There is a list of things you say to me in the dark, and they are, respectively, the same every night:
I love you to pieces; You have no idea how much
I want to be your home
I will be here waiting for you, you don’t believe me, you’ll see
I know it is a privilege to be inside you. I know it every time. I am the luckiest
I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you
I want you to be mine
I am like a greedy child, shoving handfuls of this into my mouth, as much as I can swallow; I want more. I am Hansel and Gretel gnawing on the side of the witch’s house in the woods. I don’t care who lives here. Just give this to me. I’ll eat the whole house. I’ll eat everything inside. I think if I can do this, if I can swallow the door knobs and the window panes, you will not leave again. You fall asleep with your hands in my hair, and you cannot disappear like this, not with handfuls of my hair.
You are laying with your face pressed against the back of my neck and your arms wrapped so tightly around me, it makes me feel like your sleeping self is afraid I will float away. Just up and out of the bed, like I’m full of helium, or like Peter Pan will come through the window at any moment and convince me to escape. I relish the idea of you fearing my escape. I wrestle your arm from around my ribs, I slide out of bed. You wake. “I have to pee, I’ll be right back,” I say.
“I’ll miss you,” you say, your voice thick and drowsy, and I love it, and I want you to say it again and again because I used to believe that when you went away you didn’t miss me, and if you keep telling me you did or you do or you will, it can fix all this, somehow.
You are above me holding my face in your hands and saying, “You have the most beautiful eyelashes,” and later, when I tell you they are not my real eyelashes, that I pay someone every month to glue extensions onto my actual eyelashes, you make fun of me. You stop telling me my eyelashes are pretty. Someday I will pinpoint this as the moment you slowly began to stop naming the reasons I am pretty. Suddenly you are afraid none of it is real. In bars, in front of you, other men tell me I am pretty. You watch. You gloat, because you are going home with me. But you tell me less and less. I think it is okay; you don’t know it is happening. This is what it is like when things aren’t shiny and new anymore, I tell myself. After all, when Adam finally held in his hands the Impossible Apple, didn’t he only take a bite? Just the one bite? Nobody ever wants the whole apple, but here you are. This means you love me. When you find out my eyelashes are fake, you do not leave.
I read you a poem and it’s about you and it’s a sweet poem about feeling like I know where home is. And you are silent because words do not always come easily for you, but you clutch my hands with ferocity and lay your head in my lap, and I think you must have loved the poem, and I think you must love me, and you have never read my poems before. I gave you a book with them in it once. I was so proud to be in that book. You lost it. But this time, my poems will matter to you. These days, you let me read them to you.
You have never bought any of my books. But you can always buy liquor.
I have just given a talk at a TED conference, and it is dinner time, and you are doing pulls off a bottle of Jack on the sidewalk outside the restaurant like a frat boy. You are very drunk, so I have to stay sober enough to drive, and there is a part of me that is mortified but I can’t pinpoint why because I’m just so grateful that you came at all. You are here and it is so hard for you to make plans and commitments, but you got into the car that I drove. You are here. This must mean you love me.
When I finally leave you, I will do it just so I can be the one to go. It will be because you have left so many times that I need, just this once, for it to be me. When I leave you, I will see you the night before, New Year’s Eve. I will kiss you at midnight, and I will tell you I love you, and I will already have decided that I must go. I will want for you to give me a sign, anything, to tell me I should stay. I want you to know. I want you to see it. I want you to dig your fingers in and grip me by the wrists and hold on like one of us is about to vanish, like you do in your sleep. Instead, I will never hear from you again after that night. I will send you a text when I realize you’re not returning my calls again. In the text I will tell you that I believe you are a good and wonderful person, but that I must extract myself from a sinking ship.
I believe you are a good and wonderful person.
When I leave you, I will immediately start sleeping with boring men. The kind who talk about their 401K and take me to fancy wine bars on dates and temper their drinking and drive me to their condos in their fancy cars and fuck me on 1000 thread count sheets and buy me coffee in the morning. But that is not yet. It is still November, and as you pull the bobby pins out of my hair while we are going to bed, I sink my whole soul into the familiarity of you. I rest my head against your collarbone and you whisper “This is my favorite way to hold you” and in pictures you are often gazing at me with such wholesome admiration and I think we are going to be okay.
You leave town for a few days and when you call me, when you stay in contact with me the whole time you are away, I feel so special. This time you haven’t forgotten me.
I am elaborately explaining to someone why you constantly disappear. This time, I don’t even know if you’re in the city. I text our friend’s mother. I feel crazy, like I am invading your privacy. How dare I try and track you down? You aren’t my boyfriend. This is madness; I shouldn’t be trying to find you, but you haven’t shown up for work, and I’m sitting across the bar from your manager. She looks back at me, blinking. Her face is full of concern and it isn’t for you.
When you disappear, it is for five days, and when you come back you will tell me you slept with someone else, someone who is the love of your life, and I will be wildly jealous of her because I will know you can’t ever love me as much as you love her. I will hold you and forgive you because you are not my boyfriend, and we are not exclusive, and we have agreed to this. For months now, so many months, we have lived beyond the lines of definition because we are edgy and in our 30’s and we don’t need labels to be in love because we’re such secure individuals and words like boyfriend and partner just place unnecessary ownership on people. But really, this is so you can disappear. This is so you can return when you feel like it and remind me that you never promised me anything, but you love me, you love me, you love me, you love me. I can know this is true because no matter how many times you disappear you can’t stay away from me forever and in pop culture movies this is romantic. And besides, the only thing I know about love is failing. I don’t want to possess you, it’s true. I just want you to choose me.
The thing is, you are never actually choosing me.
One month after you tell me you will never take me for granted again, that this is something significant, that you can’t fight it anymore, you leave town and I am scared you will forget about me. Instead, you come home early and orchestrate a surprise. Your friend lures me outside at 7 am with a phone call, and there you are, laughing, burying your face in my neck, telling me how you could not wait to get home to me. Every time you leave town after this, I think about that moment. It’s what makes me trust that you will come home to me again. That you will still want me when you come back.
It’s 4 am and I am upstairs at a party doing even more blow because you are falling down drunk and I need to stay awake in order to keep up with you. It’s not that I didn’t want the drugs; I wanted them. But not this much at this hour. I am tired and I want to go to bed, but if I do now, I don’t know where you will end up. I wonder, briefly, if you’d ever know if anything happened to me while we were out together. In the morning, you will tell me that I am difficult to love and I will write a song about it and never play it for you.
I am collecting your things from my home. I put them in a plastic grocery bag; unceremonious. There is a scarf here, one of mine that you took and wore for months. I hold it to my face and breathe in and it smells like cigarettes and your skin and your hair and your pillowcases and every night I woke next to the perfect curve of your back. It smells like all our laughing and dancing and fucking. It smells like your porch and the sunshine. Like the night I met you at my own book release party. How we locked eyes and immediately knew. How we got caught in the rain afterwards, and the downpour was too much for you to ride your bike home. How we peeled off each other’s wet clothes piece by piece, and how we fell in love and would not say it for so many months. How we fell in love and the story we told is that you kept disappearing because you were not ready to love me, you would have given anything to not love me. How we fell in love but every good thing that ever happened here, you were drunk for. How every sweet thing that transpired between us smelled like Tully and gave us headaches in the morning. How perfectly and patiently you loved me when you were half a bottle in. We fell in love, it is true. But it didn’t mean anything.
Falling in love doesn’t mean anything.
I put the scarf in the bag and I think that if I give you this scarf maybe I will stop imagining that someday you will show up with a list of what this was all worth to you. I leave the bag on the porch where I used to laugh and read poems and kiss you and smoke your cigarettes.
That night I go home with an investment banker. He is someone who pays his bills and can keep a job. He knows a lot about scotch and he thinks I am so quirky and funny and witty and weird because I am an artist. While he’s in the bathroom, I peek in his bedroom closet. Everything is pressed and hung with all the shirt fronts facing the same way. He doesn’t care about poems. He will not call me after this. But at least I can know what this is. He’ll never tell me he loves me. He’ll never show up in a bar and kiss me and tell me how much he has missed me. When he disappears, it will be in his Saab after dropping me off with a hot cup of coffee in my hands that he has bought for me. He will be gracious. He’ll tell me I am vivacious and that he had a lovely evening.
When I leave the state, I will think too much about how I am not telling you. I will wait until the last minute for you to show up, to say something, anything to me. But you will not, and I will go. South and west to the desert, with two thousand miles between us I will drink moderately in bars where I have never been in love with you.
I stare into the bottom of my glass, vividly aware of how this drink should be my last for the night. I order water. I think about you, because I will always think about you, but this time I think about how what you loved was drowning, not me. How, when I was an ocean you could drown in me and be happy, but you did not love me.
You loved getting fucked up. And for awhile I fucked you up.
I chew on an ice cube. My water is seltzer with a slice of lime. I hold my scarf to my face and breathe in my own scent, and there is no part of you there. You are gone, and I am smiling. I can feel your absence in my ribs, behind them. It feels like bricks, but what I miss is a liquor-soaked hallucination. I wrap my hands around my water glass. It is solid, weighty, real. It is half full or half empty and I don’t care if you ever loved me because all words are true in the moment and everything is constantly evaporating around us but I am still here.
You are never coming back, and it doesn’t matter, because you never really arrived.
Because I don’t need you to love me, I just want it really bad.
Because I am never coming back.