Amy Long | Ninth Letter | Fall/Winter 2017-18 | 25 minutes (6,753 words)
Ryan and I are groping each other on Layne’s older sister’s bed. My sisters crouch at the foot so their bodies won’t block the light. Layne surveys her scene. She’s lined my eyes in thick kohl. I wear a black slip she cut so short my underwear shows if I move either leg at all. Ryan wears what he always wears: white T-shirt, Levis. His feet are bare. I never see his feet bare. We are high on methadone and Xanax, barely aware of Beth and Chelsea or even Layne. We act out our own little movie, everything black and white like the film in Layne’s camera. She’d asked us to pose for her, and I said we would because I wanted my friends to like my boyfriend, and I wanted the 4-by-6-inch still images that would say This really happened in case Ryan and I unraveled like my slip threatens to do when he teases a thread. Layne instructs Ryan to kiss me: on the mouth, the neck. “Put your hands there,” she says and points to my waist. She says, “Amy, move in closer. Ryan, smile.” Ryan smiles. Layne snorts out a laugh. “Not like that,” she says. “Like a person.” A genuine grin spreads across his face. Layne snaps a photo. I’m so close to Ryan I can feel the heat coming off his body. I smell the tobacco and Old Spice that linger on his skin. I don’t know what to do with my hands. I’m still learning what people do in bed together. Simulating sex we’ve never had is like when people ask me how it feels to be a triplet, and I can’t answer because I don’t know how it feels to be otherwise. “Like this?” I ask. Layne shrugs. “Just do what you usually do.” I don’t tell her that we don’t yet have a way we usually do things. Ryan slips me a second methadone pill. He takes two. Under the opiate euphoria, it’s easy to pretend we really are just making out and not being photographed, that this moment is real instead of orchestrated. We don’t forget Layne’s there, but we are good models. We do what she asks. We play ourselves, fucked up and infatuated.
Ryan and I never had “the talk,” that stuttering, awkward exchange between two people who aren’t sure of their relation to one another or the words they should use to describe who they are together. We hung out a few times, and Ryan was my boyfriend. It just happened. I think of it as happening the night he put his suede-and-sweater bomber jacket over my shoulders; I’d snorted a one-milligram Xanax bar, and Ryan held my waist so I wouldn’t topple over on the walk back to my car from the Irish bar we’d had to leave. A bouncer asked to see my ID, and I was only 18. Ryan downed his White Russian and took my hand, unconcerned. When I met him, Ryan drank White Russians exclusively. He said they settled his stomach. And so my first drink was a White Russian, drunk at the duplex Ryan rented in Niceville after his dad evicted him from the apartment above Tires Plus, a small chain of auto shops Ryan claimed he’d inherit one day. The duplex is also where I got stoned for the first time. It was mostly a big living room off of which sprouted two bedrooms and a cramped kitchen. I sat on the orange-plaid couch where Ryan and I first kissed and drew tangy smoke into my lungs. I exhaled and receded into a tunnel. Ryan went into his bedroom and ceased to exist. I heard his voice on the other side of the wall and couldn’t stop laughing because I knew he wasn’t really there. I don’t think I’ve ever again felt as free as I did then, all alone with only a drug for company.
Our modeling gig wrapped, Ryan and I walk down Layne’s pebble-paved driveway to my car. I’m not wearing shoes, and the rocks jab at my feet. I’m not wearing the slip anymore either, but I’ve kept it, balled in my denim tote. I tell Ryan he should drive. He’s on methadone all the time, and I’ve only done it twice; I figure he’s more sober even though he’s taken more. We’re headed somewhere, but we don’t make it. When Ryan is high, he lists to the right. He does it walking, and he does it sitting up, and he does it driving cars, too. I notice he’s drifting, but I think he’ll correct his course. He’s not that high. Is he? I start to say, “Ryan, mailbox,” and right then the airbags explode. The front of my car is a broken nose, a face punched so hard it’s folded in on itself. Hardly even there. The trunk of a brick mailbox stands like ruins in the grass. Ryan is yelling at the homeowner, accusing the man of having installed his mailbox too close to the road. I don’t see their exchange. I’m scrambling into the driver’s seat so it will look like I was always there when the police arrive. I can only see what’s in front of me. Layne drives past us with Beth and Chelsea in her car. They get out to help. One of my sisters calls the parents. I get the same sinking feeling that guts me when a cop pulls me over for speeding or I tap someone’s bumper in traffic. Like I could have turned back time if this hadn’t happened, but now that it has time is steel-toed and irrevocable, solid as that brick, and I’m fucked. “A cat,” I tell the mom in tears, “was crossing the road. I tried to swerve, and then I tried to stop, and I turned the wheel the wrong way or I was too close. I don’t know. It happened really fast.” I wonder if the mom can tell I’m high. I wonder whether she believes my story; it’s not a stretch to think I’d sacrifice a car to save a cat. On the ride home, the mom doesn’t ask if I’m high or lying or if Ryan was driving. She says I need to calm down. I think Layne takes Ryan home, and I think Beth and Chelsea wait with the dad for the tow truck, but I don’t know. All I see are flashing lights. I’m a wreck.
They hated that he got me into drugs, and they hated seeing me on them.
In Destin, all my friends hated Ryan. They hated him because he was too old for me and not good enough. They hated that he got me into drugs, and they hated seeing me on them. They hated watching Ryan steal Barnes & Noble’s magazines, which we read for free anyway in the adjoining mini-Starbucks. They hated how easily I let him fool me with purloined trinkets and bold but mostly empty declarations. They hated me, I think, the way I cleaved to Ryan like he’d made me because he had. But really they hated him for being a junkie. I don’t know how they knew except that everyone knew. You could hear the drugs in his voice like an echo. They flattened and stretched his vowels, rubberized his consonants. Leftover heroin reverberated under the methadone-and-Xanax slur that inflected his sentence structures and lazy pronunciations. He still says “him” like “eem” (rhymes with “beam”), omitting the hard “h” at the front and trading the i for an e. Drugs haunted the long pauses Ryan took when he talked and filled with a sort of humming “Uhh” or “Ummm” or “I-I-I-I-I-I.” You could see in the pinned pupils that sat like tiny periods in the center of his fat brown irises that Ryan was high. Once, he came over to the house with Layne and our friend Yusuf. I’d warned him to keep quiet. “My parents won’t think you’re charming,” I said. When I asked him not to mention drugs, he said “I’m not stupid.” But you never knew what Ryan might say. He poked his head into what we called the computer room to say a quick hello to the dad, who stood to shake Ryan’s hand, only half out of his chair, and returned to his online cribbage match. Ryan rattled on to the mom about New York. He talked over her when she mentioned having visited the city for the 1964 World’s Fair. Her story was more interesting, but to Ryan his was more important; it established his credibility as a real person who’d done something other than hang around his hometown. I could see annoyance on the mom’s face as Ryan trailed her into the laundry room, her relief when the phone rang and she had an excuse to shoo him off. “He was nervous,” I told the mom after Ryan left. “Uh-huh,” she said.
When Layne developed the pictures, the people in them looked classic and cool like mid-century movie stars. Ryan and I had known each other maybe a month, but here we appeared as a couple in love. Our eyes are glassy, our movements fluid. Ryan’s smile is sweet and sneaky like in real life; I appear eager and radiant, seasoned like I wanted Ryan to think I was. We are lovers alone in bed, grunge-glamorous and pre-car crash. We look so alive we might crawl over each other and out of the frame. Layne gave me my copies, and I looked at them and forgot they were constructed. She’d always been good at candids. She kept the ones she took of all of us at the Waffle House and Walmart and on the picnic tables at school in fat photo albums that I flipped through when we hung out in her bedroom. I hid the slip and the pictures in a suitcase under my bed. I kept my writing there, and the mom knew not to look for it. Years later, I tore up my childhood bedroom in search of those photos. I wanted to see if they came out the way I remembered: dreamy and tender, Ryan tough and golden and me tiny and smitten yet somehow powerful, a little slutty in the too-short slip and all that eyeliner. But I’d lost them; there are no copies in Layne’s albums, and she doesn’t have the negatives. I found the slip, but I think the mom threw out the pictures while I was away at college, when she thought Ryan and I were done.
The mom cleans out the Intrepid while I’m at school. We have to take it to the dealership to see if it’s totaled. It is. I spot it parked in the back of the lot, and I want to cry when I understand that not only have I lost my car but also everything that made it mine: the bulky phone beside the center console, all my mixtapes, the rat that Yusuf had so meticulously cut off a PETA sticker and attached to my bumper. (Rats Have Rights Too!, the sticker proclaimed until Yusuf uncoupled the mascot from its message so the rat clawed at my license plate with its skinny rat fingers that he said resembled my own.) But I can’t tell anyone I’m sad about losing the car. The mom found one of Ryan’s empty Xanax bottles and paperwork from the methadone clinic in its glove compartment. The papers featured his actual age, his birthdate. “He’s 22, and he’s a heroin addict,” the mom says while we await word from the mechanic. “What else do you need to know?” I can’t look at her. The mom and I don’t get into fights. “He’s not a heroin addict,” I say. “You don’t know him. He’s going to the methadone clinic. He wants to get better.” The mom’s face falls. “I don’t even want you to know what a methadone clinic is.”
Ryan’s mother loved me. I had seen his latest local ex, Kathleen, a hairdresser who wore product-crusted curls and too much makeup. She looked like the kind of woman men call “high maintenance.” Her face was sharp, and her skin appeared lined and heavy despite or maybe because of the foundation she slathered all over it. I remember sitting in my car and watching Ryan talk to her about money she owed him or money he owed her or the dog they’d shared, Nico, for whom Ryan could never have provided proper care. Ryan said they’d planned to get married. His mother must have been relieved he’d found a girl who wouldn’t push her obviously vulnerable son into a legal union and ask for babies. She knew my parents a little. Ryan’s stepdad had coached Chelsea’s softball team. She knew what kind of girl I was. If anything, she worried about what Ryan might do to me. But to Ryan’s dad, I was just another partner in crime. The day I met him, Mr. McCowen showed us his young and hot-bodied Japanese wife, his sprawling suburban home, the miniature figurines he painted and displayed in a china cabinet until they sold on eBay. They were characters from World of Warcraft or something like it: princesses, dragons, heroes with swords. The figurines were overtly sexual, and I felt awkward looking at them, nodding in faked admiration as Ryan’s dad handed me a porcelain figure barely larger than my thumb. I fidgeted with the woman warrior, big breasted and barely dressed, painted in soft, feminine purples and greens. I probably told him the pieces were impressive, and they were. All that detail on such a tiny canvas. But watching this man handle something that so resembled a child’s toy felt obscene, perverted. Ryan had told me in more detail than I wanted to hear how his father had molested him. Ryan’s dad was and probably still is huge. Tall but mostly wide and fat so that in my head the scenes Ryan described are grotesque flashes of big man belly pressed against little boy face, meaty massive man hand on little boy head, flabby man gut jiggling over little boy body, little boy Ryan coiled inside his daddy’s stomach like a fetus or a club sandwich. And Ryan left me alone with him. I watched him boss around his wife, who winked at me as if to say, Don’t they all, though? I fingered figurines to flatter a man who frightened me, whose presence lit in my chest an anger like crackling coal. I don’t remember what we talked about or if we talked at all. I’d eaten too much Xanax or I’ve blacked it out, like taking a Sharpie to my brain. When Ryan came back, he told me we needed to leave. I nodded and followed him out the door. We weren’t gone five minutes before Mr. McCowen called my car phone to demand back the $100 bill he knew Ryan had taken from a stack in his office. “Turn around here and stop for a second,” Ryan said. We buried the bill in a flowerbed at the entrance to his dad’s neighborhood and drove back to the house. Ryan’s dad searched my car like a police detective and didn’t find anything. Ryan, a consummate liar, acted baffled, almost hurt that his own father would suspect him of theft. The next night, Mr. McCowen drove forty-five minutes from Gulf Breeze to Destin with a baseball bat in his passenger seat. He stood inside the Tires Plus apartment, bat at his waist. His fist slid up and down the shaft. He called me a cunt and spit at his son a slew of names Ryan had probably heard before. He wanted his money, but there was nothing to give. Ryan had spent all of it on two overpriced oxys the night we’d retrieved the $100 from the flowerbed. Now, he had to find a new place to live.
I’m not allowed to see Ryan anymore after he crashes my car. The mom forbids it. The dad makes a rare trip up the stairs to yell at me. He looks ridiculous and incongruous on the window seat in my bedroom, a pink baby pillow at his back. He’s nearly crushing Pretty Dog, the love-worn stuffed sheepdog I dragged everywhere with me as a child. And I feel ridiculous and incongruous, too, the dad unleashing on me an unhinged rant about the drug addict I’m dating amidst all these artifacts of my girlhood. “It’s like you go out of your way to date losers,” he fumes. “I mean, that or you’re just stupid.” But I’m not stupid, and despite my tears, I’m not sad; I’m indignant. “If you raised me well,” I say, “you should trust me to make my own decisions.” The dad sneers. “If you made better ones, maybe I would.” During my last few months in high school, it feels like all the dad ever does is yell at me. He doesn’t know how to express love or its attendant fear in appropriate words; he uses money and bellicose monologues. To apologize for screaming at me, he buys me a brand new Volkswagen Jetta, charcoal gray with matching leather interior. “But I crashed the Intrepid,” I say as he leads me toward the new cars at his friend’s dealership. “I shouldn’t get a new car.” I mean I don’t deserve one. But the dad thinks I’m not dating Ryan anymore. “Once you’ve had a new car, you’ll never want a used one again,” he says, almost in code, like he’s talking about men, too. But the dad never talks to me about men unless to express his dislike of the one I’m dating. The dealership doesn’t have the gray exterior I like with the leather upholstery on which the dad insists, so I’m sent home in a white rental with cloth seats. I drive it straight to Tires Plus. Ryan and I have plans. “You can’t smoke in a rental car,” I say as he reaches into his jacket pocket for his Marlboros. “They won’t notice,” Ryan says and lights up anyway.
‘He’s 22, and he’s a heroin addict,’ the mom says while we await word from the mechanic. ‘What else do you need to know?’
When I came home smelling of cigarette smoke, the mom knew I’d been with Ryan. I had lies. I’d say I’d been with Emily or Layne; they smoked. I’d say I’d been with Yusuf and Tim at the Waffle House, where you could still smoke inside; we all left there smelling like a pool-hall floor. I had rituals I believed would protect me from detection. I kept a sock full of coffee grounds under my driver’s seat because I’d read that coffee absorbed the smoke smell. I’d stop at gas stations and scrub my arms like a surgeon, run cheap pink soap through my hair. I bought Febreze and tied to my rearview mirror sticks of incense from the Zoo Gallery, the family-owned fine-arts-and-crafts shop where I worked. Once, I told the mom I’d been in a thrift store. “Thrift stores don’t smell like smoke,” she said. She was sitting on the dark wood bench inside our foyer, arms folded and body taut against its green velvet cushions. “No, but they’re musty,” I said. I stuck with my lies. I performed my rituals. But something or someone always betrayed me. A cigarette burn in my car’s upholstery. Ashes on the steering wheel. The testimony of my sister who refused to lie for me. When she wanted to know where I was, the mom went to Beth. Beth would say she didn’t know until she could no longer deflect the question. “Is she with that guy?” the mom asked one night. Beth squirmed in her seat. “I don’t want to say,” she said. “So, she is?” said the mom. Beth spilled the whole thing. “She’s in Niceville. They’re at Tisa’s.” I can imagine exactly how Beth would have said this: eyes down, mouth twitching as though the mom were pulling the right side and I the left, her words barreling into each other like six cars in a pileup. She didn’t want to tell on me, but she didn’t want to tell the story I’d asked her to use on anyone who inquired after my whereabouts. The story did not involve telling the mom that I was at Tisa’s, the motel where Ryan lived then. Tisa’s, now shuttered, was the kind of place populated by what Joan Didion calls “motel people:” drunks, junkies, day laborers, the working poor who can’t pay first and last month’s rent plus a security deposit all at once. The mom sped over the Mid-Bay Bridge and toward Valparaiso. Her headlights bounced as she pulled into the big Tisa’s parking lot. I watched her enter the front office to ask a clerk for Ryan McCowen’s room number. The man said he wasn’t allowed to give out that information. “Well, my teenage daughter is in there with a twenty-two-year-old man,” the mom said. “I can call the police instead.” The manager gave her the room number. I was caught. I couldn’t lie about being with Ryan when the mom could see him watching at the window as I climbed into her car. I apologized and teared up and, for the hundred-thousandth time, accused the mom of distrusting me. I reminded her that in a few months I’d be at college, and wouldn’t she rather me make these mistakes now, when she could oversee them? “Get in the car,” the mom said through gritted teeth. I sat in the passenger seat. She waved her hand in front of her face. “You smell like an ashtray,” she said.
I refuse the cigarettes Ryan offers me for a long time. I know I’ll like smoking. I’ll like it so much that I’ll keep doing it, and I’ll have to hide my habit from my family for the rest of my life. I cried when I caught the mom smoking on the side of the house in sixth grade, and the dad quit on Father’s Day 1990-something, like a ploy to guilt his daughters out of starting. He can tell you to the day when he smoked his last cigarette. By the time I smoke my first, it’s warm outside, maybe March or April. I’ve ducked out of my three-hour painting class and snuck over to Ryan’s motel room in the middle of the day. He ushers me inside and kisses me, hard like we haven’t seen each other in weeks. He tastes like cigarettes and sleep. His hair is rumpled. The afternoon sun snakes through the fat-slatted plastic blinds, lending the room a neon cast. All the lights are off. I don’t ask if Ryan is high. “Come lay down,” he says. He’s unbuttoning his pants. I make him turn around while I take off my clothes and crawl under the sheet. He’s not allowed to look even when we’re both naked in bed, legs touching legs, hips against hips, calves over thighs. I let him roam his fingers over my bare skin, and I’m not afraid because Ryan never pressures me. Methadone decreases his libido, so he doesn’t mind that I’m afraid to touch him. He taunts me to amuse himself: “I’ll touch you with it,” he says, dick in hand, and I squeal and wriggle out of his arms. I do want to touch his penis, and I don’t. I want to touch it and I don’t want to touch it because touching a man’s penis will mark a turning point for me. I’m not sure I want to take the turn, or I want to take it slowly. Not because I want to savor the feel of the curve or because I like teasing this person who’s so patient with me. I tease because I don’t know what I’m turning into.
Everyone told me I was wrong. Had my friends not been so dismissive of my feelings, the mom so decisive in her edicts, the dad so cruel in his assertions about my relationships and what they said about me, I probably would have broken up with Ryan of my own volition. Freed from the need to reinforce the rightness of my choice, I might have seen that I’d constructed a person out of an image I liked and a narrative I thought I could enact until I made it true. Instead, I dug in my heels, determined to prove myself right. I could date a drug addict. I could make Ryan a better person. Ryan was a better person, more than what the chemicals he ingested suggested about him. My friends and family just couldn’t see what I saw. They hadn’t confided in Ryan and watched him really listen instead of treating their anxiety as a joke the way my parents and sisters and even my best friends had done to me my entire life. No one else saw how cute and playful he was, chasing me up the Forest Ranger lookout tower to watch the sun set. They didn’t sit up at night clutching their flip phones, convinced Ryan was dead because he hadn’t called when he said he would. Only I heard his mother describe banging on his apartment door, forcing it open to find him blue in his bed. How could they understand how precarious Ryan was and thus how precious?
And I feel ridiculous and incongruous, too, the dad unleashing on me an unhinged rant about the drug addict I’m dating amidst all these artifacts of my girlhood.
At Tisa’s, I duck my head under the covers to really look at Ryan’s naked body. I nuzzle my head into his chest like his penis is a scene in a horror movie I can’t watch. When I graze it with my fingertips, the skin is dry and satin smooth, not at all the gummy-slime texture I’d expected since I walked in on the dad asleep and saw his withered dick peeking out the seam of his boxer shorts like a miniature version of the giant worms in Dune. I jump back and reapproach, touching Ryan with hands like paws. I cradle his penis in my palm, and he lets out a little moan. “You can go harder,” he says. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” I say, my voice like a little girl’s. “I don’t want to hurt you.” Ryan tells me I won’t hurt him, that I don’t need to know what I’m doing. “Just do what you think would feel good,” he says. So I hold it, this thing made hard with blood and protruding from between my boyfriend’s legs. He tells me to make a fist around it and squeeze. “Are you sure?” I ask. “It won’t hurt,” Ryan promises again. “You’re okay.” I shake my head. I’m proud of my progress — actually interacting with the penis — but I’m also embarrassed and a little sad, and I don’t know why. The feeling drifts into me the way storms roll onto land from over the Gulf of Mexico. “I don’t want to,” I tell him. Ryan’s hand is in my hair. His lips press against the top of my head. “Let me go down on you, then,” he says. He’s been saying it for days, weeks maybe. He says he likes doing it, and I can tell he likes telling me so. But what if there’s something wrong with me down there? What if Ryan puts his face in my vagina and finds it lacking in some way I won’t recognize because the only vagina I know is my own, and I don’t even know it well. I haven’t touched it since I was a little kid, obsessed with the velvet feel of its folds. I tell Ryan he can touch me instead. Just on the outside. I don’t know the words “vulva” and “labia” — or, I’ve heard them, but I don’t know to which parts of me they refer, so I confuse them the way I’ve always confused a set of fraternal twins who look so completely unlike one another and still I’ve never known which name refers to which girl. It’s like the first time I got stoned. Only this bed and Ryan’s hand and my shaking legs are real, as in really there. I close my eyes and see sweating pink skin like the skin inside me projected on a screen on the undersides of my eyelids. Ryan asks again if he can go down on me, and his fingers feel so good I say yes. I’ve never done it before and so don’t know what it means to come until I do. I’m pushing Ryan away, saying, “It’s too much,” saying, “You have to stop,” and he asks me if I felt myself finish. “I think so,” I say. Ryan places his hand on my pubic hair like he’s petting it. “Did you feel, like, a rising kind of thing and then, like, a release?” he asks. I say I did, and I’m sure I did, but I’m making up my own definitions for words I ought to know: “rise” and “release,” “come.” Ryan doesn’t ask me to make him come. He watches me sprawl across the bed, my breath like a dog’s pant and my hands rubbing my legs because I think it will make them stop quivering. Ryan heads for the bathroom, and I get up to look for my panties. When he opens the door, I’m pulling my shirt over my head. Actually, it’s the mom’s Dolly Parton T-shirt from 1976. I’m newly enamored of my mother’s things, and I like the incongruity of Dolly’s signature on my flat chest, the pointing out of a lack. “Are you okay?” Ryan asks. “Yeah,” I say. “I just probably need to go.” He walks to the bedside table and picks up his Marlboros. “Just stay for a cigarette.” He holds one out to me, and I take it, let Ryan light it for me. I don’t even think about it. I don’t think about the day the dad quit or how worried I was when I caught the mom smoking six years ago. I perch triumphant on the sink and exhale, that first-cigarette buzz clouding my brain, first-orgasm hum pulsing in my muscles. I don’t just like smoking; I love smoking. I love it because I know I shouldn’t smoke, because it makes my head swim, because it pulls me closer to Ryan right when I feel closer to him than I thought I could. In my lungs I feel a power like the power in my orgasm, a power I don’t understand and can’t name but want anyway to wield myself someday. I don’t know that I already do or how much pain growing into it will entail. I don’t know it’s what I’m arguing when I tell our youth pastor that no one is the head of me. How fearsome and thus hated it is. I don’t know that this power is, to most of the world, a weakness.
The first time Ryan lied to me or maybe didn’t, I was sitting on the brown-and-tan shag carpet in the Niceville duplex’s living room. He sat in a chair beneath one of the room’s two windows. Ryan divided the room into two sides: a living room and a dining room. The living room side held the couch and a coffee table and a couple of chairs for guests. On the other side he’d either planned to or really did put a vintage kitchen table topped with patterned Formica and matching metal chairs cushioned in mustard-yellow vinyl. The image remains so vivid in my memory that I can’t decide whether I made up the table or it actually existed. We’d just been to visit dogs at the Humane Society. Ryan was telling me about the chihuahua he and Kathleen had shared when they lived together, how he missed little Nico and wanted her back. And then he moved to the floor, took my hands in his, and said, “I have to tell you something.” I knew from the timbre of his voice that he had to tell me something serious, but I didn’t think that what Ryan needed to say would have anything to do with me. I thought it was drugs. Money. Maybe even something good: an achievement, a compliment, or a gift. When he said, “I had sex with Kathleen,” I pulled my hands out of his lap and turned away so he wouldn’t see me cry. It was the first time he’d hurt me. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It was a couple of months ago. I didn’t think — I mean, we don’t have sex.” I turned to look at him. “That’s your excuse? We don’t have sex? How am I supposed to take that?” Ryan reached for my hands again, and I let him take them because now that I was angry I could look him in the eye. He said he meant it didn’t count as cheating since it wasn’t something we’d ever done together. He just missed sex, he said. He hadn’t done it to hurt me. He would never hurt me. “I don’t believe this,” I said. My last boyfriend had dumped me because he’d made out with another girl, and now this boyfriend, the boyfriend who was supposed to restore my faith in boyfriends, was telling me he’d fucked someone else, and it was my fault for being a frigid prude. I shook my head and said again, “I don’t fucking believe this.” “Good,” Ryan said. “Because I didn’t do it.” I could never tell when Ryan was lying because his eyes were so sedate, his voice so monotone unless he wanted something I could give him. “I’m fucking with you,” he said and squeezed my hands, swaying them right to left as if his palms were inviting mine to waltz. “I swear. I would never do that to you. I love you.” I love you was how Ryan got out of everything. Because he loved me, I was supposed to forgive whatever he said or did. “How am I supposed to trust you now?” I asked. I got up and paced the room. Ryan promised he’d been lying. He said he wanted to see how I’d react, and he was sorry for upsetting me. He’d made a mistake. I didn’t want to lose this person I’d grown to love during my hard and stupid fight to keep him. I nodded. “Okay,” I said and swallowed my tears. Twelve years later, I know that Ryan did and did not cheat on me. He says now that he went over to Kathleen’s, that he was going to fuck her, but that when they moved upstairs to her bed he felt so guilty he couldn’t get hard. Back then, I didn’t know what to believe, so I decided to believe he hadn’t done anything. And if I was wrong and he’d really cheated, it didn’t matter. He was still there. He still wanted me.
I’m half dressed in the Jetta’s backseat, my body wrapped around Ryan, who’s unbuttoned his pants. After I get over the hurdle of our bodies, they’re almost never separate. My vagina beckons his fingers back inside me, and mine run idly over his penis. I run to Tisa’s any chance I get, or Ryan meets me in Destin. The security guards who patrol the Silver Sands Outlet Mall catch us fucking around on a golf cart we found abandoned behind the outdoor shopping center. Now, we’re parked in the back of the Publix lot. Ryan’s trying to convince me to let him attend my high school graduation. “I’ll stand in the back,” he says. “I won’t even talk to you.” My whole family is coming to watch my sisters and me receive our diplomas: aunts and grandparents and a baby cousin. “Someone will see you,” I say. “It’s boring anyway. I don’t even want to go. Why would you sit through a hundred names just so you can see me walk across a stage for thirty seconds?” Ryan thinks I should risk estranging myself from my family because I love him. I think we’d be smarter to stay away from each other over the summer so that everyone will think we’ve really, finally broken up by fall. “Do you still want me to move to Gainesville?” he asks. We’ve been saying that Ryan will move to Gainesville as soon as he can raise the money, after I settle into the dorm room I’ll barely occupy at the University of Florida. If I say yes this time, I can’t take it back. He’ll think I don’t love him and never have. It’s just that I’m not so sure anymore. I’m so unsure about so many things, and if I lug Ryan and all of his baggage to Gainesville, I’ll also bring this uncertainty. I’ll always wonder what would have happened if I’d said no. I’m really thinking I’ll tell him I’d rather he stay here, that we can decide later. But Ryan’s sitting right there. I can’t control my facial expressions. He’ll read between my frown lines and know what I want to say. I don’t even consider that maybe Ryan doesn’t care. Maybe I’m his excuse to get out of the Panhandle, which reels people in and hooks them like the caught swordfish on the sign that greets drivers who enter Destin (“The World’s Luckiest Little Fishing Village”) from Okaloosa Island, a strip of land where the Choctawhatchee Bay meets the Gulf of Mexico. It doesn’t occur to me that, really, I’m more like that swordfish and Ryan the hook tugging at my smiling mouth while the fish who weren’t stupid enough to take the bait swim untethered below me like a hundred possibilities. I’ve changed so much with Ryan that I don’t know anymore who I am alone, and don’t I deserve the chance to figure it out? But I can’t take it without hurting him. “Of course I want you there,” I say. “I love you.”
When Ryan said he loved me, he didn’t just say “I love you.” He said, “I love you more than anybody ever has or ever will.” He told me he wanted to build us a modest house with a white picket fence and fill it with babies. “But I don’t like babies,” I’d say. “Cats, then,” Ryan said. We would have cats, and I would write, and Ryan would get a job working on cars, and he’d always love me more than anyone else because he’d be the only one I gave the chance. When he declared his love this way, it scared me. What if Ryan really was it? What if I never had another boyfriend? It’s why I decided not to have penetrative sex with him. I wanted something to remain new to me so I could look forward to sharing it with someone who hadn’t been the first to look at and really see me. After we broke up, I started to think of Ryan’s declaration as a threat. When he said, “I love you more than anybody ever will,” he was telling me that if we broke up (and of course we’d break up; I knew before he moved to Gainesville that one day we would break up), I’d never find real love again. He was saying You’re unloveable to everyone but me. He didn’t mean to suggest that only he saw in me anything worth loving, or he didn’t mean it consciously. But that implicit message was supposed to intimidate me, to make me cling to him more desperately than I already did. Ryan didn’t know how to love me without manipulating me, and I didn’t know enough about love to know that he was. Most of the things I think I know about love I learned from the time I spent with Ryan. In the dozen years since we broke up, no one has loved me the way Ryan did. I don’t mean that no one else has loved me and also treated me like shit or that love never again peeled off my skin to reveal layers of my self I hadn’t previously seen. I mean that since I left Ryan and went back to Ryan and left Ryan again, I’ve remained basically alone. Other people have loved me. They just haven’t wanted me as a partner. I’m 30 years old and haven’t called anyone my boyfriend since I was 19. When I think about the way Ryan used to declare his love, what scares me most is that all of these non-men will prove him right.
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This essay first appeared in Ninth Letter, a long-running biannual print journal of fiction, poetry, and formally inventive nonfiction, published by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.