We weren’t boyfriend and girlfriend. We didn’t even really date. To be cheeky, after our disaster, I used to call him my “ex-nothing.”
First I saw him around, and then we drank and slept together, and then we talked and went out to dinner, then we slept together, and then one night he slept in my bed but wouldn’t touch me, then I wrote him a long letter, then we didn’t talk, then we talked and slept together, then we didn’t talk, then we talked and kissed, then we didn’t talk. The time, adult-years of it, melts into one long string of silences and noise. I was a mess and utterly invested in him from the get-go. I would have called it love at first sight, if it had worked out at all.
I didn’t tell him he was my first, and I thought he really liked me.
I really liked him, because he liked books, hip-hop, talking politics, singing karaoke, and going new places. One night, I rode my bike to meet him by the river. He’d brought a bottle of wine and I brought two cups. We drank the wine, locked up my bike, and went across the river on the ferry. I honestly thought he was perfect: the standing personification of tall, dark and handsome, plus witty and literate and curious and quick. When he stood close to me, I felt the body electric. We crossed the river again, back to the French Quarter, and then, what next? I had my bike and he had a bag he didn’t want to haul around. He said he would ride the bike to my apartment, lock up his bag, then double-back and meet me.
I called him when it seemed like too long: he’d taken my bicycle on a joy ride. I wanted to be mad, but he came to meet me, and his eyes were all joy, and he stayed close to me the rest of the night.
I liked him because he used words like “mellifluous” and “adorkable.” I once caught him doing pull-ups off the lip of my spiral staircase. He said he really, really liked my poetry.
I gave up the poetry after he and I were through.
When we met, I was 24, and I’d never even kissed anyone I liked. I didn’t understand how to be close to people, how to accept a hug from a stranger, how to negotiate desire. I liked to admire from a safe remove.
I can’t think about him without counting the distance between us. Even in my memories, I calculate how many square feet we shared: the warm right side of my body sharing a border with the left side of his, a big crack of sunshine spilling over the whole room; remembering the candy smell in the air when he stood close to me; how a small shift of hips brought him to me; the times when he stood too far away, too many feet between us, like all the cold, unfeeling air could suffocate me.
We told each other a lot of secrets, but I ended up not knowing the true him, or if he even actually liked me.
The important part is that he was a fantasy—someone I desired who at least went through the motions of desiring me back—and a person who existed, who still lives in the world. He is my most potent symbol of storytelling magic, and of the fear good storytelling inspires—that at the end, you’re made the fool.
File it under, one more useless apology:
I’m sorry, and I mean it. I didn’t understand what I did wrong, for years on years. But now I do: I asked him questions that I thought showed I cared. I asked him to tell me about his tragedies, his secrets, the stories behind his scars. I told him I could love the mean parts out of him.
But that’s not what happened. Things went bad, and I coped the only way I knew how: I wrote it all down. It’s the only way I have to remember anything, to make a story go from beginning to end. Our story had no order: it was just signals and noise and more silence than I could bear.
When I finished the writing, I had him memorized. I can pick his shape out of a crowd. I can spin through my Rolodex of moments and remember exactly how it felt when he held me. I can conjure his memory to sit next to me and have a conversation—the only conversations I’ll ever get to have with him again.
I asked for his self, and I used it to make a ghost of him, so I could always have him in reach. I chose the ghost.
One Last Thing:
Heartbreak: crying every single day for months. Waking up crying. Crying while putting on makeup. Crying selfies. Crying while brushing your teeth. Crying as a state of being.
Years later, seeing him and exchanging the barest pleasantries. Fussing over math: six feet away, twenty-five words, zero smiles. Touching the arm of his wool coat. Forgetting that ghosts can’t be touched. Crying as a reminder of what the years have done, and what they haven’t.
Ex-nothing, ex-everything, it’s all just semantics.