The first time he went up my shirt I was sprawled across a pool table. It was very late – so late it was almost early – and even the crickets were asleep as I arched my back and wondered exactly what it was that I was feeling. I knew two things with absolute certainty as he pressed his mouth on mine, again and again:
1. His teeth tasted like cranberries, his tongue like vodka.
2. I was always so shitty at remaining in the moment.
Sometimes I would wonder if all the movies I’d seen had ended up working against me in ways that were maybe significant. I measured the nuances of my own life against cinematic constructions that always had far better lighting than any of my days, even the sunniest ones. I’d find myself analyzing each second, right as it ticked by. What song should be playing, right now, as I pop open the button of his jeans with my teeth? It’s not that I wasn’t fully caught up in him. I was, and it felt different than it had before because this time it felt safe and that safety made me feel bold. I liked Bold Me; she was fierce. I felt strong when I walked the world fierce, but I learned early to keep my toughness hidden on the inside. Part of it was realizing the power that came with the element of surprise, but I wonder now how much of that choice was formed by social conditioning, by the knowledge that girls weren’t always supposed to exhibit strength. It seemed wise back then to make sure my dimples hid those razor-sharp symbolic fangs.
I thawed completely now and then, like when I recognized a look of pure unbridled delight flash across his face when he’d catch sight of me walking down a hill in the middle of the day. His joy fed something I hadn’t even realized I’d starved and I finally knew what heart-clenching gratitude felt like.
Yet – all summer long, I could feel a quiet battle waging within, the opposing sides formed by Weight and Lightness. There was the literal weight: my curls sagging in the harshness of the always-humidity; a seven-year-old perched constantly on my lap while another stood behind me, braiding my hair into a knot I’d swear looked beautiful; the extra five pounds taking up residence in my thighs caused by my new discovery of chicken parmigiana heroes. (I’d never tasted such a thing before that summer. Then I took a small bite of one of my boyfriend’s one evening and became an immediate convert. Years later, a friend would inform me that ordering anything “parmigiana” was akin to requesting, “May I please have yet another layer of heaping fat piled atop my meal?” and I always remembered those words and I’d feel horribly guilty – like, starvation-level guilty – if I went the mozzarella-laden route. It’s terrifying what stays with us.) The lightness was something I felt mostly during the days, ruled as they were by freedom and possibility, but the nights were heavy, the weight internal and formed like jagged stalagmites around the softest parts of my mind and my heart. It was the questions – so many questions – that pulled incessantly on each and every second: Should I go to college with a boyfriend? Could I possibly give this amazing person up just for the sake of adventure? And how, after he had wound his fingers through my hair and tugged in that so-perfect-it-made-my-skin-tingle kind of way, could I possibly still be thinking about somebody else?
I forced myself to acknowledge what was real daily, mostly while I was in the shower trying to rid my hair of residual bar smoke, and what was real came down to this: my thoughts of that other guy, though still there in shadows, had become somewhat muted. The clenching he used to cause me to experience in whatever part of my body my soul resided in now felt more like a swift grab and the release came quicker than it ever had before and I didn’t find myself out of breath at the unexpected sight of someone else’s thick black hair. Still – he was there. I feared he always would be. And I also feared he wouldn’t be in what became one of the sickest realizations of my entire life. Yes, it’s a horrific day when you completely comprehend that a very real part of you is so averse to facing any kind of loss, including the loss of constant agony, that you keep pain in your life because pain is quite simply a habit and you’re just not ready to break that particular habit yet. See, there had already been so many changes. His presence had turned into total absence. Long conversations were no longer done on the phone. They took place under the stars now with someone else, the damp grass marking the moment. The terrain of that place is forever imprinted on me; sometimes it still rises when I hear the thunder. You are everything, my newest everything assured me. He said it when a bugle played just after dawn and again late at night when my bones were so weary that the world seemed sideways. You are everything, too, I’d respond, and so much of me meant it.
That was the summer of my chasteness, which probably also means it was the summer of his discontent. I was in a hurry to push everything inside of me except for him. There was a need I had to do this one right after the last one had swerved so spectacularly backwards, motivated first by curiosity instead of the total devotion that grew later. The shifting narrative had stunned me completely. I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did back then, but I knew enough to realize that being devoid of control was nothing but dangerous.
I’d never experienced all-consuming adoration before. I’d never had someone look directly into my eyes and then whisper, “I love your smile” without worrying that being open could lead to some sort of loss for him. Listen – I’ve got a good smile. I’ve been complimented on it many times over the course of my life now and for those nice comments I officially wish to thank my father for the deep dimples, my orthodontist for the straight teeth, and my mother for lips that will never require artificial plumpers, but what hit me then was how this boy felt able to say those words right to my face. It wasn’t done through the shield of a telephone. The sentiment wasn’t expressed through a text followed by some bullshit emoji of a smiley face with bulbous red hearts for eyes that would cause me to wonder for days about the subtext of some weird yellow cartoon figure. It was instead simply a sentence of true devotion that was stated bravely and appreciated wildly and it caused my senses to scatter like the wisps from a dandelion as I tried my hardest to make sure my thoughts remained linear.
The night before I’d left home for that startling sleepaway camp summer, I found myself in an alleyway behind a pizza place in my town where the boy I’d once expected to adore forever was sprawled into a crouched position getting ready to puke up everything he’d consumed that night. We’d all been in that position over the years and it was maybe the third time I’d seen him that particular pale shade of green. I wanted not to be there. I wanted not to remember him looking weak. I didn’t want to see him at all and I didn’t want to say goodbye, not after he’d hurt me, his treachery the real reason for my exit from a suburban beach utopia that had turned overnight into a personal purgatory. He probably won’t even remember this, I thought. I knew I would – that I would play the moment over countless times in my mind – and still I bent down and whispered that I was leaving and maybe I’d see him in late August before I left for college. I thought I saw his head nod in understanding so I stood to leave both him and one of my own lives behind when he looked to the side and said my name softly.
I’m so sorry, he whispered. I don’t want you to go.
I have to, I told him, and then I leaned down, pushed his hair out of his face, and kissed him softly on his damp forehead before I walked away forever.
I got over him on mosquito-drenched volleyball fields and beside roaring bonfires where I could taste the ash. I knew I’d achieved something important when I accompanied a bunch of kids to Arts and Crafts and I sat with them and made the most beautiful keychain that had ever been assembled out of shiny pastel beads and it only crossed my mind to send it to him much later and I happily chose not to, to keep it for myself. I met someone new and something real happened in a way that was quite unexpected and I finally understood what people were talking about when they mentioned the words “healthy relationship.” But though I finally had enough distance to evaluate what used to be – and who I used to be – I could never bring myself to disparage him in my mind. He taught me a lot: how devotion grew from the inside out; how love altered the very way time went by; how my tolerance for complicated human specimens with scrotums would be both a blessing in my life and a total fucking curse.
Choosing to embrace honesty on a minute-to-minute basis meant that it became inevitable that my new love would learn a little bit about my former love. I didn’t speak of him that often, but he was there. He lived in my stories and visited my dreams and costarred in enough of my experiences that I had to train myself not to speak his name all that frequently, to more carefully curate the anecdotes I trotted out. He was beginning to fade more and more from the present. That I was literally in an environment that had never included him made the transition far easier; I knew there was not a single chance I would gaze into the distance and see him lounging beneath some tree. His absence began to feel like freedom.
June moved into early July and my skin turned a smooth chestnut color from days spent living beneath the orange sun. Time felt fluid, like undulating waves lapping warmly against every part of my body, and the past continued to drift away in stages. I no longer spent the pre-dawn quantifying how my actions back in the real world could have yielded more satisfying reactions. One night, though, I stood in the shower willing the conditioner to work the way the commercial had sworn it would, and I suddenly thought of him kneeling behind the pizza place and I saw that memory only in black and white. Test yourself, I remember thinking masochist-style, and so into my mind piled images like a slideshow: rolling over onto someone’s chewed gum the very first time we kissed on a random front lawn; him leading me into a dressing room to whisper the most exciting things I’d ever heard mumbled hotly into my ear; nights on the phone reading him my first stabs at writing; fighting on beaches and on docks and on street corners and in backyards over jealousies and vague intentions and my worth and all the questions those fights brought forth, questions I finally understood involved answers that only needed to come from me. That mental slideshow moved fast and I experienced the entire thing simply as a spectator and I recall sort of shrugging when it was over and feeling proud for finally moving beyond the madness – and for recognizing the whole thing as madness. And when I met up with my new boyfriend under the cover of darkness a few hours later and he kissed me deeply on the prickly grass of the kickball field, I wrapped my legs tightly around his waist and felt the past die.
The very next morning I walked sleepily into the dining hall, concentrating only on my hope that Apple Jacks would be on the menu. Another counselor approached before I even sat down to say she’d taken a message for me late the night before in the Counselor’s Lounge. He had called. The very day my consciousness had killed him, he had called – and just hearing his name caused my body to fall into spasms. I still remember where I was standing during the moment I finally realized that my newfound strength was absolutely conditional on my setting. It wasn’t that I’d actually moved beyond a guy whose one-syllable name set my bones to rattling. It was that being somewhere else had allowed me to meet someone new and avoid what had once been, but a part of me would always be in that former place. Though my heart had welcomed someone new, he who had once taken up residence had never fully vacated.
I did eventually call him back and I could tell that he missed me. I wasn’t nearly suave enough yet to hide my emotional deliriousness about the certainty that I still existed in a prominent place in his mind, but I told him I was involved with someone new. It was a sweet talk, filled with good wishes from us both, but I knew that everything that had caused me to flee in the first place was still there. I knew there was no going back, but I also knew there was no way I could cut him from my life completely. I had to find a way to keep pieces of him without allowing an idealized version to cancel out what was real. I’m tempted to say it was the presence of another person that finally allowed me to move forward, but it wasn’t. Though my new boyfriend was undeniably tangential to that journey, he wasn’t the vehicle. No, it was time and it was truth and it was facing my own dirty complicity when it came to how I’d allowed myself to be treated. It was forgiveness for still being in love on some level with slivers of a person who had so recently informed my entire world. I had to learn to coexist with my present and my past. It’s a lesson I learned only so my sanity would survive, and it’s a lesson I’m still working to master.
All these years later, and I find I’m still close to one of those guys from that summer, but it’s probably not the one you’d expect. If I think really hard and spray a bottle of Calyx into the warm air, I can mentally ricochet back to those days and briefly experience the effect he used to have on me, but the feeling doesn’t come easily anymore. That version of us hasn’t existed in such a long time and when I think about those days, it’s as though I’m thinking about events involving other people. He sent me a picture just last week of a dock lit by the moon captured in that magical hour of twilight. The photo was black and white and stark and gorgeous and I know the things he’s going through right now and how he had to return to the source for a little while. I know I wanted only to make him laugh away a bit of his pain so my text back read “I called you a dick on that exact dock once – and you TOTALLY deserved it” and I could see his smile from my couch.
While he has diluted almost completely in my heart, other people are still lit in Technicolor and sometimes I feel their pull in every part of me, including my teeth. Letting someone new in feels wonderful, but it also makes me feel crowded. I speak less about those who have come before to those just arriving on the scene than I used to, and part of it is the active protection of myself, but I can’t deny that much of it is also about protecting the conflagration of entities who helped, for better or worse, to form me. I listened recently as someone new spoke of a legitimately complicated work issue, one unlike anything I have experienced, but I was able to have some perspective on the matter because of one of the ghosts living inside of me. He’s not a friendly ghost, but he no longer haunts me. It was the natural erosion of time that finally caused whatever impact he once had on every element of my being to dull into an almost nothingness, but still, I remember. I remember the emotional nihilism of those days and I remember the night I thought he was really and truly about to break. I remember how I used everything in my emotional and mental arsenal to lasso him back from the brink. I remember being frightened of his anger even though it was in no way directed at me. I remember the way that fury was causing him to grab at shards of control and how scary it felt to hear him almost broken and how I was uncertain for only one anxiety-ridden minute about whether or not I had the capability of meeting this challenge because it had very real stakes that boiled down to his personal and financial safety. It was everything and everyone who had come before him, the people who still existed inside of me, that allowed me to handle that situation. Wonder Woman-style, I dragged him away from an emotional precipice and then watched while he flew away from me in an invisible jet with nary a thank you shouted from above. That time is over now. He is over now. Still, the glitter he rained down on some of my finest days remains and it mixes with the shimmer from the others. I’m a walking amalgam of my experiences. I’m a human slideshow full of flash-frames that plays on demand in my mind whenever someone new rubs his large thumb across my open palm.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle. Her Twitter is @nell_kalter and her website is nellkalter.com