“Most people would rather convince themselves of being in love than of being happy, just as most people would rather believe they are talking to others when talking to themselves.” –Sarah Manguso
This story will end with two women naked in a bathtub. Let’s say that, for now, it begins with a drive to Marfa, Texas. I was with one of my best and longest-time friends, Kaitlyn, on our way to spend an annual weekend getaway there. As Dallas faded into a haze in the rearview mirror, we half-joked that this time we were going to Marfa to find ourselves, our “center.” What we meant was that we were looking for some kind of fulfillment or self-sufficiency—maybe happiness is the word—but the joke was that, in reality, we would have preferred to bring our boyfriends with us…except that we didn’t have any. “Finding ourselves,” whatever that meant, would just have to serve as a consolation prize.
No. Maybe this story begins about six months earlier. It was five o’clock in the morning, sometime in August 2012. I was lying on the floor in my pajamas, crying. I couldn’t sleep again. I couldn’t stand the glow of the streetlights pulsing in through my living room’s wall of windows. I couldn’t listen to the sound of my own ticking thoughts for one more horrible second. I turned on the radio and ran a hot bath.
I crawled into the bath and let myself sweat and cry. I wondered how the water could possibly sustain me—if I drank it, for instance—or how it kept me from floating down to an invisible bottom far below the surface. I closed my eyes and allowed the bathwater to become the same familiar ocean I had sought out every night for weeks. The ocean was the depth and expanse of my despair, warm and interchangeable with my body. I imagined what it would feel like to drown.
I don’t know exactly what brought me to this point. A man had recently broken my heart, but it wasn’t anything especially unique. I also hadn’t spoken to my father in a few months—perhaps I would never speak to him again, because he’d smoked crack on my birthday again—but I hadn’t been thinking about that much, either. I hadn’t been thinking about anything in particular, just everything all at once. A valve in my brain was caught open. Every time I looked at my dog, I couldn’t help but cry at the thought of ever being without him. All of my food began to taste the same.
My friends knew that something was wrong, of course, but they couldn’t pull me out of it. Kaitlyn would take me to dinner at night and buy me a slice of “smile cake,” a quatro leches cake. Ariel, another of my closest friends, would come over to watch movies. She would sit beside me on the couch, silent, present, available. She would watch the same movies—my favorites—over and over again. Sydnee would drive me around the lake, listening to music. Layla would call me from Houston in the afternoons, asking, “How is today?” And then the next day: “How is today?”
The support of my friends kept me going, without question, but it didn’t make me happy. I didn’t know how to reach back to them at all; I couldn’t figure how to connect. It was frustrating, and I hated myself for it. I felt selfish and ungrateful and, most of all, undeserving of their love, which only made things worse. I think, in my head, there were all these different kinds of love—parental, platonic, intimate—and I just wasn’t getting the right one.
Where does that idea come from, that love has different frequencies? I remember how I learned in church that the only really satisfying love was divine love that came from God. My mother would always remind me that parents had to give “tough love” to their children when she took away my Gameboy or told me I couldn’t spend the night with a friend. And in the mix of all these categorical loves, I somehow learned that platonic love, like the kind I had with my friends, was simply structural. It was important but not primary. It wasn’t intense or exhilarating. To love a friend too intimately would be to cross a sexual line, to be out of sync with society. Friends would be there to support you, I learned, but not, ultimately, to fulfill you. What I needed was a boy to love me; that was what I called “real love.”
“Real love” was what I had with Kendall, one of my first serious boyfriends in high school. He wasn’t a very good boyfriend. In fact, he refused to actually date me until after he’d already gotten me pregnant and I’d had an abortion. That night—the night after the abortion—I snuck out of my mom’s house to see his band play a concert downtown. I wore a sweatsuit for comfort. I found a leather booth along the back wall of the smoky club and fixed myself in a half-sitting, half-lying-down position. My stomach felt as if every organ had been removed and then placed back inside me, but in a different location. I could catch only glimpses of the band onstage through the crowd of shifting silhouettes.
As the last song ended and the band members said their thank yous into the mic, I hoisted myself onto my feet to cheer them. Just as Kendall came into view, glowing with his guitar in-hand, a girl ran up to him and embraced him. Then they kissed. In front of everyone.
I felt my blood pressure drop as I landed back in my seat. Cold sweat was forming on my brow. I wanted to lie down. I just wanted the room to be silent and as empty as my belly. No one in the crowd knew about the abortion. No one, it turned out, knew about me.
I thought that Kendall loved me because he sent me sweet text messages during class and sometimes invited me to the lake after school. We would eat sandwiches together and listen to music in the car. The houses of Lakewood clicked past the window like projection slides; here is one in the sun with red trim; here is one with white brick and ivy.
He was a junior, a year older than I was, and by my estimation much cooler. When we walked next to each other on our way to class or rode home together after school I felt happier than I’d ever felt before, and I thought it was because we were in love. Even after he kissed the other girl, after he later apologized and I accepted his offer to go out with him, and even years and years later, I thought that he’d loved me. I understood my happiness to be the result of a certain “kind” of love, the kind between a boy and a girl.
Perhaps this story begins much earlier. Perhaps it begins when I was seven years old, in 1995. I can hardly remember the moment now, but I can feel the pit it left in my gut.
That day I was at my mom’s house—a small house where she and I lived alone on the west side of Dallas—and as she was making dinner she told me that my dad was going to come by to see me for a minute. My dad had never come by before—or maybe he had, but if so I couldn’t recall it. I didn’t even think he’d seen our house before, so this was a surprise. I did see my dad on occasion, usually at his parents’ house, where I spent a lot of time, but I hardly ever got to go anywhere with him and I didn’t know where he lived.
When I heard Dad’s truck crunch onto our driveway I ran outside to meet him. The sun was slant in the sky by then. I was still wearing my first-grade uniform but had taken off my shoes, so I went across the gravel barefoot. Dad picked me up and hugged me. I smelled his familiar mixture of cigarettes and cologne. It made me think of all the places he had seen without me, and all the things he’d done. I imagined him perpetually driving fast cars and trucks across endless stretches of open road. I imagined him being up all night and drinking Dr. Pepper. I was, in a way, in love with my dad. I was in love with the mystery and freedom of him.
“Dad, are you gonna come inside and have dinner with us?”
“I can’t, Smelly, I’m sorry. I’m just stopping by for a second.” I’d thought that I would see him for longer, so I was disappointed.
“How come you can’t just stay for a little bit?”
“Well, I’ve got a plane to catch. That’s why I came to see you.”
“Oh. Where are you going?”
“I’m going out to Minnesota to live there for a while. I wanted to stop and say goodbye.”
I didn’t know yet that my dad did drugs. He was going to live at Hazelton, an inpatient rehab facility in Minneapolis, and he would be gone for a year. I didn’t know any of that. At the time, I only thought that Dad had chosen to go live somewhere else, and that he could decide not to leave if I talked him out of it. I remember the way my skin pricked and the bones in my face began to hurt as I started to cry.
“Dad, please don’t move there.”
“I have to, Smelly, I’m sorry.”
“Can I go with you, then?”
“You have to go to school. And besides, what would your mom do? You wouldn’t like it in Minnesota. You wouldn’t have any friends.”
“Please, Dad. I don’t care about my friends. Can you at least wait and have dinner?”
I realized even as I spoke that nothing I said would keep Dad from leaving. There was a faint distraction in his eyes, as if he were looking just beyond me. I’m not sure how I came to sense so quickly and fully the magnitude of this ache, but in that moment I did. Love didn’t have any categories then, there wasn’t a “right” or “wrong” kind, and there was no difference between the kind of love I had for my dad and the kind I’d have for anything or anyone else I would ever come to love with fervor.
A few minutes later, Dad’s truck pulled out of the driveway, and I felt a burst inside as if I’d tethered my heart to it. That was the first time my heart was broken. It’s a very specific sensation, one that’s easy to recognize. I cried through the dinner I didn’t eat and long into the night. I howled for hours beyond the reaches of my mother’s comfort. That was the first day I knew real pain. Blinding, crippling pain.
I don’t know where this story begins. It begins with heartbreak, chaos, and misunderstanding. But here is where the story ends:
Kaitlyn and I had dinner at a fancy restaurant on our second night in Marfa. Over crisp glasses of sauvignon blanc we giggled about being on a “friend date” and searching for our centers. We continued to drink wine when we got back to our room, which was actually an elaborate tepee we had rented on an alternative camping ground. We turned on folksy music and lit the candles by the bed, pretending to be romantic. Once we had downed about three bottles, we decided it would be fun to take a bath in the claw-foot tub that was behind a wooden fence at the center of camp. We dashed out into the night with our towels, a candle, and the remainder of our bottle.
At first, of course, it was awkward. We each slid over to our own side of the tub and tried not to stare at the other. We burst into laughter once or twice amid forced conversation. At some point, however, I began to remember those nights in the bath by myself, months earlier. I remembered that former version of me—senseless, hollow, numb—and all of my other previous selves, the ones whose hearts had been broken, the ones who couldn’t sleep, and in that instant I felt somehow anointed. Love, as I had understood it, was wrong. It was not one way or another; it could not be defined. I could feel the ecstasies of love even when it was my own love reflecting back at me, off of a man who didn’t love me. I could feel it beyond the boundaries of language and grief. I felt love in the intimate reach of my friend, sharing the water with me, bringing me up for air.