You are at a Waffle House in Atlanta on a Sunday morning. I only know this because now, instead of listening to the details of your days on breakfast walks to the deli-grocery in Bushwick, I watch your life through pictures.
I’m waking up in someone else’s bed in Brooklyn, two subway stops away from your apartment. You always called me a morning person, a real pain in the ass before 7 a.m., but today I am meek, well-behaved, quiet. I realize the person I was when I was with you is also in a Waffle House in Georgia right now. I realize that you are not traveling alone. I left too many notes on your pillow in the mornings. I looked at you too softly, even on the days when I was angry. I, too, am traveling with pieces of you (Key lime pie, Bruce Springsteen, your face full of dimples when you really smiled, the way you used to squint your eyes before you got your new glasses). You left, but you are still in my dictionary.
You are at a Waffle House in Atlanta. You left, but I'm waiting for you to leave me, my thoughts, my life. I've been running from you — last night I slept with your complete opposite (makes only average omelets, never misses football on Sundays, doesn’t think I’m funny).
I roll over and mumble a good morning. The pillow we’re sleeping on is littered with tiny black hairs that remind me of the premature grays you used to dye out jet-black. I think about how only six months ago I was vacuuming them off my floor, pulling them from my own pillowcases, finding them in my sink.
You are driving my drunk ass home. It’s the middle of July — an “on-again” period for us — and finally, at least to me, it seems like we’re getting somewhere with this thing. We’re on the Southern State and I’m making you listen to Louis C.K.’s French toast joke for the 3 millionth time. I play it so often that I don’t even think you find it funny anymore, but I laugh harder and harder. You let me listen to it whenever I want, because you say you love hearing that horrendous chicken-squawk laugh I have.
Once we hit stop-and-go Brooklyn, I make you kiss me at every red light. You happily oblige, but you don’t hold my hand at all, not for one moment, even when I rest it on your knee during the drive.
That used to be our favorite pastime, holding hands on the drive home, and you’d hold on even tighter when we hit those shitty Brooklyn potholes. I lean my head against the window — watching your hands on the ten and the two. I’m wondering how much time I actually have left with you.
You're on my family vacation the first week in August and it's the first time I've seen you really, truly smiling in weeks. Usually you're hunkered down over the computer, hiding away in a corner, hung up on the phone for work, constantly in between being needed somewhere, by someone — your eyes squinted in frustration because you still haven't gotten new glasses.
You have an army of screaming children clamoring at your heels like bloodhounds, so you hop the fence to the front yard and declare yourself pitcher in a kickball game. (You did have a great arm in high school. A lefty — another thing that made you tricky.)
My 6-year-old cousin smacks the ball when you pitch it and it goes flying over my head, into left field. Maybe if I'd been paying attention it wouldn't have been a home run, but I was on another planet, thinking about how I wish we could spend every summer this way: you pulling clams out of the bay, poking at crabs on the grill, getting a shitty night of sleep together on the air mattress, brushing our teeth next to each other and pitching to my freckle-faced cousins in the front yard.
That night, you are on the back porch blowing up the air mattress yourself. The pump is broken, and we have nowhere else to sleep. You’re crisscross applesauce on the ground, mattress in your mouth, cheeks puffed out, smiling up at me. In that moment, I know you do love me. In that moment, I know sometimes even that isn’t enough.
You wipe the snot from my nose after watching me crumble onto my shitty Ikea futon. We have been fighting for two days now, and all you want to do is get out. You have plans to meet that British girl who used to leave dark-pink lipstick stains on your cheeks. You left me on the subway platform at Bedford to go home with her back in June, and tonight, again, I know you will leave me.
The logic is very simple for you. You tell me I am missing some “intangible thing.” You talk about your overflowing medicine cabinet, how your life is a mess. You talk about your job, and how you don’t want me to feel like I’m playing second fiddle to your dreams.
You tell me I’m the only person in the world you’ll let drip snot all over you. You tell me we are young, and we have so much of our lives left to figure out. You tell me that I wanted way more, way faster than you, and I jump to my feet, retaliating that in one moment you’d be on my family vacation playing kickball with my cousins, and the next you’d spend the week holed up in a studio in Red Hook, hiding from your feelings, hiding from me, hiding from fucking everything.
You kiss me goodbye and say you have to get up early for work, which I know is a lie. You tell me everything is going to be okay — also a lie, but a means to an end in this moment, so I will stop crying.
I don’t stop, but you walk out of my apartment in a snot-covered Ninja Turtles shirt for the last time. I don’t call anyone, I don’t eat, I let the panic attacks come in and out until I’m exhausted enough to sleep. I can’t tell if you’re gone for good, because you’ve always found your way back to me.
Later that night, I’m curled up switching between tabs on my laptop, when a sweet little picture of you pops up. There you are on a rooftop in Brooklyn, in the same Ninja Turtles T-shirt you left me in, snot dried up, smiling next to a girl in dark-pink lipstick.
I am sitting in a hospital bed on First Avenue. I am 20 pounds lighter than I was the first day I met you, in a New York City basement seven years ago. I am 20 pounds lighter than I was the day you first kissed me, in my Chewbacca hoodie on my couch, seven months ago. I wish you were here to scratch my head, listen to me complain about the IV that has bruised over my entire left wrist, make me laugh.
Now I do not even fill out size 00 jeans. This is my third time in the hospital in only a few weeks — I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis a few days after you left me. You knew, and I still didn’t hear from you. I think back to how we spent seven years never missing each other’s birthdays, spending Christmas Eve together, going out dancing on Sundays — and I wonder how something between two people who love each other can end up so bad, so fast.
I pull the band of my sweatpants off my hips and marvel at how much space there is. I have lost so much weight that even humdrum tasks seem hard now — getting my luggage up the subway stairs, walking both dogs at the same time, running a mile, getting across the apartment. Somehow my body still isn’t the worst thing I’ve lost.
When something breaks you can usually hear it crack or shatter — glass, plaster, bones. But it’s quiet here in this tiny, white room on First Avenue — save for the beeping from the heart monitor that is reminding me I’m still here, even if my thoughts are somewhere back in September, peeling through every memory to figure out what I did to make you leave.
I pull the hospital gown down below my knees and wonder what joke you’d be making if you were sitting next to me.
My gin is warm now; the straw poking out of it is chewed up. It is a month after you left me. For the past 20 minutes I’ve been scrolling through my text messages, rattling off the names of which boys are pissing me off, which ones I’m still talking to, which one I saw over the weekend.
My best friend is across from me, yelling at me to shut the hell up for a second. She gives me a pointed look, telling me that replacing you will just leave me “fucked up and empty.”
I bite my lip. I’m not sad or pissed off anymore. I miss you. I cry less, I curse more. I remember all the parts of myself that softened around you and let callouses form over them. I’m sarcastic, I can’t take anything seriously, I never say “I love you,” I never let anyone touch me.
“What am I going to do? Find someone on OkCupid who also likes Bernese mountain dogs and Disclosure? That shit doesn’t matter. We’re all dating each other based on shit that doesn’t fucking matter, living on an island full of tourists looking at buildings through cameras. I’m going off chemistry; my chemistry is in LA right now. If I have to live and die with that shit, then I will.”
After 10 years, she knows that I am strong-headed, stubborn, almost impossible when it comes to this. She’s heard me make this exact claim since I first met you down on Bowery — that was seven years ago, when I was 18.
“I’m sure he misses you, too. You’ll hear from him soon,” she says again, more quietly. I’m back to chewing on my straw, not convinced of anything.
It’s a Friday, and I decide to get out of New York City. I ride the musty Long Island Rail Road 29 minutes to Queens. I walk the half-mile home to my godmother’s house and stand at the bottom of the street where the parkway and the lane meet. I let myself cry, finally. I go inside and eat something. My 6-year-old cousin hugs me, drags me to the living room to show me the new sparkly sneakers she got, splaying her little hands out to show off the butterflies painted on her tiny, dime-sized fingernails. Her face is beaming up at me with two missing front teeth.
“I love you,” she says, her 6-year-old hand tugging at my sweater, not knowing I had been crying, not knowing that the past month has been beating the shit out of me.
For the first time since you said those words to me, they actually mean something.
I am speeding down the Jackie Robinson when I finally hit Bushwick. I’m 15 pounds lighter than I was the first time you kissed me. I am getting little pieces of myself back — my hips, my upper body strength — but you are still gone, somewhere in Georgia on your way to Atlanta. It is 1 a.m. and I am on my way to someone else’s apartment.
The hourglass on us has bottomed out. Sometimes I’m tempted to turn it over again. You will leave Georgia, go to Nebraska, see Napa, head back to LA and then home to Brooklyn again. I will travel 29 minutes on the musty Long Island Rail Road, I will smack my feet against the floor when the bass drops in Industry City, I will wake up in hospital beds next to empty chairs. You will always be there, like the ache in my stomach and the bitterness in my throat even after I’ve swallowed all the reflux.
There are not always clean breaks; time does not always mean that things end up okay. Sometimes it means there comes a day when you just stop talking altogether, smile at each other to make it less awkward, never discuss it. You sweep it under the rug, bite your lip and move on. You stomp your feet on the subway platform, you fix your mascara in the work bathroom, you hold someone else’s name in your mouth, suck it up when it starts to get hard, declare yourself pitcher when there’s kickball in the front yard.
I’m stopped at a red light on Wyckoff, near the Key Foods where we used to buy ingredients to make eggs in a basket on Sunday mornings. I used to make you kiss me at every red light in this town; I’m pounding my fist against the steering wheel now, praying it’ll turn green.