“I love you, why can’t you believe that?”
He asks. She asks. They ask.
I’m at the movie theater with him. I’m on the couch in her apartment. I’m sitting in our favorite restaurant underneath the warmest lights. First date, second date, third date. I’m everywhere and nowhere, my forehead pressing to their cold passenger window, driving with no destination. He feeds me popcorn and broken pieces of chocolate. His eyes are large and doe-like, his smile lopsided. We’ve been studying together for months, hanging out with each other for weeks. He tells me I’m the sweetest person he’s ever met, that any day with me is special.
We keep driving. She rests her head on my shoulder and smells the shampoo in my hair. She blurted out she wanted to date me in our work’s break room a few months after I became single again, lips quivering, face too red from embarrassment and the summer heat. She tells me I’m gorgeous and that anyone would be lucky to have me. The compliments make me bristle, but I smile anyway. It feels like nothing will ever end.
Everyone and no one walks me home after finishing our dessert that was too expensive, lucky to make it to my door just as it starts to rain. I or someone puts a jacket over my head, an old flannel, a tilted umbrella.
I can barely remember what they look like now. Last year, this year, next year a haze, faces and tears and laughter and pain melting into one.
Their car feels too small, the air too thick. My lips keep moving, my feet keep walking. Fidgeting, fidgeting, fidgeting. My eyes focus on the different skies each time, watching blue fade to pink, pink to red, red to black.
I check the time, count everything under my breath. How long they talk, the drive, the movie, the walk home, the touching, the exact moment the world changes color —
I’ve forgotten the number of people I’ve disappointed.
Before any of them picked me up from my apartment — that morning, evening, yesterday, tomorrow — I tried to keep my hands steady. I sat alone in front of my vanity littered with products; drew and colored along the curves of my eyes, the cut of my jaw, the apples of my cheeks. Every time I shifted, jackets and shorts and dresses rippled like water at my feet. Summer, fall, winter, spring. Sitting at that mirror was timeless. Everything I did was a ritual. I smeared lotions and creams and oils on my body. I breathed in floral perfume and breathed out the cooling sensation of peppermint.
I made myself forget about college, my work, my traumas, my family divided by nothing and everything. All that mattered was them. What they thought of me. If they would have another good time with me.
“You look great,” my roommate called in whatever room she was in while I paced to other mirrors in the apartment, checking every angle of my reflection. I barely heard her, already thinking of the future. I predicted what I’d talk about, how they’d react. I imagined the blue glow from the theater screen, the spilled blankets along the cushions, the flickering candles on white tablecloth.
“Thanks,” I said, distracted, not believing her while also relishing in the compliment. I pictured what he’d be wearing this time, what she’d smell like, what they wanted everything and me to be — and I would match.
In the past I adjusted my shirt, another time I pulled and dusted off my jeans.
“Don’t forget to have fun,” Jordan also said as I left, the front door shutting behind me. Jordan always supported whoever I tried to date. Back in high school to college to now. It didn’t matter who I was seeing, just that I was going out at all. She knew I was trying.
“Be safe,” she’d say from her bed in the summer, painting her nails black and whatever color was in her heart at the time.
“Don’t do anything I would do,” she’d add in the dead of winter, upside down on the couch, long hair falling around her.
“Take out the trash before you go,” she would remind while gargling, shoving her toothbrush in her face.
Each farewell was different, yet also the same. Her casual tone, her half-hearted wave. It made me hesitate leaving. I'd lie my back against the door, listen to the hum of the television, the click of the microwave, how Jordan’s body sunk into the couch and fell in rhythm with the rest of the house. It was one of the few places left that I found safe. That was why I started counting, counting the time till I was back.
It never mattered how the date happened. He had noticed me from school, she noticed me from work. Everyone always noticed me, came up to me. Each time I considered that maybe we could be something some day.
That maybe I was finally wrong.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about. You don’t love me,” I catch myself saying. Those words travel so far from the deepest parts of my heart that they come quietly out of my mouth. I stop holding hands. I push my plate away from me. I try to get out of the car. My voice is soft; they all think I’m being humble. I smile sheepishly. I mess with the edges of my winter jacket; I smooth out the bottom of my summer skirt.
“What do you mean? Of course I do.” They caress my cheek, intertwine our fingers. I can’t see his expression in the darkness of the theater, the darkness of her apartment. I don’t remember what we were watching. I don’t remember how long it took to walk back home. I swallow air and vodka and smoke to focus on anything but the need to escape. I find myself thinking they look beautiful underneath the streetlights as each of them drop me off — the night, the clouds, and the stars hovering around them — their whole body smooth and glowing and perfect. I want to be beautiful with them. I want to be someone to somebody.
“We don’t really know each other,” I continue. I can’t stop. My mind is eating itself. I’m running away. “I just don’t understand why you feel like this.” They’re upset with me. They don’t know where this is coming from. They don’t see what I see. He takes my hand, wants to guide me out of the theater. She turns on all of the lights in the apartment to get a better look at my face. They hold me at my doorstep and won’t let me go for the world. I want to cry, but I realize I can’t. I realize I don’t trust them. “You don’t know me at all. I’m not what you think I am.”
They all kiss me to quiet my pain: my fingertips, the ruggedness of my knuckles, the palms of my hands. He remembers how I like being held. She knows I calm down when she hums sweetly in my ear. Their love pours out of them, rising and rising and I can’t help but start to drown.
I count the seconds I can pull my arms away.
I wonder if I spent enough time stroking their hair.
“It’s okay that you don’t understand. Just know that I love you, being with you, around you, anything at all,” they insist each time I question, each time I try to run. My fingernails dig into the arm rests, the couch, my skin. I want to claw out my face, I want to slam the door between us.
I hate that I know that they mean it.
“You have to stop leading them on,” Jordan tells me after the fifth, seventh, tenth date, burning cigarettes and incense and candles no matter what place or time I talk to her. She knows I dumped him over the phone. She knows I did the same to the other one, telling them in the same break room they confessed in. She knows everything I did and will do. Sometimes I hate Jordan around me, a permanent audience, someone who cares but can’t seem to stop me. My eyes stay on the necklace her girlfriend gave her three years ago; I think of how she's better than me because she knows how to love someone. “If you don’t like them, you don’t like them. That’s all there is.”
I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.
“I don’t mean to,” I tell her. I grip the edges of our dining table, my folded arms, sometimes her hands. I’ve told her this so many times. Too many times. “I’m sorry,” I say to everyone else. His eyes sadden. She starts to tremble. The distance I asked for grows and I hate it. I want to keep apologizing to them. I want them to know that I cared. But the movie is too loud, everything is too loud, they won’t hear me. I don’t want to look. They’re all the same face, the same feeling. The streetlights are blinding. I’m getting drenched in the rain. “I promise I was having fun,” I say to them, their love coiling around my legs, my arms, my neck. “I promise I like you, but—”
“But why?” They, even Jordan, ask.
I don’t have an answer, nothing that makes sense. I blink several times, try to ground myself. What am I doing? What time is it? I already left the movies, the restaurant, the front door step. I already heard the dead phone line, heard the shouting. I knew the tears, the laughing, the sex, the pressure — none of it mattered anymore. I need to tell myself it doesn’t matter. I need to remember what day it is.
My eyes become blurry as I follow the smoke from Jordan’s cigarette, the incense floating around in our apartment. I can't tell if I'm sitting or standing, a numbing sensation traveling throughout my body.
Where am I again?
Jordan squeezes my hand before I answer her.
I jump and look around wildly. We’re in the kitchen this time, sitting across from each other. It’s the evening, the sun setting and causing a cool glow across the living room. I had come home from another date while Jordan was home. That was what had happened. That was where I am.
I hear the television in the background again.
I feel my heart beating fast and I swallow hard.
“Natalie, it’s okay. Just breathe,” Jordan says softly, carefully, because she knows that I already know what’s wrong, what’s happening, knows not to push me more than she needs to. "Let’s just get your mind off of it.” She gestures to the outside: the outside that snows and rains and burns, all depending on the time. “We can grab a snack or something.”
I take a few more seconds before I nod slowly, pulling away to wipe away tears. “Yeah, yeah...I’ll be just a minute...” My body moves on its own as I rush to the bathroom, haziness bleeding into my surroundings. I pass my cluttered room, the different shoes I tried in the hallway, the empty boxes of clothes I had delivered. I wash everything off of my face: the dirt, the colors, the weariness; scrubbing roughly till I’m satisfied. I brush out the curls, braids, and twists in my hair, change into anything more comfortable than what I’m wearing. I listen to my naked feet patter along the hard wood floors of the apartment, the creaks of the neighbors above me. I let myself fall back into rhythm, turning off all the lights before heading outside.
Jordan’s patient with me, already standing at her car and looking at the sky, another cigarette in her mouth.
It's always a deep purple when I catch her looking at it, the clouds thinning in curved lines across the city skyline. I stare for just a second before approaching her: I look at her chameleon hair, her piercings, the way her body leans back against the hood of her car. I take in how familiar all of this is, how she’s just as routine as everything else I’ve done. But it’s a different feeling, a feeling that transcends the hours, the minutes, the seconds.
I say nothing as I go and slump into the passenger seat, press my cheek against the window. Jordan gets in with me, throwing anything by the bottom of my feet to the back to give me more room. She cranks up whatever music she was listening to while I focus on her mother’s crosses swaying on her rear view mirror, the hula skirt girl on the dash, how her hand wraps around the steering wheel.
We start to drive, my memories and thoughts and guilt trailing behind us and failing to keep up. I’m able to take in the passing buildings, the miscellaneous people walking along the sidewalk, and everything else happening right before my eyes.
I listen to the engine. I remember to breathe. I remember where I am.
"So, where we're heading?" She asks, tossing a look over her shoulder at me. I look back and she smiles, and I know that I'm ready to go wherever she wants to take me.
In the end, maybe she’s the reason I’m disappointing.