Have you ever had to grieve the loss of something you never had? I’ve been trying to. For months now. I’ve been so caught up in this loss of mine that I’ve never truly experienced before, it's finally driven my roommate, Georgia insane. She bought me one of those small, spiral bound legal pads from Food Lion and told me to write my crap out so I could finally put it somewhere that wasn’t the air. So, this is it. These are letters to Sam. Things I’ll never say to him. Things I wish I had.
The first time you kissed me was July 18. It was dark in your apartment; a movie was playing in the background. I could feel you looking at me. Last time I was with you, you looked at me that same way. I looked away, then, because I wanted you to kiss me so badly, I was sure you could hear it in my thoughts.
This time I didn’t look away.
Here is a picture of Sam.
There is a weight behind his eyes that presses down on me when he catches my eye. Actually, that isn’t entirely true. I can feel it anytime he looks at me. It’s not an unpleasant weight that burns the muscles and pulls you through the floor. It’s not dragging or even heavy per se. It’s just noticeably present. I can feel it, wrapping around me tight like an embrace he’d given me once. It’s a feeling I like, being looked at by him. It’s laced in his gaze, in the crinkles by his eyes and the hints of brown caught in the blue.
I have been looked at before, but never has someone’s eyes caught me off guard like his. I want him to look at me forever. I don’t know how to ask. No matter how hard I try, I can’t make my eyes speak the same language as his. I can’t make them say what I think. That I think he’s beautiful. That I see the way he holds himself, so still, so carefully. That I see the hesitation in his stance and the careful way he laughs.
I see you; I think. I don’t say it out loud.
The fourth time you kissed me was on March 1. I didn’t think that would be the last time.
“Look at me,” I say, because you won’t.
“Do you see me?” I ask. “I see you, but I don’t think you see me.”
Remember how we used to argue, speaking paragraphs of words but actually talking in circles?
“It seems to me that you’re more focused on the later than what was happening right in front of you,” I say, with more heat behind it than I mean. You say nothing back.
He didn’t leave me. I never had him to begin with.
I don’t know what it is. It’s a knot or a lump or something round, I don’t know. I can’t properly describe it. But there is something lodged in my chest, behind my sternum, between my lungs. It’s hard and solid, and I can’t make it move.
It hurts. Dear God, it hurts and sometimes the pain goes away and I forget about it. I forget it’s there through distractions and noise and people talking at me but when I’m alone, I can feel it. I can feel it burrowing inside of me and it won’t go away.
You put it there. I helped you do it. I don’t know how to remove it and I want it gone so badly that it makes my eyes burn.
I felt it on the bus, with my headphones in and a game on my phone, failing to hold my attention. I felt it in my shower, turning the water as hot as it could go. Because I couldn’t stop shivering. I felt it when I tried to go to sleep last night, pulling me awake and reminding me that it was there because of me.
I can’t get rid of it. Getting rid of it would mean getting rid of you. And I don’t want to do that. I foolishly can’t.
But this thing lodged in my chest, it hurts me.
Lonely people find lonelier people and then they eat pasta together and tell ghost stories of past experiences that don’t let them sleep. But these relationships never work out because in reality both parties are just using each other, so really, they were better off alone.
Here is a scenario:
He walks up to her front door. The porch light is flickering, because no one’s bothered to change it. He raises a fist to knock, but he hesitates. All the lights are off in the apartment except for the glow of a lamp. He knows exactly which. It’s the little yellow one on the end table next to the couch. She always leaves it on at night because she doesn’t like the dark.
Footsteps rattle the walls from the inside and the door opens. She has been crying, a balled-up tissue in her right hand. She looks surprised. She didn’t expect this. It wasn’t like him to show up without warning.
“Hi,” she says, and her voice is thick and slightly nasal.
“Hey, are you okay?” he asks. He takes a step through the doorway, and she backs up to let him in. It’s familiar, the process.
“Uh, I’m fine. You know, sad movie.” She wipes her eyes with the tissue and quickly throws it away in the too full trashcan in the kitchen. He takes off his jacket and hangs it on mix-matched hooks by the door that are already weighed down with coats, rain jackets, and two umbrellas. She goes to turn on the other lamp in the corner, while he leaves his shoes by the door. It was a habit he learned from watching her at his place. She hated when people wore their shoes in the house, but she would never ask people to take theirs off. She wasn’t the type to ask for things. Favors, love, food. She was a giver who hated to take.
“Everything alright?” she asks. She has already sat down on the couch. The couch has witnessed them in their entirety. There are some things that it hasn’t seen, the sweetest parts in particular, but it has watched. It has seen them laugh a lot, but it also saw the time he made her cry for hours, days, weeks. The couch is wary, yet it welcomes him as she did. He wedges himself into the corner closest to the yellow lamp. He wants to hold onto one of the cushions bunched up behind him, but he resists, choosing to cross, uncross, and cross his arms again.
“Are you okay?” she asks, resisting the urge to reach out and touch his arm. He sees the twitching of her fingers, knows that she is holding herself back. She always tries to hold herself back.
He doesn’t say anything. Not at first. He just looks at her. For a moment he allows himself to look, to really look at her and take in every aspect of her face. The shape, the moles and freckles, the tiny creases by her eyes from smiling, the twitching corners of her mouth. Her eyes. Her big, searching eyes that seem to look into him and through him at the same time. He’s startled out of his staring by her blinking and looking away.
She does that sometimes, breaking eye contact that she herself starts. But she has too. Because if she looks at him for too long, she feels a pain start to rise up inside of her chest and settle between her lungs.
“What?” she asks, looking back at him.
“Nothing,” he says, shaking his head. It’s a lie, and they both know it. His head is so full that he fears the weight of it will crush him. She can see that weight and how it has settled into his shoulders and seeped into his bones. She’s pointed it out to him before. How she could see this weight holding down his very soul. It scared him that she could see it when he himself had tried so hard to pretend it wasn’t there. He avoided her for a bit after that.
Right now, she could see he was being weighed down by words he couldn’t bring himself to say. She wants to reach out to him but again, she stops herself.
There were many conversations they never had. The ghosts of them hung in the air around their heads, teasing their minds with the possibility of events that couldn’t or wouldn’t occur. Both of them were too incapable of using the words that they had to say, what they were truly thinking. To themselves—in the privacy of their own minds—they could guess, or make things up, but the silence, that constant thing that sat between them on the couch, that watched them, mouth open and ready to drown them out with its screams. The silence was deafening. It drowned them.
She felt like it was suffocating her.
He felt like it was boiling him from the inside.
“Please,” she says, forcing herself to smile, hoping he will read it as teasing. The ‘please’ says much more than one word can. It says, “talk to me,” and “I don’t understand you,” and “I think I love you.” He doesn’t hear any of it.
“It’s nothing,” he says, smiling back, but he can see through the cracks of her face that she’s begging, that she needs him to talk. But he can’t. So, he doesn’t. He misses the whispering of the words not said as they brush past his ears, completely unaware yet still, somehow, feeling their loss. He feels it in his chest, a pain that is familiar, that originally came from a different source. He doesn’t recognize it as heartbreak this time so that isn’t what he thinks it is. Still, he rubs at his chest and waves off the question he knew she was about to ask.
“We always do this,” she says, leaning away from him to put some distance between them, because being this close to him makes her skin ache in a way that reminds her of being ill.
“I know, you’re right.” And he laughs, because it is funny, but it’s only funny because it’s sad.
He’ll leave her soon. And when he does, he will be weighed down further with the regret of not saying any of the things he planned to. And she will turn off the lights and lay in the dark. And she will cry, because that’s the only way she can empty herself of the feelings that he creates inside of her. Neither of them is aware of what the other is feeling. Neither of them will ever know.
I wrote this when I was twenty and so desperate for you to look at me the way you did the first, second, and third time you kissed me. There was something about your eyes then, that made me believe you would look at me forever. I wanted you to. Now the memories are fading, and I can’t remember what your hand felt like in mine or how the timid way you kissed me felt. I can’t remember your laugh or how you lit up over a topic that interested you. The fading of these memories does not dull the pain of losing you. It only makes it sharper.
I imagined saying goodbye to you a thousand and one ways. I knew it would come, sooner rather than later. I had to leave, and you had to stay but this was going to be more than your standard moving away goodbye. The permanence of it was on the tip of my tongue. I was afraid to do it, but it had to be done. Not for your sake, but my own. You see, I thought if I said goodbye it would add a period, a proper “The End” to our story. Let’s face it, everything is a metaphor to me. It’s the way I understand the world around me. I needed to finish you in order to begin a much happier sequel.
I imagined phone calls where you would answer the phone all surprised to hear from me. You would say, “Hey! How are you?” And I would pause to collect myself because hearing your voice would make me feel like I was about to cross the ocean in a canoe. I would fail to fake the composure I needed, and I would blurt out, “I’m leaving.” And I would start to cry. Softly. You wouldn’t notice. Or you would, but you wouldn’t mention it. Because you were decent like that.
“When?” You would ask, bewildered because you weren’t expecting that. Of all the things—me asking you to dinner, again, or just wanting to say ‘hi’— ‘goodbye’ would leave you floored.
“Tomorrow,” I would say, having to wipe my nose with my sleeve. It runs easily, you would know, in theory. I could’ve called you sooner, but I wait until the day before to shock you. To make you panic. To force you to realize what you’re about to lose.
And all you would say is, “Oh.” Because you don’t use your words. You lock them inside of your brain and you don’t share them with anyone. Me, my words spill out of me so much that I have to keep diaries and journals and Word Documents to collect the ones that escape. I used to say I spoke enough for the both of us. You prove that is still true.
We would be silent for a moment, waiting for the other to speak. I would, taking my cue, say, “I just wanted to say goodbye, if that’s alright.”
I don’t know what you would say back. I’ve made up scenarios to help me sleep at night. But they are wildly inauthentic. Because they aren’t really coming from you. And if they aren’t coming from you then what’s the point?
I’m deceiving myself. That’s the point. I’m pulling at loose threads, searching for something deep down I know isn’t there. Hoping, praying, begging—mutely, silent. Because these are all the words I never said. Couldn’t say. Because I had no right to. And I wouldn’t force that on you. I don’t ask for things. It’s a well-known characteristic of mine.
I love you, but I will never tell you.
I need you, but I will never ask you to ask me stay.
I want you, but I know you’ll never chose me. So, I’ll save us both the embarrassment by keeping my mouth shut.
It starts to hurt less, after a while. The pain. It dulls from a throb, to an ache, to a soft pulse. It’s still there; but don’t think it will just leave one day. Don’t think that you’ll wake up free. No. It will just hurt less.
Sometimes, things just don’t go according to plan. Mistakes are made. Things are done with good intentions, or bad. There are misunderstandings the size of mountains and words said without any meaning behind them—these can be good and bad as well, based solely on context and whether or not you’re actually paying attention when they are said. Feelings are hurt. No one apologizes when they should, even when asked. People are left behind—usually in pieces.
You grieve. You grieve for however long it takes. You don’t eat. You don’t sleep. You call your best friend and cry because your body can’t produce the right string of words to describe how that knot in your chest won’t go away. How it throbs at night when you’re all alone—so, so alone.
You take long showers—sitting down—that eventually go cold. You smile like everything is just fine when you are around people who don’t know. Who were never informed. Who you will never explain anything to because of the overwhelming shame of your own stupidity. Internally, you’re screaming. You’re screaming so much it becomes its own form of white noise in your mind.
Every moment of your passing days begins to resemble a checklist.
Don’t snooze your alarm.
Brush your teeth.
Think about eating breakfast. Settle for coffee. Make it strong.
Catch the bus if you have to. Thank the driver when you get on and off.
Go to class. Or work. Or wherever it is you need to be. It doesn’t matter what it is, just get there.
Think about eating lunch. Drink water and have some yogurt instead.
Cook dinner. Even if it’s instant mac n’ cheese.
Talk to a friend if you can.
Cry. Cry and cry and cry.
Watch something that you enjoy. Something on YouTube or TV or Netflix. Anything that you can draw some kind of joy from.
Go to bed. Even if you’re just lying there in the dark for hours until the sun starts to come back up again.
Repeat the list until it becomes a habit. And don’t be mad at yourself if it takes “too long.” There’s no such thing as taking too long to heal. A wound is a wound is a wound.
Sometimes you have a good wallow for a day. Or two. Or five. Other times you go to dive bars with friends to watch them sing karaoke while you struggle to drink a beer you don’t even like. That knot in your chest, that all over pain that seems to be holding you down against the floor, it will fade. Slowly.
Count the days until it does if you have to.
Mine took 119.