“Are You Happy?”
While watching Bo Burnham’s comedy special, Make Happy, you first encounter the question: “Are you happy?” Amidst the melancholy of his piano Bo asks you “on a scale from one to zero, are you happy?” You never really thought about it. Am I happy? Do I need to know now? But because you’re in a room with your three best friends, you aren’t willing to answer Bo. His question requires too much honesty. You let the thought slither and weave through your mind, until finally it finds its place in your mental filing cabinet marked: POTENTIALLY SELF-DESTRUCTIVE QUESTIONS.
A few months later, you see the same video of Bo on YouTube. You watch it alone. This time, you confront yourself: I’m not happy. I’m unhappy. Why does this hurt so much to admit? Bo’s song floods from your phone speakers relentlessly. You’ve hardly finished eating your breakfast, but you’re crying. You both envy and fear his vulnerability; how can he say these things to crowds of people, night after night, when you can’t even talk to your parents about how you feel? His face on the screen becomes distorted by your tears.
“So if you know or ever knew how to be happy, on a scale from one to two now, are you happy? You’re everything you hated, are you happy?” Bo sings, alone, hunched over his piano in the dimly lit room. Then, he slowly rises and exits through a door guiding him towards sunlight, leaving you behind, cereal spoon in hand, sobbing.
You don’t know how to be happy, you realize. You can’t remember if you ever have been; you can’t imagine what life might feel like if you were. You recall the other day when your mom asked you to smile for a picture and you wanted to cry. You despise the falseness of your smile, feeling your head grow hot while you grit your teeth and perform for the people who love you most. You wonder how anyone could enjoy forcing themselves to smile for a picture—why a mother would ask her son to pretend to be happy. In your mind, you secretly hope that as soon as the camera’s flash goes off, you’ll explode into a frenzy of flesh and gore, so that everyone will finally see everything you’re holding in.
Only in your dreams do you find the peace of honesty. In those dreams you can scream into your parents’ faces about just how much of yourself you’ve lost, just how much they’ve failed to help you. You can scream about your frustration, hatred, the fears that keep you from reaching out towards happiness. But still, you wake up a liar. Your dishonesty cripples your happiness. How could you ever feel happy when you can’t be honest about how you feel with anyone in your life? How can you blame anyone but yourself for your misery if you’re unwilling to let anyone in? You don’t deserve any better when all you do is sit silently, a passive mite waiting for someone to donate their love to you. You perform your life just like Bo performs in his shows. Your only option is to pretend to know what happiness means.
* * *
“Hey, Connor, so this girl downstairs says that she’ll do stuff with you, but she won’t have sex with you. Something about staying pure and shit, I don’t know. But yeah, she saw you walk in, and she’s into you.” I look up and see Kyle closing the door behind him. He’s the reason why I’m here, in this room, mixing Tanqueray and sparkling lemonade—he invited us all to his girlfriend Sam’s house-party. His words whisk through the air and bump into my face, distracting me from pouring the perfect mixture of gin and lemonade. I look up at his grin, then at Jake’s raised eyebrows. I can tell my friends are excited for me, but their reactions don’t align with my own.
“Uh, alright. Probably not gonna do anything with her, but thanks for the heads up.” In my chest, my heart begins to run. I don’t even know who she is. Why does she want to do stuff with me? Suddenly, I feel my night adopt a different tone. Maybe she is pretty, or nice, or cool, but I don’t know her. I don’t want to feel obligated to do anything with this stranger, but at the same time, I don’t want her to feel badly or feel rejected. I don’t want this pressure on me when all I want to do is get drunk and listen to music with my friends. I wrap my fingers tight around my water bottle filled with gin, as if I’m begging a genie to pop out of it and help me wish this stress away.
By the time I hop back outside of my mind, Kyle’s leading us downstairs, where everybody else is already drinking and having fun. A girl walks up to us with jello shots and offers one to each of us, which we take and slurp down quickly, realizing we’re still too sober to “party” effectively. In the center of the party, between the kitchen and the living room, there’s a pong table. One team is pulling down their pants because they shot their ball into the wrong cup. I can never remember which cup means what, though.
The living room is lit exclusively by a multi-color light bulb, flickering in and out of reds, blues, greens, and yellows. In the mix of whirling colors, there’s a cluster of girls dancing to the music. My eyes strain to adjust to the darkness juxtaposed with the flashing lights, so I aim my eyes at the carpet and find my way to the couch with Jake.
“We gotta get on that aux,” I say to him, thinking I may have found a way to make this party fun for us. “Your phone have battery? Pull up Spotify, we can make a playlist.”
“What do we got here? Uh, we gotta throw in some Childish—3005, Bonfire. Um, Kendrick—King Kunta. I’d love to rap fast so I’m down for Rap God, if you are. Alright, cool. Do we want more Eminem? Okay, how ‘bout Without Me, Shake That. Alright that’s good. Throw in Broccoli, too. It’s a crowd pleaser.”
“So, who’s on the aux?” Jake asks me, as two girls walk in our direction. One of them has dirty blonde hair, blue eyes, and light skin. The other is very tall. The blonde girl approaches us while her tall friend stands behind her.
“Hey, Sam told me you guys wanted to take over. I’m Jessica, by the way. What are your guys’ names?”
“And I’m Connor.”
“Cool, well it’s nice to meet you guys and here you go.” Jessica lets us take over the music and then grabs her friend by the hand, leading her to what apparently is the dance floor. As she leaves us, I gain the suspicion that she’s the one that wants to “do things” with me. It’s not often that beautiful women approach me at parties. Jessica seems nice, though, and she is very pretty. Maybe this is just luck.
A few feet in front of Jake and I on the couch, Jessica and her friend start to dance with each other. She starts to grind on her friend while their hands begin to trace each other’s bodies. I find myself engaged in their ecstasy, moved by their freedom.
I’ve learned in a literary theory class about Laura Mulvey’s ideas on visual pleasure and voyeurism. I can’t understand why Jessica would choose to be stared at—why she’d want me to lust over the way her body sways and rocks over her friend’s. But I find myself lusting, feeling a slight stirring beginning to yearn. I don’t want to be some voyeuristic college douchebag, though, so I pull my eyes off them, and turn to Jake, hesitant.
“This is for us, isn’t it?” I ask him.
“This is definitely for us.” Jake’s eager confirmation only worries me. Jessica is attractive, and she seems nice, but I don’t want to be interested in someone simply because they exude sensuality.
Shut the fuck up, I command my brain, before I wring the rest of the gin from my water bottle and leave for a refill. With each drink, my mind is less and less concerned about the ethics of the Jessica situation. Despite this, I must admit that I’m not going to pursue the whole “doing things” with her. Not that I don’t want to, but I just feel like I can’t. I’ve never been wanted by someone I want, and I feel like once I care, she won’t anymore.
After my refill, I find myself with Kyle by the pong table, watching one team full of drunken idiots yell at the other team full of drunken idiots. I notice how much they look like they belong here though, in this setting. I look down at myself and think about how much I’ve had to drink tonight just to pretend like I can fit in. As I’m lost in my labyrinth of self-loathing, Jake grabs me by my shoulder.
“Jessica’s really into you, man. I just talked to her about it. You should just go make out with her.”
I chuckle a little, wishing I could say to Jake that I’m not him and that nothing is ever that easy for me. “Eh, that’s alright. I think I’m good,” is all I can say instead. Quickly, though, another ambassador of Jessica’s arrives after Jake, one I have never met.
“Bro, that girl over there is gonna come over here and kiss you. She likes you and she knows you’re not gonna kiss her.” If I was lucid, I’d be angry. Instead, I settle for embarrassed and uncomfortable. His comments seem to suggest that I’m supposed to kiss her just because she wants me to, and now that I haven’t, I’m doing something wrong. He thinks I need his help. “She likes you,” she doesn’t know me. I can feel my anger poke at me, but I’m too drunk to care. I immediately think that this “bro” is trying to insert himself into my situation with Jessica because he hopes that I won’t want any part of her and then he’ll be the one she “does things” with instead. But, maybe my insecurities are just trying to yell louder than my intoxication. To silence them, I laugh in his face. “What are you talking about? That’s not gonna happen, man.”
He shrugs at me, dismissing my protest, then passes by and moves into the kitchen. I turn my head away from him, still with a half-smile sprawled on my face, and see another person approaching me. Before I can realize it isn’t another ambassador, and is instead Jessica herself, I feel her hands grip my shoulders. She pulls me to her, like she’s holding the joystick for those Claw games at arcades; she’s nearly snatched up her prize as her face drifts inches from mine. She holds me by the shoulders, leans in, and kisses me. I stare at her placid eyelashes before understanding that my eyes too are supposed to be closed. I close them shut and place my hands lightly on her hips. I’m afraid to fully embrace her, worried that I’ll ruin the moment, but I ignore my hesitant hands and focus on her lips conjoining with mine. All my rigid, performative actions begin to slacken and eventually I just let go.
“You did good!” Jessica says, happy and fulfilled. I stare back, dumb. She takes her smile back with her, back amongst her friends, leaving me to look to Jake whose eyes are wide with excitement.
“Holy shit, dude! She just walked right up to you!” Jake says, fighting off his intoxication. I say some bullshit response back to him, one that doesn’t express how I truly feel. My heart is running again, but this time I don’t feel like I’m losing my breath, I feel vital. I feel wanted, adequate, ideal. I feel happy.
I can’t imagine a first kiss being any better.
After a week, I can. The kiss with Jessica was nice, but soon I realize my first kiss wasn’t what I’ve been chasing. I got Jessica’s number that night, and tried to stay in contact with her, but quickly learned that she wasn’t interested in me as a human being. She just wanted a suitable candidate for a drunken kiss. I try to understand it. To just chalk it up as a fun, drunken, college experience, but it hurts too much. I know now that there’s no tomorrow for us, no future, no real connection aside from the one I felt between our lips. I feel stupid for thinking she might’ve wanted to know me. To see what’s inside and to not run from it, but instead embrace someone imperfect. I wanted to do the same for her.
After a week, she’ll no longer answer me. She probably wishes I’d just stop trying to contact her, so I stop. Amidst my rejection, I begin to overthink: I tried to tell you. Why did you risk feeling like this? Of course she wasn’t the answer to your happiness, you idiot. Jesus, what’s wrong with you? It was only a kiss. My only answer to my brain’s criticism is a fist thrown through my closet door. Unfortunately, my happiness isn’t solely hindered by my dishonesty and fear. My anger also constricts my happiness until it’s lifeless. These three are cohorts in crime. My inability to express my discomfort and depression—feeling as if my feelings are wrong and that I’m just too sensitive—it all enrages me.
Blood leaks from my knuckles, but all I can hear now is the rhythmic symphony of my pulse. I feel the peace of pain consume me, forgetting Jessica and instead placing my attention on cleaning my bloody hand, before it drips onto my clothes or my carpet. My brain is gagged by the sting of isopropyl alcohol, my dreams of happiness silenced by the orange-red liquid swirling down the drain.
* * *
You don’t understand love. You look at your parents who’ve been married for a little over twenty-eight years, yet you don’t understand why, or how. You see tiny moments where they misunderstand each other. She complains about something, he acknowledges her complaint, she implies he’s capable of fixing the problem, he just wants to eat and go to sleep after working his ten-hour day. With X-Ray vision, you see them suffocate their annoyances with one another, deep down, right behind weary hearts. The next morning, he leaves a note for her. Not an apology, but instead a little stick-man cartoon with his arms stretched wide: I love you thiiiiiiis much. Have a good Monday! Then, everything is normal again. Twenty-eight years. This is love, apparently.
You never want to feel that trapped. Like each day you need to wake up armed with a new apology. You never want to feel caught within a passive-aggressive tennis match between you and your (hypothetical) significant other. Love has its way of being infectious, how it worms its way into your inner fibers, uses you as its host until it’s had its fill, and then slithers out of you, leaving you empty. Yet, you’ve never wanted to see love as a disease. You can’t see a reason why love couldn’t be a seed that sprouts into a lovely flower? Yet, when you look at the love around you, all you see is disease.
You don’t understand love. You investigate the faces of your peers and wonder if you could ever love them, if you could love any of them. Then, you snap your eyes down to your shoes and watch them carry you over the cold concrete. You’re certain that either you’d love them, or they’d love you, but you’d never love each other. Your mind plays it out: the awkward getting to know each other, the eventual vulnerability, then the repercussions of squandered intimacy. You wouldn’t be able to be honest, then you’d feel misunderstood, then you’d bail. This realization takes you back to the cave behind your eyes so that you can’t do any damage to anyone but yourself.
In class, you look at the empty desk next to you and wonder why you’re always alone. What do you do that makes people stay away? Is it your pensive gaze? The way your eyebrows naturally converge in anger? You say that you like to be alone, that you need it, but that’s quite the deflection. People just don’t like you, they never have. You say you don’t like them either, like a retort from a ten-year-old who’s just had their feelings hurt. The funny thing is, people buy your excuses, they figure you just think you’re better than everyone else, that you’re just a judgmental prick, but that’s not the truth. You tell yourself it’s for everyone else’s betterment, your isolation. You tell yourself, during your commute to campus, in the mirror before bed, the next morning when you wake up, you tell yourself: if I’m alone I can’t ruin anyone else.
You don’t understand love, and you are unhappy.
* * *
I have three friends that I consider to be my best friends. There are others, but I simply don’t get to see them enough anymore since we all went off to college. I grew up with Kyle, Jake, and Jameson in Geneseo, NY. Jake is a year older than the rest of us, but that’s never really mattered. I’ve been friends with Kyle since preschool, Jake since fourth grade, and Jameson since ninth grade. There’s been different bonds between us all. Jake, Jameson, and I all played baseball together, losing in the State’s Finals twice (a feat never accomplished by a Geneseo team before us). For awhile, we all played video games together, gathering PlayStation after PlayStation to LAN at Kyle’s house. Kyle, Jake, and I still play video games together, but mostly online so that we can use the party chat to keep up with each other’s lives, while we’re all away at school.
When we do make the trip to Alfred State to see Jake, or RIT to see Jameson, usually we go to drink. These are the rare moments when I get to feel distracted. Alcohol has never made me happy, but it allows me to throw up a sheet metal barrier between the portion of my brain that hates me, and the rest of it that just wants to enjoy life for what it is. I don’t like alcohol’s taste, or its smell, or how I feel the morning after I drink it, but I appreciate alcohol because it’s my emancipator. When I sober up, I know that my defenses will have depleted, that the bully in my head will recommence its abuse, but I will have known what it’s like to feel free for a night, and that keeps me moving forward. Only when I’m with my closest friends do I get to experience such freedom, and it’s those experiences that I’m most grateful for.
“Oh God,” Kyle says, as Jake takes the bottle of Jägermeister out of the motel mini fridge and places it on the desk next to our complementary plastic cups.
“It’s actually not that bad. Like, it looks bad, I know, but it just kind of tastes weird. It doesn’t really taste like other liquors.” I try to comfort Kyle. Jamo (short for Jameson, like the whiskey) starts to open the miniature Coca-Cola bottles we bought to mix with our Jager.
“I don’t believe you.” Kyle doesn’t like liquor of any kind and is prone to vomiting whenever he tries to take shots.
“Eh, it’ll be fiiiiiiine,” I reassure him, “just one shot.” When we try to clink our cups together and say cheers, the plastic hardly makes a sound.
“Oh I lied! It’s so much worse than I remember. Never again,” I say, immediately regretting the choice of liquor Jake and I had made for our trip to Long Island, to see a Watsky concert. Kyle feels similarly, so he calls it quits after the first shot.
“Alright, I’ll do one more,” I say while Jamo and Jake begin to pour the next round. After the second shot I join Kyle on the sidelines, seeing as it’s only ten o’clock in the morning. Jake and Jamo continue to take shots, with Jamo ultimately drinking the most as he tends to do.
We call an Uber to take us to the venue. While we sit in the lobby, I can start to feel the shots of Jager rush to my head, freeing me slightly from my back talking brain. We spot our ride and stride through the automatic motel doors. The early morning, July sun already feels hot on my face and I’m glad that Kyle remembered to pack sunscreen. After a fifteen-minute ride, we arrive at a vast parking lot empty of cars, but not of human beings. While we had travelled to Long Island to see a Watsky concert, his show was just one act out of the many bands that perform at Vans Warped Tour. Watsky was just the only artist we cared to see.
A string of people serpentines through the empty spaces of parallel lines. We become a part of the string and are immediately approached by indie bands (not included in the actual tour) asking if we want their CDs; some for free, some for a price. We just try to avoid them as much as possible.
“Man, I’m sober as shit. I did not take enough shots. Why’d we have to pick Jager?” I say, as the July sun stares at us through the tops of trees.
“They’ve got to sell alcohol here somewhere, right?” Jake says.
“Oh, for sure. Well, I’ve gotta piss, so how about you two stay in line, and me and Jake will go look for a bathroom/alcohol?” I say, trying to be an asshole.
“Oh, thanks…” Kyle says, as Jake and I head on our quest. After a brief search, Jake and I find a concession stand and a bathroom. Jake goes to the register alone, because I’m still only twenty, and orders two beers for us. Then, we speed walk back to Kyle and Jamo to make sure they haven’t been let into the concert without us.
“Here, you and Kyle can have these two, while me and Jamo go back and get two more,” Jake says to us. Kyle and I both begin taking big gulps from the cups of Bud Light, as an attempt to kill two birds with one stone. Well, it’s actually three birds. One, we want the beer to intoxicate us as much as one beer possibly can. Two, we’re underage and security guards/police officers are constantly roaming around the seemingly infinite line. Three, the sun has caught us in its spotlight and the cold beer actually tastes really refreshing. We toss the cups in the trash long before Jake and Jamo return with their own cups. Two hours later, we’re let into the concert.
The sun spits its heat on us as we worm through the crowd towards Watsky’s stage. We manage to get close to the all-black platform, fifty feet away or so. We stand in our places for an hour before people start to pop up behind the stage. First, it’s his drummer, then the guitarist and bassist, then his back-up singer, then finally I see a brown hat coming up the stairs to the stage. It’s him! I can’t really believe that it’s him. I think this must be what it’s like when you die and meet God. It’s hard to believe that he’s there, even though you were told all your life that this moment was coming. With Watsky, though, I’m alive, and so is he, and so are my friends next to me. This is one of those transcendent moments that exists not on Earth, but in one’s proverbial “happy place”—where your brain can’t tell you that you’re going to ruin the moment, or that you don’t deserve to exist in such a perfect moment.
Despite my brief escape, the heat reminds me where I am. I’m bumping elbows with dozens of other people dripping with sweat. I’ve never sweat this much in my life. I feel the droplets sprinting down my legs, playing a game of Plinko with my leg hairs. My water bottle is nearly empty, but the show is about to begin. I have to sweat this one out, dehydration be damned.
Watsky performs “Moral of the Story,” “Seizure Boy,” “Sloppy Seconds,” “Tiny Glowing Screens, Pt. 3,” and “Whoa Whoa Whoa,” a set that lasts only about a mere thirty minutes. Which means that the amount of time we spent in the car, driving to Long Island to see Watsky (six hours and thirty minutes), was about thirteen times longer than the amount of time we got to see him perform. By the end of his set, though, I knew the drive was worth every minute. After his last song, he tells the crowd he’ll be signing autographs and taking pictures at his tent for about an hour. We dart over to get in line.
My heart begins to run. I look at the small man in his army-green Supra shoes, brown khaki pants, plain grey t-shirt, and brown hat while wondering how he’s manufactured a moment that’s allowed me to feel this happy. I’m ripped outside of my mind as soon as we reach the front the line. I bought his book, How to Ruin Everything, for him to sign, but I forgot my copy at home. Luckily, we found a Barnes and Nobles the day before, right near our motel, so I bought another copy. Say something, my brain whispers.
“Do you think you could sign my book?” I ask as he finishes signing Jake and Kyle’s CDs first.
“Of course!” He says back pleasantly.
“Thanks. Yeah, this is actually my second copy now. I forgot my original one at home, so I had to pick up another,” I manage to utter, trying to think of anything to say in the presence of one of my idols.
“Well, thanks for picking this up. I really appreciate it.” We line up for a picture and I’m able to finally smile honestly. I feel like I’m very visibly shaking from both nervousness and excitement, but nobody seems to notice. There is no rage. There is no doubt. There’s just Kyle, Jake, Jamo, and Watsky. There’s a single, glittery speck of happiness shimmering amongst the black sea in my psyche.
After a week or so, I come down. The trip to Long Island ends and my normal life resumes. I fall victim to my brain once again: Why didn’t you tell him how much his words have meant? I guess I couldn’t think that fast. I was too caught up in the moment. You didn’t even thank him for his music. I know, I know. Well you’ll never get another chance, you fucked it all up. I know, I know.
* * *
You need to know how it all works, the nature of happiness. You read online about a “Hedonic Treadmill” theory. It states “that regardless of what happens to someone, their level of happiness will return to their baseline after the event.” So the aftermath of Watsky, is that your baseline? Or is that the low to the Watsky high? Highs and lows. You sound manic. Are you depressed, is that all this is? Could a couple of pills just poof away these questions? You feel like your life is in denouement and your chance at happiness has already passed. Some misstep along your path guided you astray and denied you of your life’s greatest climax.
Yet, you’ve felt happiness before and you know you’re capable of feeling it. Often this thought only adds to your pain, though. To know that you could be happy, to know that some source is out there waiting for you to mine it, only makes you feel more trapped and stagnant.
You go to school and never miss a class. You do hours of work and get good grades, but never feel like it’s worth it. In your writing workshops, you read what other people write, compare it to your own writing, and hate yourself for not being better. Your self-hatred fuels your rage. You’re violent and you hide it from everyone. Your right fist hides tiny scars from the walls and doors you’ve punched through. You put up posters so that your family and friends don’t see the holes or through the façade you put on to seem normal. The variables spin around in your head, making you dizzy. The rage, the self-hatred, the dishonesty regarding a creeping depression, it all sends you spiraling inward.
* * *
My brain is right, in many ways. I am imperfect, and I should learn from my mistakes. Often the variables in my head overwhelm me and I find myself lost within myself, which suddenly feels like a very foreign and hostile landscape. I’ve wanted to escape myself for too long, pretending as if this is a viable option. This strategy left me feeling isolated for years. I refused to attempt to build new relationships in college because my brain let me understand that I had nothing to offer anyone else but misery and pain. I told myself that being isolated was best because that way I’d have time to work on myself, before I let some unfinished draft of myself do harm to someone else.
For most of my life, I’ve thought being in love might bring me happiness. If someone else saw value in me, perhaps then I would see it too. According to Diener and Diener, in their book Happiness, “the close relationships that produce the most happiness are those characterized by mutual understanding, caring, and validation of the other person as worthwhile.” All three of my closest friends have been, or are currently in serious relationships, and I never have been. Often, I feel like I’m behind, like they’ve figured out how happiness works and I’m just supposed to exist alone. And in a matter of time, when we all have to find jobs and buy houses, they’ll have someone to be with and I won’t. At twenty years old, I understand this may be a preemptive and possibly irrational fear, but that understanding doesn’t cause my fear to evaporate. I want to understand love like they have. I want to feel happy like they can.
Perhaps I’ve misinterpreted Diener and Diener, though. Perhaps those “close relationships” they refer to aren’t those that are simply romantic. Perhaps I’ve found three of those relationships already. Kyle, Jake, and Jamo have allowed me to experience happiness and love, even if it’s love that’s purely platonic. I hope in some way I’ve repaid the favor, even if I’m just one of their many sources of happiness.
I’ve craved an answer to give to Bo this whole past year. Yes or No. Happy or Unhappy. But it’d never occurred to me before that perhaps “are you happy?” is a rhetorical question. The sudden and overwhelmingly realization that I was unhappy blocked me from that reaching that logical conclusion. Bo might even agree that the question itself can do more harm than good. I think maybe he found the best answer to the question himself: “But what the fuck kind of question is ‘am I happy?’”
What the fuck kind of question is “am I happy?”
By October, life has grown slow, as if I woke up one day on my belly, reborn slug. I find myself struck with grief at random moments in the day; I’m suddenly incapacitated by the decision of what to eat for lunch. Standing still until I’m sobbing, in the middle of the kitchen, head hung, hands catching tears. They’re warm in my palm at first, then they pool cold in my hand. I feel the urge to catch them, to hold them close to me, worried that as they break free, I might be losing too much of myself. Later, I’ll tear up during a psychology lecture on axons, blinking my eyes rapidly, in a panic, praying my hysteria will go unnoticed.
I inch now. I inch on my stomach, leaving a certain slimy residue in my wake. I know what it’s called, the residue covering my underbelly, but I’m too afraid to say it or admit it. I give it other names, like anger or, more recently, Emily. I’m thrust backward, inward, into memories of Emily. Slugs can love, too. They’re never loved in return, but they love just as deeply as anyone else. It’s been months and I can’t get Emily out of my head. I can’t get away from her. I’m too slow now.
I try, but randomly I’m thrown into memory, losing contact with the world spinning around me. While I lay in bed, all I can think of is her head nuzzling into me. When I grab my arm, I feel her holding me. Even when I try to masturbate, all I can think of is her hand touching me. My erections start to become associated with the affliction looming over me, whose presence I’m too afraid to acknowledge. She unravels me, pulls me undone, even when she’s hundreds of miles away. There is no relief, no escape, I cannot control my thoughts. I cannot control my emotions. The corners of my eyes begin to dry out and the skin begins to die because of my excessive crying. It’s an awkward place to have to apply lotion to, and I feel sorry for myself as look into the mirror, squinting one eye at a time, dabbing on tiny dots of Jergens.
Each week I wait anxiously for my therapy sessions. I feel guilty for needing them. It’s becoming expensive for my parents to afford, but I’m desperate for guidance. I’m beginning to scare myself lately. I feel powerless in the war against my own brain. Every day I wake up afraid that I’m going to keep feeling worse and worse. Every day I wake up wondering why I should wake at all anymore.
Two weeks into the fall semester, Emily tells me that she just wants to be friends. She tells me she’s too busy to try to maintain a relationship with me, that she doesn’t think she’s emotionally available right now for a relationship anyways, and that she doesn’t believe in long distance relationships. Then, she tells me that she’d still love for me to visit her this weekend at her college in Vermont. I tell her I’ll think about it, worried that at this point I might only be indulging in something that will bring me pain, but I agree to go the next day regardless. I ask her though, why she wants me to come just as her friend. I ask if she has feelings for me, and she says she does, so I ask her why she wouldn’t want to have a more intimate, romantic weekend together. She says that she would like that, but she doesn’t want there to be pressure for anything to happen. By this, I assume she means that she doesn’t want to feel pressured to have sex with me. She knows that I haven’t had sex yet, though, and I’m slightly hurt by her fear that I’d pressure her into having sex. I want to be ready if she wants to have sex, but mostly, I just want us to be able to be honest about how we feel with each other.
Friday morning, September 7th, I begin the six-hour drive from Geneseo, NY to Vermont. I’m anxious to reach her. I try to keep up with the fastest drivers on the interstate, going eighty-five-miles-per-hour, the fastest I’ve ever driven my car. The trip feels long, and once I reach the Adirondacks the roads begin to feel like roller coaster tracks. The sun is beginning to set, and my brain starts to alert me of the threat of deer crossings. I’m not sure if there could be anything worse than wrecking my car in the Adirondacks, at night, without cell service, on my way to see Emily. My pessimism has no trouble convincing me that this is a very real possibility.
Luckily, I manage to find my way out of the roads adorned with rows of pines. Street lights begin to replace foliage overgrowth within a few miles. I take this as a good sign. The last hour of my trip is somewhat excruciating, though. Not so much because of the drive itself, but because I know how close I am to her. How close I am to feeling close to her.
The address I had put into my GPS takes me to a dead end cul de sac. I google the address again and enter it into my phone instead, then start to reroute. My anxiety heightens. Within five minutes though, I spot her school’s sign on the opposite side of the street. I don’t know where she lives, or where I can park, or even where she is at the moment, so I give her a call.
“Hey, uh, I think I’m here. Where are you at now?”
“Hi, if you pull in near the gas station, I’m in the closest building to that.” The background noise in the phone suggests she’s already at a party. It’s about 7:30 P.M.
“Okay, I see the gas station, should I—”
“Sorry, I’ll just come out to you,” Emily says loudly over the shouts in the background. I start to drive around the parking lot slowly, looking for her in the dark. After a couple of loops, we spot each other. Then, I spot her three roommates with her.
“Hey, you can just move whatever you need to back there,” I tell her roommates as they all pile into my little Kia Optima.
“How’s it going?” I ask Emily, as she sits next to me in the passenger’s seat.
“Good, already a little drunk. We made sangria.” I smile at her, happy to see her. Then, she introduces me to her roommates, who also seem buzzed. She tells me where to park, I grab my bag, and then we all start to walk back to the party they were at. The party is mostly a couple her friends and roommates when we arrive. She hands me a cup of the sangria as I pull out the mini bottle of ouzo liquor that she brought me back from her trip to Greece over the summer.
“Hey! You brought it! Have you tried it yet?” She asks me excitedly.
“Not yet. I figured you should be there when I finally did. What does it taste like?” I ask, observing the clear liquid in the bottle.
“Uh, kinda like black licorice. I drank far too much of it when I was in Greece.”
“What, so you don’t want any?” I ask jokingly.
“No, no. All you,” she responds.
“Alright, well here we go.” I take a swig from the mini bottle and contort my face a little, then I chase the liquor with the sangria. She laughs before saying, “What, not a fan?”
“Nope. Not great.” She takes my sangria cup from me and pours half of the ouzo into it while I protest feebly. It feels good to be joking around with her again. We drink for a little while longer, and I try to mingle with some of her roommates before the group starts to talk about going to a different party. Emily tells me to just leave my bag here and we’ll get it later.
As we start to walk to the next party, I feel a little buzzed. I feel out of place here, but I don’t feel anxious. I like getting a glimpse at her home away from home in Vermont. There’re students all over, drinking and smoking weed outside in the chilly air of the September night. They’re swearing and yelling at each other drunkenly. It’s an adventure, I tell myself. I know that I don’t belong here, but I’m glad I get to be on this adventure with Emily.
People stop along the way and call out to her. She tells me she doesn’t even recognize some of them. It’s a rather small school, only a couple thousand students attend, but I’m still a little baffled by the amount of people that know her. For some reason this only makes me want to be closer to her.
Emily tells me there’s a band playing at the house we’re going to. She loves live music and concerts, and I love that about her. When we walk through the door of the house, the amplifiers are overbearing, and a wave of heat blasts us. The air is thick and heavy with smoke, or fog maybe, as dozens of people overcrowd the tiny room. More people come up to her, give her hugs, yell her name out over the guitar and drums. She introduces me to one of her friends who’s just run up to her.
“And you’re from Geneseo, too? Why are you here?” Her friend asks me. I stare at her mouth, trying to make sure I understand what she’s saying to me. I smile a little, then give a nod towards Emily.
“To see her,” I say, feeling slightly awkward.
“Oh my gosh, that’s so sweet!” The girl says so me. I just give her a half-laugh and a shrug. Her friend leaves and another comes over. This time it’s a tall red-headed guy. She introduces me to him, too, but at this point I’m having trouble keeping track of everyone’s names. They talk for a bit, and I glance around the room at all the different people, but mainly at the guy in the back with a box of wine fixed to his shoulder like it’s a 1980’s boombox. I smile at the sight, and he notices me, then offers me a swig of the wine. I decline but continue smiling.
The massive flag of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon hanging on the wall draws my attention next, and I comment out loud, but mostly to myself, about it. Emily takes notice.
“Huh?” She says getting closer to me. I bend my head down closer to her ear.
“It’s Pink Floyd! Good album,” I reply, still smiling. She nods back at me, a little confused, but smiling too. The band starts to play cover songs instead of their own originals. The first one I recognize is Weezer’s “Undone-The Sweater Song.” We both start to sing along with it and dance a little, independently. I want to take her hand and dance with her, but I stop. I’m worried she’ll feel pressured. Or, that she won’t want to be seen with me in that way around her friends. They play a few more songs, she dances a little more unabashedly than I do, and then we exit out the back of the party into the cold air, which now feels refreshing.
“Oh, have you even eaten?” She asks me suddenly, remembering I spent my day alone in a car.
“Not really. I had some granola bars in the car, though,” I reply.
“Well you should eat! What do you want to eat?” She starts to list off different places on campus that we can eat. I know she likes to get quesadillas somewhere on campus, so I offer that up.
“Okay. Come on!” She yells behind her to the rest of her friends, “The boy needs to eat!” I start to follow her lead. We get food and wander back to her suite, which ends up being a different place than where I left my bag.
“You don’t really need it right?” Emily asks me. Of course, I want my bag, it has everything I brought in it. All I have on me now is my phone and wallet.
“Uh, I guess not,” I say, trying to go along with her. We get back to her place, and I notice the flowers I sent her last week on the windowsill. I smile when I see them. She goes to the bathroom to get ready for bed, and I sit on the couch in the living area of their suite. When she returns, her friend says that she’s sleeping with Emily tonight instead. I can’t tell if she’s joking or not, because in truth, I don’t know if Emily and I will be sleeping together. I had hoped so.
Emily gives her friend a pillow and some blankets, though, and tells me to follow her to her room. She gives me a little tour and I can tell she’s very proud of the way she’s decorated it. She even shows me the photograph of the conductor of some orchestra her mother had gotten signed for her birthday. She tells me she’s embarrassed of the photo, but she’s hung it up anyways. She crawls into her tiny, twin bed pressed into the back corner of the room and invites me into it. She takes the inside spot against the wall, which for some reason seems fitting of her personality. I lay next to her, rigid. I’m unsure of what she wants me to do. She said she didn’t want there to be pressure, so I stay on my side of the bed. Our skin grazes, but I don’t try to reach out and touch her.
She rolls over quickly to face the wall. I stare at the light coming through the blinds, hitting the ceiling. I feel dehydrated and I wish that I had drank a bit of water before bed. I lay there for a long time, drifting towards sleep, but unable to reach it for another hour or two. When I finally do fall asleep, I dream of her. I dream she rolls over to face me during the middle of the night. She looks at my closed eyelids and starts to climb on top of my hips. She leans over my face, straddling me, then leans down to kiss me. Before our lips touch, I wake myself with a slight auditory startle.
I look over at Emily beside me, who still lays facing the wall, asleep. I roll over onto my side and finally fall asleep myself. I’m awakened by Emily’s alarm on her phone at about 8 A.M. It sounds like a fire alarm and it shocks me a little.
“Sorry!” She whispers as she leans over me to turn off the alarm. Then, she gets out of bed and grabs her things to go shower. She has rugby practice this morning, from nine until eleven. This choice of sport has always shocked me a little, seeming ill-fitting for the girl that claims she bruises too easily. She closes the door behind her, and I put my head back down on the pillow to try to get some more sleep.
When she comes back in to grab her rugby bag, I wake up and tell her goodbye. I try to go back to sleep for about five minutes, but then I get frustrated and decide I’ll just wake up. I slowly walk towards the door and try to listen if anyone else is up and in the living area. I’d rather not have to interact with any of Emily’s roommates right now. I’m feeling a little out of my element without Emily. It doesn’t help that I don’t have my toothbrush, or a towel to use so that I could shower.
I open her door slightly and peak out. Seeing no one, I walk silently into the bathroom. I splash my face with water, and try to fix up my hair a little, feeling the leftover pomade in it from yesterday morning. Then, I grab the bottle of mouthwash I see on the shelf next to me. I’m not sure whose it is, but I use it anyway. I listen again for any voices or noises outside the bathroom, then quickly make my way back into Emily’s room. It’s almost 9:30 AM, so I have an hour and a half to kill before she gets back. I start to look around her room. I look at the books on her desk to see what she’s reading for class. I stare at all the posters on her wall. I open the top of the tiny box next to her bed and find three condoms. This unsettles me, as I wonder whether she had planned on using these with me or with someone else, so I close the box and look for something else to occupy myself with. I notice a picture frame sitting on the floor next to her desk. I crouch down next to the frame.
It’s a sort of scrap-booked collection of photos of Emily and her sister. They look so happy together and I smile back at them. In some of the pictures her sister looks terribly thin and her skin is pale, but they both still look so happy. There’s a note from her sister, too, in the frame. I read what it says as I bite my lower lip. Sadness pokes at me when I finish reading it. I have to talk out loud to myself to avoid tears.
“Fuck. I’d do anything for her to have her sister back,” then I walk away from the frame, blocking it out of my mind. I do a couple of push-ups, I write a short prose poem on my phone, and continue to wait. When she finally comes through the door, she’s holding my bag. We both change and talk about what we’re going to do for the day.
We decide to drive into Burlington first, to visit the farmer’s market. It has all kinds of maple syrups, and food, and drinks. We even talk to a man making sheets of paper recycled from compost. She tells me that she wants to show me around her school’s library too, where she has been working this semester. She loves the library at her school. She says she fell in love with it when she first visited.
When we return to campus, and start to walk around the library, I feel an overwhelming grief consume me. She’s smiling and showing me all the different floors, the private rooms, computer labs, research centers, and all I can think about is how tomorrow I’ll have to drive six hours away from that smile. I begin to feel a heavy ache in my chest. She continues to smile and tells me stories about her beloved library. I do my best to smile back.
Later, when we’re waiting outside the restaurant for dinner, she catches me staring at the sidewalk, while I’m leaning against the wall. She bends her head down into my field of view. I’m zoning out a little, and I have to shake my head to readjust my attention.
“Some interesting concrete down there?” She asks me, jokingly.
“Huh? Oh, yeah. Just a little tired, I guess,” I reply, unwilling to discuss the steady leak of sadness pooling within my body. We finally get sat at a table, eat our food, and somehow stumble upon an awkward conversation.
“But what if you’re missing out on the love of your life? I think you should talk to the Watsky girl,” Emily tells me, referencing a story I’d told her last week, about a girl from my class who recognized the musician on my shirt.
“Well, I’m fairly positive she’s a lesbian, so I don’t know about ‘love of my life,’ but I just don’t really care that much about meeting new people. I like my friends. I feel like I’m just good at telling who I’d get along with before I really get to know people.” I haven’t made many friends in college, and in this way, I’m the exact opposite of Emily. She’s brought up this subject a few times before.
“I just think you close yourself off from meeting new people. So many people have so many different things to offer,” she replies. I start to feel a little defensive; not because I think she’s wrong, but because meeting new people is something I’ve struggled with for years and I feel ashamed of it. She doesn’t seem to understand what that isolation feels like.
“Well, I’ve been doing better at it. Maybe I’ll talk to her. I guess—I just don’t think I have the same kind of social needs that you do.” Somehow the subject gets dropped and we move on to another. Then, we leave the restaurant and head back to her room. We watch a few episodes of Nathan For You, a show she turned me onto, before we watch the final episode of Skins, another show she’d turned me onto. As we watch under the blanket together, she rests her head on my shoulder. I lightly put my cheek against the top of her head.
When the show ends, she rises to go brush her teeth for bed. As she does so, I pull up a poem I wrote about her on my phone. I had told her that I’d written it a few days ago. When she comes back, I hand it to her, so that she can read it while I’m brushing my teeth.
“What’s this?” She asks.
“It’s the poem,” I reply on my way out.
“Oh, I’m reading this now?” She asks.
When I return, she’s looking down at the phone in her hand somberly. She asks me to turn off the light, and then I sit down at the other end of the bed. She speaks first.
“It was good. Is it about the day we walked around that lake?” She says, handing me my phone back. This isn’t the reaction I was hoping for. I don’t really care if she thinks it’s quality poetry, I want her to tell me how it made her feel. I confirm that’s what the poem was supposed to be about, then she changes the subject.
“You know how you said you wanted to have a more intimate weekend together?” She asks. I turn to look at her, her face still visible from the moonlight leaking in through the blinds.
“Yeah. I did. I do,” I tell her.
“So why did you stay on your side of the bed last night?”
“I didn’t know that you wanted me to do otherwise,” I reply. Then, she scooches over and pats the bed beside her for me to come join her. We lay next to each other, both staring upward, towards the ceiling. She reaches across my chest and starts to rub my arm.
“You know I’m not going to change my mind,” she finally tells me.
“I know. I don’t want you to feel like you need to,” I say back.
“I just don’t believe in long distance relationships. They just don’t work. I wouldn’t want to ask you to drive all the way here often enough for this to work.” The more she talks, the more I feel like crying.
“But it was always going to be like this. Even if we’d been together before you chose your college, you still would’ve chosen here, right?” I tell her, hoping she’ll see that this moment is a part of our longer story together, that tonight doesn’t have to be the end of her and I.
“I don’t think that matters,” she pauses and silence snakes between us. “In your letter, you told me that you wished you could touch me. And when we’ve kissed before, I’ve always kissed you,” she’s practically whispering in my ear. Her voice is intoxicating in the dark.
“I know,” I reply, feeling like I can tell where this is going. But she waits, and I wait, and the silence grows louder. The voice in my head starts to sound off: kiss her. Just kiss her. Just fucking lean over and do it. This is it, you drove all the way here and you’re not going to kiss her? I start to argue with the voice in my head, but she cuts me off.
“So kiss me.” I sit up, lean over her face, and kiss her. It’s the first time I’ve kissed a girl first. They’ve always kissed me. Our hands start to roam over each other’s bodies. I can’t believe how soft she feels. I can’t believe I went so long without touching her, without touching anyone. She wraps her leg around mine and I lower my hand down her back, over her curves, and down the inside of her thigh. With our faces pressed together, each breath she exhales makes me feel more connected to her.
“You see how easy it is?” She asks, a question that reduces me to a single word.
Our bodies edge into each other as close as they can be, yet I can’t help but want to get closer. She can feel me against her, so she starts to run her hand down my stomach, slipping past elastic. I feel some sort of wave rush the glands in my groin as she runs her palm against me. Everything becomes instinctual. I start to kiss her neck and chest, my hands drifting downward too.
“Is this okay?” I whisper to her.
“Yes,” she says in-between the tiny sharp breaths she’s taking. Then, I can tell she wants me to move on top of her. She takes off my shirt and helps pull off my shorts. We’re pulse to pulse, but I can’t feel close enough to her. We continue kissing and touching for a few more minutes, before she speaks up.
“Shhh, just relax,” she whispers, running her hands over my tensed shoulders. I feel strange as she does so, almost coddled. She wants me to lay there, on top of her, still. I do feel tense, all of this is new to me and I just want to be able to make her feel good, but I’m unsure why she wants to stop. I’m worried that I’ve done something wrong. I ask her why, but she just repeats herself.
“Shhh, relax. You’re shaking.” I am in fact shaking. I don’t know what to do just laying on top of her. I wish she’d lay on top of me instead. I’m trying to not put all my weight on her, even though I only weigh 145 pounds. I’m trying to hold myself up a little with my arms, which tires them out and is causing the shaking.
“I kinda feel like I’m crushing you,” I say back. She laughs a little and reassures me that I am not. I try to relax more. I lay my head against her chest. I feel somewhat self-conscious, knowing that she can feel me growing softer against her as we lay. We stay in that position for fifteen minutes or so, in silence, before I get up to go to the bathroom. When I return, she’s ready for sleep and she nestles into me. Together, we nod off.
I wake up when sunlight comes in and look over at her. I’m unsure if I should reach out for her, or if last night’s events were a one-night-only kind of deal. I decide to reach out first this time, though. I curl up closer to her, assuming the position of the big spoon. I note to myself that this is the first time I’ve ever spooned with someone.
I begin to rub her back lightly, outlining her sports bra. She turns towards me and kisses me. Then, things start to pick up again. We’re both unaware of the time, but I know she has a rugby game she needs to leave for by eleven. Things progress similarly to last night, more touching, more kissing, but not much more than that. I don’t care. I don’t need more than this. Her twin bed feels like home somehow this morning. The first night I felt awkward, and I struggled to sleep, but I feel rested today. Today, I feel right.
Yet, I know time is passing. I wish just for one day it would stop passing. If I could pick one day out of my entire lifetime where I could pause time indefinitely, then I’d probably spend it on today, this morning, right now. I could lay here until death. Suddenly, we’re interrupted by a knock at her door.
“Hey, it’s almost eleven, we gotta go get breakfast before the game. You coming?” Her roommate asks through the door. She replies yes, startled by the amount of time that had passed, and rushes to throw on some clothes. I watch her, silently hoping for some clock hand to stop and pity me. None do, however.
She goes to brush her teeth, and I sit up to rise out of the little nest we’d made, not knowing if I’ll ever return to that nest. I listen for her to exit the bathroom and walk into the living area. I hear her starting to put on her shoes. Don’t waste this. Kiss her goodbye. She wants you to kiss her. Go! I rub the back of my head as I walk to her. I look in her eyes briefly before wrapping my arms around her tight. She hugs me back, then I lean down to kiss her. I try to make it last.
“Drive safe. Text me when you get home. Bye.”
“Bye,” I say back, before she closes the door behind her, following her friends. I rub the back of my head some more as I walk back to her room to pack up my things. I’m alone in her dorm and it feels strange. It feels like I shouldn’t leave. Like I’m still in her bed, sleeping. Not to say that this is a dream, but rather that I’m no longer one person. There’s the Connor packing his bag, readying to leave the person he loves, and there’s the Connor lying in bed, refusing to move. I’m trapped in the former Connor, but I can still feel the absence of the latter. I look at his closed eyes while I pack silently, hoping nobody will ever wake him; wondering if maybe some clock, or some omnipotent being, did hear his pleas and stopped time for him. I finish packing, but I still can’t bring myself to leave. I start to rummage around for a pen and a piece of paper.
Good luck in your game today! Thank you for such a wonderful weekend together. I want you to know that I love you. I don’t mean to say that I’m in love with you, but as my friend, as a human being, you are loved. Everyone deserves to feel that. I’ll miss you.
I leave the note on her desk, hoping she’ll find it when she returns, then I slink past my sleeping self, and close her bedroom door behind me. As I put my shoes on to leave, I spot a Polaroid of her on the counter. She’s wearing a denim skirt, and she’s standing on some couch, posing, pointing at some picture on the wall. I pull out my phone and take a photo of the Polaroid. I feel a little strange doing it without her knowing, but I feel the need to go home with some kind of memento.
As I walk out to find my car, I feel nauseous. I can feel an aching in my testicles, suddenly realizing that this must be what blue balls feel like. Another first, I guess. I somewhat comically, and painfully, manage to carry my bags to my car, and sit down behind the wheel. I put my hand down my pants to try to examine just why I’m experiencing such discomfort. Everything feels normal, yet the discomfort continues. I look in my rear view mirror at my tousled hair. I pull my shirt over my nose and smell myself. I realize that I never showered the whole time I was with her. I laugh at myself, trying to find the irony in the fact that the first time I was that intimate with someone I hadn’t showered in two days. The irony seems somewhat fitting. I put the car in drive and begin my journey back home.
I stop to get gas on the outskirts of Burlington, before I get too close to the isolation of the Adirondacks. I stand awkwardly, feeling the urge to hold and caress my scrotum. It becomes less humorous the longer the pain persists. I try to take my mind off it as I begin to drive again. I start to think about Emily. I start to think that I might never come back here to visit her, that she might never want me to come back. I’m so grateful for the weekend with her, as I realize it’s the happiest I’ve ever felt, the most understood I’ve ever felt. She seemed like she was reading my body, and in turn, my thoughts. I want to be that close to her every day.
Then, my vision starts to blur. I start to blink rapidly, afraid I’ll miss a turn if the tears become too overwhelming. But I can’t stop the tears. I can’t stop the onslaught of pain, grief, melancholy. I start to talk to myself, like I often do when I feel overwhelmed. Then, I start to become desperate and talk to God.
“You’ll give her anything she wants, do you understand? You’ll make her happy and she’ll live a great life,” I command. I think about the picture frame again and my anger grows.
“Why would you take her sister away from her? Why the fuck would you do that to her? She doesn’t deserve that pain. How could you do that, you fucking prick! Jesus…” I wipe my nose on my shirt, and glance down for any napkins I might have lying around. I spot one and wipe my nose some more, then use my shoulders to clear my eyes while I drive.
“I’ll do anything for her to just feel happy…fuck me, this hurts. Why does this hurt so much?” This time I’m not talking about my testicles, but instead my heart, my head, my entire body. The tears won’t stop until I become legitimately nervous that I may crash my car. Only then do I force myself to sober up.
Still, I find myself choking back tears for the next few hours, failing to distract myself with music, falling back into ruminations about my future with Emily. A future I am uncertain will exist. When I pull into a rest stop about two hours from home, I see a text from Emily. It says I love you too. I know she doesn’t mean this the way I hope she does, though. I want her to be in love with me. I would’ve told her that I am in love with her, but I don’t think it would’ve done any good. I think it only would’ve made things harder for her. So, I told a half-truth instead. Still, I smile at the words, thinking that maybe someday she’ll say them to me and mean what I want her to mean.
When I finally pull into my driveway, I sit for a while. I sit, and I stare at the words again on my phone. I cry silently over them. Lifting myself out of my seat feels like lifting a body bag full of cinder blocks. Geneseo no longer feels like home. My house looks like it wants to eat me alive. Eventually, I worry that one of my parents will see me and rush out to greet me, so I wipe my face one last time and grab my bags. As I walk through the front door, my dad greets me from his favorite chair in the living room.
“Hey, buddy! How was the drive home? Did you say hi to Emily for me?” I look at him like we belong to different species. He, a happy, content human, and I, some heavy slug-thing.
“It was fine. Yeah, I did.” I go to the kitchen to grab a water bottle and a snack. He looks me up and down.
“You look tired. Did you get any sleep?” He asks me.
“Yeah, I’m good. I’m gonna go workout now,” I tell him, before slinking down the basement stairs. I put in my headphones and start to put weights on the bar. I do two sets of bench press before I can’t put the thoughts out of my head any longer. It’s over. She’s doesn’t want you, my all-knowing brain tells me. I listen to it, sitting on the inclined bench. I look at the bench for a while, my chin resting on my chest, while letting my thoughts sand me down to nothing but rage. I shut my eyes hard then open them, furious. I cock my right fist back and start to drive my knuckles into the bench over and over. The metal frame beneath the padding sounds off with each punch: clunk, clunk, clunk. I don’t care if my dad hears though. I need to hit something, I need to feel pain.
I wear myself out eventually, and watch my knuckles turning dark, starting to swell. I finish my workout diligently, then return upstairs where I’m greeted by my mother. I want her to hold me. I want to fall in her arms and cry until I can no longer. I want her to let me cry and not ask what’s wrong. I just want her to let me cry.
“Hey, Con! How was your trip? How’s Emily doing?” She asks me.
“She’s good, it was good,” I tell her.
“Are you tired?” My dad asks again from his chair.
“No,” I tell him. My mom pats me on the shoulder as I walk by her and up the stairs. I close the bathroom door behind me. I turn on the shower and begin to strip naked. I look at myself in the mirror. I look again at my testicles, trying to see what caused the discomfort that has mostly passed since. I look at my eyes next, and then at my purple knuckles. I rub them roughly to feel the pain of the bruises forming. I push harder against the bruises as I step into the shower. As the water steams around me, I desperately try to rinse the smell of Emily’s pillow out of my hair.
“I don’t know what happened, but Emily told me she doesn’t want to talk to me anymore. She said she needed time, so I waited a week and didn’t hear from her. I texted her eventually and asked what was going on. She just told me she didn’t want to talk anymore.” It’s been a little over three weeks since I visited Emily. When I got home, I told her that I wanted to visit her again. She said that she wanted it to happen again, too. I asked her if she wanted to come to my sister’s wedding in October, which she agreed to as well. Then, one day she simply told me she didn’t want to talk anymore.
“She’s given you a lot of mixed signals. It’s quite possible that she has her own fears about letting you in. She may not be ready to be that close to someone, and she may not be capable of being as vulnerable with you as you are with her. You’ve done what you can, and it seems that it’s her turn to be honest with you. And if she can’t do that with you, then it may be time for you to move on,” Ana, my therapist, tells me. I’m not ready to move on. I want to be, but I’m just not. There’s still hope in my desperate little heart.
“Have you had any episodes of cutting recently?” She asks me, while I sit thinking over her words.
“Uh, I think it was last Friday, and then Saturday too. I went out with some friends drinking and I just felt awful. So, when I got home, I cut myself.” I’ve talked to Ana about cutting in the past. I’ve been seeing her for a little over a year now. The cutting began far before Emily was in my life.
“Were you feeling depressed?” Ana has no problem saying the word that I’ve avoided for so long.
“Yeah, I guess. I guess I was just feeling hopeless. Life, lately, just feels like a chore. I don’t know. Cutting doesn’t seem to really help now. I’ve just been doing it deeper and more often, but I don’t get the same relief I used to.”
“Do you ever have thoughts of suicide?” She asks.
“Yeah. I’d say I think about it more often than I’m comfortable with,” I reply.
“How often do you think about it?” She asks.
“Four or five times throughout the day, maybe. I guess it depends,” I reply.
“Do you think about how you’d do it?” She asks.
“I’d probably shoot myself in the head,” I reply.
“Are there any guns in your house?” She asks.
“Yeah, my dad has some,” I reply.
“Do you have access to them?” She asks.
“Yes,” I reply.
“Well these are rather troubling and serious thoughts, Connor. If this persists, I would like you to consider, and to bring it up to your parents, a two-week program at Strong Hospital. You’d be with people close to your age in group therapy sessions, and then the rest of the day you’d have one-on-one time with a therapist there. It’s like three months of therapy work covered in two weeks. I think it could be really beneficial for you.” I’m shocked by her suggestion of hospitalization. It stings a little.
“Not that I don’t think it’d be beneficial, but I don’t know that I need that. It seems like a lot,” I tell her.
“Well, I think you should bring it up to your parents anyways. I think it could be really good for you. And please, you know that you can call or email me between our appointments if you’re ever feeling like you need to talk to someone.” I start to regret opening up about my suicidal thoughts. I’ve never really believed that I could take my own life, but it does slightly frighten me—the rate at which suicidal thoughts have been bubbling in my brain.
“Okay,” I tell her.
“Should we set up a time for next week?”
I finally find the nerve to ask my mom about looking into antidepressants, which Ana has recommended I start taking. I set up an appointment with my primary doctor and I begin taking one called escitalopram within a week. It’s supposed to help with anxiety, as well. So far, I don’t notice any difference in my mood. While sitting in my psychology lecture, I see a Snapchat story of Emily ice skating with some boy in a Bruins jersey. I watch the story over and over, trying to get a good look at his face. I wonder what he has that I don’t, what makes him such a better suitor. I wonder how much worse I can feel before I refuse to feel any longer.
I contemplate leaving class. I’m worried I may break down in the middle of the 250-person lecture. I stay, though, feeling like this might be the best distraction for me. Every now and again I’ll find myself lost in my head, searching for an answer of why I’m not enough for her. After class, I block Emily on Snapchat and then on Instagram. I don’t want to see her face anymore. It’s not out of spite, but it’s just too painful now to look at her face. I’ve wanted to do it for a long time, but I never wanted it to come to that. I wanted to be her friend, even if that was all she wanted from me.
That night, I decide to cut myself. I always do it in the same spot: my left forearm. I’m not sure why I chose that location the first time, it just seemed like the right place to do it. I was given a new knife, branded CK on the handle, for being a groomsman in my sister’s wedding. It’s the sharpest I own, and it cuts deeper than my old knife did. I like to do it while listening to music. It sets the mood for me. It’s somewhat of a ritualistic practice, I suppose, although it started more as an impulse. The first cut and the last are usually the deepest. I plan to go deeper this time, though. I press down hard into my forearm, before setting the blade in motion. Then, I slowly drag it towards my body, across the skin. Blood starts to creep out, which at first just looks like I drew a line on my arm with a crimson marker. It starts to flow heavier, though. It trickles down my forearm towards my wrist and palm. Droplets fall onto the bathroom tiles, creating gorgeous splatter paint imagery. I love the way I look on bathroom tiles. When I’m outside myself, I have such color, shape, form. It’s beautiful and it makes me want to weep. But there is no catharsis yet, so I cut another line. Then another and another.
My body starts shaking. A drop of blood lands on my left foot. I look down at the puddle of blood next to my naked feet. It rests stagnant, thick, and dark. It looks dead now. Then, glancing back at my arm, I can see the tiny trails have started to dry and the wounds have begun to clot. A part of me is in awe at the way my body resists my brain’s torment. How my cells defy my depression and cling to life, clotting my self-inflicted wounds. I rest in my position, sitting on the toilet seat, for a few more minutes before I find the strength to rise and clean myself, my mess on bathroom tiles.
November crawls by just as painfully as October. I begin having panic attacks. I continue cutting myself, convincing myself it’s the better alternative to suicide. One day, a kid knocks my shoulder in the hallway while exiting class, and I briefly consider smashing his face into the fire alarm. I begin to hate Emily, too. I turn angry and bitter, convincing myself it’s the better alternative to crippling sadness. I am still depressed though, and the drugs feel flat. I continue to take them despite this, placing my faith, my life, in the circular, starch-white pills.
December offers more. It’s astonishing, really. In November, I was participating in acts of self-harm, I was considering drafting a suicide letter, and by mid-December, I feel okay. Emily still triggers my anxiety, and I don’t quite have the tools yet to manage the situation, but she doesn’t make me want to kill myself.
When I felt like killing myself, I wanted Emily to do it. When I’d cut myself, I’d pretend she was doing it to me. That she was holding the knife, not me, because it was easier to see things that way. It was easier to place the blame on her and plead with her to stop hurting me. I was delusional. I’d submerge myself in all my pain until I was on the verge of passing out. When I’d gasp for air at the surface, I’d find myself in a panic, blind to the fact that it’d been my own hand holding my head under.
Somehow, with the help of a serotonin re-uptake inhibitor, I can breathe now. While scrolling through Facebook, I see that Emily’s posted a bunch of pictures of herself with the same kid in the Bruins jersey, who appears to be her boyfriend now. When I look at the photos of them smiling, laying in her bed together, kissing each other, I feel a twinge of pain, but I notice that I’m smiling too. I want to cry, but not because of the pain, but rather because I’m proud. I’m proud that I’m happy for her. I survived myself and I’m proud.
I have depression. Today, I’m dealing with it. This is more than I can say for the Connor I left behind in Emily’s bed. I pity him, now. He has no idea who he could’ve been, how much he could’ve grown. He chose his path, to remain in the past, and I pity him. He’ll never change and therefore belongs in the past. He’s ignorant, stagnant, a relic, a memento. I smile today because I am not him.