Mandy and I sit in East Village coffee shops and talk about lying, jealousy and neediness. We talk about mothers, theatre and books. We remember Russia, Hallie the Bitch, and dancing to classic rock covers at Café Wha. We talk about adolescence, feminism, and silence. Mainly, we talk about love.
It is my favorite part of every day, whether or not Mandy is there. I order a chai latte no matter what. It is spicy and hot against my tongue, and I drink it mainly because my favorite cousin told me it tastes like Christmas. I like the heat on my hands, and make a point to roll the paper cup over my cheek, delighting in the heat against my face, my skin. I like to sit alone and write, taking long breaks to look around me, eavesdropping on conversations, catching strangers’ eyes. I refuse to do work in my apartment, and prefer to be here, with all the noise and distraction. I like feeling like I am part of something bigger than my dorm room. Mandy and I find ourselves here together at least four times a week, and talk endlessly. “I think sometimes we have the same conversation over and over, just from different perspectives or something”, she says, and I have to agree. Wherever we begin, we end up here. We drink tea and eat pound cake, both of us breaking small pieces off, instead of biting right in.
I am unafraid. The chai is dramatic and I can tell Mandy secrets. As the night goes on we become more and more free, and suddenly it is midnight and I have admitted to the time I was so upset with Nate, that mid-fight I bit the palm of my hand so hard that it began to bleed. I know by the way she responds that we accept these things in ourselves, and move on, glad that there are no scars from when I would drag my nails across my thighs. She used to make herself throw up sometimes, and we smile at these faults, these transgressions and the pasts we have survived. When the coffee cools down it tastes more like syrup, it has lost its bite. I have to pace myself.
Again we return to talk of love. We are looking for it, we are falling for it, we are afraid of it, it hurts us. Sometimes the chai burns the inside of my lips and I feel that old pain again. It makes me quiet, and then makes me speak. Mandy’s longest relationships was for three weeks. Mine was for three years.
“You know what my therapist tells me?” Mandy begins, and I smile, comfortable with her therapist as our jumping off point. “She says I am afraid to feel pleasure. Or maybe that I like, can’t feel pleasure? But she’s so right because I don’t ever feel pleasure without the pain. And I guess I thought that’s how everyone was.” I nod, and a Joni Mitchell song swells in the background. We both drop our shoulders, so that our ears are unblocked to her voice. After a pause, I respond, “I think we all feel pleasure and pain to different degrees,” I say, “Stop trying to alienate yourself from everyone else.” It takes a lot for me to get the sentence out, frustration bubbling beneath the surface when Mandy tries to prove that her life is the most complicated, her psyche the most fruitful. (I think maybe right now is pleasure and pain: I think sometimes being with Mandy is pleasure and pain, we give each other both, a two hour coffee date spurning a rich wealth of different emotional plains. I like my chai so spicy that it burns my throat on the way down, I am disappointed when it is weakened by too much milk, or not enough tea. When I make it at home, I let the tea bag sit in the hot water for a long time, until I can smell only the spice and nothing else around me.)
“No, it’s different with me,” she insists. “Its like… when I’m working out, you know? And I think it’s going to feel good, that that’s how I can find pleasure, in that release, but then I feel pain, and I think its pleasure. You know?” Mandy is not talking about working out. I know this, and she knows this, and her voice fractures at the end of her sentences. Mandy is falling in love. I pause for a moment, giving myself time to mentally translate her confused well of words into structured thought.
“So you wish you could find joy in the things you’re doing, but everything you do that brings you joy or release has an underside of pain?” Mandy nods slowly in agreement. She doesn’t need solutions, she needs someone to pick up the confused puddle of thought that has gathered between us, and make it readable to her mind. I like my role as her translator. It is a little like playing hide-and-go-seek with her thoughts; each idea appears so far away from the others, so wrapped in confusion that I must gather them all up for her. The clutter of conversation around our tiny round table only focuses me more intently on her, and I try to see the patterns of pleasure and pain written on her face. And then I run my hand over my cheek, and know that same combination of pleasure and pain is carved into my own face, across my mouth and even in the way I lean in towards Mandy my rib cage touching the surface of the table.
The coffee shop is closing and there is no way to end this conversation that weaves through the scent of coffee and the relentless beeping of the coffee machines, the low mumble of other coffee and chai- drinking strangers. I wonder if they reach the same heights in their stiff wooden chairs, I wonder if we all are talking about love, all the time, somehow. If every conversation is a conversation about love.
I can think most clearly of the smell when he wakes up in the morning and leaves my apartment after hugging me at the door and I re-enter my room, alone to begin my day, unslept and unshowered and the first thing I can smell is that particular mixture of sweat and sour breath and it is somehow heavy in my room, it has density, it is almost tangible. It mixes with the scent of my own deodorant, pale and flowered, and the dead heat that barely rises to the surface of my malfunctioning heater. The room stays cold but the burnt smell of effort and dust remains even in the absence of heat. I open my window to let in new air. I love the smell when he is here in the morning, I love snuggling against him and living in the half lit well worn early afternoon that we wake up to in my bed. But once he has left and I begin to wake myself up from whatever altered life I have been living in for the past 12 hours, I find myself strangled by the same smells, and welcome in the cold air and hope for it to travel more quickly through my tiny bedroom, filling in all the crevices and clearing out our combined smells.
There’s a quiet shame, and I don’t know if it has to do with sex or love or fear, but the smell makes me feel almost sick with all these things, worried someone will smell it, feel its weight, climb into the dense atmosphere of my room in the morning. I think about Nate and how I can’t remember the way it used to smell when he left, except I am fairly certain it was not like this, because I am not painfully reminded of Nate when I inhale in the mornings, staying in bed a few moments after Tim leaves, the pillow smelling of his hair gel and ripe morning breath. I feel relief that the smell is so different, so distinct, and I remember the shock I had when I found Nate’s deodorant in my backpack two months after we broke up and I cried by myself, inhaling the familiarity and missing, for an instant, only that one part of him.
Do we ever really fall in love, or do we love some large, undefined ideal that is placed onto someone? Have I become a cynic?
It is a late Wednesday night, or it may be a few moments after waking on Thursday morning, and Tim keeps pulling me under the duvet, where it is dark and humid and we are always touching because my bed is so small. I used to sleep under a sheet, a heavy knit blanket, a down comforter and a quilt my aunt made me. I tried to assimilate Tim to this elaborate cocoon, but he is fitful, in sleep, and I soon gave up. Now, there is only the comforter with the pale blue duvet that I do not wash enough. I think I prefer this method of sleeping; uncomplicated and flexible. He likes to kiss me hiding out here, under the single comforter, as if we have built this fort and are sneaking kisses. Sometimes I feel as if we are sneaking kisses, and perhaps we will be caught. Sometimes I feel as if I fight so hard not to make the same mistakes that I did with Nate, but that the further in we go, the more I practice remembered moments, familiar words, dipping into the leftover emotions that hibernate in the pitted places in my heart.
“Say you need me”, he says, smiling and joking and serious. He is on top of me and we have been playing games, under the covers. He is smiling like a leprechaun and pressing his elbows into the mattress, an arm on each side of my head.
I smile and giggle and do all the things he loves, except for telling him I need him. Wasn’t he joking anyway?
He’s disappointed but I think he will forget by the time he goes home. I don’t have any way of knowing this, and maybe I’m wrong because it is Saturday afternoon with my chai latte and I’m still wondering if I should have needed him. I re-think the moment in my head, over and over, but each time, I am mute. In all the scenarios I invent, I never say I need him. I don’t even say it to myself, in my head, in subconscious dreaming life.
Except: I know I cry sometimes when I walk home in the mornings, and that I like knowing I will see him at night. And that I am anxious and scared. I know I think of things to tell him from the day. But I almost never tell him what I had planned to.
“Do you think you’re falling in love with Tim?” Mandy asks, sipping coffee deliberately, her large pink lips pursed against the edge of her cup.
“It’s so hard to tell, you know?” I reply. I am thinking suddenly of Nate, and although I am not surprised I have to wonder, again, when that association will no longer exist for me.
“There was this day,” I begin, rolling my eyes up towards the ceiling to picture the scene before launching into a story I have already told her. “Nate and I had been having all these problems, this was like… a year and a half ago, just a month or two before we broke up, and we were fighting all the time. I mean, we always fought all the time, but it was worse. Or seemed worse. Or whatever, it was bad. And my parents were out of town and he was coming over to secretly spend the night. And he brought over a six pack of beer and some vodka or something. And we ordered some pizza and ate it in front of the TV and he asked if I wanted to have something to drink. And you know, I wasn’t drinking very often during this period of time, it was about… a year after my mom had gotten out of detox and she was going to AA meetings all the time, and I just… whatever. And I especially didn’t want to drink when Nate and I were having all these problems, right?”
“Right.” Mandy says, laughing breathily the way she does when she’s about to be angry. Her eyes get wide and she sounds frantic, her laughter high pitched and staccato. “Ok so, I tell him that, you know, that I don’t think we should drink because we’re having all these problems and lets see if we can have fun together without drinking. And he seems annoyed but it passes. Then he gets up and says he wants another piece of pizza. I offer to go with him, and he says no, he’ll just eat it downstairs by himself.” I pause. I hate this story. I take a sip of chai, put the cup down, and pick it up again. I can’t look people in the eyes when I am telling a long story, I look around them, my eyes darting everywhere, somehow seeing the scene in motion all around me; when I look away I see Nate’s face just behind Mandy’s head. His thick black hair. His straight toothed smile.
“So anyway, he goes down and then after a minute I just decide to go hang out with him in the kitchen while he eats his pizza. So I walk down the stairs into the kitchen and he’s sitting at the counter, no pizza, but a can of beer in his hand. Its unopened, and he’s just about to pull the tab and take a drink. I start crying the second I see him. Its probably irrational but I just can’t believe he’s drinking behind my back for, like, no reason, when he knows… whatever. We start screaming at each other. I wish I could remember what was actually said, but I was so out of control that I can’t really remember any specific words, I can only see him sitting at the counter and me pacing around on the floor in front of him, pulling at my hair, biting on my thumb lightly with my teeth. We were definitely screaming at each other, for like an hour at least and finally things had escalated so much that I was barely breathing and Nate just grabs the can of beer and shakes it at me and says softly, intently, ‘Is this it? Is this the problem Corey?’ and I scream ‘Yes! Yes that is the problem!’ And for a moment I think that the fight is going to end and we’re going to finally talk about my mother’s alcoholism and how drinking gives me anxiety and all the other unspoken words that I have wanted to say for so long. We hold eye contact for a moment, and I begin to smile at him, knowing he understands me, he really does. And he takes the can, opens it and takes a long swig. He slams it back down on the counter and I collapse into a chair, unable to do anything but sob and tell him to leave. Which he almost does, but ends up staying the night anyway, on the couch, in the family room.”
I realize I have been talking long enough so that my chai has gone cold, and Mandy’s angry laugh has increased to an incredulous hysteria and I am smiling, the way I do whenever I finish one of these stories, of which I have too many.
“Ok,” Mandy says, after a moment, “So what does this have to do with whether or not you love Tim?”
“Everything I just told you, that’s what I think love is. I don’t know how to have love, without that.”
I wake up on a cold Wednesday morning in October with the strange feeling of not knowing who is next to me. I have always had trouble separating dreams from reality; it is not unusual for me to feel residual anger at a friend who I fought with in a dream the night before. I feel unclear in the mornings if I have been dreaming too vividly, my mind grows hazy and confused, unable to distinguish my own life from the one I have invented. I dislike waking up to Tim when I am in this state, because it means I have dreamt again about Nate. Tim is spooning me and I can smell the boyish smell of his mostly naked body. I snuggle into him more and he responds by kissing my neck, still asleep. I love this about him; his unconscious response is to give me affection. Its as if this proves something about his faithfulness, and I try to remember what it was like to sleep next to Nate and am amazed to realize I cannot. I don’t remember if he held me, I have only a vague recollection that I would cry to myself sometimes after he fell asleep, feeling even lonelier when he was beside me. If I focus, I think I recall that he held me until he fell asleep, then his body would drift away from mine. I would always remain awake, watching the clock and his arms, willing them to pull me in. I would shake him a little sometimes, try to wake him up. He slept too soundly for me, proved unreachable at night.
This morning I wake from the dream I have been having ever since Nate left me for someone else. I can never remember the bulk of the dream when I wake up, but I do know that the basic problem is that although Nate and I haven’t spoken in a long time we are still technically “together” in the dream, and I have to see him again and potentially break up with him. In the most recent versions, I am already dating Tim and know that I have to once and for all break up with Nate. It seems like it should be simple; we supposedly have barely been speaking. But once I see him I am mute and cannot say the words. I want to leave him, I know I need to, but I am unable to. Fear and anxiety rob me of any ability to take control, and the whole dream is spent in a state of paralyzing panic. I’m sure there are one hundred psychoanalytic ways to interpret this recurring dream or nightmare. What bothers me most though, is that I have this dream only on nights when Tim is sharing my bed with me. And in the mornings before he wakes up, I watch him guiltily, wondering if he knows that I am unfaithful in my dreaming life. It occurs to me for the one thousandth time that we are all alone, because even when he is right next to me, holding my body to his, wisps of my hair blowing a little from his breath, he is still separate and betrayed. I can’t help but hate myself a little.
Later that day I will try to construct sense out of this all in a journal entry. After a deep breath and a quick sip of too-hot chai, I will realize that it has been two years since the break up, and not one day has passed when I have not thought of Nate. And we had been together for three and a half years before that. It has been five and a half years without one day away from him, I think, exhausted.
I ask Mandy to read a journal entry I have written about Nate. It is a scene in which we are happy and laughing, I describe candidly the things I had loved about him. We are in a car and Nate lets me lie on his lap while he drives. What is dangerous seems the most safe, my head wedged between his legs and the steering wheel, his free arm stroking my hair.
“What did you think?” I ask her as we are walking home after seeing my favorite singer/songwriter perform at The Living Room.
“It was so weird to read it. I’d never heard stories about you and Nate being happy.”
“What do you mean?” I ask, laughing a little, uncomfortable.
“I guess I forget you were actually in a relationship with Nate. Like, I think about al the fucked up stuff and forget you were like… really with him.”
I laugh again, and stop too soon. When Mandy talks she is so honest that I think she forgets she is talking about my life.
“How can you forget we were in a relationship? We were together for three and a half years, of course there were good times!” I exclaim, and I feel the desperate need to defend the relationship I have spend two years erasing. I suddenly want to tell Mandy about the surprise spaghetti dinner Nate made me once when I was meeting him at my empty home one night after babysitting. I got there late and he had set the table in the dining room, turned off the lights and lit tall red candles. There was a bowl of spaghetti and red sauce and a shaker of parmesan set in the middle of the table. He had written me a note that was taped to the front door when I arrived home and he had signed it “Love, Chef Nate”.
“You know, Corey, we only talk about what went wrong. And when I think about Nate, he never seems like a real person. And I didn’t know you when you guys were together so I can’t really imagine it. I just forget that there was a whole relationship before the break up. And that some of it must have been good.”
There is probably a vat of hidden memories somewhere, where we can store what we don’t want to remember. These things are far from us; sunken into a hazy space in our minds, embedded beneath the memories we have accepted as the complete picture of our lives. Sometimes the underside is the pain we have repressed. It is what we want to remember least. And in my case, it is the joy that must have existed. I have made it small and insignificant. It is stored in that vat, buried so that I might forget it is there.
Nate brings candles when he visits me at college my sophomore year. It is the middle of September and we haven’t seen each other since the summer ended three weeks ago. He has brought tiny white tea candles and I am pyrophobic which he always forgets. Nate lights the candles and puts them around the room, on my standard issue dorm style furniture- a small set of drawers, a desk and a twin sized bed that we squeeze into at night. He smells like Old Spice deodorant and his hands shake a little when he lights the candles, missing a few times. We lie on my bed together before undressing, looking at the sheer pink cloth I unsuccessfully hung on my ceiling. I wanted it to look like a canopy but instead it looks like fabric taped to a ceiling. I don’t know how to create illusions.
“Do you like how I decorated the room?” I ask, huddled in his arms. “Not bad,” he says, eying the poster of a fairy and my new orange lamp. I want to talk about my room and college and how much we love each other but he leans over and starts kissing me, his hands wandering and suddenly he is on top of me. “I never want to do this with anyone else,” he says and I smile largely at him then nuzzle my head into his neck where I want to stay buried forever. He never says these things anymore, and I feel I am constantly waiting for them, hanging on his words, weeding though them to find the compliments, the assurances.
“I don’t either,” I whisper into his skin and I tear up because he will be leaving in two days to go back to his school in Pennsylvania. “Don’t do that now, Corey,” he says, scolding me a little, and I take a split second to decide whether to challenge his remark with anger or to apologize. I make this choice at least ten times a day, and this time I wait a second too long to reply and he knows this means I am angry and the moment is over. The candles are still flickering and I want to blow them out; I am always afraid the flame will spill over and burn the floor, the curtains, my face. I watch the flame and Nate rolls off me, hiding his face in his hands, and I know he is rolling his eyes from behind those hands.
Two years later, this is what I remember of the last time I saw Nate. He left me four days later, on the phone when he was back in Pennsylvania and I was sitting on my bed, the sheets still unwashed, the tea candles still melted to my furniture.
Even though it is cold outside and I have money for a cab, I decide to walk home from deep in the West Village, to my home in the East Village. The walk is like flipping through a scrapbook of the past three years, living in New York City. Walking down Bleeker Street, I pass every tiny shop Ambika and I used to look into; a bookstore that only sells biographies, a shop dedicated entirely to olive oil, and the Magnolia Bakery where they make the best cupcakes in the city, and even tonight at midnight there are people crammed inside the tiny room, stuffing cupcakes into white cardboard boxes. Ambika and I bought them one Sunday evening and ate them in front of the TV, licking pink frosting from our fingertips and letting the chocolate crumbs fall on our carpet, the view of the Empire State Building outside our window reflecting vaguely on the television screen, ghost-like and invasive. (Surely later that same night I must have fought with Nate, apologizing for spending too much time with Ambika when I should have been talking to him on the phone, or at the very least thinking about him alone. When Ambika and I would talk in the dark at night, our beds positioned against adjoining walls, I would feel a giddy guilt, knowing I had promised Nate hours before that I wouldn’t talk to anyone else before bed).
Why are all my favorite memories on Bleecker Street? I pass the Indian restaurant where Tim and I went on our first date. It is lit up with Christmas tree lights and wall to wall mirrors, its neon sign decidedly out of place on the street. Tim ate chicken tikka off my plate and made animated and awkward jokes about his roommates. I hold in a private smile, thinking of the way he spilled sauce on his pants the last time we came here, and said ‘I’m glad this isn’t the first date.’ with a wide, self deprecating smile, holding my hand across the table and nearly knocking over a glass of water.
I remember Nate as I walk by the Washington Square Diner, where we used to eat pancakes, eggs and bacon on Sunday mornings before he would get on the train back to Pennsylvania. I ate eggs sunny-side up for the first time on one of these mornings; he showed me how to puncture the yoke so that it spilled out over the egg whites, making the taste stronger and saltier.
I peer through the diner windows, watching patrons eat midnight pancake specials and cups of coffee, and I try to picture myself in the diner, with Nate. I try to remember something specific about him, anything. Sometimes I feel that I have told the stories so many times, they have lost their meanings, and the details (black stubble rubbing against my chin, the pitch of his voice, how big his hand was compared to my own) are only words, the feeling has vacated. I stretch my mind, wanting to remember something sensual or emotional, submerging myself in a remembered scene. I focus on the parts of the memory I have retained and when I emerge from my moment in the past, I am empty-handed. The memory is only a memory, now, it is no longer a secret portal to some other time, I am no longer allowed to experience what it felt like to be in love with Nate. It seems every day I move further and further into my life “post-Nate” and, standing firmly against the city cold, I realize immediately that someday, it will not be “life post-Nate” to me anymore. It will simply be my life. I don’t think I will ever take Tim to this diner- we will eat French toast on Avenue A, and indulgent peanut butter and hot fudge sundaes at Pizzeria Uno, and lasagna at my new favorite Italian restaurant. I leave the diner behind, missing the salty eggs, taking a moment to have the memory, and then put it aside. It’s getting to the point where I don’t have room for all the memories of Nate anymore, this present life is getting too full of its own ecstasies and disappointments.
Most overwhelming on this walk, however, is Washington Square Park, which I almost never walk by anymore. I have never seen the park look so beautiful; the white arch is, for the first time in my three years here, naked without the scaffolding climbing over its surface. It is triumphant and clean against the dark, and there are lights all over the grid of the park, mirroring the stars that are invisible to the city. I stop to wonder at how changed this park is, without the construction, the distractions. It is perhaps not a finished product, and it is certainly not without faults, but it has come so far, grown so beautiful that I can’t help but stare at the way we all move on and become something always more sure- the arch and I both pale and steady within the chilled night.