This essay is published in the fifth issue of Witches Mag: Time.
Time suspends around us in the spring, but I can still hear the clock ticking. Over FaceTime, I cannot stop crying. Bernie Sanders is dropping out of the 2020 presidential race, and my boyfriend is moving to Michigan. I drop my phone in my bed and run to the bathroom. My boyfriend’s digital face plummets into my teal velvet duvet, and I sob until the wind gets knocked out of me. For seven months I have tried to outrun my feelings for him, but my love has finally caught up with me, finally caught up and crushed me into a dirty pile of tissues on my bathroom floor.
Are you okay? he asks when I return to the phone.
Yeah, I’m literally fine, I say. I’m so happy for you.
We meet for the first time on a rainy Thursday in the fall. We drink pink cocktails on red stools in a bar that sits on aberrant cobblestones. I am a half hour late, and he offers to pay the check. By the second drink, I am already telling him, You’re applying to way too many grad schools. By the end of the night, he is already telling me, I want to make out with you until my Uber gets here. I lean against a black wrought iron fence and slip my hands inside his leather jacket, where they rest naturally on his waist. I have ninety seconds until a silver Camry pulls up and takes him away from me.
Six weeks and eight dates pass. He listens to my stories on a bench outside an observatory in October wind, at my favorite cafe where I write and drink tea on Monday afternoons, in my passenger seat before work, at a Korean restaurant with no other customers that shuts down the following week.
The night we face our first disagreement, he asks me to stay over, to talk through my discomfort instead of storming out, but I insist that I have to go. It’s not supposed to be this hard, I say, unsure if that’s true, as I frantically grab my tights off his bedroom floor and my bobby pins from his nightstand. Sitting on the concrete steps outside his apartment, waiting for an Uber home after midnight, I text my friends: I’m not gonna see the Tinder boy anymore. It’s fine though. It’s not like I was gonna marry him.
The following afternoon, I fall asleep in my car in a Starbucks parking lot in southern Rhode Island. I turn the engine off and let the sun seep in through the windows. I miss him.
I send him a text, ask if we can talk things through. I crawl back to his apartment that night carrying my pride and two cans of white wine in my purse. He tells me: I have no desire to be with anyone but you. I tell him: I have never been someone’s girlfriend before.
When the holiday parties come, he sends me Google Calendar invites. At my sister’s celebration, I am the first one to arrive and the last one to leave, which means I am the most drunk. I lead my boyfriend upstairs and sit down on a piano bench. He stands facing me and I rest my head on his abdomen, feel the cold of his hands behind my neck, the buttons of his collared shirt indenting my forehead. I say: Last year I was the only single person at this whole party. He takes my chin in his hand, leans down and kisses me well. I say: Last year I wished for you, and now you’re here.
One week later, at his coworker’s holiday party, there is baked brie and hot chocolate and my velvet dress and he will rave about all three of these things for a month. In the kitchen, his best friend throws his arm across my shoulders and asks him: How long have you been waiting to meet a girl like this?
On Christmas Eve, I am hesitant to invite him out to Long Island, because we are still new, and because I think we will only be temporary. He drives three hours to my parents’ house and eats the lasagna but not the seven fishes. His mom gives him chocolate and wine to bring, tells him never to show up empty-handed, but doesn’t return the invitation.
In January, I kiss him after a busy week while he is talking about a math problem. I missed you, I say. I have purple hair and a grudge against my college friends. I don’t feel like myself. When Halsey releases Manic, we listen to the album together in my car. He says: So many of these songs remind me of you.
After the holidays, things settle down. We get drinks at the GCB in Providence with his friends, and they talk about the doctorate programs they’re applying to. University of Michigan is his top choice, and as his friends tell him he’s bound to be accepted, I squeeze his knee under the table. I want to get him alone, to stop this conversation in its tracks. None of this information is new to me — he told me about Michigan the day we met, and I’ve been rooting for it ever since. Your first boyfriend isn’t supposed to last forever.
The scar on the back of his hand, he says, has been there since he was a little kid. I knew the iron might be hot, he explains, so I thought it’d be safer to touch it with the back of my hand than my palm. I pull his arm around me, kiss the scar while lying in his bed. He whispers in my ear: I’m so glad I found you.
Later, I grab his Android and open up Spotify. Billy Joel is Long Island royalty, I say. He was the first person I ever saw in concert. I’m in the middle of waxing poetic — exhibiting the earnest enthusiasm that I normally become self conscious of seconds after I finish my sentences. But I am getting used to his reassurances, and they are building my confidence. I love when you tell me all the thoughts racing around your head, he says each time I worry. I have a hard time believing this, nevermind understanding it, because I have spent most of my life trying to escape my own mind. Why would you opt into being a part of all this chaos? I ask, genuinely perplexed by his willingness. He says: I was so bored before I met you.
I turn on “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant” and joke that the song is an artifact from my culture. When this song started during the concert, I went to the bathroom, I reminisce. I was only thirteen, and the song is, like, eight minutes long. I didn’t get to hear it live, and now I regret that every time it comes on. Maybe I always will.
He tells me he loves me for the first time shortly before Valentine’s Day, after we attend a murder mystery dinner party with his friends. You were the best and most beautiful girl at the whole party, he says, while I’m sitting with the skirt of my 1960s dress draped around his hips. I can’t believe I get to show you off as MY girlfriend. I let him continue, drunkenly drag on and on, until it feels exploitative to do so. Alright, I get it, I say. You’re madly in love with me!
Yeah, I really am.
In March, the rejections come: Brown, NYU, MIT, Harvard — everything within driving distance of Providence. But then there is an acceptance: his dream program, halfway across the country, where he is the one and only applicant they want.
I have known this was our fate since before he ever bit my bottom lip. We still have time, I figure, and things will end organically between us by the fall. No harm, no foul. We seem to be in agreement. Long-distance relationships are nearly impossible to maintain, and we’ve only known each other for a few months. But we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it, we decide.
I look forward to having the summer to myself: I’ll sleep around a bit, maybe kiss a few girls like I always said I would. Remember the indifference I felt in the fall? The night I sat out on his front steps without regret? He does not look like what my soulmate will look like, I have always known that. This relationship was never meant to last.
We kiss on my college campus in the sun, and I ask him how quickly germs die on rocks outside.
When he bails on a double date with my friends, I am mad at him, and he shows up with flowers but refuses to admit he did anything wrong. I let it go, sort of, and we have sex on my couch, but I still think he fucked up. There is no reason to lean into the anger, though, and no reason to lean into a sustainable resolution. There are no lessons to be learned here. When I tell my therapist about the fight, she tries to comfort me. This is something you two could work on together, she advises. He could get better at processing his negative emotions with you.
I figure: What’s the point? He’s leaving anyway.
In the spring, we separate for the first six weeks of the pandemic. All season, we go on distanced midday walks and drink bubble tea. Before I get back in my car, I let him grab my ass for a quick second, but that’s as close as I’ll get to him. He seems pleased.
First there are no masks, then there are all the masks. First we must stop touching, then we do nothing but touch each other. On the weekend we are fully reunited, after his roommate moves out of state, I send a text to my best friend: He is everything I’ve ever wanted and nothing like I thought he would be. Meanwhile, he sends a text to his future roommate: When you get a chance, can you send me the measurements of my bedroom there? If all my classes are gonna be online, I definitely need to buy a good desk.
When we leave the house, I clean plastic forks with hand soap in public bathrooms before eating Chipotle. You know, I have OCD, too, I say, but it’s really getting overshadowed by my sister’s. How unfair. On a bench in Rhode Island sun, I read a novel about teenagers at a New England prep school, and he watches families with strollers pass by. Can we adopt a baby to play with until the pandemic is over? he asks. Absolutely not, I say, but when I am bored I tell him: We should get married today. He rolls his eyes. Hear me out, I say. I think we love each other enough at this point. We could probably make it work. I sing to him the rest of the day: Going to the chapel and we’re gonna get married.
Still on the bench, I lie down with my head on his lap, and we decide to stay together until it doesn’t make sense to anymore, even with five states and a 13-hour drive separating us. Finally, and for the first time, I let myself fall in love with him completely. Waking up next to him each morning, I find it hard to remember why I ever doubted him in the first place, why I ever wanted anything else. Anything more. We kiss on my college campus in the sun, and I ask him how quickly germs die on rocks outside.
This is what most of our days are like before he leaves: We get Chinese takeout and see the dog in the car window, but he doesn’t say hi to my sister. I say: Find us a really good movie to watch while I heat up the food. I make our plates and put them in the microwave, convinced the heat will zap to death any lingering droplets of COVID. Did you buy me more Downeast? Of course he did. And there’s Half Baked in the freezer, too, he says. I tell him: I want to watch a drama, but one without any men in it. Only women. He finds one. Each moment we spend together has an individualized mix of euphoria and the agonizing knowledge that it cannot last.
By the middle of June, our days are numbered, and I cannot stop crying. We eat breakfast burritos in a park and I cry. We drop off coffee for his coworkers and I cry. “Hey There Delilah” comes on the radio and I cry.
I offer a bandaid: In a few years I will be his second wife, after he runs away from me. I will write a book and move into my dream New York City apartment and he will get his PhD and a very civil divorce. I would be a wonderful stepmom and though I don’t want a baby of my own I would love anything with his freckles.
When my crying becomes too much, he goes to his friends’ new apartment to help them unpack and paint. He tells them, I suppose, about all of my tears, and he comes home that night after a change of heart.
It’s a Monday morning, so I am expecting an invitation to eat sandwiches and drink bubble tea outside during his lunch break, but instead I am blindsided on his brown leather couch. He says he thought about it all night, and he realized he wouldn’t be happy in a long-distance relationship. He says he wants children one day and my uncertainty is unsettling. He says he wants someone who is as religious as he is. He says he can’t see how I’d fit into his extended family. At times I think he’s lying, grasping for reasons not to try something scary, but isn’t that what I’ve been doing since the beginning?
I ask him: How long have you known I’m not what you want?
There is one more month until his flight, and I am digging in my heels, determined to make the most of it before we reach our expiration date. I write in my journal: I feel like I’m tied to train tracks, just waiting to get crushed, but I can’t move out of the way. Or, I guess, I don’t really WANT to move, because the train tracks are on a tropical island, and it’s fucking beautiful here. But I still know the train is coming; it’s there every time I look over my shoulder, but why in the world would I want it to speed up? Hell no. I’ll stay chained to this island’s tracks, and I’ll be grateful that the weather is perfect and the water is a crystal clear blue, even if I can only dip my toes in it, rather than dive in like I want to.
I am trying to do The Brave Thing. The Evolved Thing. The Stay-Present-And-Be-Mindful Thing. Joy is so fleeting these days — who am I to turn it down? What hubris.
We have sex in an office during a pandemic because we are running out of time. I check boxes off a list I wrote myself because we are running out of time. I waited so long to find something like this, and God only knows when I’ll find someone else who goes down on me like he does. God only knows when I’ll find someone else who will write me lists of the reasons he loves me because he knows I am prone to self-doubt. God only knows when I’ll find someone else who can sense when I’m anxious and gently say to me, across a shiny brown table at a dive bar, You seem more Larry David than usual today.
But I digress — I don’t believe in God, and that’s a dealbreaker for his family.
I would be a wonderful stepmom and though I don’t want a baby of my own I would love anything with his freckles.
We could afford a two-bedroom together, I write in a text, since your classes are all online anyway. If things don’t work out with us, I’ll just move in with my sister. Living in a pandemic makes me suggest things I normally wouldn’t. I never imagined myself wanting to live with my boyfriend of only nine months at twenty-five years old, but the isolating and treacherous landscape of 2020 makes me cling desperately to our partnership.
I text him links to apartments in Providence, then call him to apologize for it. He had a plan for his future long before he met me, and while I am living off of unemployment benefits after finishing graduate school during a pandemic, he is less willing to blur his career path because of current events — political or personal ones. He tells me: You weren’t supposed to go and make me fall in love with you. I am the wrench in his plans, not the plan itself. He maintains an outlook I’d admire as a feminist choice if it were anyone other than my own boyfriend implementing it.
I’d give it all up for you, I say, standing on the sidewalk outside his front door. Why won’t you do the same for me?
Eventually I am able to understand that his dedication to the plans he has made for his future — which call for success in school and work first, then penciling in a partner when it’s more convenient to do so — have nothing to do with my personal shortcomings. He is thinking only logistically, obsessed with practicality and cost-benefit analyses and long-term outcomes — fitting for a man beginning a PhD program in a social science. He was never taught to prioritize personal happiness or romantic love, the way my middle-class parents, who were raised on John Hughes movies and the blind optimism of the American Dream, taught me to. As we are breaking up the first time, I tell him: You treat me like a math problem you can solve with a calculator. He admits I’m right, but he doesn’t know how to do anything different. And I cannot change twenty-six years of planning in six summer weeks.
And so I let him nap with his head on my lap while we listen to Stranger in the Alps. I pick up the prep school novel then put it back down. I tell myself: You will want this moment back soon. Stay present. I am not wrong. I run my fingers through his hair, thick and dark and warm. Our babies would have the very best hair.
I invite him to my parents’ house for the Fourth of July. I know it doesn’t make sense to, since he is leaving town and we are breaking up the following week, but my sisters say they don’t mind if I keep pretending for a while longer. It doesn’t feel like pretending to me, though, and I try to explain to my family that the reason he is breaking up with me isn’t that he doesn’t love me enough. They don’t buy it. I un-invite him on the third.
I promise him that I won’t ruin our last week in the same state by crying the whole time. On one of our final days, I think I can pull myself together before going over to his apartment. But when he kisses me at the top of the stairs — standing a few steps above me, a strategy I invented to make up for my being taller than him — I immediately break down. I cry again, then apologize again. I’m so sorry, love. I am always so fucking sorry.
He says: I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I am trying to do The Brave Thing. The Evolved Thing. The Stay-Present-And-Be-Mindful Thing. Joy is so fleeting these days — who am I to turn it down? What hubris.
I’m lying on the brown leather couch, my sandals kicked off beside it. He lies on top of me. I just want to spend as much time with you as possible before I leave, he says. Even if you’re crying during it.
He suggests we go outside, get some fresh air and a drink. We walk down to Wickenden Street and get slices of pizza from Fellini.
I think I have reached my breaking point — the anticipation of his leaving is so crushing that I can’t stand being tied to this island’s train tracks for even a minute longer. But then suddenly we are stumbling through pandemic-empty Providence together, holding hands and eating pizza, and the moment is so magical and I am so happy and I love him so much that I think: Thank fucking God. I am so glad I didn’t end this even an hour sooner because this one moment, this one memory, is worth all of the anguish, I have no doubt.
I play the song “Cornelia Street” for him and sing each line while wrapped in the red and gold blankets on his bed, shielding myself from the draft of the air conditioner. I hope I never lose you, hope this never ends. I’d never walk Cornelia Street again. I say: You have to really LISTEN to these lyrics. And he does, but then he says the song is too dramatic. Why doesn’t she just grow up and get over it? The train continues barreling toward me, I can see it out of the corner of my eye. I am so angry at him and he thinks it is just because of my loyalty to this particular singer-songwriter, but really it is because of my innate awareness that the hurt she is singing about is right outside his apartment, right out there on Preston Street, just waiting for me to finally step outside and face it. That’s the kind of heartbreak time could never mend. I think: He doesn’t even fucking get it, and I start a fight over it, but it’s not really about the song, of course it isn’t, but I won’t admit that. There is so much to be said but none of it is worth mentioning.
He apologizes for all the wrong things, I let it go, we have sex. As he falls asleep, I pull his head onto my chest and sing to him: I’d never walk down Preston Street again.
A relationship does not have to last forever to be good and worth pursuing. An experience can be wonderful even if it doesn’t last forever. Someone can be beautiful and valuable and worthy of your love and no longer in your life. These are the refrains I repeat to myself throughout our relationship, like the Hail Marys I used to recite after confession. I squeeze all the good I can possibly get out of our relationship, like a piece of fruit turned into juice. There is nothing but seeds and rind left by July.
After several months, I finish the slow, meandering walk back to my life without him. I start grieving my first relationship preemptively and while still in it. His flaws become clear to me — I can make a list of them, and my friends can name them even faster. But how do I stop the doubts that walk down a road not taken? The doubts that come with wondering what could have been if not for such bad timing and geography? There is no other version of reality, of course, but these doubts complicate my decisions when he returns to me in the winter — heart on his sleeve, regret in his chest, a few therapy sessions under his belt. Maybe the answers are in the doubts, in the questions, I start to think. Maybe the not-knowing gives me all of the answers I need. Maybe if I don’t try, I’ll regret it forever, like a live performance of an eight-minute song I missed when I was thirteen.
Where is the glory in insisting on indifference, in denying what was once so saccharine back before I drained the juice out of it myself?