Where It All Began
On our first date, you put a candle in the center of the table to brighten up your dimly lit apartment, and you let it burn until I’d left to go home and the wax had nearly melted away. You cooked for me, a family recipe your ancestors had brought from Spain to America. I always respected your admiration for your family.
You poured two glasses of wine and played Bob Dylan on your record player. As the years pass, I can still hear his voice echoing through the room.
“It’s a bit old,” I recall you saying, as you brushed the dust from its surface and laid the needle down, but I didn’t mind.
I watched the record spin, and I drank from the glass, apologizing each time my red lipstick stained the rim.
“You say sorry too much,” you told me and naturally, I apologized for that.
We slow danced in your living room, the only light coming from the candle and the moon gleaming through a nearby window. You had one hand on my back and the other intertwined with my own. Neither of us spoke, but we swayed in silence that was broken only by the sound of 60s folk music.
You told me about your childhood. You had parents you idolized, grandparents you intended to be like, and three older brothers whose main objective when you were growing up was to make your life miserable.
“They used to wrestle me to the ground, throw me into walls, and push me around,” you explained and I imagined a smaller you getting thrown around by three larger boys.
Even when you grew older, you still always seemed to resent them for it.
You were intelligent, I could sense it in the way you spoke, every line feeling somewhat rehearsed but somehow genuine.
“My knowledge wasn’t always greatly appreciated,” you told me as I fell deeper into every word you spoke.
As you poured me another glass of wine, you told me of the night of your thirteenth birthday.
“None of the guests had shown up, and my brothers took that as an opportunity to remind me that maybe if I hadn’t spent so much time studying instead of seeking genuine human connection at school, people could actually tolerate being around me.”
I thought I’d heard a crack in your voice and I wondered if I should console you. But you swiftly cleared your throat and continued on in your story with a bittersweet ending.
“No one ended up coming to the party,” you explained.
“I’m sorry,” I replied.
“It’s alright because I learned a fundamental lesson on how to make friends,” you paused, drinking from your glass of wine. “Even if it meant submitting to my brothers and spending less time locked in my bedroom.”
I tried to imagine you as a young and lonely teen, but the image wouldn’t materialize. You were so magnetic, how could there have been a time when anyone didn’t want to be around you?
“So, tell me about yourself.”
I was hesitant to respond. I wasn’t sure I was ready to let you in on my lonely upbringing, but you were so tender you took the words out of me like a magician swiftly pulling sentences out of a hat, ones I didn’t even know were there. I wanted to remain closed off, burying my childhood traumas in the back of my mind like a body in a 60-foot ditch, but you emanated such compassion and understanding that not revealing every intimate detail of myself would feel like a betrayal to your kindness. Before I knew it, I was rambling on about life as an only child with my hostile, widowed mother.
“My current neurotic state is solely the result of an unaffectionate childhood,” I told you. “I was given few hugs and was predominantly left to sit in my room alone, creating imaginary friends, and then letting my worries drive me wild because I had no one to tell them to.”
“And no one to ask for help?”
Each time I thought I should stop talking, you smiled and nodded reassuring me that you cared and nothing I said would be too much for you.
I looked up meeting your eyes, there was a small glimmer in them, a reflection from the still-burning candle. I’d had brown eyes my entire life, I saw them every time I looked in the mirror, but I never saw brown eyes quite like I did when I was looking at yours. I once read that people with brown eyes are more trustworthy. Maybe it’s because dark eyes are so deep, like some kind of chocolate ocean, it seems anything you’d tell them would get lost in there and never find its way out, or perhaps it’s merely a myth. Though, it would explain why I so effortlessly gave myself to you and let you wrap me around your finger so you could wear me like an old class ring. Everything I told you stayed locked inside of you like a vault making it that much easier to reveal more until there was nothing left for you to know.
Suddenly you were the person I never had growing up. A confidant. you knew more about me than any friend I’d made in 22 years.
You handed me my coat at the end of the night and helped me slip my long, slim arms into the sleeves. I offered a goodbye at the door, but you insisted on walking me outside to the taxi that was impatiently waiting for me. You placed a hand on my back as I slid into the backseat. I watched you through the window, the street lights reflected on the glass, making you look like an old picture from a disposable camera. Sort of blurry and faded, but still captivating.
I waved goodbye as the driver turned the corner, the taxi disappearing from view. It wasn’t until I was entirely out of sight that you turned to go back inside.
The night you first met my friends, you wooed them with your charm. It was Stella’s birthday, and you strolled into the bar like a professor entering a classroom of scholar students.
With your head held high, you were ready to teach every eager boy and girl in the room everything you knew, and they were yearning to hear you speak. You were so effortlessly charismatic, with a snap of your fingers they were all yours.
Stella hung on every word you said, her boyfriend watched the two of you with vicious eyes, like he was afraid you might sweep her away from him, but you didn’t care to do that.
My other friends gathered around you like a swarm of excited fans. Everyone itching to be the next one to talk to you, yelling out questions like journalists at a press conference.
I was sure I had watched this scene before, in some made for tv movie. You were the desirable quarterback, and the girls flocked to you like a magnetic field was pulling them in. If you were the jock, then I was the girl next door waiting for you to notice me from across the bar, but it was so hard to get your attention when every time I opened my mouth someone had another question.
“Are you always this charming? Are you always this funny?”
So, I bit my tongue and let you have your moment.
That was when I envied you the most. Why did everything seem to come so easily to you? You could flash your engaging smile and have anyone in the palm of your hand within seconds.
The Night Of Your Gig
Your friends all came out one night when you were playing in a local band. They arrived in herds because you were more likable than I could ever be and there wasn’t a person in the universe who wouldn’t want to be around you.
“Their lead singer got sick this morning,” you explained to me over the phone, “and they need someone to fill in at the last minute.”
You showed up to rehearsals within minutes, prepared to deliver the show the band had been practicing for months because you were the kind of person who stepped in to save the day. You were determined to be the hero, no one else could have that title.
We walked into a narrow bar, and you led us through the double doors in the back, smiling at the woman selling $10 tickets. She didn’t ask me to buy one.
When you stepped on stage, you electrified the room. The lights, purple and blue, then green and yellow, lit up your face like one of the billboards in Times Square. If your face were plastered all over the place instead of insignificant advertisements, I would’ve visited more often. I wouldn’t have complained about the crowds, as long as I got to see you the way I saw you that night. You looked like a real superstar the way you flipped your shaggy brown hair around, your strong fingers pressing deeply into the strings of the electric guitar. It was fire engine red, and I see it every time I hear a siren outside my window.
You had such a stage presence. It wouldn’t matter if there had been 20 people in the room or 20,000 because you could connect a crowd like we had all known each other for years and this was some kind of family reunion. You looked people in the eyes and crouched down to their level to make them feel welcome.
I stood watching you from the side of the stage, and every time you looked my way I felt like you were singing the words right to me, as if it was you and I in that room and no one else.
I didn’t mind that night at your apartment when I had to wrap your fingers in bandages because you were pushing down so hard on the guitar strings, I was proud of you. Your presence on the stage was magnetic, you had the whole audience dancing to songs we’d never heard before. You were my very own modern-day Freddie Mercury. You laughed when I told you that.
“You’re being ridiculous,” you’d said.
I still believe I was right.
The Engagement Party
The night of your brother’s engagement party, I got ready at your place. You had a full-length mirror in your bedroom, which I used to admire the dark, red dress I had borrowed from a friend. It was loose on my waist because of my slim silhouette, regardless, you told me I looked beautiful.
“If you’re not careful you’ll steal all the attention away from the soon to be bride,” you’d told me.
I laughed because that couldn’t possibly be true, you were always the one garnering attention.
The party was held in a large ballroom at a hotel in your hometown. The walls were wooden, and the place resembled the interior of an old, luxurious ship. Chandeliers were hanging from the ceiling, and I couldn’t stop staring at the dangling crystals. The way they twinkled when the light hit them just right made them look like huge, floating diamond rings.
Our entrance was a movie scene, like the one in Pretty Woman when Julia Roberts enters the Opera theater in that long, red gown. We walked through the door arm in arm, my heels clicking each time they tapped the floor, rosewood with large marble squares. I could tell by the way your brother watched us that you were right, I was stealing attention, and he wasn’t okay with that. He squinted his eyes, then put a hand on his fiance’s back, as if to tell her everything was okay, she was still the one he loved. I guess I really did look beautiful.
I’d never had all eyes on me before, and as I grew more and more self-conscious, I looked to you. You were smiling wide, and waving to people I didn’t recognize. It was as if your self-assurance was a contagious plague, and the higher you held your head, the higher I raised my chin. I spent the majority of my life feeling inadequate, but standing in that room next to you made me feel like I had a place where I belonged.
I watched the way you introduced yourself to your soon to be sister in law’s relatives. You looked them in the eye, put a hand on their shoulder, and made them feel invited. You said people’s names each time you spoke to them because you wanted to make sure they knew you cared. Then, as they spoke, you’d shake your head and push your glasses up the bridge of your nose, so they knew you were really listening. I think that’s what I miss most about you.
The First Time
The first time I made you mad, we were at your friend’s graduation party. Everyone you’d ever introduced me to was there. Kevin, the one with the girlfriend in law school, Jared, the drummer from your high school rock band, Michael, the first person you ever met freshman year of college.
I was acting like my typical shy self because unlike you, I’d always been quite reserved. You made your way around the backyard party, past tables playing beer pong, as I avoided unwanted social interactions. I slipped in and out of conversations, used the bathroom as many times as I could, and lingered in every corner I could find, out of sight where no one could see me.
I knew you were getting irritated each time you came to find me.
“Stop being such a loner,” you demanded.
Then, you dragged me back into conversations like a little girl, and I attempted to be more like you, more sociable and more enchanting.
I still believe it was my fault. I should’ve pulled it together and made small talk and stopped letting my social anxiety get the best of me, but I didn’t, and I paid the price on the way home.
You were silent on the walk to the car, and I wasn’t sure if you were tired or if you were that upset with me.
“Are you alright?” I asked, laying a hand on your shoulder.
You shook me off like a bug, and it was then that I realized how aggravating I must’ve really been.
“Sorry,” I said.
Without turning around, but storming faster to the car, you replied, “You embarrassed me.”
“I didn’t mean to, sometimes I let my shyness get the best of me, and I can’t help it.”
You took a deep breath, but you didn’t say a word until we were far enough away so that no one still lingering at the party could hear you dismantle my self-esteem in public.
“You embarrassed me!” You screamed. “You acted like a loner, and now all my friends think there’s something wrong with you! And it made me look bad, do you understand?”
I jumped back for a moment, you sounded deranged, and you looked angry enough you might kill me. You stormed towards me and grabbed my wrist.
“Do you understand?” You asked sternly.
I swallowed hard and nodded, then I followed you into the car and let you take me home.
The Golden Hour
(2) Not again.
(3) Was there blood?
(5) No, but it still stung.
(8) You seemed to have lost your temper again.
(13) This time we were outside a drugstore. I hadn’t planned to stay long.
(21) I promised I’d be done before dark and I had kept my word. I think you were being unfair this time.
(34) I’m not sure why you were in such a rush to get home, but each time I stopped at a different aisle to pick up red lipstick or Crest toothpaste, you grew further impatient.
(55) After I’d exceeded twenty minutes in the store, you grasped my wrist, clenching onto me like you were afraid I might run in the opposite direction if you let me go. I should have. You tore the tube of red lipstick, the toothpaste and pretzels I’d found down the snack aisle, out from my hands.
(89) You stormed towards the register, tossing the items onto the counter, offering a kind smile to the cashier as if to discredit any of my fear that might have been detectable from the horrified expression on my face. She handed you the plastic bags. “Thank you,” you said, gently taking them from her hands. I watched you while every beautiful moment we had together spun through my head like a kaleidoscope. The good outways the bad, I told myself anticipating what might come next. I knew you too well.
(144) As soon as your sneakers left the grey carpet of the store and touched the boiling, summer concrete outside, you hurled the plastic bags across the parking lot nearly hitting a white Jeep parked only inches away from where the tube of toothpaste had exploded upon crashing to the ground. You started screaming, like a child having a fit. “You’re being immature!” I shouted back. Then my vision turned to black. When I opened my eyes the sky was burning red, like a pool of blood hovering above us. I looked at you. I could count the veins on your forehead as they protruded from your skin. One, two, three…were there ten of them? I couldn’t distinguish between the reflection of the red sky on your face and the color your skin had turned as your blood boiled hotter than the sun did.
(89) You didn’t speak. You just stood there breathing like a rabid dog or like someone who’d just run a marathon but wasn’t swift enough to be the first one past the finish line. Were you afraid you’d lost? There was something I had found so beautiful about it no matter how toxic I knew that feeling was. The way you’d screamed at me, I couldn’t help but feel it sounded like singing. The way your voice rose, nearly cracking at its peak height, then softly came back down again.
(55) I was so transfixed by the fury in your face, equating you to the appearance of an angry bull ready to strike, I hadn’t noticed the stinging in my cheek. I touched my fingers to my face, half expecting there to be blood on my hands when I looked down at them. There was none.
(34) I spun around, but there was nobody there. No one to hold you accountable or remind me why I shouldn’t stay. You kept your pristine reputation, and I held on to my dwindling pride.
(21) Should I run? Would I even make it away before your hands grasped my body again and dragged me back home?
(13) Your eyes widened in sorrow, and I felt your strong arms around me.
(8) You didn’t lose a thing, you won again.
(5) I hung my head low.
(3) You lead me.
(2) I followed.
My cousin Lucy was astonished by your knowledge of the Civil War. It was Christmas weekend and we, along with my family, were snowed in at her cottage upstate. You were reciting facts–like the names of soldiers and battle locations–as if you had fought in the war yourself. As with the other relatives in the room, you had her tied to you like a yellow ribbon on a tree.
I was waiting for what you might say next. Would you try to win over my uncle by spitting out facts about the Yankees faster than a sports reporter?
Something about being trapped in the house in a town I didn’t recognize was starting to mess with my mental state. Your charming ways were making me feel increasingly ill as they blended together in my memory with all the nights you’d screamed and hit me.
I watched you gently run your fingers through Lucy’s chestnut curls, flashing a condescending smirk and suddenly I felt an unbearable desire to destroy your on-going scheme. I wanted to storm over to the living room where the two of you sat on the sofa, a cup of hot chocolate with fun-sized marshmallows in your hands, in front of the stone fireplace which was burning bright like a tropical sunset distracting us from the storm outside, and pull up my sleeves revealing every mark you made. I wanted to tell her to run, that if she let you in, you might harm her too. That no matter how sincere you seemed, you were an evil mastermind.
But despite the dark memories, I loved you. I couldn’t deal with the guilt of ruining your reputation; instead, I stormed outside, knowing you’d follow me out into the woods. I’d left my jacket inside, and it was so cold I was sure if you didn’t come out soon I might freeze to death before you could.
When you did meet me in the unfamiliar, snow-filled forest, I screamed like you’d yelled at me that night in the sunset. I could’ve sworn the branches on the trees began to shake, gently sprinkling flurries of snow onto the tops of our heads.
You tried to calm me down, grabbing my wrists and nearly cracking them in half.
“Shut up! Someone’s gonna think you’re being murdered.”
“If a girl screams in the woods and no one’s around to hear it did she scream? If a girl screams in the woods and no one’s around to hear it did she really scream?” I repeated like a crazed lunatic.
That was when you slapped me again. You saw the shock on my face, different from the times before because this time I was no longer in denial. You let go of my wrists, not because you wanted to set me free but because you were afraid of me this time. You were afraid that this time I might really leave.
“Go,” I demanded.
You looked a bit shaken, and for a moment you stood there, frozen like a snowman.
“Go, now,” I repeated.
You left, and I told Lucy we’d gotten into a silly fight, and we thought it was best if we spent the night apart. I wasn’t sure if you could find a motel, they were probably all booked, and no one would be checking out with the extreme weather conditions. I didn’t know if you’d try to drive home and skid off the road. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever see you again.
The Night You Left
You were back at my apartment the next week. All the snow had melted, the sun was peeking out from behind the clouds, and the familiarity of my cluttered apartment had calmed the tension.
I had half expected things to go back to the way they were. You walked in, and I thought you might sit down on my bed. We’d lie there together watching the sun illuminate the room through the window. The reflection of the light would make one of those tiny rainbows on my white comforter. We’d lie peacefully twisted in the bedsheets, as I learned the softness of your skin and the sound of your heartbeat, too lazy to go anywhere.
You’d wrap an arm around me, kiss my cheek, and tell me, “I’d rather do nothing with you, then go somewhere with anybody else.”
Then we’d turn on the tv and flip through channels, settling on a cliche rom-com that we could mock. I’d tell you I was already living one with you. You’d roll your eyes and say if that were true, you needed to reevaluate our relationship.
But you made a turn towards the kitchen, taking a needle to my hopeful dream bubble and I watched my fantasy spill onto the floor and then disintegrate.
You sat down at the small table in my tiny kitchen. Light peaked in through a small square window, but it didn’t illuminate you the way it used to. Instead, it reminded me of the sole, swinging light in an interrogation room. You looked more serious than I’d ever seen you before. You had your hands crossed like a professor ready to tell their student they’d failed a class and couldn’t graduate. You told me you’d done a lot of thinking since our fight in the snow. You said you’d grown tired of my uptight ways and I told you if I bored you so much then you should leave. You took my words to heart, and you stormed out. I took a deep breath before walking over and locking the door. Was it all over? I wondered.
I laid down on my bed, but that night, you returned to my door. The doorman must’ve let you in because I hadn’t given him a heads up about our current relationship status. You stayed there all night long, but I didn’t move an inch. I laid in my bed and heard your cries and let them sing me to sleep. I didn’t return to open the door until the sound of your pounding fists and pleading had faded away and I knew you were really gone.
Life After You
“Today I want to pick up the dining room table and flip it upside down,” I had written in my diary.
“I want the placemats and silverware to scatter on the wood floors and for the sound of it to crash like broken glass, and I want the wood to be marked up like some animal, maybe a lion or something more cowardly like a helpless puppy, had been clawing at it trying to break it into a million little pieces. You’re three months gone, and somehow, I think I’m doing worse than I was when I was tied to you like a frayed rope.”
“All my physical bruises have healed, and the red blotches that you left on my skin have faded, but you remain.” I continued, “You’re never here in human form, but you linger in spirit. I hear your voice in every record I play, and I see your face every time I look in the mirror to apply my red lipstick. I can occasionally smell your strong cologne even when I know I’ve thrown out every piece of clothing you left in my closet and filled every room with scents of roses and candy because they’re the only things that didn’t remind me of you. No matter how far I run from you, you seem to always be creeping down the hallways like a ghost. I can’t see you, I can’t hear you, but somehow, you were there.”
I closed my diary and chucked it across the room in a rage of anger. It hit the wall, knocking down a photograph you’d taken of me and I watched it fall to the ground, the frame shattering into a million tiny pieces of glass.
I stood and stared for a moment. Was this some symbolic message signifying the true ending of our relationship? I didn’t stand there long enough to figure it out. Instead, I walked towards the window.
I kneeled down and rested my head in the palm of my hands, gazing out like maybe you’d appear with a boombox, playing a happy love song, and I’d climb down, and you’d wrap me in your arms. But you never appeared. Instead, I sat at the window until the sun began to set looking out at the street corners we used to walk daily.
I could see us, like two holograms. We were standing on the corner, and I watched you grasp my hand like I was a little kid. Maybe you were afraid I’d get loose, and you’d have to go searching for me. The sunset was reflecting on the left side of your face. You caught me looking, and you told me, “It’s rude to stare,” but I couldn’t help myself.
My eyes glanced away from the window and over to my fire escape where you were sitting there in torn jeans and a leather jacket. I watched you light a cigarette like the James Dean of our treacherous love story. I wanted to climb out there too and live out our 1950s love affair.
As I made my way closer, I felt a sharp pain in my left foot and looked down to see blood. I had stepped on a piece of the broken picture frame. When I looked up, you were gone. I ran to the window, leaving bloody footprints on my wood floors. We weren’t standing on the corner, there was no one but an old woman pushing around a shopping cart piled to the brim with plastic bags.
I rushed to the bathroom and ignoring my injured foot, I turned on the faucet, rapidly flushing water in my face. I looked up and in the mirror watched the water slowly drip down like my face was melting.
Was I going insane without you? I wondered.
I walked into my kitchen and sat down at the table, the one you’d sat at the last time you were here. I wiped my foot with a wet cloth and then bandaged it.
When I looked up towards the window, I didn’t see you looking back at me. I didn’t hallucinate you trying to break in and steal me back. I saw the small yellow dandelion that I’d plucked from someone’s lawn a week ago. Since then, it was the only thing that had brought me joy. It was floating in a glass of water that I’d placed on the window sill. Despite its minuscule size it seemed to light up the whole room. The vibrant light from the sunset was cracking through the window again, reflecting yellow throughout the entire room. My white walls had gone bright, and it looked as though the entire kitchen had been splattered in yellow paint.
It was just a simple, yellow flower like a yellow rose or a sunflower, but smaller. Yet, it stood as a beacon of hope. Like the first sign of spring blowing in and overturning a brutal winter. You would not haunt me forever, the light was coming.
“You’re not going mad,” I told myself. “You will find happiness again.”
The Last Time
I had gone for a walk one afternoon at the guidance of my therapist, who had encouraged me to step outside each time I felt overwhelmed. As I walked the streets, we once walked together, I remembered the coping mechanisms I’d spent months learning. They helped me push the thought of you out of my mind every time you re-entered.
This time though, it was as if my mind had sent out a telepathic message, calling your name without me verbally saying it, something I’d learned not to do anymore.
I looked down at my phone, and your name lit up my screen like the flashing lights on an ambulance or a police car. My heart stopped, and I considered throwing the phone into the street and letting it get run over by a truck. Instead, I slid your name to the side, opening your message.
You wanted to see me. I knew it would only be a short meeting and we’d probably only small talk before going our separate ways, but I was still skeptical. What would you expect of me? Was this some scheme to win me back? Though, I had felt stronger than ever in the past week.
I looked up and noticed a small cafe across the street. Was this a sign? I wondered. Maybe I could use this as an opportunity for the closure I’d never received.
“Meet me at the cafe on 7th avenue,” I replied, then crossed the street.
The inside was small, each table tightly placed next to each other. It resembled the kind of brick wall coffee shop you might find somewhere in Europe.
I went to the bathroom and stared in the mirror, applying red lipstick, then wiping it off, then reapplying it after it had already left its stain on my lips.
I exited the bathroom and paced back and forth, waiting for your arrival.
“Are you alright, mam?”a waiter asked, “you could have a seat at an empty table if you’d like.”
I smiled but declined. I couldn’t possibly sit still waiting for you to appear.
Then I heard the soft jingle of the bell on the door. I looked up and surely, it was you. I quickly looked down at my feet, fighting not to look up and admire you. I knew you would look good, but I didn’t want to give you the satisfaction of my gaze. You immediately walked over and embraced me in one of your warm hugs.
We sat at an unoccupied table for two in the center of the room, and we flipped through old pictures, ones from parties I remembered vividly and ones of me I hadn’t seen before. There were a few of me lying in bed early in the morning, probably not yet conscious but you said I’d looked so beautiful you couldn’t help yourself.
As we reminisced about old memories, each one playing like a supercut in my head, it felt like no time had passed at all. You told me how you’d been and that you were taking anger management classes.
“I’m getting better,” you said so confidently I almost wanted to believe you.
The light was coming in through the window, making the brown in your eyes look golden. You looked good, you always did, but this time you looked better.
We walked back to your place afterward, the back of your hand brushed against mine, and I wanted to interlock our fingers and let our hands melt together. But when we reached your building, I was hesitant to follow you inside. For the first time, all the bad memories flashed before me like a snippet of a horror film.
I had to quickly come up with a reason not to follow you, so I told you I was starting to feel unwell and that I must be coming down with a cold. I asked you to call me a cab, and you did.
When it arrived, you opened the yellow door, the afternoon sun was bright in the backdrop, and it felt like the end of a film, the part where the violins start playing as the main character disappears into the horizon.
You placed a hand on my back as I climbed in, and I felt every bruise from all the other times you touched me. I pulled the door shut and rejected your wave goodbye. I saw you only from the rearview mirror, standing there eyeing me like I still belonged to you. But you didn’t look so appealing anymore. You looked like the killer of a slasher film whose final victim had outsmarted him and gotten away.
I blinked and looked away from the mirror. I wasn’t sure if you were still watching me or if you had turned to go inside, but I didn’t bother to look. Leaning my head against the window, I closed my eyes and smiled with the most sincere delight I’d felt in a long time.