Tim tells me that broke up is strong language to use. I wonder how he would describe our ending. Broke up implies an entity to be broken, but we never made it that far. I still don't know what we are to each other. We text each other. We see each other. We see other people. As he ends us, he tells me, I can imagine liking you very much. very, very much.
The founder of the dating app where I first saw Tim had a lost love. He was in love with his ex, who lived in Paris with her fiancé. He had not seen her in eight years. He flew across an ocean. They got coffee, and later got married.
Before our first date, Tim sends me a popular essay that argues for the end of small talk. Or maybe I send it to him, I don’t remember now. Why did being with a stranger so often mean we couldn’t immediately talk about meaningful things? We promise to ask profound questions, to open up about our fears and doubts and weaknesses.
I swipe through screenshots of his texts saved on my phone. The affectations I chose to preserve warp my actual experience of our relationship. Can I call it a relationship, or is that strong language, too? When I read them now, it looks like it could have been love.
A message from Tim on Christmas Day:
we’re either going to fall madly in love or have one date and that’s it
no i’m kidding
i think i’m kidding
He is still a number saved in my phone, not yet a person I’ve met. We text over the holidays while he travels north to his family and I move to our shared city. We plan our first date for after the New Year.
New York City is my homecoming. I’m careful always to clarify where I grew up: outside New York City. Outsider. New York City is where my parents work in glass towers. New York City is a foggy smudge against the blue sky at the state park near my house. New York City is where I slip peach flavored vodka into Starbucks iced tea on a commuter train, gnawing on a green plastic straw.
New York City is where my mother’s parents met, “when she was 10 and he was 12,” according to my grandmother’s obituary. My mother doesn’t like to talk about her parents, and I don’t like to talk about my mother.
New York City is a return to the stories of my parents. It is a threatening proximity to home.
On the night of our first date, Tim instructs me to walk south towards him. He lives thirteen blocks from the couch I sleep on in my friend’s apartment. I listen to ‘A Certain Romance’ by the Arctic Monkeys and I don’t really know where I am. He texts me to make a right on 10th street and I do and a minute later his name appears on my phone screen again. Look up, it’s me. I wonder what he sees.
It’s Tuesday night and frigid. I’m wearing black Chelsea boots, sheer tights, a striped turtleneck, a corduroy minidress, a blanket scarf and my friend’s coat. The temperature is a single digit. My nose is pink. My teeth literally chatter, like a cartoon version of a cold person. He is shorter than I’d imagined, wearing a cobalt blue beanie. He smiles and outstretches his arms as the sidewalk between us shrinks. I remove my naked hands from my warm pockets to reciprocate his awkward hug. He says something unmemorable about the bitter cold and I tug my tangled headphones from my ears.
I follow him into Shoolbred’s, a Scottish pub on 2nd Ave, and we sit at the round table in the window. He appears with two beers.
We exchange familial hardships like baseball cards. It is the most intimate I’ve ever been with a stranger. We try in earnest to convey the experiences and relationships that have shaped us. I’m on the edge of a cliff.
A letter I wrote to a friend that night:
Even if this ends up to be nothing, I’m writing you because I never want to forget the power of that overwhelming relief, shortly followed by the warmth of comfort. I looked at him to keep from crying because talking about my mom is still not easy and the clarity of his expression grounded me.
My cousin texts me to tell me something she doesn’t know if I want to know. She thinks I should know. She tells me my mom hasn’t been drinking. Or she tells me my mom stopped drinking. Or she tells me my mom isn’t drinking. She asks if I would consider a visit. My mom and I haven’t spoken to each other in almost five years. She’s a train ride away.
This is the third time my mom stops drinking since she started to drink all of the time. The first time I bloomed with the assurance I’d won back my mother. Confident, naive, sheltered, trusting, steadfast. I was almost thirteen. The second time happened a year later. We visited her in a newer rehabilitation facility with a white stucco exterior and window boxes spilling violets and pansies. She looked healthy, her face vibrant with color and expression. We spent a sunny afternoon on a picnic bench with a backdrop of patchwork green hills. I anticipated an ending. The bad parts, over. My life, restarting.
Sometimes I think that it would be easier to explain my life to people if my mother died. It is a loss that others may recognize. Death is a ritual, a collective celebration of a loved one followed by the complex compartmentalization of grief. A compact sentence, an awkward but succinct answer to a question, words that are knives in your throat but might dull over time. My mother passed.
I envy the language of death. I don’t know how to describe the relapse of a parent. It’s like my real mom died and I have this evil zombie mother. Nobody says, oh that sucks your mom is a zombie. They say nothing. Nobody has the language for it.
My first time at his apartment, the one on 7th and A. Tim’s bedroom is slightly larger than his bed, the back of a railroad apartment with an interior window and exposed brick walls. We watch Family Feud with Steve Harvey side by side on his roommate’s couch in a room with no windows. There is a framed poster affixed to the wall above his head: that black and white photo of Times Square with the yellow cab in the foreground. He swears it is not his and I choose to believe him. We shout unlikely answers at Steve Harvey and I laugh, not a cute effeminate giggle, a big belly laugh where my eyes well up. We make out. Not in a romantic way but in a high school way, like we are in his parents basement. Wet and desperate.
I wait for a gangly freelance set designer named Robert at a wine bar near Tompkins Square Park. My ankle-length coat is balled up in a heap on the chair next to mine. I wear a chartreuse dress over a black turtleneck and red lipstick. My phone lights up and I need for it to be a message from Tim.
Almost there :)
Robert is sweet. I think he likes me. I keep asking him questions so he cannot ask about me. He rests his head in his hand and nervously twirls his hair. Really, I only agreed to meet him because I know Tim is still dating other people. In New York, it feels like you stop seeing other people only just before you decide to get married. When Tim finally texts me, I don’t answer. Not for a few hours, until I arrive home, tipsy, languid. When Robert tells me about his childhood in Portland, I savor that Tim thought of me, relish in the possibility that he opened his phone to no response. Maybe he feels disappointed, I think, maybe he thinks I’m on a date.
My high school graduation is the last milestone I share with my mother. I pick her up at seven in the morning. It was the earliest she would let me. We eat breakfast at the diner, get manicures and pedicures. She makes a face when the technician scrubs her feet. I laugh. The ceremony is at four thirty in the afternoon. When I tell her this at noon, her eyes get big, accusatory. Why did you have to pick me up so early? she complains to me, in between drags of her Marlboro Light on the front porch of her old house.
We only talk past each other. I don’t plead her to recover, or beg return to herself. She sporadically messages me cryptic, often misspelled fragments. One year later, I stop answering them.
East Village Books is our meeting place. I read pages of impressive paperbacks tucked in the shelves. Tim finds me with John Keats, with Great Expectations, revisiting Sontag’s criticism or moseying through Dostoevsky. He ducks to note the cover of the book in my hand. Casual, he tells me Brothers Karamazov is one of his favorite novels, that he’ll bring me his copy to borrow in a few weeks after he visits home. I sit in the comfort, the security, that he thinks we’ll still be doing this in a few weeks.
Two months pass and my mom still does not drink. I feel it again, the precipice of normalcy. Maybe I’ll call her after work to tell her about my day. Maybe I’ll rummage through her closet and try on her vintage suit jackets with gold-rimmed buttons. Maybe we’ll pretend we were never strangers.
We get coffee at the place on St Marks we wanted to go that one time when it was closed. Me with my Americano, him with his cortado. A latte, perhaps, for miniature people. I wonder if he’s still fucking that other girl he told me about but I’m too insecure to ask.
Tim takes me to a fancy bar in January. It’s a date, he told me earlier that week. I rip my tights fresh from a new pack. The ladder runs two inches along the hem of my dress. It’s my favorite dress: a sweetheart neckline, cap sleeves, navy blue with a silver pattern that reminds me of the wallpaper in Viennese cafes. Our plan is to meet for a couple of drinks before I catch a train to visit my friend at home in the suburbs.
He wears a gray sweater, heather gray, not charcoal or silvery. It is deliciously soft.
The decor is wintery. Tartan throw blankets, antique maps of familiar places. We sit hip-to-hip on a platform bed tucked in a corner surrounded by floating bookshelves on three sides.
The books are old, leather-bound volumes with gold embossed spines. We drink rye and scan the titles. A Dickens story collection falls open on the bed between us, the pages yellowed. A tightly folded scrap of torn notebook paper reveals itself like a pearl in an oyster. In fine point black pen, shaky cursive: Another day to realize how much I love you. Thank you for being mine. always…
I think maybe we’ll come back here one day, leave our own scribbled paper for some other strangers to cherish. Discreet, I nestle the book in my yellow backpack and decide to frame the note one day, maybe when we move in together.
We zigzag through midtown traffic, racing toward the glowing light of Penn Station. The snow crystals rest on his lapel, on his eyelashes. He pulls me like I’m a child, my arm outstretched, our hands clenched with a death grip. Laughing: Tim probably because we look ridiculous, me because I lied to him about my train time. He’s always late (I mean always). We pause at the top of the escalator, noses touching. A wild stampede of suburban wool coats consumes us like dry leaves on the pavement swept up by passing cars.
In my room on 58th street, there’s a tangle of fairy lights on the wall above my bed. Pictures and postcards from European art museums are arranged in a linear border around my room. He's never been here before. One week ago, Tim told me that he didn’t want to date me anymore. My mother relapsed today.
Tim slides his white sneakers under my bed and sits next to me. Did he text me? Did I text him? My cheeks are sticky with salt when he kisses me. His hand warms the back of my neck. We share my wet pillowcase. It is really nice to have him here with me. We don’t speak but it feels like he's saying, I’m here, I care about you, I’m sorry.
I feel: angry, selfish, stupid, tricked. Angry with myself because I likely let her only period of sobriety for the rest of my life pass without reconnecting with the mother I once knew. Selfish because I thought her relationship with me would have been enough reason to stay healthy. Stupid because I’ve felt this way before. Tricked because I thought it would be different this time.
The next day, his name flashes on my phone screen, i feel like that was a mistake.
After we break up, I vow never to walk past his apartment again, even when it is the most direct route. I fear he’d race out of his front door, late for something with someone, and see me across the street. I don’t want him to think I am a crazy stalker.
I am a crazy stalker. I often go out of my way in order to run into him. My favorite bar is one block from his apartment, across the street from Crif Dogs. We went there once when we were together; Tim ate a hot dog in front of me, and later told me it was a dinner date. In the summer months, I sit outside with half-priced Bronx Summer Ales, jittery with the likelihood that he’ll catch me laughing with my friends.
Saturday mornings, when it is cold before it is warm, I go to his favorite Liverpool bar with my friend to watch the premiere league games. We bring our own bagels and huddle in a booth before it gets too crowded to see the TVs. Minutes before the game, large men pile into the bar with red and white scarves and order pints of Guinness. I look over my shoulder and hope to see Tim, rather, hope he would see me.
Mostly, I loiter in East Village Books. I kill time there before meeting friends who always work later I do, friends who have jobs that are definitely higher paying and probably more important than mine. I pull from the messy shelves, delirious at the probability that he’d walk in and see me in our usual spot.
I gulp IPAs at Top Hops with my friend. We are drunk. He and I each write a list of our sexual partners, chronological and numbered. On my list there is a violent scribble, the kind that bruises the page behind it. My friend draws a loopy arrow with a label: the worst.
My mother does not know what color I dyed my hair. My mother does not know how much I hate my job. My mother does not know how I drink my coffee. My mother does not know me, not anymore.
Tim told me once that I’m a good person to be friends with. I want to be friends with him. I wrote once that our relationship felt nice because our bookshelves fit together like that torn photograph from The Parent Trap. He has books I always wanted to read and I have books he would ask me to borrow. I thought we could continue to get coffee and swap books and live separate lives in our shared city. I'd rather him be in my life than absent from it.
We plan to meet for coffee and play chess after work. It’s a sticky summer Friday, the city itself swollen in the summer heat. He suggests we meet for beer instead, which is fine, because I don’t want hot coffee anyway. He texts me to meet him at Shoolbred’s between 9th and 10th. I pretend like I don’t remember it’s where we had our first date.
We play chess at Shoolbred’s until we are too drunk to remember whose turn it was. The entire night is a blur, but somehow our inebriation relinquishes our anxious selves. He shares dumplings with me and we tell our friends to meet us at another bar. I feel like we are a normal couple and I forget that we are Just Friends. We hold hands as we amble hip-to-hip avoiding cracks in the sidewalk. I wake up on his mattress on the floor.
A zip of sunlight hovers on the wall behind us. His life is still packed in boxes around the perimeter of his new bedroom, two blocks from the room we used to sleep in together. The sunburn on his back peeled overnight, lakes and rivers and tributaries of flakey skin flow from his shoulder blades down his spine.
I listen to the metronome of his breathing and think that maybe he won't notice me here, next to him. I curl up, afraid to reach out and touch him. I think if he doesn’t notice me, if I am small enough, I could stay there with him for as long as I want.
A message from my mother:
Will ever be able to talk again?
Tim tells me recently that he thinks of me often. What makes you think of me? I write back. We text each other almost never. It’s been almost five years since we’ve seen each other.
remember that Scottish bar? it is closed now. which is a shame. but I walk past it all the time.