“And therefore I looked down into the great pity of a person’s life on this earth. I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity. I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real.”
— Denis Johnson
When we first started dating, I got three white lines tattooed around my wrist, like three scars. The April you died, my coworker killed herself in a bathtub and my cousin OD’d on Xanax, for not the first but the final time. I couldn’t get off work to go to the memorials, but I had a white line waiting for each of them.
If it’d been you getting tattooed, I doubt you’d have felt it, with all the opiates you were on. Your favorite was Opana cause it’s like pure heroin in a pill. It was hard to find, but you had this drug dealer named Happy, who’d show up with a gallon ziplock of rainbow pills, until he died too. One night you gave me ¼ of a pill while you snorted two. I threw up for twelve hours while we wandered the Lower East Side. With detached casualness I vomited on the subway, the sidewalk and in a psychic’s bathroom when you decided we needed to get our palms read.
I was so in love, laughing into a trash can on the corner. The romance in you rubbing my back eclipsed recognition of who’d made me sick in the first place. We ended up in the theater on Houston watching a movie about escaping a cult while I puked in a plastic bag. I did Opana once more after that, opting instead for Adderall as my Happy purchase, but watched you snort line after line every morning. You said your back hurt. I believed you. What did I know about a man’s body except how to make it feel better?
Your hair was silver before you were twenty, slicked back with thick pomade and you wore all black, loose, draped and hooded, to keep out the light. You’d already traveled the world playing music by the time I was signing my first lease. You claimed you hated almost every second of it. But in pictures I’ve dissected for a decade you’re sweaty, shirtless, hanging from rafters, or hunched over at a plastic folding table, arms around you, ecstatic. My favorite photo is in Switzerland when you were on a tour: a Red Bull can on the table in a cafe, your grey hair shaved to about an inch except for an off-center tuft, staring at the camera the way you’d later stare at me.
You rarely smiled unless we were alone, but if I got you started, you couldn’t stop. I felt dehydrated if I went too long without your laugh. You were soft and quiet and brilliant, in a way that twisted on itself, leaving you with a lot of useless knots. You had ten years on me, but even now I get intimidated recalling your Everlasting Gobstopper rolodex of obscure film and music. I often wondered if you were a girl or someone hiding inside someone else. Together, our genders were synced, two sides of the same coin, matter of fact. We were the same, the depth of which I wasn’t aware of until I found myself acting out what you’d done to me. The dynamic was so natural it didn’t need commenting on. I was evened by you.
You were never that interested in sex, which made me practically foam at the mouth for it. I couldn’t believe how wet I’d get just sitting near you. My nipples whined for your attention, and when I’d get it I’d sometimes come too fast with gratitude. I’d leave my body limp and clit simmering, filled with heating kernels or Pop Rocks. Once, I straddled you on my bed and took a picture with a disposable camera the exact second you came, I’m going to want this someday. You didn’t react to the flash. Your eyes shocked and black, like you’d scaled the peak of pleasure and found even that was hollow.
Now, I see you and I see snow, but you always wished you were the beach. Your eyes peeping out over the white sheets. T-shirt scrunched up exposing pale nipples crowned with dark hair. Hand resting on your gut. Your paused mouth, opened towards mine. Watching you, sometimes all I could do was blink. Swallow. Freeze.
The first time I went to your house I kissed you and you gave me one of every record you’d ever put out. Circling between the names you’d tried out, I listened to you every morning in my lime green room as I painted my face. Proof of your joy, spinning and throbbing into me. After we broke up you wrote me a song, “Romance”. It wasn’t until you were dead I listened to it, questioning it’s intentions, scanning for clues, signs, messages. There are no lyrics. The accompanying artwork you designed reads “A Romance / A Coma” imposed over jagged black and white mountains. You operated as a ghost even alive, but how did I miss a coma?
We met when you were trying to start over. From what, I didn’t understand. I hadn’t had to do that yet. You were taking random college classes but couldn’t commit to more than one at a time, or anything, really. We sat across from each other in a class about Slavic science fiction and then on a stoop on St. Marks drinking coffee, where I asked you to tell me your secrets.
I was a well-oiled machine in the shape of an agreeable, fuckable teenager. Nodding, determined and calculated. A weapon of will power. I knew exactly when to inject pure adoration into my gaze. My awe wasn’t feigned, just well-aimed. You could have disclosed any number of deranged histories and I’d just have been proud I’d gotten you to tell me. This equation for manufacturing relationships had a high success rate, until you. It’s difficult to leave a person who knows too much. I wanted love, yes, but I wanted insurance more.
We went to church on our first date where I made you my God. I trailed behind you until you let me stick. Grinning through plum lipstick. Floating with the pleasure of knowing it worked —I made you mine. Then you slept.
You slept all the time. I thought you were tired. Or sick in some adult way I didn’t get yet. I babied you. I made you nachos and excuses and sucked your dick when you could get it up. I was always going out into the snow for supplies. You never told me and I refused to put two and two together. I thought everything, including the drugs, were a symptom of what you said was terminal, constant, inescapable pain — not chronic drug use. Perhaps multiple truths can coexist.
I pursued you, convinced you into me even, but I didn’t see a lot. I shaved my head and dyed it platinum under your direction. We loved getting high, watching Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs and sucking down Monster Rehabs, both of which couldn’t have been funnier to us. You bought me a black dress with snakeskin trim from OAK I’ve worn once, when we did ketamine on your roof and lit off sparklers. Then I laid in your lap in a k-hole, watching Doom Generation with it bunched around my waist, exposing a pair of your Calvin’s I’d claimed. It’s hung in every closest I’ve had since.
Your friends didn’t hate me, but they never took me seriously. I was a baby in high-waisted American Apparel disco pants, trying to keep up in my Litas, chronically a few years behind. At best, your friends tolerated me, when they remembered me. I understood about fifteen percent of their references and got way too excited when I did. Did they judge you for being with me? Did you?
Our two year on-and-off relationship ended the day we were supposed to leave for San Francisco. I’d never been there and it was the first trip I’d planned with a significant other. I was so excited and felt so grown up. You booked the flights, the car, the hotel, which I was mesmerized by — that you knew how and had money for. Then you disappeared a week before we were supposed to leave. Your phone was on but you wouldn’t pick up. I gave up on dignity and called dozens of times a day, pleading with your voicemail for a response. I was a child tapping on the thick glass of an aquarium, trying to get the fish’s attention. You ignored me on Christmas, New Year’s Eve and my birthday. I turned twenty, hiding your disappearance from my friends, family and myself, still unable to legally drink with you.
We never made it to California. You had me come to your apartment while our flight was taking off. Did you do anything for me that wasn’t for you? A girl from a band I was a huge fan of in high school was sitting on your couch, her sock-less feet up on the dirty white leather couch. The intersection made my head spin. It was daytime but you wouldn’t have known; the only lights in the railroad apartment were neon purple, green and pink. Your blinds were black.
You liked my earnestness until it made me look too hard at you. Then you wanted me out of the picture. You said it would be easier that way, meaning it would be easier for you to do drugs that way. It was over in minutes, your mind was made up. You watched me lace up my boots and put me in the hallway. As you closed the door, I made eye contact with the singer as she cut up a line with your debit card. Not how I envisioned meeting the girl who’s record I’d ridden the bus to Providence to buy when I was fifteen. She must have heard everything. Did you two laugh at my begging later?
Your mom called me almost every day for two years after you died. We’d been broken up for four years and had only been in contact through sporadic Facebook messages. We hung out once during that time, to see Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs 2 and eat oysters at a fancy restaurant I let you pay for. She told me you wanted to marry me, which was both news and wholly unsurprising. She said you’d written it in your journals. Of course you’d cover your bases like that. Of course I’d be the last to know.
Before drugs killed you in your sleep, you did get clean. Did you mean to kill yourself? Was it an accident? A miscalculated relapse? I’d seen you when you were bloated but sober, trying to complete the NA steps. You apologized for ‘hurting’ me while I was on my thirty minute lunch break from the sex store. What were you referring to? You didn’t elaborate. Where is it you think you hurt me? Point to it.
Explaining your attempts at a clean life sounded like gasping. You didn’t look right in the sunlight. You weren’t meant for it. Squinting through your cigarette smoke, it was my turn to not hear. You were long packed away and seeing you in the present, outside of context, was stirring up what I’d settled on my own. I wasn’t interested in revisiting and left you sitting on a stoop, empowered by my ability to walk away from a magnet. You’d lost your charge. It was the last time I saw you.
The white tattoos are there when I look for them; no one ever sees them. If you were alive, you’d have eight years clean, and I could ask you how you pulled it off instead of asking how you died. You could make amends by living beside me, guiding me, or maybe we wouldn’t talk at all. I wish we had the choice.
Too many times have I scoured your memorialized facebook wall and albums in search of your feelings. I find quotes in statuses you posted when we were together, so together I didn’t read into them.“There’s just no place for us in this world.” I cry at the photo you posted a week after our breakup, your face so puffy and empty and final. The one I fawned over was never coming back. A link to a youtube video of an Anika song, the refrain: I go to sleep, sleep, and imagine that you’re there with me. Scrolling from us upwards, I watch your slicked hair fall into your face, more white than silver. But in every photo you took, I’m laughing.
You never left, just pushed a stone across the tomb in my heart and made a bed inside it. I like to imagine you sleeping there now. Are you?