I. Devil in a Black Dress
“One day, I am going to break your fucking heart,” she confessed on my balcony in between drags of her Marlboro 27. “You sure you want to do this?”
Oh, what refreshing candor! — and correct. There are only two ways for a relationship to end: Separation and death. Both options are pretty devastating, the degree of sadness at the end largely dependent on two variables — vulnerability and time elapsed. I pondered this as I locked eyes with her.
“As sure as I’ve ever been about anything in all my life.”
She scowled, tilted her head up to the heavens and howled “UGHHHHH” in a throaty roar, the kind you’d receive after making a particularly egregious food pun. “Of course you would say that.”
We’d met some months prior, as I’d drunkenly meander outside of this bar we both drank at eight nights a week, me after playing music and her after tending bar, and I’d probe her for cigarettes while she shot me side-eye in her black-on-black work getup. I maybe got 12 words in at any given moment before her scattershot attention would wander to the next shiny thing her coworker was yelling.
We’d first become friends when I, too drunk to drive, too shamed for a cab, and too weak to say no, was invited by an odd friend to visit this woman’s house by the old river, and we decided to take a swim long past dark and long after the municipal park’s closing hours.
“You just gotta get in there,” she instructed her friend. “The water is perfect. Don’t be a bitch about it.”
Four in the morning and freezing, we careened through the rapids, beers in our hand, on a hazy summer evening that felt three weeks long. Her wide eyes, drunk on adrenaline and high on adventure, the only stars in the sky.
Some time later, I’d be playing some music at a local dive bar for my 33rd birthday, and I — as is customary for my slightly narcissistic tendencies — invited everyone that I knew, so I pleaded with her she’d have the night of her life if she came to the concert. I may have been overselling it. I often oversell it.
Some hour into my set, I’d noticed a woman I swore I’d never seen before walk through the curtains into the dimly-lit listening room, along with two friendly faces I instantly recognized. As the stage lights grew hotter and my vision grew blurry, I fixated on solving the puzzle of who this gal was. All shimmering blonde and elegant posture. Of All the Gin Joints In The World and all the rest.
After 90 solid minutes of guessing and checking, gazing and glancing, I hopped off the stage to what could’ve been thunderous applause (editor’s note: I was there, and in no way in hell could it be called “thunderous”). Yet I could only hear the sound of my heart, pin-balling across my rib-cage as my eyes readjusted. My god, that is her. The gal from the bar. The gal from the swim. The dark of the room, the unexpected nature of her arrival, and the novelty of her non-work apparel caused me to see her in a different light. I asked for a cigarette and led her outside.
Covered in ink where her black dress didn’t reach, soft on the eyes with a hardness to her hands, she sold herself with a confident, pronounced collarbone that will still draw slacked jaws from Smithsonian scientists decades from now. A melt-in-your-mouth vintage pinup — an anomaly in our era — with the classic curves and calves to stand proud and stand out.
We talked for possibly two hours but more like ten minutes. I hadn’t even noticed everyone else leave. She sat there, her wildly searching eyes oddly locking on mine for the first time in what was probably ever, her prosecco-soaked voice bobbing and weaving in the moonlight, in complete command of the conversation — serving up verbal curve-balls I was all-too-eager to swing at. She does this thing when she emphasizes a point where she slowly nods her head straight up and down and stares straight into your soul, a fiercely unkind invasion of everything you ever thought you knew. Alluring and strange, devilishly gentle in its execution.
I, bleary-eyed and burnt up from bliss and whiskey shots, was no match from the start. She gave a half-smile and I leaned in for a kiss. Sloppy, no doubt. Amateur move. Another endlessly silly and undisciplined decision that we’re all guilty of making when someone flashes just the right smile at just the right moment. Just because the light’s green doesn’t mean you’re on the right road. Yet, there we sat in the waning hours of our youth, taken aback by its unrelenting reciprocation, and I was imagining fireworks as Explosions in the Sky played on a loop in my limbic system. This wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Fuck, I am doomed.
A date a month later turned into two. A night spent together that lasted all weekend. A runaway train of passion and freedom, unbounded by caution or reason or is-this-even-worth-doing.
And so when she asked me if I was sure I wanted to do this, I just assumed she meant every word. She asked me, point blank and in the plainest of terms, if I wanted her to break my heart.
So, yes, after letting her question on my balcony marinate, I stamped out my cigarette and flashed her a look that could only be described as inescapable, irredeemable joy. I placed my lips upon hers and we locked eyes again, my tongue now too tied to formulate any banter of substance, my body boiling and steam seeping out my pores.
“Hi,” I managed, some two inches from her face.
“Hey-hi,” she said back. Her smile shot through me like lightning and vanished just as quick. With a thunderclap in my heart all that remained.
Please, let life be just like this. Please, be just like this. Just like this. Just this. This.
And for the first time in as far back as I could recall, I’d felt completely vulnerable. The water is perfect. Don’t be a bitch about it.
II. Chaos Magic
Redbreast 12. Splash of water. And off she danced, this tornado.
“Some people,” as she lit another cigarette outside the Blackheart, gazing into the endless night, “would characterize my behavior as sociopathic.”
And from there, encircling that thesis, she touched upon Bukowski and snake-killing with the same matter of fact-ness as a live-read of the Sunday Plain Dealer. Her voice, cracking and cocksure, radiated warm waves through the Texas sky. She was endlessly enrapturing, tossing off zingers and brilliantly navigating the well-worn intricacies of Modern American couples’ dialogue.
A small-town girl raised in the State Park system, who’s life careened from book nerd to band nerd to third-wave feminism, to the metal scene to the tattoo circuit, to college, the service industry, with pit-stops in frat-houses, flop-houses, foster homes and party pads — an on-again, off-again lesbian who suckered countless half-wits into her snake-pit — she frantically and frenetically photosynthesized her environs into a traveling circus.
You want the perfect croque madame or spicy old fashioned? Done.
You want a hand-crafted prohibition-era bar-cart designed, cut and welded to spec? Or the perfect accent pillow to go with your mid-century modern sofa? With fucking pleasure.
Fearlessly independent and self-reliant, she was the rare type of human who’d stick a dime in her clutch to keep her manual transmission humming, shower and turn into a stone-cold stunner, drive you to the party, grab a machete and uncork a bottle of champagne, pour it into your glass without spilling a drop, tell you “you are so turned on right now,” then walk away before you’ve had a chance to stop yourself from sublimation. I’m reasonably sure she’s ascended into heaven on a fistful of occasions just to sucker-punch god in the face.
Battle-hardened yet all the more blissful for it, she led me on a one-night whirlwind sojourn of her favorite haunts in her hometown just a couple looks down from the city where we spilled our love. We crushed up Adderall, crushed a pizza, wandered into a speakeasy, shot Fireball in a college bar, smoked ciggs on a rooftop patio, stumbled into her sister, crashed at her pad. We lived each night a week at a time in those days. Waking up the following morning with heads and hearts pounding, soaked in sweat and caked in smoke. God, to be 19 again and furiously, madly in love and lust and other drugs.
“Sorry I drank all your bullet rye,” she posted to Facebook as we posted up at a local dive where it was Christmas Eve all year long. She charmed every bartender with a wisecrack and a wink. I find it hard to believe they didn’t drop their number for her on our check while I scuttled off to the bathroom.
“What are you cheesing about?” She asked me outside, as she blew smoke-rings in the cold, in between recounting her favorite European horror films with the kind of passion usually reserved for a political protest.
My smile was undeniable. Immutable. Irrepressible. She was talented and sharp, charming and weird, the kind of woman you find out about in off-brand banned history textbooks — the ones they’d lock up in Cold War vaults because their topics are just too damned dangerous. Lara Croft meets Martha Stewart meets Amy Winehouse meets Harriet Tubman meets Hidden Figures. How in the age of Waze and Geocaching has no one yet unearthed this gem? How did she happen upon me?
“You make me so happy,” I’d whisper to her in between kisses.
“I have no idea why, but I’ll take it” she’d reply, with a sort of aw-shucks flippancy that belied the fact that she had absolutely every fucking idea what she could do to a man. Wreck him. Leave him wet and cold. Shivering under the heat of her glow.
We’d drive around at night sometimes, just taking pictures of graffiti and neon signs long after midnight, her just telling stories of her exes, her conquests, her wild adventures across the country modeling the carefully curated art exhibit inked to her body, her views on sex and serial killers subtly unfurled over a steady diet of charcuterie and cocktails.
And she always bought the best gifts — the perfect little something to remind you of her and bring you closer to your best self. When she believed in you, you could run through a brick wall. When she complimented you, you could fly through a concrete ceiling. And when she captivated you, you could stay bolted through the floor for weeks.
“Olive you from my head tomatoes,” she drew in pen on a legal pad and stuck it to my fridge. The smiling tomato greeted me every morning as I reached for the Red Bull to work off her hangover.
III. Miami, 2016
“Transatlanticism” played in the rental car, as we sauntered through South Beach with the windows rolled down. It was late afternoon, and a light sunshower sprinkled on the windshield. I was finally at peace.
I’d spent the vast majority of the preceding 47 months trying to prove I was worth something, anything. I’d been fired from my previous job at a fly-by-night publishing company, evicted from my home to live in my 2009 Hyundai Sonata and — when the job I’d applied to some months later silently retracted their offer — watched that car get repossessed, leaving me homeless, car-less, and wading in a mountain of payday loan and title loan debt I had no intention or means of paying.
I’d broken things off with a gal I had every intention of marrying, after four years of all-too-comfortable togetherness, in a fiery explosion of despair and frustration, after I systematically distanced myself from her when it became fairly clear she had no interest in seeing me for me.
I’d worked my way up from the lowest rung at my job to crawl my way out of over $50,000 in debt, rehabilitated myself after undergoing shoulder reconstruction well enough to start rock climbing and run marathons, moved out of my old apartment and into my new condo, established a Swiss Army Knife of a side-career as a singer-songwriter, a freelance columnist for a prominent national website, and a branding mercenary.
I’d lost 44 pounds, started a podcast, dated around, and gradually accumulated an eclectic social circle of bartenders, musicians, working professionals and quirky degenerates I found entertaining. And, now, I had finally found love. The kind of love that keeps you awake at night, laughing and crying tears of euphoria. The kind of love that melts you the way it did as a teenager, and softens you with the easy maturity of knowing better at 33. The kind of love that leaves you breathless, wordless and reckless. By the time we’d reached the East Coast at the only point I’d never seen it before, I was an ecstatic fireball. Yes, Atlantic Monthly, you can have it all.
Our hotel was a gorgeous, white art-deco movie set, with a free happy hour between 7 and 8 p.m. I dragged her to a sports bar to watch Syracuse play North Carolina in the Final Four, in a battle of the college I attended to pursue my dream career in sports journalism and flamed out spectacularly, versus my dream college I transferred to only to flame out spectacularly again — in the process, losing my sense of self and fumbling away the only woman I’d ever truly felt completely content with. My current gal had no interest in the “sports shows.” And that was okay.
We wandered the Wynwood Walls. We aimlessly admired the architecture while listening to Hipster Cocktail Party Pandora — I still remember all those songs by heart. We careened through the Coral Gables. We went to a jaw-dropping Propaganda exhibit at a museum I called the “Wolfenstein,” where we split up and soaked it all in in complete silence.
I watched her dresses and hair blow dutifully in the tropical breeze. She gazed at me with the wild wonder of a young child perpetually unwrapping the biggest box on Christmas. And she hates Christmas.
“You make me so happy,” she confessed to me on a bridge where we stopped to take the second of just four pictures we’d ever appear in together. And she smiled from ear to ear.
I had no worthwhile reply. My brain had short-circuited and zapped me clear of sentences.
We biked from our hotel down to the Art Deco District. I can’t remember if I followed her or she followed me. And when we ended up amongst the departing cruise ships and EDM-bro day-drinkers, we disembarked and meandered our way to the pier. Her hand in mine. My blood like running Christmas lights. I could feel her heartbeat through her hand, and could feel my own in my throat.
We stared off into the endless Atlantic at Miami’s southern point, the only thing separating us from the end of the world just the comfort of each other’s company. We staggered to find words for each other as we dined upon bone marrow, sea urchin, oysters and soft-shell crab. We sipped on craft cocktail after craft cocktail at hidden gems and dimly-lit lounges. We made love in the afternoon and chased infinity through the morning light. We took free shots of rum at a Haitian dive with impossibly great food. We watched the old Cuban men throw dominoes in a bar next to a laundromat. We danced to reggae at a blacked-out underground club. We walked under the endless sun and kissed as it breathed its last sigh over the endless blue of the horizon.
We spent four days in Miami without ever really combing the beach, only scurrying onto the sand for ten minutes, just to snap the obligatory Instagram photo to prove to the 21st Century that we’d actually made it.
I think back to that moment to that final, cathartic and heartbreaking outro to “Transatlanticism,” and that brief moment of complete silence in my soul, allowing every wave of joy to topple every sandcastle of regret and rejection I’d ever felt in all my life. I think back to the cumulus clouds and endless white sand. I look back to the way her eyes glistened in the soft white light of the perpetual summer. I remember the way her hair flowed and got stuck in her lips, and the way her nose crinkled up when she smiled at me. All sense of place, space and time lost. I crack and burn at the thought of having ever spent my life before being anywhere but here, with anyone but her. My heart spills open with tears and rum and rainbows and bliss. There was no more struggle, no more pain, no more rejection, no more sadness. All that was left were endless rays of hope, sunshine and goosebumps poking through whatever was left of the guard I’d so eagerly let down, and the delineation between her and I suddenly diffused into vapor. God, let the world hurt me like this. Let angels come down and sweep us away before I awake from this fever dream and remember that life never lets us out of this place alive.
I need you so much closer.
I need you so much closer.
IV. The Frog and the Kettle
Sex and laughter sigh and wheeze, releasing into the ether of a nostalgic past. How we navigate the uncharted waters where the magical gives way to the mundane determines our future.
“All I ever ask,” she pleaded as she ordered us two shots of Fireball, “is for you to be true to yourself.” I hadn’t been drinking. But today, I’d have it. One last shot with the woman who still had that preternatural ability to make cooked spaghetti stand at attention with the firm grab of its arm.
Planes spend half their time in the sky gracefully descending from their peak. You only notice when the seat-belt sign comes on. When we took those shots of fireball — at 2 p.m., at a Chili’s nowhere close to where our lives had taken us, the landing gear was officially out.
We’d gradually spent less and less time together. Imperceptibly, at first. Mere regression to the mean. A return to “normal,” whatever the hell that even means. Every nuclear bond you form carries with it different charges, different valences, different intensities. But, I’d never walked this line before.
I gave myself up. I started mapping myself to her, to bring myself closer. I became a live-wire tuned to her exact frequency. I wanted to understand her, open up to her, present myself as an unvarnished work in progress willing to work with her and grow with her. What I viewed were ever-grander acts of love and calls for intimacy were ever-grander acts of desperation and calls for validation.
She gave up on me. She started voicing her displeasure and lecturing me on my flaws and internal dialogue. She told me I could never really understand her, and swatted away my attempts to open up, and my haphazard attempts to become “enough” were greeted with tepid reception at best. She worked on herself. She spread her wings and started rising on her own.
She’d come home later and later, and we’d go out less and less. Where we were once spontaneous combustion, we became smolder, then soot. I admired her for her fierce independence. She enjoyed me for my unchecked vulnerability. But when a free radical and a positive ion get together, the wearing away of intimacy is inevitable.
I started to notice the way she lit up in front of her friends. And the way she talked glowingly about her past, her friends and her ex-loves. And I started wondering how to make her even half as happy in the present, in my presence.
In addition to craving her closeness, my fear of rejection and inevitable abandonment reached DefCon-1. I fished for reassurance that it was all going to be okay. And she always told me it would be okay, that I was just being “weird, lately.”
In addition to her desire for distance, she bristled at the idea of the two of us taking turns at the wheel. Discussions of “us” turned into discussions of “me and you,” and then they turned to silence. The more the door closed, the harder I tried to open it. Like a rat pushing the cocaine button after it stopped getting its regular fix, I started pushing it harder, and more often.
“I can’t wait for the day where we’re just sitting on opposite ends of this couch, you doing your thing and me doing mine,” she told me one morning very early on as we dressed for brunch.
She’d stopped kissing me before she left for work. I stopped filtering my insecurities. She started preying upon them. My defenses wore down. Her guard went up. I turned blue. She saw red. Icarus sped into the sun. Atlas no longer had the energy to shrug.
By the time we took that shot of fireball, on a kind of Saturday we used to spend day-drinking prosecco and playing bocce under the warm sun, we were at the same bar, miles apart. And I couldn’t bring myself to know what was already known — not that I’d done anything to hurt her, or that she’d done anything to put me off — but that we could simply not coexist, nor go any further, in our current incarnation. Another life. Another time. Another way.
After our shots, we meandered to her ex-boyfriend’s wedding, where she introduced me as the “person I actively choose to spend my time with,” and even told guests she was “moving to Austin to live with this guy.” I internalized this and made plans to sell off furniture to give her the space she needed to start her life with me. My heart opened and burst into the sides of my rib-cage again. And then I saw the way she looked at her ex, as he vowed to start his adventure with his newly-minted wife.
I pondered this. I pondered her happiness in her element, and her unease with her current state, comparing it to the end of Stand By Me, where everyone vanishes, grows up and gets married, and she just vanishes. And resigned myself to the conclusion I drew … that I would rather have her look the way at me the way she looked at him five years from now, than have her look the way she looked at me right now.
There’s an old chestnut about how if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, the frog senses the heat and hops right out, but if you submerge a frog in water and gradually raise the temperature, it gets boiled alive. There we were in the water. It was perfect — don’t be a bitch about it — until it wasn’t. We were boiled alive.
The grand joke about the frog and the water, though, is that it’s patently untrue. The frogs know when the temperature rise, and hop out to survive. We weren’t two frogs in a simmer, after all.
As it turns out, she was the frog. I was the water.
V. Spaghetti Everywhere
“I’m not happy,” she texted me 24 hours or so after she packed four bags of her things and said she was going to hang with her friends from the wedding. “Not just with my life, but with this relationship. You say you want to make me happy, but I just don’t think that’s possible anymore.”
I pleaded for a talk, and she told me she needed a couple days. I gave her the space and the silence.
Monday turned to Tuesday. Tuesday turned to Wednesday. Wednesday turned to Thursday. Thursday turned to Friday.
I came home from work that day to find all of her things gone and the key unceremoniously placed in a padlock I keep on the balcony where we smoked all those cigarettes and spilled all those words and cheesy smiles in all those bygone months. We had a long-running joke that whoever left who first would give the other the Roku, where we used to watch all that Netflix curled up in each others’ arms. She took that, too. She left no note.
I sat on my balcony and lit up a Camel Crush. The sun was warm, and the fresh Spring leaves rustled in the gentle breeze. Everything was beautiful and all of it hurt. I inhaled slowly and tried to put all the pieces of the puzzle together.
I started with what I knew. She engaged in a covert, secretive house-hunting mission to plan her escape that would minimize the damage it did to her, and mitigate the discomfort of having to explain herself. And then I began to understand.
I remember the way she felt like she was just vanishing. The way she distanced herself from me. The way she once said, “I can’t wait for the day where we’re just sitting on opposite ends of this couch, you doing your thing and me doing mine.” The way I was “weird, lately.” The many ways she would lash out at me to drive a wedge between us. The way that all she ever asked was for me to be true to myself. And I started to ask myself what truth there was even left to me, beyond my unquenchable desire to just share my life with the only woman who still had that preternatural ability to make cooked spaghetti stand at attention with the firm grab of its arm. I remember the way the magical turned into the mundane. And how willing I was to sail headfirst into stormy seas disguised as routine cloud cover.
I thought back to Miami, and that brief moment of complete silence in my soul, allowing every wave of joy to topple every sandcastle of regret and rejection I’d ever felt in all my life, and how that was almost a year ago, now. I remember my blood like running Christmas lights, and my heart in my throat. About my short-circuited brain and inability to form words. I remember the way we split up at the museum in complete silence. I pined again for that kind of love that leaves you breathless, wordless and reckless. And I remember just how breathless, wordless and reckless I was. I remember wondering how I had wasted my life being anywhere else, and with anyone else. I realized she could never be close enough — and how that, alone, made me the one worth leaving.
I remember the best gifts — the way she made me want to run through a brick wall, the way she could make me fly through a concrete ceiling, the way she kept me bolted to the floor for weeks. I remembered the way she engaged in glowing discourse of her past loves and wild times. I remember her never knowing why she made me so happy. I thought about how no one had “found” her, yet, somehow. I then realized she never really wanted to be found. I was warmed over by the way we were once furiously in love with no regard for safety or sanity. I remember her self-reliance, her versatility, her ability to do it all with a knowing wink, in complete control of every situation. The way she telegraphed that some people would characterize her behavior as sociopathic. She had warned me all along that she would do this.
I remember the way she made me feel completely vulnerable. I remember how doomed I felt. I remember her wildly searching eyes that could never quite fix upon any one thing long enough to hold still. I remember the way I noticed her in that different light, the way it attached to her in a way it never quite used to, and in a way it never quite did since. I remember the way I always oversell things. The way I just had to get in there, because the water was perfect. The way I could only get 12 words in at any given moment before her scattershot attention would wander to the next shiny thing. The way, from the very beginning, she rebuffed my un-sanded advances with a groan, and the way, from even before that, she told me in the plainest of terms: “One day, I am going to break your fucking heart.” Sweet holy Jesus, she was right.
And at that moment … the wound began healing.
It was always supposed to end like this, the chaser and the chased. The one wrapped up in his own head, and the one who could never be seen for who she was. My eyes opened. It took her doing the unfathomable for me to understand. It took her making herself invisible for me to even approach seeing her for who she was, and even at this moment, I could not feel confident in my conclusions. I may have fallen for the devil in the black dress and the chaos magic, but the woman I loved in the end was the one who would scrunch up her nose when I nuzzled it, the one who slept with her mouth open, catching flies. The beautifully flawed woman who was so desperately human, and normal, and someone I could enjoy an afternoon in complete silence with. She was always worried she, the real woman, could never live up to the woman I thought she was. She was right … they were as different as the highlights and the full game footage, but I never got the chance to tell her that the real woman was the better one all along. I’ll live with that. I’ll live with it all.
It took her finally leaving me, for me to realize that I was worth loving as who I was, even as I realized that I was the one worth leaving for who I turned into. A peace began to rush over me.
“Some people,” she said to me once upon a time, “can’t handle their shit. They’re holding spaghetti in their hands and then all that’s left is spaghetti everywhere.” Our love was that spaghetti, because of course it was. And that’s when I remembered that there are still only two ways for a relationship to end: Separation and death. Both options are pretty devastating, the degree of sadness at the end largely dependent on two variables — vulnerability and time elapsed. And then I discovered the third variable: the degree to which you can understand. I put the spaghetti back onto its a plate, and I stopped thinking for a while.
Our lives are inside jokes — funny and meaningful to a few, but most people never get them or know them. Barring an incredible stroke of luck or genius, most of us end up the same: A few folks sitting in a church, or over a stone, talking about how great we were, how much we were worth, while what’s left of us waits to be buried or scattered around, to be eroded by the winds of history. Expectations, thoughts and memories weigh us down — they prevent us from stretching out, spreading our wings and being. It was my expectations, thoughts and memories that stopped us from being who we were meant to be.
I found myself now awash in comfort in this anonymity, in this transience, in this freedom from fretting over that which we cannot control and that which clouds our judgment. In the finding the only truths left to find.
Change, love, death and the present are the only truths we have. Everything else clouds them and makes us tragically sick. The sooner we can detach ourselves from these clouds, from the weight of tragic memories, the suffering of incessant overthinking, or the hell of high expectations, the happier we will be, the freer we will be. We will find a way to accept change, to love with all our hearts, to come to terms with death, and to be truly present here — these are the most human, most righteous and most noble of pursuits.
Everything else, all the way trying and failing and wondering if you’ll ever be enough, all of it: The rest is just noise. The rest is just lies. We’re more than the stories we tell ourselves, even if the stories we tell ourselves trick us into thinking we should be more than what we are. In the end, we are ultimately left and forgotten. I’d rather live knowing that now, than die having always believed in something that was never really there. I live knowing that the people who’ve careened in out of my life left a trail of joy and meaning in their wake. She left that in my life. I hope I left that in hers, but I cannot concern myself much with it — we cannot control the way people see us, because sometimes, despite our best efforts, we may never see people for who they really are. Our lives are inside jokes.
It’s on us to laugh.
It’s on us to tell them … and this one is mine.
I remember it well, I exhale, and I smile. I’d do it all differently next time, but I wouldn’t have changed a goddamned thing about what’s already done. My heart is broken, but it’s still beating, louder than ever. And for the first time in as far back as I can recall, that’s enough for now.