It’s not my kind of music, not anymore. But it fit the harsh, ringing time of my life when all I wanted was something loud enough to drown out my own mind. It fit the boy who slouched against a wall, his legs long and spread out as if to take up every bit of empty space around us. My own legs were tucked beneath me, and I leaned toward him so that the earphones—one in his ear, one in mine—would reach between us. I didn’t touch him. It was that song, the one that started like a lullaby and changed in an instant to something vicious, that rattled inside our skulls.
I remember the exact shade of his sweater that day. I don’t remember why we were arguing. I don’t remember whether his hair was short or long at the time. I don’t remember much at all about that day, whether it was one of our good ones or one of the ones that made me go home and sit on the shower floor until the water ran cold. But I remember that color blue. I remember the feel of the tight-woven threads smooth underneath my fingertip. It was the only time I ever touched him gently, timid, like he was something that could be broken, too.
I have always hated the cold. There is nothing worse to me than the feeling that the chill has slipped through all the layers of skin and come to rest inside my bones. The rawness at the back of my throat when I breathe deeply in the frigid air scrapes against me and makes me cringe. I hate the rattling of my body’s minor bits and pieces when I shiver to keep myself from dying like everything else the winter has killed. Winters are short in Mississippi, but while they’re here, I’m always afraid that I might never get warm again. I knew something was wrong with us when he started to make me feel cold all the time.
My dad taught me, not intentionally, what it looks like to be trapped in a life with someone who doesn’t love you—at least not the way you need to be loved. People love how they were taught. Maybe sometimes they just don’t know how to find better ways. Before I was old enough to know much, I was already desperate not to repeat his mistakes. If it were up to me, I’d have never loved anyone at all.
When I was younger, I had a friend named Emily. I didn’t like that he thought she was pretty. I shouldn’t have minded when he said it; I thought she was pretty too. In fact, I think I said it first. But I didn’t like that he thought it. I suppose that made me jealous, petty, insecure—maybe it just made me fifteen, and scared of everything. I don’t think he ever even spoke to her, but I couldn’t get it out of my mind for a while.
He said, “We’re friends. It would ruin everything.”
But in the end, everything was ruined anyway, so really, we ought to have been braver.
We were raised so religious that it’s either a shock or none at all that we unraveled so fast. The pastor’s granddaughter and the church drummer, a lifetime of sermons and Sundays spent on church pews, and all it took was each other for us to lose our faith. Both of us tried to turn ourselves inside out, as if maybe to forget how hard it was to fall asleep the more we pretended that we didn’t still believe. I never understood his reasons, but mine were easy and impossible all at once. I always loved him more than God.
If you’ve ever been to Mississippi in August, you’d probably wonder why any of us fear hell. It couldn’t be much hotter. But maybe knowing is the whole reason we’re so afraid. It always hurts the worst when you know exactly how much you’re losing.
He used to say that I think I’m the center of the universe. I guess he was right, except that I’m always getting distracted by the thought of all the lives—the complete lives, full of mundane moments and thrilling ones, families and loves and heartbreaks—that are always, always whirling about around me. And I’m always thinking about how desperate I am to mean something, to leave some kind of print on the world. I do think I’m the center of the universe, though. I hate to feel small, but I still twist myself into bundles when I sit.
Once, I defined joy as the way it felt to be with him. Joy was knowing he would laugh when I made a joke. Joy was the way he always knew what I was about to say before I said it, because I liked feeling as if someone understood the way my mind moves. Joy was how we were falling apart together instead of alone. I later realized that none of this was joy at all.
It’s not an original plot, falling in love with your best friend’s older brother. It was the most inevitable, naive thing I could have done—but I couldn’t have not done it, and nothing that happened after was ever anything like a romance.
I wrote a poem once about the reason that people are so obsessed with finding love. I crumpled up a dozen different versions before I finally just wrote about how I’m the last person who would know. I loved him, and at the time I thought I’d have let the world and everyone in it burn down around me for him. I felt a perverse kind of freedom in that.
I never wanted to get married. The entire idea of being bound to one person, someone other than myself, made me feel like I was being suffocated. Watching a marriage fail slowly and painfully the way my parents’ did would do that to anyone. But I would have tied myself to him in a minute.
I loved him in all the ways I needed to be loved when I was too young to know any better. I’m older now, and almost definitely wiser, but I feel more like a child than I ever did before. The last time I saw him, he told me that I smile more now, and I haven’t stopped to count but the easy way the corners of my mouth turns up tell me he’s probably right. He still makes me laugh more than anyone else, but it’s lighter now. It doesn’t feel almost like crying.
I’m not in love with him anymore. I haven’t been in years. Learning how not to be came slowly and horribly, and then all at once. But I don’t consider that part of my life as being over. I know we’ll never really be anything again, except two people who were never quite a whole. I don’t miss him—usually. He doesn’t give me a reason to want him again—usually. But we are not something that could ever really be over. I still see him, when I go back home. I hear his name brought up in conversation when I talk to my family, to my friends, to his family. We go to the same places, and we love the same people. He’s always there on the fringes of my life, threaded in, permanent. And we both carry the marks of the way I used to love him.
For the longest time, I thought it was because I wasn’t pretty enough. Or skinny enough. Or something enough. I only stopped blaming my appearance for him not loving me when he married a girl whose clothes are two sizes larger than mine, who just looks like a regular girl, who makes him happy.
I used to hate the quiet. When things were quiet, I had to think. I had to feel myself falling into the black hole that was my life without him. I stayed busy. I texted while I ate, I read in the bathtub, I watched TV until I fell asleep, I kept music on all the time, I never gave my mind a moment to confront me with all the things I didn’t know how to live with. These days, I fall asleep listening to myself breathe in the dark. I see my future as a kaleidoscope.
I hate admitting that I’m wrong. But I was wrong about us.
“We aren’t right for each other,” he said.
“Yes, we are,” I replied. “We’re perfect. We could be perfect.”
We were both in love with the summer. It seemed like we always fell apart once things got cool, but in the summers we were perfect. Infinite. Almost within reaching distance of all the things we were looking for. We were on overdrive in the summers. They were long, hot days of laughing and screaming and adrenaline that seemed like it might burst from us and have a life of its own. Once, we jumped into a creek in the Ozarks at two in the morning, high on being young and alive. The current pulled at me, but he caught my arm and held me steady, and we let the waterfall from the cliffs above us pour over our bodies in the dark. The mountain water was freezing, so cold that our lips turned blue and our bodies numbed so that we didn’t feel any of the bumps and scrapes that left the bruises we’d find in the morning, but the stars were limitless and it was the most gorgeous moment I remember.
I told him that I hated him twice. Both times he believed me. Both times I knew I was lying. He knew me better than anyone, and he didn’t know me at all. I didn’t understand why he refused to listen to the things I didn’t say out loud.
I have a memory that captures moments and stores them away in perfect clarity, and because of that I can tell you every conversation we ever had that meant anything to me. I can almost quote them, down to each and every placement of the word “um.” All of the words that led us to our breaking point are filed away in my mind, and still I can’t tell you what finally did it.
I don’t remember a time before I wanted to be wherever he was. I was twelve when I announced that I was in love with him, and, even now, I don’t think I was wrong. He was the pinpoint that I revolved around, and I didn’t care. I never knew a time when it wasn’t that way. I was sixteen before I realized that love should feel better than the absence of it.
I told him that I loved him on a humid Wednesday night in June. He asked me if I could fix it. I almost hated him for that, for treating my feelings as if they were a toy with a broken piece, as if they could be repaired with a bit of glue and a little work. It took me a moment to find the words to tell him it didn’t work that way. It took him years to say he was sorry. I’ve never let him see me cry.
If you take an x-ray of my uncle’s arm, you can see the pellet my mother shot at him when they were children. I wonder, if you took an x-ray of me, whether you would see all the shots he’s aimed at me across the table and under his breath and from the side of whatever new girlfriend he had at the time. I wonder if they’re still there, silent and still beneath my skin.
I was seven when the Y2K panic swept the nation. At the time, I didn’t think that I even thought it was a possibility that something could come along and end the entire world from one second to the next. After him, I do.
I looked up one night, maybe about six months after it all ended, and he was walking through the door. I was talking to his brother, laughing about something, and I paused, expecting to feel it like a shot, to feel the change in the room that I always felt when he walked in. I felt nothing at all.
Anna Sandy is an MFA student studying poetry at Georgia State University, where she also works as an English Composition instructor. She has spent the past two years working as an assisting editor for Five Points, and has recently been appointed poetry editor for New South. She can be found reading her poems at various places in the Atlanta metro area (and occasionally elsewhere), traveling, and writing. Find her on Twitter @annamariesandy and on Instagram @annamariesandy.