Maybe you will meet her at a coffee shop. She’s working there, you’re going there to work. On your laptop, not at the shop. You wouldn’t do that, but you don’t judge. Maybe she’s the manager, she has bigger goals than coffee but doesn’t feel the need to immediately bring them up. You drive there in your Prius. It still has California plates. You minimize the time you spent in Los Angeles to anyone who asks, like it was long ago and just for a second.
It was two years. Half the time you spent in New York. Two thirds of the time you spent with me. But you’re right, in retrospect it was really nothing.
You are working on your MFA applications which impress her. She might already have one. She is like you and understands it isn’t about the jobs it will get you or the money you will make, but about learning and taking the time to practice your craft. Like summer camp for guys with beards and girls who like long skirts.
Before I meet him I’ve already sent photos of him to a dozen of my friends. Not even my closest friends, I don’t have that many. My phone’s camera roll is dominated with screenshots of dating profiles and naked photos of myself that no one receives. You can already guess he has a beard, glasses, vaguely olive skin. I’m predictable. I try to come off as someone he should respect, whatever that means. I talk about wanting to move to Mexico City, I tell him about these essays, but not specifically what they’re about. I try to say the right things to sound like someone you want to have sex with but also spend over a hundred dollars on a dinner for. It’s a fine line I’m realizing. I try on a few different outfits and end up with something you would have liked. Black wrap dress, heeled booties, camo jacket, if you still like that sort of thing anyways.
I take a few mirror selfies where I look better than I do in person and send them to three guys in New York I vaguely care about. I wait for their response during my car ride to the date with someone I don’t really care about at all.
You left all of your bright clothing in LA and are back to wearing ripped jeans and faded t-shirts. The Venice Boardwalk look I used to call it. She thinks your beard is cute. In town you blend in but you don’t look exactly like everyone else there, something different is still coating the edges of you. She’ll wear boyfriend jeans, skirts, sandals, and never nail polish. If it’s there, it’s definitely chipped. She’s surprised by the huge and bright traditional tattoo on your bicep. So are you and so am I to be honest, it never quite made sense to me. The one you got on the first stop of your road trip across the country in Arizona or maybe it was New Mexico. It’s louder than you, brighter. I remember thinking about how we’d look on the beach one day with our kids as tattooed parents. She probably has some tattoos. On her forearm, or shoulder, maybe near her knees. They are light, like they were done by a friend with a tattoo gun in a living room on a two hundred dollar couch.
It works, he wants to see me again. I’ve never been on dates as an adult. I guess this is what adults do. I try not to compare everything to you and I, to leave you out of my stories.
I live alone, I traveled alone, I moved to LA alone, or at least I imply. I cover the holes that would show that I’m broken and still missing parts of me I’m waiting to get back from you. Generally, it works. I’m great at talking. I can relate to almost anything, I ask the right questions, I nod, I genuinely enjoy learning about him. I takes me forever to kiss him and everytime afterwards I ask myself why. Well, he didn’t try either. Sometimes, I think someone sees the parts of me that you used to, the parts you blacked out, that made you want to be with me for a long time, in different cities, in houses, in years with kids and many jobs later. People get scared and run away from me. Sometimes they explain why, other times I just have to guess. Sometimes I get drunk and ask them, they rarely reply. Then I start over. A different wrap dress, sandal heels as it gets warmer.
You have never flirted with a girl for the first time sober. It will be hard. The confidence and presumptuousness you had back in 2013 and carried on the L train from Bedford to Morgan is gone. It’s been gone as long as your swoopy hair and all your collectible Air Jordans. Thankfully she isn’t into that anyways. Your shyness, real and emphasized, appeals to her. So does your woodsiness and the fact you’re from North Carolina, where she may be from or at least went to college in. You tell her your doctored story about how you needed to move back here to work on your writing, to be an artist. You don’t tell her about going to Cuba when it was illegal or to underground raves in Stockholm or about hanging out with Drake or speaking at Penn State. You undersell yourself, you want so badly to not be intimidating. You never refer to me by name. I know you’re good at that because I still don’t know any of your other exes names. That’s the bucket I’m in now: one of your exes. I want to believe I have my own category but I know that I don’t. She has a couple of roommates but you live alone, so the first time you hang out in private is in your living room. Nora is nice to her and you take that as an excessively good sign. It isn’t, calm down.
Sometimes I revisit old things. I text people in New York, I fly to Miami, I call people in Atlanta. I find new bizarre ways to try to contact the British boy I texted while I was with you, none of which work.
When enough time passes, when it stops being written on my forehead that I still love you, the right people start noticing. Of course, he’s also from LA. I hate that about him because he’ll never really understand my constant desire to escape and I worry he’ll keep me here longer than I should be. But it’s nice, his family is here, he has a car and he doesn’t care that I don’t. I don’t think he’ll let me practice driving like you did, but this is good enough. When we finally have sex, I don’t want to but I compare him to you. At this point I can’t even remember if my memories of us are real, or things I made up on days I didn’t hate you. I feel guilty that he has the version me of that wants to have sex, while you patiently waited through my everlasting dry spell from the medication.
Your parents like her. She is quiet, unsuspecting, pretty, and doesn’t talk about money, jobs, or her strange family. She knows a lot about politics, maybe even volunteered for Obama in undergrad. Your dad loves hearing about it. They eventually meet her when your parents come to see how you’ve settled into your new place. You tell yourself you’re going to take it slow but things just unfold at the pace they want to. You two don’t text excessively and it doesn’t bother her. You hang out most weeknights and some weekends. Sometimes, you revert to your hermit ways to write and it doesn’t make her nervous, she goes to the farmer’s market with her friends or maybe to a neighboring town for a concert. Days pass without you speaking. She doesn’t send you naked photos but rather pretty pictures of the view. You tell her you’ve never felt this way before and you’re right, you haven’t. It’s not the same way you felt towards me. It’s slower, less extreme, it’s burning less fuel. Mature and sustainable. The type of feeling you could really see going on forever and if it didn’t, it wouldn’t break you.
I try to rid myself of the parts of me that I have assigned the blame of losing you. My obsession with a timeline.
Married by 30, kids by 32, and that’s me compromising. I talk about it less, but the thoughts are still there. I can’t risk scaring anyone away, it will just add years to the process. I wonder if I had never mentioned this to you, put numbers and deadlines on your future, if we would have ended up there anyways naturally. I know the answer is yes but I tell myself no so I can stay sane and feel like you did me a favor by leaving, did something I was getting to anyways. I alternate between guys who are on their own timeline and are willing to work me in and guys who like you, are painfully going with the flow. One is just so much more boring. I see love as a project now, not a necessity. As the entry step to getting what I want but that I know will fade away and that’s fine, as long as the numbers don’t change. It’s ugly, but it fuels my search and keeps me away from people like you, who I could actually love forever and therefore let me waste my time, the only thing I can control.
Maybe you’ve crafted a world where nothing feels permanent. That only crazy people like me think about a year into the future, let alone five. If anything messes up, you can pack up your stuff and go home. You have less stuff since you’ve done this so recently, your mom might even pack for you this time. You can board a flight with the dog and repeat the process again, maybe this time in Atlanta or Vermont for grad school. I do really think you’ll get in. Each time you have fewer things to carry, real things like sweatshirts and books and things you can’t see like memories of me and stories from the life we had, the life you had with her, and anyone else who came after.
You soon get to a point where it becomes harder for you to remember parts of me than it is to be unable to forget them, the movie of us stops running behind your eyelids every time you go to sleep. The final stage of moving on. I’m jealous. I don’t even want to replace the images, I’ll take darkness as long as it’s silent. Every night the memories play in colors like an Instagram filter, moments of bright light through the curtains of our living room and flicker of the reflection on your car windows on road trips. It distracts me and makes it hard to sleep. I know the feeling all too well, it pounds on my temples and in the space between my eyes. It isn’t something there’s a name for, that a doctor can prescribe, it’s a headache from crying.