I lie flat on the hardwood floor in his barely furnished, two-years-lived-in apartment. He remains in his chair looking down at me.
As the conversation regarding the state of our relationship had become more serious, I had become more horizontal. I slid my legs forward, sunk down in my chair, and then eventually made it to my current position on the floor.
This movement was done in part for comic relief, he laughed a little, and part out of desperation. I feel my heart beat through my back, against the floor.
The right words don’t come to me, and apparently not to him either. I let my mind race off, because my body has no intention of doing so.
I have been re-reading William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.
Addie Bundren, who is dead for ninety-five percent of the story, has been my favorite fictional character ever since I first studied the book in 10th grade English.
Speaking from beyond the grave, Addie describes words as “A shape to fill a lack.” When you have real love, you don’t need the word as a placeholder. What a pretty sentiment, 15-year-old me thought. Love breaks the confines of language!
It’s not until I am silently staring at the ceiling, parked in the space between him and the door, that this line provokes a different reaction in me.
Our relationship was never captured through words. They were tossed aside from the beginning and replaced by indie rock music (how blasé), meaningful looks (how romantic), and silence (how excruciating). When words were necessary, such as describing to my friends or my mom what he meant to me, they were said hesitantly or put in quotation marks. When prompted, I would delve into a longer explanation, crammed with a lot of other words that didn’t fit quite right.
I was a junior at NYU, preparing for final exams in the corner of a coffee shop. He was at the table next to me. I looked over a couple of times noticing the curve of his shoulders and studying the side of his face. He saw me look at him and he looked back.
We sat working side by side for hours until the shop was closing. Before he packed up his computer to go, he looked at me and asked, without words, for me to watch his computer and bag while he went to the bathroom. I felt connected, as if something momentous had happened. As strangers we communicated through a glance.
I fixed my flyaway hairs and took out my headphones.
He walked by me. Hesitated. Turned.
“Do you want to get a drink sometime?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, my voice cracking after hours of silence.
I hadn’t dated much or been in a relationship. My mom claimed independence as the cause. Common sense claimed my shy and anxious demeanor.
I felt connected, as if something momentous had happened. As strangers we communicated through a glance.
A couple of days later I met him at a nice bar with a funny name.
One drink in, I realized I thought he was cute despite his thin-rimmed, nerdy glasses. I saw a crease in his forehead when he smiled. At the end of the night, I realized I liked him when he waved goodbye to me, instead of trying to hug or kiss me, without being aware of how this could be awkward.
We went to a concert on our second date where my fake ID was swiftly taken away when we ordered drinks. We skated by, barely acknowledging our notable age gap, listening soberly to the music and harping on the singer’s dance moves.
Several dive bars and a couple of concerts later, I learned that he owned two shirts (three, at most) that he threw on without looking in the mirror. He worked hard and got lost in podcasts. I was enamored. Despite being tall, I had to stand on my tiptoes to kiss him.
I made a passing comment about “what we were doing” as I prepared to leave his apartment one night. When I mumbled the words they were met with a look of understanding and displeasure. I felt my breath get stuck in my stomach but I chose to ignore this look, hoping I had misinterpreted it.
A few days later I got a considerate but curt text from him saying work was too overwhelming and he wasn’t looking for a relationship.
I couldn’t be brokenhearted because we had only been dating a couple of months. It ended over text for god’s sake. But no other word came to mind. I settled on “brokenhearted,” in quotations. My mom used air quotes (“boyfriend” issues) to explain to family friends what was wrong with me when I was quiet at my brother’s wedding dinner.
It was my first experience with this kind of pain. (It had been my first experience with this kind of “love.”) Other than listening to The Smith’s “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” on repeat, I didn’t react at all as movies suggested I would. I couldn’t bear lying in bed thinking of him. I did everything in my power to keep moving in order to run away from my loss as if it were chasing me.
It caught up with me after two weeks and, through a meticulously crafted text, I asked him if we could meet. We spoke in person and I relished talking about nothing with him.
“My brother’s wedding was beautiful,” I said.
“Thanks for ruining it for me,” I didn’t say.
He told me he didn’t want a relationship and I, having spent the last two weeks composing an answer, settled on, “Okay.” We would be friends, and more, just not too much more.
It was my first experience with this kind of pain. (It had been my first experience with this kind of “love.”) Other than listening to The Smith’s “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” on repeat, I didn’t react at all as movies suggested I would.
We continued on as you and me and not as us. After a couple of months, we were dating. Shortly thereafter we slipped into monogamy.
I had drinks with his siblings and he had dinner with my family. I felt like I was part of an exclusive club who knew that he would often start a conversation in the middle, expecting people to know what he had been thinking about, prior to speaking. This handful of people he allowed close to him knew that he could name every fact about ancient Greece but, despite his smarts and success, knew very little about what he wanted in life.
He did know one thing. He confronted me again with the exasperating truth that he didn’t want monogamy for the long term. He wanted me, just not only me.
We had been together for a year.
“You are mine! I ‘love’ you! No one else will appreciate the crease in your forehead like I do!” I wanted to yell. I felt my insides bursting. He had looked back at me in the coffee shop that first night. He once told me that I was his “favorite.” Wasn’t this (read: I) enough? I was sure the seams of my skin would tear apart.
I said, “Okay.” I swallowed the words I wanted to say because they would only push him away.
He gave me a worried glance. Despite my efforts, my strong feelings had seeped through for him to tiptoe around like broken glass.
I responded to his infuriating look of concern with lyrics from an LCD Soundsystem song.
“You’re still the one pool where I’d happily drown.”
Although not my own, these words are some of the few that felt right. Happily drowning. Yes, that’s why I could never seem to catch my breath.
The elation I felt when he would bend over to laugh at a stupid joke outweighed the sick feeling I got when he tried to inconspicuously shield his phone from me when he got a text.
We spent another year with a slip, or maybe a trip, into monogamy and then back out again. He tells me his feelings about being in a relationship haven’t changed and so I slither to the ground, lie on my back, and think of Faulkner.
Sinking down to the floor feels like the physical equivalent of LCD Soundsystem’s words I had said a year earlier.
I lie here until eventually the word “okay” escapes my lips. We won’t be exclusive and he will remain my “boyfriend.” The alternative seems unbearable. He slides down to the floor next to me and puts his hand on mine.
I finally find my legs beneath me and I kiss him goodnight.
A couple of weeks later, we spend an afternoon in the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. I come back to his apartment to find his scribbled handwriting on the back of his business card.
Fri: Tinder or Hinge girl
In these few unspoken words I am pulled into the part of him that was supposed to be kept dark.
“Are these women better than me? In what ways?” I want to say. I stay silent as I hand him his schedule of women, the bracelet he bought me around my wrist, and I walk out.
I sit on his stoop and he joins me with the pained expression I know too well.
“Love” and “disdain” fill my mind. Neither word is right or can be spoken aloud. Love insinuates some ideal or spoken understanding that this relationship did not live up to. But I definitely don’t have the right to feel “betrayed.” He had told me the end of our story a few pages in. And yet, in my mind, I pleaded with the characters to make different choices.
“Are these women better than me? In what ways?”
“Hate” seems like it would be the easiest option, but also the furthest from the truth.
When it came to him I never had the words to attach my emotions to. I hadn’t earned them. Boyfriend. No. Cheating. No. Love. Only in quotations. Even the word relationship is ambiguous and unsatisfying. And so my voice was left out of the story.
Without the words, the emotions swim unattended around my mind. And it’s in this murky, nameless space where I drown.
Addie Bundren didn’t lose herself in this uncertainty. And, yes, maybe words are an empty vessel and the feelings are real despite the label. But these “shapes” are key to make sense of and compartmentalize these emotions. They provide validation and a place you can move on from.
After the night on the stoop, I spent two weeks in anguish, unable to let go but also unable to be “okay.” I saw him two more times.
The ache in my chest, which had, until now, been reserved for times I was alone with my thoughts, spread and contaminated my time with him. I emailed him a few short sentences that I couldn’t see him anymore. I couldn’t look at him and walk away and so I didn’t. I wrote, “You know how I feel,” although I had never told him.
His response aptly began, “I wish I had something better to say.”
I looked at him when he gave me a holiday gift the last time we saw each other and I think he knew I loved him the same way I knew not to let anyone steal his computer while he went to the bathroom.
Maybe that was enough for him and Addie. But for me I need the words. Tie them down on a piece of paper. Make them something tangible.
If I allow myself to have loved him then maybe I have permission to have a broken heart, no quotations.