This essay was originally submitted to the New York Times Modern Love column in the spring of 2017. It was rejected a few months later.
FAKE IT 'TIL YOU BREAK IT
It was something I had said that day by the water that would mark the point of no return. With a twist of my tongue, I managed to unravel two years. Six months of resentment, four months of emotional distance and three very long weeks without sexual contact and here we were, a tangle of washed-up memories gasping for air on the shoreline of Lake St. Clair.
“Why is it that the only time we’re really happy is when we’re pretending to be other people?”
My voice warbled over waves lapping concrete, the words spilling like involuntary sea foam. This wasn’t intended to be some elusively melodramatic line. No, this tragic moment in improvised personal cinema was a desperate cue for reciprocal brevity. Though the answer was clear my question felt impossible against the persistent wind.
Avoiding my gaze, long-armed and anxious against an almost sunset, this is the version of of him I would chose to remember.
“That’s the most beautiful person I have ever seen up close.” I may or may not have said this out loud at the time seven years ago, but when I would tell the story about the night we met I made a point to emphasize that I had in fact said this out loud. I could swear the fluorescent basement glow shifted like an unintentional spotlight as he came into my view though I can’t be too sure of this detail either. What I do remember, with a staggering clarity, is how I felt. How the mere sight of this stranger, the most beautiful person I had ever seen up close, completely dismantled what I believed was possible.
It was from that moment on that his name would become my silent and sacred daily gospel. We would spend years apart, with other people. Almost married, mostly domesticated, our misery running so tightly and unknowingly parallel to one another that eventually our curiosity had no choice but to press “send.” First from behind the secret confines of chat room boxes where he would confess that the blur of mountains and seascapes from his tour bus window made it impossible for him to want to stay still. In turn, I would admit that I had no intention of marrying the person I had agreed to marry.
We divulged in our respective existential crises and in doing so managed to create a silly, lopsided world where versions of ourselves could be together. This distant connection was made far less lascivious by our ability to take on fictional personas happily trapped inside our digital playground. Through Becky, the flirtatious girl at the smoothie stand in Macomb Mall and Shane, the emotional assistant manager of the adjacent Piercing Pagoda kiosk we were given permission to tempt our deepest, most intimate details. There was no infidelity, no broken vows, either, only fantasy.
It wasn’t until my 26th birthday that we first made love; our only encounter in six years. He absorbed the negative space of my doorway with his broad shoulders and unruly hair as I nervously handed him a coffee cup filled with Bushmills Irish whiskey. Within minutes we began to clumsily navigate our bodies and my studio apartment. Once carefully alphabetized stacks of books now pooled across the floor as our long lost trajectories collided. That night we were just as fevered by laughter as we were by pleasure, barely breathing and struggling for balance. We would spend years this way; hysterical and deeply attached.
Almost instantly and over time we had inside jokes like couples who have inside jokes have, we laughed at things we were convinced no one else could possibly laugh at. Only, what we developed became remarkably more complex. We had inside characters—each one a mosaic more advanced than silly voices or impersonations (though we had those, too.) Characters that inhabited deeply specific worlds orbiting their idiosyncrasies, likes, dislikes and exhaustively detailed histories that became more and more real to us the more we occupied them. It was within these outbursts of playful improvisation that the foundation for our stage was poured.
Enter Brad and Krystal.
Early 20’s. Met doing ill-placed body shots of Fireball at Amber’s graduation party.
Krystal and her low-rise jeans, bleached hair, and cherry rhinestone belly ring was a button- pusher. And Brad, whose buttons were easily accessible, liked that about her. Embodiments of our suburban, drunk boater town upbringings, Brad and Krystal allowed us to parody kids we grew up with but never quite understood. They consumed petty drama like energy drinks and rarely pronounced the last letter of words when they spoke.
It was appropriately on our second date at an annual carnival located in the parking lot of The Gibraltar Trade Center (a hometown attraction of kitsch and convenience where you could purchase a Samurai sword, a box of porn, an exotic lizard and a corn dog all in one visit) that we birthed these caustically caffeinated lovers. Brad and Krystal were never officially dating because Brad sometimes hooked up with Amber (Krystal’s cousin) and Krystal would get jealous and spend time with bad boy Joel (Brad’s nemesis.) Their blatant disregard of each others feelings would escalate and erupt into angry voicemails where they would fight, breakup, get drunk, cry, apologize and hang up mid sentence to consummate their frequently repeated lapse in stability.
Then there was Len and Carol.
Mid-40’s. Total of physical ailments claimed: 57. Met at an all-you-can-eat pasta buffet when they both simultaneously complained to the manager about not being able to take food home.
As lovable as a CBS sitcom couple and as eccentric as a TLC obesity/hoarding special, Len and Carol were the antithesis of goal oriented. Carol’s teeth had grown sensitive from her excessive, daily soda habit so she coined the phrase “Nuke the ‘Dew” which would prompt Len or whichever fast food employee lucky enough to serve this dynamically whiney duo to microwave her Mountain Dew as to avoid further dental discomfort. Len’s voice was thick with Middle class, Midwestern asthma and his posture rounded and slumped, portraying someone so sadly exhausted from doing so little. They had an excuse for not attending a number of family functions and often it was the needs of their 14 year old, arthritic chocolate labrador, Snickers, which allowed them to believably escape the anxiety of socialization. Sure, they were seemingly lazy and it was mostly funny to shuffle around the house complaining about pre-packaged 100 calorie muffin snacks. But it was Len and Carol’s cunning ability to justify any and all behavior that made them such a perfect match. Well, that and their shared love of Pixar films and sofas that smoothly reclined.
And of course, Ted and Marie.
50-something years old, married for 25. Met in a vacuum repair shop.
Inspired by Ted Danson (well, his name was actually Ted Danson and he acted like how we thought Ted Danson might act but Ted was not Ted Danson) our Ted had an affinity for vacuum cleaners. He would revel in the release of new models and would celebrate finding a discarded ’95 Dirt Devil in a neighbor’s trash with the same enthusiasm someone might reserve for the welcoming of a new-born. Marie was sweetly stubborn with a geographically confused New Jersey accent. Although she would grow annoyed with his ever expanding vacuum collection, she would eventually sacrifice her guest room/present wrapping station so that he could display them.
Marie’s lovable quirk was her nightly sleepwalking. Mumbling and stumbling, she would lose her slippers and Ted would guide her back to bed, delivering her rogue house shoes to her feet the following morning. Ted and Marie would dance in the kitchen without music despite Marie’s reliable protest. Humming a love song that buzzed against her ear, Ted always won because Marie always caved. Blue-collared and content with being only content, Ted and Marie were not hyperbolic fascinations. They were reflections of who I thought we would turn out to be if we chose to grow old together. But unlike us, Ted and Marie were in it for the long haul.
It was Valentines Day. He arrived at my door several hours late with roses. Grocery store roses. The year prior he had composed a song using secret audio footage he recorded one morning of me sorrowfully playing his mothers piano. This year, last minute roses wrapped in pink cellophane; my red flag and his white one. I smiled, forcibly. We kissed, coldly. Our eyes locked as if to beg for forgiveness and freedom.
Dinner, unbeknownst to me, would become a memorial service as our world went from hospital to hospice between appetizer and entree. In unspoken agreement, we salvaged what we could by summoning our fictional skins to fill the space we were sure to neglect. Brad and Krystal reprised their cat and mouse jealousy over imaginary text messages, Len and Carol argued over the last bite of tiramisu and Ted and Marie stayed past close and waltzed while the hostess put chairs upside down on empty tables. As our love struggled for screen time in these final moments, our characters pushed through. A curtain call and a cremation, we left in silence as snow fell in slow motion.
He would leave me one week later facing a different view of the same lake with stormier skies for reasons best filed under “things I still don’t quite understand.” Of all the things I remember from that night it is the way he held my hands in his, tracing each one of my ragged nail beds and fingertips as if they were braille. He was committing me to memory. Anthologizing my skin, my scent and the way my hair falls over my eyes. I recoiled as I took inventory of his face, here, covered in shadows of windshield raindrops. His lips parted, words swallowed loudly like accidental chewing gum. Without announcement he left the car and stood alone in the rain with his back turned to me.
Long-armed and resolute staring up and out at the impermeable darkness, this is the version of him I have chosen to forget.
For two years, I played the role of a lifetime. I played myself, all of my selves, and we were all in love with Michael.
Jerilyn and Michael. Late 20’s. Met at a party.