Cry only a little when, after two hot-and-heavy months, he says he doesn’t want to date you anymore. Cry harder when he says he still wants to be friends, you’re amazing, you’re a great kisser. Hug him so tightly before he leaves that you can’t tell if the heartbeat you feel is yours or his or maybe somehow both, as if you’ve conjoined and are stuck together forever. Try to take Celine Dion’s advice: “I finished crying in the instant that you left.” Fail, envious of how Celine could be so cold.
Spend the next heat-wave week in bed roiling in a stew of your own thoughts and juices. Comb through everything you said, did, and thought while dating him, and keep a running list of all the things you said, did, and thought wrong. Only leave the bed to go to work. Wear your biggest sunglasses on the train so that when you cry people only see themselves reflected in your mirrored lenses.
On the one-week anniversary of your breakup, go on a terrifically bad date. Sweat through your shirt as you wait for him. He should show up no less than forty minutes late. He should possess a disheveled look that makes you wonder not if he showered today, but when he last showered. His hair will look as if it had last been brushed for his seventh-grade class photo. Know as soon as he steps out of the Uber that this was a terrible mistake but spend the next three to four hours with him anyway. Instead of politely laughing at his too-accurate, self-deprecating jokes, flatly say, “Ha.” Try to ditch him when he runs into a friend at the crowded street fair you’ve chosen for the date. When he catches up to you, do your best not to look disappointed. Make a lame excuse. The heat, the crowd, the booth selling sangria. Offer to buy him a slice of pizza. Offer again ten minutes later, then cram your slice into your mouth to avoid making conversation. Tell yourself, when you get home, that it was a good thing to go on a bad date. You put yourself out there. It’s better that it was bad because you’re still not over the boy. Wonder when you will be over him and hypothesize never.
Find a roommate on Grindr, then find an apartment together. Tell your mom you’re finally moving out of the room above her suburban garage. When she asks where you met your roommate, just say the Internet. Show her his Facebook photo when she begins to plan your funeral.
“Oh, he’s gay!” she says with a gasp. “Maybe you’ll get married!”
“Those are your two options,” your sister says from the couch. “Murdered or married.”
Text the boy about three weeks after the breakup. You’ll look like you’ve moved on and that you’re not desperate to see him. Agonize over what to say, and land on an easy, breezy Hey. Panic when he doesn’t respond immediately. Panic when he does respond. Exist in a constant state of panic until nothing fazes you anymore. Panic as you set plans to see him.
Move into your new apartment. It’s smaller than you remember. A kitchen that fits in the palm of your hand, windows too narrow for your air conditioner, a closet door that opens onto a wall.
Worry about money. Eat only half your meals at restaurants. Save your leftovers. When your mother takes you and your sister out to eat, order the full rack of ribs, the combo plate, the largest pizza on the menu. Drop your jaw at the massive portions. Fill up on bread, then ask for a second basket. Slip the artisan hearth slices into the doggy bag. Exasperate your mother, who tells you about her cousin who took anything from a restaurant that wasn’t nailed down. Butter packets, saltshakers, napkins. Even a tablecloth, once.
“He’s well-to-do,” she says. “I don’t get it.”
Walk out of the restaurant imagining the puzzle of boxes in your fridge. Strategize where you’ll stack the newest box like Tetris. Crunch a starlight peppermint in your molars.
Go to the boy’s apartment as planned, but only after an extended debate over what to wear. Try to pick an outfit that screams Beyoncé lyrics: “I got beauty, I got class, I got style and I got ass.” Remember the next line is “But you don’t even care to care” and deflate a little. A lot. Just wear what you’re wearing. Take a leisurely bus ride to his front door.
Try not to interpret what it means when he looks at you sideways. He’ll turn his back to you, then change his mind and hug you tightly. Not heartbeat-tight, but it’s more affectionate than you expected. Follow him upstairs, remembering a time when you’d do this holding his hand. Sit with his roommates and watch reality shows while sipping limoncello. Think about how you’re now sitting on the same couch you used to make out on, and how you’re like strangers. Give him another hug before you leave.
Text your best girlfriend on the way home to ask what the fuck you’re doing.
○ ○ ○
Find the nearest seat when your mother calls. The couch, the bed, the floor, the sidewalk. Any flat, even surface will do. Her phone calls have not offered, historically, good news, and this call is no exception. Remember to breathe when you disconnect. She will pick you up in five minutes.
Ride with her in a tense but oddly comfortable silence. Don’t bother wearing your crying sunglasses. This is just your mom.
Find the behavioral unit on the sixth floor. Sign into the hospital visitor’s log and in the relationship column write brother. Wonder what you could have done differently to protect your little sister. In a dark corner of your mind be guiltily thankful of having something else to worry about, something that isn’t the boy, that erases him.
Approach the nurse waiting outside the visiting room. Overhear her conversation with the other nurses. “You can’t kill yourself with ibuprofen! What she shoulda used was Tylenol. That would’ve done it.”
Clear your throat and take a small satisfaction in startling her.
“Who you here to see, honey?” she asks, too sweetly.
Be surprised how well your sister looks, how happy. Not happy, happy, but happy under the circumstances. Imagine how hard it would be to swallow a whole bottle of ibuprofen but understand how appealing a method it would be to off yourself. Free from pain and swelling.
Sit with your mother in her car as it meanders the quiet streets of a suburb one north of hers. Ride, again, in silence until she breaks it.
“They think she’ll be in there a week or so.”
You have no idea if that’s good or bad, so you say nothing.
Find a stack of folded papers on your mom’s coffee table. Names written on them, Mom, Dad. Your sister’s lopsided handwriting. Understand only when you see one with your name on it. Not a slip, not a letter, not just a piece of paper. A note. Open the folds with trembling fingers, sweaty palms. Examine it not as a document made of words, but like a cryptic artwork. Trace the shape of the letters—the swoops, the strokes, the dots and crosses—with your eyes, unable to comprehend the sounds they signify. Let the paper fall from your hands as the tears that fall from your eyes splatter the page and smudge the streaks of graphite.
Fuck everyone in your neighborhood too quickly and become disgusted with Grindr. Refresh the app repeatedly, thinking there must be an error. No new messages, no taps. Refresh, refresh, refresh. Remember the definition of insanity. Google insanity and fall into a spiral that absorbs a whole afternoon. Shrug your shoulders when you look at the time. See how many dishes you can stack in the sink before your roommate asks you to wash them, how many towels you can fit in your hamper until it vomits up the mildewed terrycloth.
Google things you’ll never experience. Menstruation, pregnancy, menopause. Focus on the weird facts. Elephants, humans, and humpback whales are the only mammals that go through menopause. Orcas don’t know how easy they have it. When the human fetus develops lungs, it spends most of its time in the womb screaming. That’s how babies get so good at it. The screaming is inaudible to humans, but most dogs can hear it. Discover pelvic prolapse and realize God is dead.
Vow to give up Google. Within fifteen minutes find yourself mindlessly googling the toucan’s natural habitat after a compelling Froot Loops commercial. Make a Target run to buy Froot Loops, a new bath towel, dish soap, 2-in-1 shampoo, a cutting board. Finger the items that line the shelves. Everything in the store seems necessary. Fling things into your basket, then carefully restore them to their homes. Force yourself to stick to the list. Rent is always due.
Go home and realize you don’t have any milk for the cereal. Sit on the floor in front of the fridge and sob over the milk you wish you could spill.
Hook up only with guys whose Grindr profiles say new in town. Go on a date with a local newbie and discover a tattoo on each side of his ass. The left side reads INSERT and the right side reads HERE. Insert there and never hear from him again.
Visit your sister in the hospital after work. See her face light up when you walk in.
“They might let me out of here tomorrow,” she’ll tell you. “I just have to see the psychiatrist for approval.”
Demand to see the psychiatrist. Consider going full Terms of Endearment, but instead sit down and talk to your sister in a voice you used for your cat that died a few years ago. Tell her about the INSERT HERE guy in the cat voice.
“What made you like this?!” she’ll demand.
Shout at her as if you were back in your mother’s living room. Inform her how much nerve it takes to ask you that when she’s the one locked up in the psych ward. Lock eyes and stare at each other a moment before laughing hysterically.
Comment that the people here don’t seem that crazy.
“Oh, yeah. This is the good side. The bad ones are down the other hall.”
Take a glance down the bad hall as the nurse escorts you to the desk to sign out. Flickering lights, orderlies in smocks, implied strait jackets, and padded rooms. It’s too much like the movies.
Check and recheck Grindr as you wait for the bus. Eat cold Chinese leftovers when you get home because you’re too hungry and/or depressed and/or lazy to microwave them. Shed no more than eight tears over how much better it tasted hot.
Keep hanging out with the boy. Tell yourself to avoid making innuendos of any kind because you don’t want him thinking you’re thinking about those hot-and-heavy first two months, or how you miss his cherubic body. Sabotage yourself and flirt relentlessly. Scream internally when he tells you he’s been hooking up with a guy who lives across the street. Scream externally into your pillow as soon as you get home. Check Grindr to confirm your suspicion that you will die alone.
Google how to find a therapist and wait for one to appear from somewhere between the hyperlinks. Look for her to emerge smiling from the ether and say, “Hi, I’m your new therapist! Won’t you have a seat?” When she doesn’t, click on any one of the links and keep waiting. When she still doesn’t, congratulate yourself on making it this far, then give up. At least you tried.
Visit your sister in the hospital again with your mom. Bring her a donut bathed in pink glaze and sprinkles. Somehow, it looks like her. Tell the nurse you have a gift for your sister and show her the confection. Watch her frown.
“Sorry, no food,” she’ll say. “Rules are rules. I’ll take it off your hands, though, sweetie. Heh heh.”
Suggest she take a bottle of Tylenol instead.
Sit at a small round table in the visitors’ area. Examine the people around you. They mostly look sad and shoeless, their faces tilted toward their dinner trays. A family at the table next to yours sits around a white cardboard box holding a cake. No food, the nurse said. Rules are rules. Everyone at this table looks like they belong here. Examine their feet to see which one is the patient and which ones are his visitors. Watch and wait for the youngish man in socks to punch the cake.
“Chill, dude,” your sister says after telling you the psychiatrist thinks she needs more time.
Demand to know how much is more.
“When it’s time, it’s time.”
Relax into your chair and know that she’s right. Turn your head not-quickly-enough when you hear a loud bang, a mournful wail and a masculine grunt at the next table.
“Dammit, Joseph!” a stern, father-type scolds.
The youngish man sits at the table looking, for the first time, pleased. He raises his frosted fist to his lips and begins to lick his sugary knuckles.
Watch in silence as his mother weeps hiccupy tears.
Eat fried chicken with your mother after the hospital visit. Order it extra-spicy so you can get a head start on crying.
“So, what’s all this about Nashville fried chicken, anyway?” she’ll ask. “What’s the deal?”
Don’t bother answering. She’s already got the leg to her lips.
“Oh,” she says. “Ohhhhhhh.”
Ponder the crispy skin, the juicy meat, your licked fingers. The cloudy biscuit, the vinegar-sweet collard greens, the underwhelming macaroni and cheese. Then contemplate your sister’s cafeteria tray. Off-brand white bread sandwich, congealed vegetables, the Italian ice uneaten and unopened having melted into a syrupy juice. The best treatment insurance can buy (in network).
When you get home, devour the donut you’d bought for your sister. Rules are rules.
Satisfy your increasing loneliness by buying things. Memorize your credit card number so online purchases process as smoothly as swiping your card in store. Spend enough, more than enough, to get free shipping. Check your bank account after spending a week this way. Swoon at the number, pitifully small. Pore over the charges, each one painfully accurate. Lament not being the victim of fraudulence. Calculate the many miles you will have to walk to wear out all those shoes.
Have lots of sex when you run out of money. It helps you get over the boy, but only temporarily. Like ibuprofen, you have to keep taking it. Or maybe it’s like Tylenol and if you take too much it’ll kill you. Can any amount of sex fill the gaping void inside you? The metaphorical one. You’re more of a top, so you rarely let sex fill the literal gaping void inside you.
Forget about the boy, as he certainly seems to have forgotten about you. Talk to your wisest, bitterest friend about how he was so sweet while you were dating, how he treated you so well, and about how now he simply doesn’t. He doesn’t answer texts, he forgets about the plans you make, you can’t remember when you last saw him.
“We’re, like, raised to think that only really awful people are going to hurt us, but sometimes nice people hurt us too.”
Attempt to figure that one out in your head as you protest it, to defend him.
“He’s lazy with his emotional responsibilities,” she’ll interrupt. “You deserve kindness.”
Find it difficult to look her in the eyes because you know she’s right. Refrain from asking her who taught her these lessons, who broke her heart. Instead tell her you’re sorry she’s so wise. Bark bitter peals of laughter with each other. Ha! Ha! Like a dry cough.
Walk from dinner to karaoke a few blocks over and sing every Cher song they have. Cheraoke is the best kind of karaoke. Encourage your friend to get drunk enough to sing the Sonny parts on “I Got You Babe.” Believe in life after love.
Split an Uber that drops her off first at her apartment, then yours. Miss her immediately. Know on a spiritual level that everything she said is true. Wish you saw her more often. Let the tears drip like a leaky faucet. Plop, plop, plop.
Let your phone ring and ring when an unfamiliar local number lights up the screen. When the same number calls again immediately, slide your thumb over the ignore button to end the call prematurely. Answer the phone when the same number calls a third time, again, immediately.
“Bitch!” your sister shouts in your ear. “I’m getting out!”
Scream with happiness. A nice change in tone.
“Don’t think I didn’t notice that ignore,” she says before hanging up.
In the car with your mother observe how much older, how more tired she looks than she used to. You have seen so much of her so consistently over the years that the aging process has gone largely unnoticed, but the untouched-up roots glow grey against her chosen auburn. Remember that you are now older than your mother was when you were born. Question when you got so old. Identify the cold-earth feeling circling your ankle of having one foot in the grave.
Collide with your sister like a romcom couple, swirling and sweeping her off her feet. Run hand in hand through the hospital lobby to the car while your mom lags behind shouting and digging through her purse for her keys.
Don’t realize at the time that this will be the last time you see the boy. Eat pistachio ice cream cones huddled on a bench on the windy beach. Hug each other goodbye and feel déjà vu all over again. Hug him so tightly that you can’t tell if the heartbeat you feel is yours or his or maybe somehow both. Decide, later, that it must have been yours, must always have been yours, because you cannot feel a heartbeat from a heart that doesn’t beat.
Send him a text, then another two days later, and another two days after that. That’s six days, and on the seventh day, cry. On the tenth day read his reply as soon as it arrives. Do your best Naomi Campbell and throw your phone as hard and fast and far as you can. Pick it up and try to think of a reply. Stop thinking at all when his follow-up message emerges. Think about telling him to go fuck himself. Blink, again and again. Spend what feels like days closing and opening your eyes. Remember reading that each blink moistens the eye with tears. Attempt to get your eyes to swim in their sockets, drowned in their own salt water. Send him a simple, elegant OK. Feel the weight of him leap from your shoulders like a falcon from a leather-fisted wrist.
Go out to dinner with your family that has assembled from various corners of the continent to celebrate your sister’s failed suicide. You can tell with a single, short glance that she would much rather be anyplace else. Feel the same way, evading uncles’ questions, aunts’ wet kisses. You and your sister have always been the moody ones in the family of loudmouthed weirdos drawn to you by blood. It feels somehow that they don’t know you at all.
Glare at an uncle from across the family-portioned salad bowl when he asks you what’s new. What’s new? Just say Pass.
Relax your spine when he starts laughing.
“The kid’s got jokes!”
Get wine-drunk and laugh with your family. Clink glasses. Pass plates down the long series of tables pushed together to accommodate your party. Share tastes of entrees. Split desserts. Celebrate not just your sister, but all of you. Cry silently in the passenger seat of your mom’s car, happier than you’ve been in some time.
“It was a good night,” she’ll say. “Wasn’t it a good night?”
There were moments of gold, flashes of light.
Yes. It was a good night.