Dear M—,

 

I’m writing to ask about your goldfish, Javaunte. Is the World’s Oldest Goldfish still alive?

*

I’m sorry for the names I called you a few years ago. I’m sorry I wished you were hit by a truck. I’m sorry for stealing your e-mail address and trying to log on to your Facebook account so I could pick through your private messages and the profiles of men I suspected you’d slept with. I didn’t know much about Facebook then, or my own desperation for answers. Though I wouldn’t admit it, not to you, I was embarrassed. It’s not like me to do something that brazen or unethical.

*

Well, sometimes it is.

*

When I found out I was sick and might not get better, I went through Jason’s things while he was at class. I went through his desk drawers, his closet, the boxes under his bed. I went through his file cabinet. That’s where I found a stash of notes from you, filed under “Misc.” One of them had crude pencil drawings on it–you, Jason, and a smiling goldfish. “Please feed Javaunte,” you’d written.

Like everything else I found that day–a birthday card that spoke of a “bittersweet summer,” an old driver’s license word-bubbled with “I need some crack!”, a few photographs–I shredded the note to pulp.

*

We were moving to Alabama after graduate school. That’s why I started stalking you. Facebook, MySpace, Google searches with twenty different keywords: your name, law school, University of Alabama. That’s where you had just earned your Juris Doctorate, and where I would be teaching English in the fall. That’s where I expected to see you in my new coffee shop, my new bookstore, except they wouldn’t be mine because they would already be yours, like Jason was. I needed to know what you looked like so I could recognize you. What you looked like now, I mean.

*

In the pictures on Jason’s wall–the collages of college friends and concert tickets and newspaper clippings with his byline–you sometimes had blond hair, sometimes brown. In black-and-white, your eyes looked blue, but when I wrote once that they were blue, Jason corrected me. “Brown,” he said. “One of the irises leaks a little, like a dog’s.” He said that to make me feel better–here, a flaw–but I thought it was cute. I love dogs. I love flaws. I love Jason’s crooked bicuspid, the one he threatens to straighten someday, the one that cuts my lip when he isn’t careful.

*

You, holding a glass of white wine, a lit Christmas tree behind you. You, camping. You, wearing a Catholic schoolgirl’s outfit on Halloween. You, standing on a bridge with sunglasses on. You, smoking a Camel Light. You, sitting on a dock, looking out at the water, Jason sneaking up behind you to get the shot.

*

You were right about one thing: I can’t prove it was you. I know only that you had the disease first, the year before I did, that you lied about it, that you gave Jason a cure that doesn’t exist. What were those pills?

I can’t prove it was you, but I had to believe it was you. How else would Jason not take your calls in the middle of the night, when his cell phone screen read, “Baby calling,” and not see you on trips home when I stayed behind, and not one day introduce us and make us play nice over drinks? How else would those pictures come down so new ones could go up? How else would he finally, once and for all, let you go?

*

It was probably you. We both know this.

*

I never saw you in Alabama to tell you how I was feeling. In your body, the disease turned dormant and went away. In my body, it evolved.

When my sense of humor is most intact, I imagine a scenario. I imagine we are girlfriends that talk about their trips to the gynecologist. I imagine that, in Tuscaloosa, we get together over beers at Egan’s and grimace over the wrinkled doctor who treats us both in that complex behind the university. I imagine you know all about the protesters in the parking lot, the ones who carry misspelled signs (“You’re fetis loves you”), who call and make fake appointments. I imagine you, too, have had to arrive two hours early for a check-up because those protesters think you’re coming for an abortion.

I imagine it starts to get dark outside, almost as dark as in Egan’s. I buy us another round and ask if I can tell you something personal, something bad. You say yes. You say of course.

I tell you that the nitrogen oxide made me feel like I was rolling off the metal examination table. That the nurse held me fast and said, “Hush, baby, it’s almost over,” and I told her “baby” was your name and “darlin'” was mine. That Jason didn’t go in with me because I told him not to. That I wanted him to come in anyway. That I left part of my cervix in that room, the part covered in dividing cells, the part it took two people to make.

Like other women who have left pieces of themselves in that building, I, too, could call that part “baby.”

*

Even though your profile is mostly private now, I remember your pictures on Facebook. I made fun of you for writing “luv” in reference to your dog. I called you a bottle blond.

Here are some things I wouldn’t have said then: I think you’re pretty. I think you love your sister. I think your best friend is more beautiful than either of you, but also crueler. I think she has a controlling way about her, and I think you have done things to impress her that aren’t really you. I think you take a lot of self-portraits, like me. I think we are both insecure. I think that’s why I once cheated on a boyfriend I still miss sometimes, and why you cheated on Jason.

*

Jason and I are married, eight months now. At first, I made the wedding pictures public. You weren’t the only reason. But I hoped you would see them. Please forgive me. I’ve made them private again.

*

My friend laughs every time I tell the Javaunte story.

Jason was recalling Alabama, something he does more often now that we live in upstate New York. He couldn’t remember the name of someone in his hometown, the name of a wino who nearly died in the alley beside the Marion jail. “Oh, we’ll just call him Javaunte,” he said.

Immediately, I saw the bowl sitting on a coffee table covered with ashes and band stickers. Plastic grass waving in water that needed to be changed. A funny caption. “Javaunte: World’s Oldest Goldfish.”

I smacked Jason on the arm. “You pulled that out of M—‘s fishtank!” I said. He looked stunned for a moment, and then he remembered. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I completely forgot about that.”

I stood up to get another beer from the fridge. “I know everything,” I called, sing-song, from the kitchen. “You have no idea what I know.”

*

You know what’s weird? I had a really old goldfish, too.

I got Norman when I was eight. My mother took me to the Tioga County fair and let me go off with some friends to the rides and games. I had only one rule. I was not to play the goldfish game. No more goldfish, she said.

I didn’t think I would win. I had no aim, wasn’t the least bit athletic. It was just luck that damn ping-pong ball landed in Norman’s slot. The game attendant put him in a sandwich bag filled with water and tied it off. My mother was livid, but she mumbled something about fair goldfish always dying the next day anyway.

It started to rain on our way to the car, and my clumsiness caught up with me. As I slid into the backseat of our Chevette, the sandwich bag slipped from my hand. The knot came undone, and all the water spilled out, on the floor, in my lap. It had a fishy smell. Norman lay flipping around on the fabric seat.

I screamed, horrified. My mother didn’t want a fish, but she didn’t want one to die either, so we got out of the car and began scraping rainwater off the other vehicles, refilling the sandwich bag with about an inch–all we could get from the hot July shower.

We put Norman back in the bag and drove home. He looked lifeless, barely fluttering at the bottom. My mother told me to expect the worst.

But Norman made it home, and through the next day, and the next. He lived until I was twenty-two.

*

Besides fortified goldfish, I wonder what else we have in common, M—. I’m sure you’ve wondered this, too. I’m sure you’ve thought there’s got be something we share besides cells and boyfriends, something fundamental, something a man like Jason would love in both of us.

Maybe enough time has passed for me to send you a friend request. Maybe we should move our stalking out in the open. Look at the pictures, scrutinize the hair, the eyes, the easy or uneasy smiles at the camera Jason is or isn’t holding. Maybe, if we look long enough–if we watch one another change jobs, cities, friends, body weights and hair colors and outfits–we’ll find the familiarity we were once sure didn’t exist in the other.

Even if it’s just goldfish we’re determined to keep alive. That’s something. I hope Javaunte is doing well.

 

Best,

Amy

 

 

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AMY MONTICELLO teaches at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York. She received her MFA in nonfiction from The Ohio State University, and her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Iron Horse Literary Review, Creative Nonfiction, Natural Bridge, Redivider, Upstreet, Waccamaw, Prick of the Spindle, Phoebe, Sweet, and elsewhere. Her nonfiction chapbook, Close Quarters, is available from Sweet Publications. She is married to an Alabamian Eagle Scout, and sometimes speaks with an accent that isn't hers. Read more at her blog, Ten Square Miles, or at her author site.

30 responses to “Dear M—, It’s Me Again, Amy”

  1. Christina says:

    Absolutely fantastic!!

  2. Zara Potts says:

    What a brutally honest and challenging piece, Amy.
    This had me absolutely captivated. I’m going to take sometimes to process everything that’s in here. But let me just say for the meantime: Wow.

  3. Rodney says:

    Amy,
    This is absolutely brilliant! It’s so honest, and real. It captured me completely. Keep writing.

  4. Amy Monticello says:

    Thank you so much, all!

  5. Laura Bogart says:

    This is so raw and yet elegant. Thank you for sharing it!

  6. Richard Cox says:

    Artistically, this is a wonderful piece of writing. On a human level, it’s frightening. I retain pictures and letters and other trinkets from all my relationships, because I shared part of my life with those women, and just because we’re not together anymore doesn’t mean I don’t treasure those times. It also doesn’t mean I love whoever I’m with now any less for keeping those items.

    Your poor health and whatever connection in that she shared obviously complicates matters, and I imagine it must have been terrifying to know you might not get better. I’m sorry about that. But still, the idea of someone I love rooting through my personal things and shredding my memories is horrifying.

    • You’re totally right, Richard. It is horrifying. I’m certainly not proud of it.

      • Richard Cox says:

        It’s a brave thing to publish an essay about it, I’ll give you that. Not sure what benefit the FB friend request would be at this point. Seems like you’d be better off just letting go?

        It’s difficult enough to know how to maintain a relationship with an ex, but your significant other having a relationship with your ex is a whole other level of complication.

        • Yes, no worries there. Letting go is definitely the point. The FB friend request thing is just an authorial musing, never to actually happen. My husband (who is fantastically insightful and forgiving on this whole matter, an absolute gem of a man), jokes that I sort of do have a relationship with his ex quite different and probably deeper than what he had with her, which is why I can imagine that sort of thing for the sake of writing. But I’ve got no intention of following through on it in real life.

          My basic rule of nonfiction is this: If I’m writing about it, I’m at peace with it. Critical distance is the key to all of my nonfiction, no matter the emotional characteristics of an essay. The events themselves don’t hurt anymore, even if I must recognize and understand old hurts in order to write.

        • Richard Cox says:

          And it’s certainly difficult for a random reader here on the site to know the context in which you’ve written this. It’s hard to know whether to comment on the content or just the post’s artistic merit.

          Either way, it’s a brilliantly written piece. Look forward to reading more.

        • Thanks, Richard. You’re absolutely right that it’s difficult to respond to nonfiction on both an artistic and emotional level. The two are so big and so connected. I look forward to reading your work on TNB, too!

    • dwoz says:

      funny how there are no temporal boundaries to fidelity and fealty!

      When I first became married, I had to jettison a bunch of “bits and stuff” of previous relationships. i.e. the head-shot promo picture of my ballerina girlfriend…letters…ticket stubs…etc.

      Now, I agree that you probably should lose any photos that depict overt intimacy, naked shots, etc. That’s just common decency.

      But it is a common requirement for men to have to let go of “stuff” lest that stuff become talismans. Somehow.

      • Richard Cox says:

        It’s a delicate matter for sure. Nailing the ex’s 8 X 10 head shot to the wall in your study is a bit much. But having a box or folder somewhere in your legacy belongings isn’t insensitive, I don’t think.

        I don’t agree with this idea of having to forget or abandon everything that came before the previous relationship. It seems childish to me. When you begin a relationship with someone, all their previous experiences add up to the person they are now, whom you presumably love. Perhaps you wouldn’t love them if they hadn’t previously learned something from another person you now feel is your mortal enemy.

        Asking me to throw away the physical trinkets is silly, because you can’t get inside my head and erase the memories themselves. Besides, I’m a writer and those relationships are going to end up in a novel somewhere, anyway. So get over it. (-;

        • dwoz says:

          I’m with you there. I don’t do anything here but assert that the conundrum-that-shouldn’t-be isn’t so uncommon. We could certainly talk further about trust, and confidence, and self-image in the scenario…but I think Amy has already made a great start with that!

        • Thanks, Dwoz. That’s the whole point, exploring the conundrum-that-shouldn’t-be. As a writer, I’m interested in what my friend calls the “human element,” even when it isn’t kind or pretty. I don’t always act as my best self. I often don’t act as my best self. But confronting my worst self, well, that’s where I hope to be at my best.

        • dwoz says:

          as a perhaps interesting aside, my current wife and my former wife speak regularly. wouldn’t exactly call them “pals” but they share the common experience of having spent ten years of their lives putting up with me.

          enemy of mine enemy, what not.

  7. Marie says:

    Amy,
    All I can say is wow! This brought tears to my eyes. You bring such emotion to your writing, emotions and thoughts I struggled with for years! I finally moved pasted the jealousy and anger over her, and glad you have found some peace also! I love to read your writing, and am so captured by your way with words. I am so glad you and Jason found each other. If you and Jason are ever in Birmingham, I would love to buy you a beer!

    • Marie, thank you so much for these incredibly kind words! I’m so glad you and Jason have reconnected lately, and we can get to know each other, too. We love Birmingham and will certainly be making trips to Alabama to see Jason’s family soon. It would be wonderful to see you and meet your husband (and possibly baby!).

  8. Nancey says:

    I could have written this! Although it wouldn’t have been as perfect. Thank you for writing this. Can you quickly get some pages together for a full length memoir? I would scoop that up in a second. Thank you!

    • Nancey, thank you for reading! I’m finishing up another memoir project this summer, but have thought about expanding on this material once my other book is finished. It was nice to give that material a test run here at TNB.

  9. J.M. Blaine says:

    Let me tell you
    I love a piece
    that reeks of gut level honesty
    that it seems so few writers
    are brave enough
    to barter in these days
    everyone trying to be so cute & clever
    but give me transparency
    — someone else’s though
    because the thought of being
    that honest scares me
    & that’s why my writing
    is sort of stuck.

    It’s true.

    • Thanks for reading, J.M., and for putting your comment in verse! It took me about four years to get comfortable writing about this, so be kind to yourself in those “stuck” periods. You’re probably just gearing up for the hard work ahead, and getting your perspective in order. I also appreciate your remark on the “cute and clever,” since I am neither, much to my periodic lament. I’m glad straightforward can still cut it out there.

  10. Brett Riley says:

    Great piece, Amy, as usual. 🙂

  11. Wow, amazing job of writing about a lot of complicated experiences and feelings. I think it’s especially great that you’re speaking so openly about a topic that a lot of people kind of tiptoe around — which I think only makes women dealing with it feel more scared and alone. When I was in my twenties, I, too, was devastated to not only have the ever-so-scary term “precancerous cells” thrown in my face but to be consumed with anger and sadness to learn of how it had happened.

    While I acknowledge that research is often quickly and constantly changing in the medical field (I’ve been shocked to discover how many things I know just by reading updates by the CDC or NIH etc. — things that my doctors often haven’t caught up on),it INFURIATES when I think of how horrible my doctors allowed me to feel at the time that the thing you describe happened to me, given what medical research has revealed about the condition.

    Now, all these years later, I know (and, thank God, finally have a doctor who knows) that a) the virus that causes this will affect almost every single person who’s ever had sex — very commonly starting with their very first sexual experience — at least once in their lives, b) even women who get as far as having precancerous cells will usually get better on their own, rendering the LEEP or other invasive procedures absolutely unnecessary; unlike with many other viruses, a patient will eventually actually test negative for it after having once had it and c) even women who develop precancerous cells that don’t quickly clear up on their own will almost never have a thing to worry about as long as they follow up with their doctors. (A friend of mine who is almost 40 had a HUGE scare with this but was eventually in the clear without having to undergo any extreme procedures).

    Put differently, my current doctor tells me — regarding the fact that my own insides were hacked apart within a few weeks of my diagnosis all those years back — “I’m so sorry they did that to you; what a waste of your poor cervix!”

    Thank you so much for writing about this, and I’m so sorry about what you had to go through. It really is VERY unfair that you ended up being affected so aggressively by this condition; I’m glad to hear that it sounds like you did get better, but I know from firsthand experience how traumatic it is to have gone through this — and how very complicated the associated range of emotions understandably are:(

  12. Amy Monticello says:

    Hey, TRE! Thanks for reading over here, too!

    It’s so helpful to hear about another woman’s experience. There appears to be no standardization of treatment, as almost everyone I’ve consulted has a different story with a different treatment. Personally, I felt an inkling of political motivation throughout my treatments, though I’m still working out my theories on why doctors choose the methods they do.

    My current doctor was also a little wary about my LEEPs (I had two), which had been presented to me in Ohio as a necessity (the cell mutation rate was rapid even at the initial diagnosis, and I had never missed a routine exam), and in Alabama as the alternative to a hysterectomy. To complicate matters, I was in grad school during my diagnosis, then moved for a job, then moved for another job–I had three doctors throughout my treatment, with three varying opinions.

    My current doctor didn’t really conclude anything definite, either, at least about the LEEPs. We’re just happy I had normal test results for the first time in five years, results I received just DAYS after I wrote this piece!

  13. […] Before me, Jason dated a mysterious girl I’ll call M—. Jason and M— broke up right before Jason moved to Ohio and started grad school with me, but M— was a lingering presence in his life when we met. You can read more about that here. […]

  14. the best one says:

    the best one…

    […]Amy Monticello | Dear Margaret, it’s Me Again, Amy | The Nervous Breakdown[…]…

  15. […] then, was the time I destroyed all of Jason’s memorabilia–notes, pictures, cards–from his ex-girlfriend. This was during the tenuous early months of our relationship when she still called and pleaded […]

  16. […] graciously on my writing and has been remarkably supportive of Jason and me as a couple. Besides, I only wrote about one bitch on The Nervous […]

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