Ellie was tiptoeing around Ryan as he finished up what seemed like an important conversation. She figured it was his work, it wasn’t unlike them to bug him on the weekends, especially when it most certainly could wait until Monday. It didn’t bother her, he knew when he should and shouldn’t answer, plus it was sexy to hear him talk like a businessman. She was far behind him in terms of getting ready, which she took to as having no right to dictate how he spent his time. She had gotten dressed but still had to finish her hair, and it was no small feat. They were getting ready for Ryan’s cousin’s wedding, a cousin she had not met yet, and one she wanted to make a one-of-a-kind impression on.
When she heard him say goodbye and was sure the call was over, she yelled for some help. Her dress had never been worn, but it wasn’t new by any means and had been sitting in the closet for quite some time. She bought it years ago thinking her late twenties would call for formal wear semi-often, but it turned out no one around her was sure enough to get married, her peers weren’t really that fancy anyway, and luckily she hadn’t needed it for a funeral.
“Where is your lint roller?”
“Check under the bed” he yelled from the bathroom. Ellie crouched to the floor and looked under his bed. She pulled out a crate and rummaged through the pile of miscellaneous things: a pile of crumpled ties, a binder full of unused notebook paper, some junk mail, and what seemed like some leftover arts and crafts. The hodgepodge of items seemed like things he may have kept from his house in undergrad that he figured might be helpful someday, but in the end really just became a waste of space.
She was having no luck and started to push it back under when a piece of bright green fabric caught her eye. It shouldn’t have looked familiar, but she was too curious to let it go. She had looked everywhere in her apartment, twice, for the green Cheers shirt she had lost months ago. Ryan said he had done the same.
Over the past few months, they had laughed about the shirt, almost like they were trying to keep its memory alive. “Remember that ugly, puke green shirt you used to wear?” or “I feel naked without my painfully homemade graphic tee.” It was their longest-running inside joke. She knew the shirt was ugly. It was about 3 sizes too big and the ugliest color she had ever seen, with “Cheers” in big word art crooked across the front. It looked like it had been run through the print press twice, at slightly different positioning. It was homemade merchandise for the 80’s sitcom, and the only reason she could tell was because it had the characters’ names printed on the back like movie credits. She wore it every week without fail. For someone who never talked about the show Cheers, it seemed awfully random. And now she was holding her favorite, long-lost shirt.
When she started staying over at Ryan’s more at the beginning of their relationship, he would make comments. “Do you own anything else?” “You can’t actually like that shirt.” It took months of curiosity for him to actually ask about its origin. By that point, they had been having sex for 5 months and dating for 2. They had met all those months ago at a bar and it was clear from the start that it was going to be casual sex. But sex grew into more, as it often does, and he had grown to see that shirt under overalls, peaking out of a zip-up, layered over a long sleeve, and without anything else on, swallowing her whole. Tattered, bleached, ripped, and faded.
He had told her he loved her a month prior to asking about the t-shirt, and it was one of the most romantic moments of her life. They were walking the shoreline of Lake Michigan, on a summer night in July. They had just shared a Sunday together, which was a fairly new thing for them to do. Their relationship began as Friday nights, which evolved to Saturday mornings, and eventually, they were spending their lives together.
They had started that day waking up together, tangled in sweaty limbs and dirty sheets. They made breakfast together, and picked food off of each other’s plates without a second thought, kissing before they could even get it down. It was strange how that could happen, how germs could feel so dangerous until you started to see someone’s lips as something you wanted all over you.
That morning they had gotten dressed and went to the movies, and didn’t say a thing the entire time. Just held sweaty palms and passed a greasy bag of popcorn back and forth. They planned for dinner afterward but were too full of overpriced snacks, so they decided to go on a walk. As they got tired and the sunset pinkened, they took a seat in the sand. She leaned on him for support and he ran his fingers up and down her arm, watching the hairs turn to bumpy skin. He teetered on the line of the appropriate amount of kissing for a public beach, and she loved him for it. He rubbed his face in the crown of her hair, started to kiss the side of her face, and moved to her ear, and whispered delicately, “I love your ears. I love everything about you.” She wasn’t as caught off guard as she would have imagined, because it was all she was feeling. Every bone in her body was screaming that she loved him. She tilted her head around to look in his eyes. She was scared he wasn’t going to say the actual words, and she would have to search for the same subtlety he expressed, but then he said “I really just love you.”
“I love you, more.”
After that they spent every second they could together. She used to think she could never love that hard or be that delusional. But it was fun, she felt so free being controlled by one person. One emotion. She wanted to be this happy forever.
Of course she’d had boyfriends before, though only one who she had loved just as much. But she was coming around to the fact that Ryan made her happier than she had ever been. It could have been because it was the first man to want her in a long time. Or maybe it was that she finally had a job she liked. Perhaps it was because she felt like she could finally be alone, but she didn’t have to be. Love had found her when everything in her life fit so well, she didn’t even have to make room for it.
The day he craved the backstory, he finally said “Okay, please tell me. Why is this t-shirt your holy grail?” She asked herself how hadn’t he put it together by now. Had she kept the most important parts of her a secret? Were these even the most important parts of her? She started at the beginning.
Her dad had died of a heart attack when she was 17. They hadn’t been best friends, he was just her dad. But her parents were the people she loved most in the entire world. He would cheer at her graduation, he would walk her down the aisle, he would give her advice when she had kids of her own. How it was supposed to be.
When she got the call, she wasn’t even shocked. She had always known this could happen, because she spent most of her life worrying about the what ifs. What if she didn’t spend her time right? What if she ended up with a job she hated? What if in an alternate universe, a coin flip landed on tails and she still had a father? There were so many things she wanted to tell him, to ask him, to do with him. Her immediate reaction to the news was regret, hating herself for how she spent her life, and how she didn’t. She should have prioritized being a daughter when it was the biggest role in her life.
Her dad had loved the show Cheers. She had seen a few episodes, but her most vivid memories were her dad quoting it. It had become their thing, he would act like it was a common saying and she would be completely confused.
Ellie could have ended the story right there, her dad loved the show. Had she shut up, maybe she wouldn’t be on her knees in Ryan’s bedroom begging for there to be a reason, and for the terrifying feeling of falling a person gets just moments before waking up. But she continued on.
In college, she started dating her first real boyfriend, Aaron. It was Christmas break of Junior year, and it seemed time to meet her family. He wasn’t Christian, and didn’t have major plans, and it just seemed like the right time to bring him to her hometown. Her “family” really just consisted of her mom, her aunt, and her younger sister Anna.
Her town was small, with him in town for 5 days she wasn’t sure how to entertain him, but he made it so easy. He would eat anything, go anywhere, and smile always. One afternoon they went thrifting. He pulled out a shirt with “Cheers” on the front. It was so ugly. He called out to her, holding it high, with such a hopeful, excited look. She started tearing up immediately. He said he didn’t mean to hurt her, but of course she knew that. She was crying because she met this boy 3 months ago, and it rarely showed. Her tears turned to a faint laugh and they were hugging in the middle of a Goodwill. He bought the shirt, and in a way she never took it off.
After Ellie finished the t-shirt origin story, Ryan seemed at a loss for what to stay. The best he came up with was, “I had no idea” It was sincere, but he was just a person who didn’t know how to respond to something like that. Most people were.
Ryan had known her dad was dead, but he had no way of knowing how long ago it was, or how much it affected her. She never talked about it in a sad way. She shared small memories, this was his favorite food, he used to take me here, etc. She couldn’t believe Cheers hadn’t come up in the 7 months she’d known him, but it was different than with Aaron. She was an adult now. They didn’t fall in love by going on dates, what happened to them was an accident.
“Yeah, I should have told you sooner.”
“I should have asked! I’m sorry I made fun of it so many times.”
“No! Don’t apologize, tearing this design to shreds has been my favorite part of our relationship.” Ellie nudged him.
“I hope it's not your favorite part…” And that was it. He put his hands under her shirt, and soon it was on the floor.
Over the next few weeks, Ryan started to point out all of the things in her apartment that were pieces of her past lives. The toolkit was an exes from her last city. The picture frame on her dresser came from Aaron’s mom. The whiskey was left by a friend with benefits that she barely knew the last name of. At first, he seemed curious. But he never asked any further questions, once he knew it was from a man she used to love, or at the very least be intimate with, he was ready to move on. She found little moments to prove she was only in love with him, that none of those belongings meant anything. She didn’t even think of the memories that went with the shirt, as much as the automatic feeling of ease that came with it being on. She didn’t love Aaron anymore, he had moved to Los Angeles at the end of college and they hadn’t spoken since. She thought that was enough for Ryan.
She pulled the fabric out from under the bed, but she knew the moment she saw it, and she didn’t give herself much time to pretend otherwise. He must have realized his mistake quickly, because he barged out of the bathroom saying something like, “wait actually it’s in the –”.
He looked stunned. She stared at the shirt, laid out in front of her, and then to Ryan.
“What is this doing here?”
“I was going to hide it somewhere for you.” His laugh lacked the confidence it needed to back it up.
“To be funny! That shirt is a joke, your words.” If it was something else, she might have laughed along. But this wasn’t a long con, it was the life shattering secret hitting the floor in a million different pieces.
“It’s not a joke.”
“I thought we were joking together but you were making fun of me.”
He was lying, she knew that. He had taken the shirt months ago, he couldn’t have come up with a better lie? Like he had just found it and was going to surprise her? Or thrown it away? She couldn’t figure out why he didn’t throw it away.
It didn’t make sense. She had cried when she first lost it, and he sat there while she cried. He knew how much it meant to her, and how much her world changed the second she truly felt like she had looked everywhere for it.
She wasn’t stupid, she knew why he’d want it gone. It was from her ex-boyfriend and Ryan was a jealous asshole. All of the little remarks about her exes, her dating history, and the things they had left in her apartment felt huge now.
The shirt wasn’t just about missing her dad. It was about a time when someone loved her enough to remember every little thing about her. A time when a ratty t-shirt meant I love you. So maybe Ryan had a right to be angry, but she had been honest with him. She knew he didn’t believe her, and if he thought the shirt was more than just about her dad they could talk it through. But then it went missing, it seemed like fate at the time. He was insecure about her past relationships, and she didn’t feel like she needed them anymore. She found a love that filled her up. She cried that night, but she woke up okay because she woke up next to Ryan.
They had been getting ready all morning to watch people in love profess it to all of their friends and family, and then she had gotten cat fur on her dress. And everything came crumbling down.
There was no time to talk about the shirt if they wanted to make it on time. Was that what she wanted? She knew what he would say. He was wrong, jealous, and sorry he lied. He was so goddamn predictable. As she ran through the convo in her head, she couldn’t find an ending where she pushed past his betrayal and focused on the fact that it was for his need to be her only love.
She sat there in silence for 5 minutes, holding the dingy t-shirt like a wounded animal. Ryan was talking but he might as well have been silent, she could block out anything for the sake of her own thoughts. In those moments spent alone, she thought of her life, and of the what ifs. She wondered if perfect love existed. If there were men out there that could love you and didn’t move to California. If just anyone could make your entire body tingle. If there were guys that didn’t hide t-shirts. If there were dads that didn’t die.
The t-shirt didn’t feel tainted when Aaron left, but it felt dirty now. She missed her dad and she missed when she thought her t-shirt was just lost and not stolen. She missed the life she had before she looked under the bed 5 minutes ago. She missed being 16, when none of her worries had come true, and love was for grown ups. Ryan’s love had fit so perfectly, that she knew it would leave a gaping hole when it left. She was scared that Ryan’s love replaced the t-shirt, and now she had neither. She wondered if she was overreacting, if his jealousy was romantic. It was a hopeful but fleeting thought. She thought back to that night on the beach months ago and wondered if her words had more meaning than she intended. Maybe she had always been the one that loved more.
She should have said something by now. He started to hold her like someone else had hurt her, and that he was just there to console her. The way he had comforted her the past few months. She couldn’t speak or cry or forgive. She was spending all of her energy on trying desperately hard to not feel regret, at least not first. To not regret her life with him. To not regret letting Aaron ever leave. To not regret RSVPing to the wedding. To not regret letting a t-shirt mean so much to her.
She just wanted to be, for a little bit. To separate the good from the bad, and not be the root of all outcomes. She wasn’t sure how she would leave this man, this room even. But she knew once she did, she was going to have plenty of time to watch old TV and feel new things first.