I’m a stone-cold thief when it comes to relationships. I steal secrets, sweaters, and speech patterns. I pick up on lovers’ styles like I would a shiny pen from a restaurant that writes so well and smoothly I’ve got no choice but to take it home with me. A coarse hemp necklace that itches and tugs on my neck. Tripping on acid. The Cure. Paul Thomas Anderson films. Black coffee. But most of all, it’s been words that I take and cling to. I snag punctuation and syntax like they are some sort of lucky token. I’m a fire-breathing dragon expelling their vernacular from my mouth, even after their hot breath against my ear has run cold.
The first boy I ever loved would say “woof” in response to when someone said something heavy. When he said “woof” to me I knew he was listening. Taking in all the hard and soft things I was saying, and giving them the real estate they deserved. And so I started saying “woof” when I felt as if someone’s words drooped in the air like a balloon exhaling its final breath.
The first girl I slept with never capitalized the beginning of her sentences in texts. So I manipulated the keyboard on my phone to automatically squash down every letter into a little, reluctant lowercase. I wanted to come across as cool, aloof, and understated the way she felt with her beanies and skater attitude.
The first girl I’d ever fallen in love with misused ellipses. Instead of “…” she arranged multiple commas in a row. “,,,” like three stray eyelashes flaked across someone’s cheek, itching to be wished on. I thought they’d make it seem like everything I was doing and saying came across as ironic and humorous. I could say now, “don’t take me too seriously, I make the sad things funny,,,”
From you, I seemed to pick up everything. The way you walked and dressed and spoke and sang and smelled. Quite the copycat I was. But you copied me too, and our wardrobes merged into one. We were an inch away from the same shoe size, a lesbian miracle. “Don’t hype me up,” you’d say anytime I told you that you looked beautiful or sexy or handsome. I don’t know why it pissed me off so much, but it did. Maybe because I wished you would just say nothing at all. Or simply just pull me in, kiss my ear, and say, “Thank you, baby, so do you.”
I don’t think I’ve ever fallen out of love with anyone I’ve been with. Not completely anyway. Even when I’ve stopped wanting them, I can’t seem to cope with the idea that they’d stop wanting me. It’s the wanting I never really want to do away with. Maybe I’ve never really known how to love something until I’m grieving it.
On New Year’s Eve, you stood in my mother’s doorway and told me Betty White had died. Your hair was braided and long, a style you’d never worn when we were together. I didn’t like the outfit you saw me in. I’d gained weight since getting sick and I wondered if you noticed. We sat in your white car that five months earlier had been packed with boxes for me to move to the city. On our drive into town, you sang along to new music and I watched your mouth move. I couldn’t recall how it tasted. Trying to force closure is a very dumb thing, I think. I thought about the two of us naked together every night in my tiny attic apartment on High Street that I no longer had the keys to. Our bodies pressed to each other like charged magnets. The comfort I felt in my own body after seeing that we had the same curves; the same pout in our lower stomach and dips in our hips. There I’d be, lying on my stomach, your hand running up and down the slope of my thigh. Tickling my back like my mother once had. I’d ask you to paint a landscape on me. Like the ones in the Bob Ross videos we’d watched earlier on my gray couch. Stoned and spooning. You’d make a forest on me. Telling me exactly the shade of each color you were using up and down my spine. Cadmium yellow. Titanium White. How the soft curl of the white clouds looked against the frayed tops of trees. Imaginary paint dripping all over me. The same fingers on me then, on the wheel now, turning us into town.
I’m back in the city now. I’m posting a picture of myself with wet hair to my Instagram story. The photo is just half of my face because I don’t like how plump my cheeks look recently. I caption it, “my Gramma would kill me if she knew that I’ve left the house in 20-degree weather with sopping wet hair.” In the photos, the tall buildings on the Upper West Side are peeking over my shoulder. A part of me hopes you’ll look over my frozen head and see them. See how well I’m doing, how happy I am, or am pretending to be. How ironic and funny and sweet and unbothered I can be. Look at me and how I can be all the things that made you fall in love with me in the first place, without even having you here.
An hour later, with a cold index finger I click on my own Instagram story and press “seen by 209” at the bottom of the screen. I’m looking for that small circle of your face to come up. You and your honey-colored curls juxtaposed to a pale blue sky, the sun hitting you in just the right way, as it always seemed to do. I poke and press and prod. I refresh, but you don’t come up. I’ll check again later, in the same obsessive way I used to check on things as a child. The same way I used to ask to be checked on myself, begging my mother to come into my room five minutes after putting me to bed. To kiss my forehead, make sure I wasn’t dead, and leave the door cracked on her way out.
A part of me is waiting for you to swipe up and say something. Tell me to put on a hat and cover those curls. They’re forming icicles. And then maybe I could respond with all the words I have in me, then delete them, and just give you those on the surface. I fantasize about responding. “Woof baby,,, don’t hype me up.” Just to see how you’d feel.
At a diner in the West Village, I eat Eggs Benedict and drink iced coffee with cream. Waiters rush around me and the whole place smells like the good kind of grease. I sop up the remaining hollandaise sauce with my fingers and tell myself, “I’ll learn how to make this one day.” Once I receive the check, I sign the dotted line with the same signature I’ve had since I was ten years old. The age where I’d loop cursive Z’s on the corner of Highlights magazines, pretending to be much older than I was. A precious time where there were no lovers and mothers still tickled backs. Maybe I’ll never really know how to love something until I’m grieving it.
The pens I’m always taking from restaurants and cafes keep leaking ink, leaving behind tiny wet and black puddles in my Blueberries For Sal tote bag. Bleeding into the canvas. I run it under hot water but the dark imprints remain. So much of you bled into me. Today at the diner, I left my mark and stole the pen. There will always be stains I can’t attempt to wring clean.