By Sally Howe.
Callie finally shipped you your things in July. When we opened the boxes we saw she’d written fuck you on almost everything.
You believed that it was your mom’s fault that your sisters were not speaking to you.
On my twentieth birthday, I locked myself in the bathroom and read Emotional Vampires: Dealing with People Who Drain You Dry. You tried to coax me out, first conciliatory, then sharp, then with your fists on the door. I sat silently on the bathmat with the book tucked into my lap, nodding to myself, pretending that someone sympathetic was watching.
You kissed me on a beach at night. I took off my shoes to walk with you and the wind filled them with sand.
The year before we met I bought a tiny cactus for my dorm room. I thought, here is something I can’t possibly kill. But I did; it turned brown and tipped over and I had to throw it away. I saved the story, though, carrying it around with me like an ID: here I am, destroyer of all things.
This is a story you told me about the time you lived with Callie, then your fiancé. You were in your car, with a hooker in the passenger’s seat, driving through wintery Minneapolis at two or three in the morning. Callie heard the beep of your seatbelt being unbuckled over the phone line and asked you where you were. You shot a frozen glance at Destiny or Chastity or whatever, and into your phone, you swore that it was the microwave and that you were on your way to bed.
We met in rehab. You should have known better.
I should have known better, too. I had finally, recently, truly become one with my self-loathing. You smiled at me and it was as if no one had ever been kind to me before.
You need someone on your arm. You like having a sidekick.
The sidekick must be pretty. Even now, when you mention a woman you’ve been seeing or want to see, you have to assure me of how cute she is. How tiny.
Tiny: diminutive, unthreatening, in need of protection.
You can’t be alone.
It was the hottest summer I could remember. The heat is different on the Gulf, damp and unrelenting, no better at midnight than it is at noon, and it never started to feel familiar.
We broke into the apartment complex pool late one night. You climbed the fence and unlatched the gate for me, and we raced towards the water, almost as warm as the air. Dozens of tiny frogs, slick and mottled green, jumped and croaked on the concrete.
I didn’t see Allie’s new apartment until after you and I broke up. She didn’t like you; you didn’t like her; her girlfriend didn’t like me.
I can be cruel. I didn’t think you would hit me and so I was protected and frustrated by your decency. I wanted you to do something terrible so I could be justified in withholding forgiveness.
Because you weren’t hitting me, you hit other things—the dashboard, the wall, the bedroom door.
You told me you were proud of me.
You had already spent your trust fund. You had the aura of money but that was all.
The animals down there are different than the ones I grew up with. I missed squirrels, pigeons, raccoons, the rats in the subway, the deer that ate my mother’s tulips. (One night, long after we broke up, I stepped into my mom’s back yard to have a cigarette and saw a doe nursing a delicate, leggy fawn, not fifteen feet from where I stood. I wanted to text you but couldn’t.) Instead we had lizards and palmetto bugs.
You thought you were better than everyone else. But you thought that I was better than everyone else, too.
It felt like a necessary counterpoint. I nursed the secret fear that I was scum.
You only read sports biographies.
You took me to a steakhouse. I don’t eat meat.
The landlady left a flask of holy water on top of the refrigerator. Your favorite way of diffusing an argument, when you still felt like diffusing them, was to take down the bottle, unstopper it, and fling handfuls of cold water at me. “It burns!” I’d scream, and then you’d start to laugh.
I have to tell you, though. It did burn. I don’t know what was in that bottle.
You can’t cook. One of us should be able to.
I woke up late for the third time one week, and for the third time it was my fault that we were late leaving for work. I napped in the car and did not apologize. Once we were off the highway, I roused myself to have a cigarette and you started yelling—I was selfish, I was a bitch, I never thought about anybody but myself. I told you to go fuck yourself, and you leaned towards me, red-faced, as you pulled into the left lane and hit an SUV.
You always were so afraid I was going to sleep with Allie. She’s hardly more predatory than you are, dear.
I can’t handle that much Springsteen ever again.
You made me watch golf. You sympathize with Tiger Woods.
One night when you were twenty-three or twenty-four you passed out on the train tracks. You woke up to a crying stranger trying to drag your body towards the shoulder while a train screamed towards you. It clipped your arm. That’s one of the reasons you’re not supposed to drink anymore.
You have hair on your knuckles.
I called you the day after I moved out, standing alone in Harper’s closet between rows of sweaters and dresses. I didn’t want her roommates to hear me cry.
Your grammar is terrible. It helped me decide that you were an idiot when I was trying to hate you.
I took a pregnancy test in a Target bathroom. Harper waited by the sinks (primping, probably), calling encouragement into the stall—she was in high spirits, trying to make me laugh, relishing her role as the voice of experience. I watched my blurred reflection in the metal door as I waited for the three minutes to pass and made a mental list of all the things that were wrong with me.
The patio was stained with ash and blackened flakes of tobacco. We agreed, silently, that there was no need to clean it because it was concrete.
Harper told me about your accident outside a diner, past midnight, while we smoked and her boyfriend waited inside. She grinned, the words still on her lips, as if I should be happy, as if I’d won.
I didn’t even know that you’d started drinking again.
You were so sure of the things you loved. You had an absolute, final, no-revisions top three for everything, books, movie, songs, artists, girls, holidays, everything. I had no passionate certainty. I could not make choices; I became a vegetarian because, partly, it knocked off half the menu options. Your sureness was unintellectual; it was divine.
This is what happened five weeks after we broke up. You were driving, drunk and high, very late at night or very early in the morning, and a truck hit your car.
You never asked me for my half of the last rent check.
You went through the windshield; your heart stopped beating.
Paramedics revived you on the side of the road. The truck driver was uninjured. You weren’t charged with anything.
You say now that you weren’t arrested because the cops thought you were going to die and didn’t breathalyze you.
I wanted you to learn a lesson. I still want you to learn a lesson.
You date women much too young for you, even now. Callie had been barely twenty-one when you got engaged. And, God, what’s her name—Antonia? Antoinette?—the one after me, she was even younger than I was. Nineteen to your thirty, maybe.
I called you, a month or so ago, late at night. I was so angry that I couldn’t think. You told me that just before I left for the last time, I turned to you and said, tearfully, that you could be so great, so wonderful, if you just tried. You never forgot it. You made me cry, right there on the phone, and my rage was shattered and my heart came back to me. But, Sean, I don’t remember that at all.
When I first mentioned my new girlfriend, early this past summer, you told me you had to ask me a serious question. “Be honest, Sally. Is she hot, or does she play softball?”
I still think you’re funny.
I asked you to meet me at the café on Atlantic so I could apologize before I moved away. We sat outside. I tried to hold your gaze when I told you that I was sorry, but you looked away, peering with a furrowed brow into your milky, sweet coffee.
When you told me your newest girlfriend, Amanda, was twenty-five, I was so proud I called my mom. She always liked you.
You pretend, still, to be much stupider than you are so I can be the smart one.
You never left Texas. You used to hate it so much down there.
You’ve quit smoking and I haven’t.
You asked me again recently if I ever had sex with Allie. I almost did, I would have, but she stopped when we were still half-clothed, rolled over, and started talking about her ex, so instead I held her hand while she ranted unhappily about Megan. But that’s not a very flattering story, so I was silent and let you draw your own conclusions.
I did kiss her, though, and not you on the morning of my last day in Texas.
I was shocked, when I saw you last year, to realize that I no longer hated you. Better than the warmth I felt instead was the absence, the not-hatred.
You called me cupcake. In retaliation I called you bro, or, worse, buddy.
You were so enthusiastic about your dumb advertising job. How could I maintain my humorlessness in the face of such zeal?
You worked hard to make me laugh.
You are petulant. You are a child.
We had to tell our therapist that we were dating, once we moved in together. “Michael,” I said, “it’s fine. It’s only eight and three-quarters years’ difference.” He snorted. “Only children count age in quarters.”
I do not remember leaving, exactly, but I remember sitting together on our dingy porch, all packed up, waiting for Harper to come get me so I didn’t have to spend another night there. I was crying and you were crying and we were both smoking—it’s hard, you know, to smoke and cry at the same time, it takes real dedication to both—and you held my hand and told me that even if no one else knew what we had, even if everyone we knew believed the whole thing to be a mistake, we would know. We would know what we had. I remember the heat and feeling defeated by the heat, my whole body sore from crying and shouting and aggressive packing, I remember knowing that I was not going to do this, with you, again, I remember the things that came afterward, I remember screaming in fake or real joy in Harper’s car as we pulled out of the driveway, I remember missing you, I remember your relapse, I remember your phone calls, I remember most of your girlfriends’ names but I can’t remember that, that thing, that thing we had.
Sally Howe lives in New York, where she is sometimes a writer but mostly a waitress.