PDA - Short Story

He was 18 when we met. His birthday, September 1st. A Virgo. Comfortable with himself. At least, more so than I was with me. He wrote poetry and liked sports, sometimes. He dressed formally, but wore his clothes with an ease that never demanded attention, though he received it. He inhabited the sort of popular where everyone knew him but he rarely hung around to be known. But that wasn’t unusual. Nobody wanted to become too well known here, because once you’re known there’s no going back to being just another face.

This was the first of many lessons I learned too late. He was 18, I was 20. A few years spent skipping class left me with less time to grow up, and when I finally arrived at Lakeview – a small, semi-selective, semi-progressive liberal arts school notable only to the thousand or so people clustered inside it – I was hungrier and stupider than even my youngest classmate. He became my guide. My lover. My obsession. He would show me how to live, and then, just as effortlessly, he would break my heart.

Before he was him, he was Bret. We shared a table in English 120, a course designed to teach you how to write and talk and present yourself with the unflinching detachment of an academic, and before I even knew his name I knew I wanted him. They say relationships based on adoration never work out, that you wind up falling in love with the idea of a person rather than who they really are, but nobody believes what they read until they get hurt. I didn’t care that he was younger. That his relaxed charisma disarmed me like a deflated balloon, and only he could fill me up again. We became friends the way most people in college do. We had the same classes, we found each other in the library and during dinner. Sometimes I’d text him about grabbing coffee and working on homework, but he was always busy. At least, he was for me.

I pretended not to notice when he would flirt with the girl behind me. It wasn’t healthy to pine and if he didn’t want me then I couldn’t change that. But I noticed. During the evenings, my mind would drift off my homework and onto her Facebook page. Sarah Page. Her birthday, August 31st. She liked swimming and Fall Out Boy, and she liked Bret. They were dating by Christmas break.

Bret and I stayed friends, officially, but I wasn’t good at hiding my sadness at his choice. I told myself he had to know how I felt, but that only made it worse to think he knew and he still chose her. I knew I shouldn’t hate her, but I did. I could feel my pulse race when she entered the room with Bret, her hand in his, their hips so close I couldn’t stop myself picturing them closer. She was pretty. She made people smile and she laughed a lot. She was perfect for Bret and I hated her. I hated her face and her voice and the image I couldn’t erase of them fucking each other while I laid in bed, alone, thinking of all the ways I would never be enough, and even if I could be it was too late. He’d chosen her and left me to watch.

///

I reached out to Bret over summer break and received fragmented responses which amounted to little more than pity texts. He was gone. This was over. Whatever we might have had disappeared when Sarah sat down behind us and I had to accept it. I needed to go out. Meet someone new. Find a cheap date and fuck him until all that was left of Bret was a name I didn’t want to remember.

When I met Mark in the corner of Lakeview’s only bar I didn’t wait to see him leave with someone else. We drank and we talked and we drank more until he led me outside and invited himself in. I woke up in the back of his car with my hair smelling of beer and mistakes I didn’t care to take back. He dropped me off at my dorm and left without any theatrics. I let the water run too hot while I rinsed the alcohol off my chest, the steam curling around my breasts and into my eyes as it moved upward and away like people so often did. I watched my skin turn red and felt the sting of the jets, the pain scattering over my body, clawing and scratching at my naked form like so many hands. I opened myself to them. I begged them to take these feelings away.

When I left the shower, my skin was raw. I wrapped a towel around me and felt its modest comfort mix with a burn of charred flesh and embarrassment. There was no helping me, no escaping this hell I’d built for my own self-torture. The only thing worse than feeling alone was feeling nothing at all. I existed as a shell to be inhabited. By boys and unlived fantasies of being more than another fool who couldn’t accept that they weren’t wanted. I looked for my phone amid the piles of laundry and found it tucked under a photo I’d taken of me and Bret. I started to laugh and then I cried.

It was a harsh, ugly cry. I doubled over and felt last year come up and out of me in thick, heavy barks. I fell over and couldn’t lift myself again. I forgot where I was and how long I was laying there, naked, bleeding emotion. My phone vibrated and I felt something in me crack and fall, hope mixed with grief and not knowing as I felt around for the device. I knew it wasn’t Bret before I picked up the phone but that didn’t stop me from longing for it to be him. Inexplicably, beautifully him. I was a mess. I knew I couldn’t live like this, but there seemed no way out. Bret had found his way into my heart and even as I couldn’t have him he refused to leave and let her move on. I felt something inside me I didn’t recognize. Resentment. Hate. A burning frustration and disdain for this man who had charmed me and then left me to resolve those feelings alone. But as soon as I had felt them, the feelings left were gone. I hated Sarah and Mark and all the other people who had used me and hurt me and left me alone, but I couldn’t hate Bret. Even at my worst, I was still in love with him.

I reached for my phone again, not knowing what I was going to say but knowing I had to say something. I checked the date on our last message. September 1st. I’d wished him a happy 19th, but he never replied. That was last week. The semester started on the 15th and I wouldn’t let myself repeat last year’s mistakes. We were still friends. He owed me this much.

///

My hand moved slowly over the chipped wood. I felt the places were pieces had been broken off, the areas were names had been carved and then carved away again, and wondered how many people had sat here before me. Our hands connected, awkwardly, a mess of fingers as they found their pairs. I studied my dangling feet, the scuffed gravel where I had slipped and the marks it had left on my bare legs, tracing the red lines with my other hand. “Hey.” His voice broke the silence and would have sent me back onto the ground had he not reached out to steady me. “Maybe it’s a map.” I chuckled and began tracing the scratches again, this time with a new appreciation for their existence.

Bret was good at comforting me. That’s why I’d fallen for him. He made me feel safe the way muscles and money couldn’t. The way other people never had. I’d forgotten what it was like to be next to him, to feel the warmth of his smile when he looked at me. I was reminded of all the tiny things that made Bret so charming. The way he always cried when he laughed as if you had just said the funniest thing anyone had ever heard. How he looked at you when you spoke, like he was taking in each word and filing it for posterity because he cared enough to listen. He had a way of remembering small things, things that only mattered to the person they were about and which were routinely forgotten by everyone else. Bret made you feel important and valued. I realized that I didn’t know nearly as much about Bret as he knew about me. Had I neglected to ask, or simply forgotten amid my self-pity? I felt a sudden disconnection from the man sitting beside me. I wanted to cry but couldn’t. Something inside me knew it was wrong, to take advantage of him like that. He’d given me so much already. I untangled my fingers from his and slid off the fence. “Let’s go somewhere else,” I said. “This fence always makes me sad.”

We walked into the open field just beyond the now forgotten fence. I hadn’t noticed it getting dark and suddenly felt the day’s fatigue compelling me to sit down. Bret followed me onto the grass and we looked up into the empty sky. I wondered if he was thinking about me. About how things could have been different. I didn’t reach out to him this time, but neither did he. We lay in silence, together but apart, each watching the sky from our own point. He didn’t love me and I wanted to say I felt the same. I hadn’t had a plan when I asked him out here. I had needed to see him, and he had humored me the way he always did. But now that he was here I couldn’t find the words to make him stay. “I should be getting back.” He was already standing up as he said this and I found I couldn’t raise myself to meet him. “It was good seeing you again…” he trailed off as if he’d forgotten his words. He hesitated for a minute. “Take care of that cut when you get back.”

As he walked away I counted each footstep. A minute, a day, a year. I didn’t know how long it had been or how long it would be again, but I knew it was over. Actually and fully over. I laid back down and put my hand on my leg. The cuts hadn’t hurt but now I felt the sting of each line moving its way over my body, leaving its mark as part of me slowly dripped away each moment I continued to lay there. When I finally left the field, my cheeks were wet. But he wasn’t there to see.

Elizabeth Brooks - Short Story

This is Elizabeth Brooks. She was born in Modesto, and she died in L.A.

Elizabeth met a boy – the same boy who took this photo – when she was 22. He was in her poetry class, but he lacked the sensitivity for it. His work was blunt and dry, like a wall that’s been left half-painted by hands who didn’t know how to hold a brush. She liked this about him. He was imperfect, broken, unable to hide his flaws despite an awareness of them. He had room to grow, spaces to fill, and Elizabeth found she fit them well.

He didn’t kill her. He lacked the capacity for violence, though there were times when he wished for it. Grotesque thoughts would wander through his brain, but with no means of escape or resolution they would simply fizzle out, leaving him drained and confused. And he liked Elizabeth, though he was unsure if he loved her. He loved many things about her, but the idea of loving her was somehow more difficult. It conveyed too much, got caught in his throat and turned sour before it could leave his mouth. He watched it grow, ripening into something beautiful, before he let it die, a feast for maggots.

They were together when she died. Not physically, but socially. A pair. A couple. They were known together, expected together, seen as a collective. She wasn’t her, she was his, and he was hers, except when he wasn’t. Elizabeth didn’t talk about the other women. They were just another flaw, something she could fix. She knew he loved her, though he couldn’t say it. She knew he thought of her, when he was inside them. Said her name when he came. They didn’t mean what she meant to him. She felt sorry for these women. Did they know he didn’t love them?

He did think of her, sometimes. When he was drunk. When he decided he wanted someone but couldn’t let her go. So he drank and he fucked and he told her it didn’t mean anything, and she let him stay. It was comfortable here. She was understanding. She cared for him in ways he knew he didn’t deserve. When she cried he would hold her, and somehow this made it all ok. He was making amends, being there for her when he hadn’t before. And if it happened again, forgiveness came easy.

It wasn’t hard. Thinking of ways. Searching online. Looking at the results. There were risks. The possibility of failure was the biggest and most unacceptable. Or that it would be misconstrued. She needed him to understand, or why go through the effort at all? It wasn’t easy. The doing. The planning and staging. She wouldn’t know how he’d react, if he would understand, so she would have to spell it out. Put it in writing. Tell him what he couldn’t know himself. He couldn’t possibly know.

But it wouldn’t be him. Or anyone who knew her. Housekeeping would enter the room she had rented, the one she had invited him to with the expectation of sex and alcohol. The one he would never arrive at because he had decided he couldn’t do this to her anymore. She wouldn’t see the text he sent to end things. The half-formed apology he couldn’t give her himself. The pills worked too fast, too well. She would remember thinking he wasn’t worth it, but maybe that’s why she had done it. Because his faults were where she belonged, her mistakes the only possible outcome of a failed attempt to change a man who made her feel so small. She wondered if he would miss her.

He wondered if he should have called.