was suddenly very disappointed in you. You had a chance. I put you up to a challenge, and you chose to ignore anything that didn’t fit in with your very detailed life plan.
It took someone else’s goodbye party for me to realize that.
It took someone else’s goodbye party for me to connect all the dots inside my head. Sure, I was angry and sad when I left, but I couldn’t come to cry. I saw two or three couples kissing and holding hands on my walk home and it left me with a terrible longing feeling that I desperately wanted to make go away. I want to banish this longing along with those pesky residual good feelings I have toward you. I wish I hadn’t sent you that altered-mind-cough-syrup email. I regret typing out my feelings at the time, saying I will always feel something for you. I still don’t know what that something is, but I’m painfully aware that I accidentally captured the truth in those last words to you.
Lois B. is a teacher and writer.