Empty. My apartment is empty. Anyone with a soul can see past the dreadful mess everywhere, sticky notes and old socks and books scattered about, to the emptiness. Somehow, when I remember how very full it was a year ago, it seems even more empty. Last Christmas Eve’s ghosts hover over every air particle, sucking away all the happiness I once had. No, not happiness. Forced contentment. Fillers.
When I turn at the waist, twisting my spaghetti straps into near submission, I peer out the window and see the Pilteron Hotel in all of its grandness. It towers above everything. The clouds of holiday joy emanating from the people filling the New York City streets are not sucked away. They’re safe outside this hellhole.
But if I could ruin that building, make it bleed cement and crumble into dusty tears, I would. Or maybe just that one balcony hanging off the twentieth floor. I can barely see it from here. Too bad all of my dance training never taught me to throw. Otherwise, a well-aimed chuck of my toaster could hit it. But it wouldn’t be powerful enough to take it down. I never am.
When I close my eyes, squeeze them shut, as if I’m trying to crush my eyelids, I’m back up there. The memory fills my empty world. Eddie beside me. Oh, Eddie. It never could have been.
But still, he was there, time and time again. That time, with his knee on the stone and a velvet box in his itching fingertips. The ring was there for me to see for the very first time. “Marry me, Linny,” he said. “I know it’s you. It’s always been you.”
But he was wrong. He must know that now, but he didn’t then. When I said “no, Eddie, I can’t,” he didn’t know why. I thought I knew, but I was wrong. “I’m sorry,” I said, eyes saturated with cold fear and guilt and self-hatred.
I remember leaving the hotel. I grabbed my duffel bag and had to sprint to the elevator to leave him behind. He didn’t want to take no for an answer.
I cried. I cried as I tripped on my dress in the lobby. I cried as I waved down a cab and told them to take me home, even though I could’ve walked. And I cried as I curled up in the now-wrinkled folds of this very couch, wishing everything away. But that was nothing.
I wasted away all morning, barely moving and eyes shut but never asleep. I wouldn’t sleep again for days later. That alone would’ve made for a rotten Christmas.
By the time I had to leave for my Christmas Eve brunch date with Raj, I was hungover. Even though I hid it, I wanted him to take me in and make everything go away, just like always. But like everything else that day, things didn’t go as planned.
Raj had already stopped my heart by the time our plates arrived. “It’s never been difficult with you, Linny,” he told me, “only easy. I need that.”
“No, Raj, I can’t,” I said again, once he pulled out the ring, “I’m sorry.” And I was. I’ve never stopped being sorry in the last 365 days. But I did the right thing.
That was the second time. I knew I wasn’t supposed to have two boyfriends, but no one could tell me that. I was never satisfied. I probably never will be satisfied. I knew that maybe it was wrong, but I didn’t know how else to live.
I’ve always been so desperate to be understood. So relentlessly desperate every moment of every day of every year. So much so that I looked in a million different places and refused to acknowledge when I didn’t find what I was looking for. I still haven’t, but these days I’m trying to do it the right way. It’s not turning out as well as I might have hoped. Then again, my other strategy didn’t either. You’re never supposed to have to deal with two boyfriends coincidentally proposing in the same morning.
Number three came along only a few hours later, in mid-afternoon. It was Eddie again. “All you have to do is come,” he said. “Just say yes. Marry me.”
He had it all figured out. City hall was booked for us and he’d bought a little white dress and a tux and brought the ring and everything. That time, I almost agreed. But something was holding me back, something besides my crippling fear. I wouldn’t realize what until later, and I’d thank god that I did. I don’t care much anymore. I only wonder how much different things could’ve gone. But that doesn’t matter. There’s no way that three proposals in one day could’ve ended well. I have to believe that. But that was barely the half of it.
“No,” I yelled for the seventeenth time, and Eddie finally left. But he refused to listen. He came back one more time, after dinner. Or what would have been dinner. I never would’ve been able to keep food down.
I didn’t make the same mistake that time. I didn’t let him inside my apartment. I remember hoping that if I kept him out in the hall he’d feel less permanently clung to my side. Someone else may have been angry or at least frustrated. I was just sad. I hated myself, and I felt for him.
Eddie said he was finally clear-headed. He just wanted to talk, to convince me that we could do this. But I already knew he couldn’t change my mind. Eventually, shoulders wilted and head low, he left. That was the last time I ever saw him. Sixteen months together and it all burned, just like that. I never saw it coming.
That was four.
It was barely three hours later when it happened. I was lying in bed, my pillow tear-stained, thick blankets twisted around my petite body, and my brunch date outfit wrinkled when Jamie’s face lit up my ceiling. His eyes were green as a forest, his hair like burnt toast. Just as I remembered him, which I hadn’t let myself do in months. My game of suppression had played out and there he was. Eight months of separation can’t erase seventeen years. It does nothing to the bond of childhood. It can’t eliminate the only person that has ever understood me. Given enough time, repression shatters. It became clear that that time was eight months.
I remember how I bolted out of the room, down the thirteen flights of stairs (elevators don’t negotiate with adrenaline), to my car, across the city, and up to his door. I didn’t hesitate for a moment. I knocked on the door and changed my life. The next fifteen hours of it, at least.
The moment the door opened, I pushed myself at Jamie. He closed it behind us. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier than when he pulled me against him too. We fell onto the couch and just stayed there. I’ve never tried to figure out how long we were there. It could have been a minute or an hour, but knowing would dampen the magic.
“Ask me to marry you,” I said, dazed. My hands were full of burnt toast.
He didn’t hesitate either.
For fifteen hours, we were engaged. I stayed there Christmas Eve night. I wasn’t alone on Christmas Day.
But when the sun began to fall in the sky the next day, I knew I had to tell him. I hated that I did. But there was no choice.
As much as I loathed it in hindsight, I had been with Eddie in the last eight months that I was with Jamie. And he didn’t know that he had been the fifth person to propose to me that Christmas Eve. He had to know. If he didn’t, karma would come flying at my face even more than it already had.
I never regretted choosing to tell him anything. Not when Jamie sobbed. Not when he threw me out. Not when I arrived home and I cried for days. Not when I saw my childhood friend in the grocery store three months later, and he pretended I didn’t exist.
The only thing I ever regretted was my disloyalty and the ashes it burned in Jamie’s eyes. The forest died and it was my fault.
These days, I’m allergic to the black forest. It gives me headaches to imagine it. And in the grocery store that day, it made my caramel eyes melt right there in the pasta aisle.
And here I sit, the ghostly chill slicing through yet another Christmas Eve. There is only one solution. I inhale sharply with the choice. I mustn't be alone tonight. I’ve never been good at being alone.
I will go to Jamie’s.