her, Him, and Her
Part I — Lindsay
“Shit. That was close,” she said to herself as she recovered what she could of both her balance and her pride. The ice was thick on the concrete steps, but that wasn’t the reason she’d faltered. She was running.
Luckily, the street was empty at 5 am, so the only ones to actually witness her misstep were some wayward pigeons pecking at crumbs and the homeless man who frequently took shelter overnight in the shadow of the brownstone across the street.
The intensity of the man’s gaze — the way the streetlamp and the snow reflected in his light, glassy eyes — would’ve been unsettling if she felt she had anything to lose. She paused as her damp gaze met his for a split second before she resumed her flight, unmoved. She attempted to engage him before, but he never returned her timid smiles.
She had no offering today.
Was it the near-miss of the slip on the ice patch or her existence as the personification of poor decisions that shamed her into looking only down at the ground, three feet ahead of her, as she soldiered through the cold and the night? Both were taxing her mind but as the former thoughts faded, the latter multiplied.
The 2-day old snow crunched crisply under the weight of her boots and the 15lbs she gained for Him.
He didn’t like skinny girls so she gained the weight and carried those pounds like a beast of burden.
The silence of the city echoed in her ears and fell into rhythm with her thoughts, as the frigid air reached up under her coat and attempted in vain to assault her — nothing new. But her mind was afire and her body was numb. In the rush, she left in her pajamas. No bra. No socks. No questions. No answers.
The moment replayed on a loop in her short-term memory. She ruminated. Their position back-to-back allowed her to slink out of bed undetected. She told herself she was glad he remained asleep. But in her most honest place — the place she could rarely access — she wished he had noticed.
What she really wanted was for him to wake up and stop her. To tell her she got it wrong. For his strong hand to have reached out and grabbed her tiny wrist and pulled her back into the sea of blankets. For him to have morphed from an anchor into a life raft and guided her to his chest where her mind found its quiet.
But he didn’t.
And his uninterrupted, easy sleep supplied additional evidence of his ignoble character. If he really loved her, he’d have noticed.
But he didn’t do that either.
And she always picked liars.
As she gathered her belongings and moved toward the door, she silently retrieved her key from his kitchen.
When she gave it to him, she reminded herself that his receipt of such a literal point of entry into her world conveyed to him no obligation to actually use it. And yet every time she passed his counter and saw it sitting there — separate bowl, separate ring, apart from all of his others — she was confronted with the fear that suffocated her at night. That she wasn’t welcome in his real-life because she wasn’t important enough. Because he was hiding her. Because none of it was real and she was too weak and stupid to notice.
He gave her his building key a year ago, primarily as a convenience to him, not so much an invitation to her. Lots of people had his key so that he wouldn’t have to walk down two flights of stairs to let them up. She was flattered by his gesture nonetheless, and it had been on her keychain ever since.
But their relationship was not one of reciprocation. The proverbial ball resided solely and confidently in his court. There was no expectation of equality or commitment. He was the leader.
And he was unambiguous about his terms: He would date. She would not.
Still, she still decided to stay.
Because her life was better with him in it. Because he loved her as a verb.
That fact didn’t keep her brain from indulging its most self-deprecating fantasies. Like that Lindsay was his entertainment. Just a lovely seat filler for his symphony box. A willing distraction to keep his obsessive thoughts in check until Chole returned. Chole, who abused him and then gave chase…whom he pursued every time, albeit each time with a novel excuse and justification for why this time it wasn’t really a pursuit. Chole probably kept his key separate. She turned Sam into a man Lindsay didn’t recognize — a man who was so much easier to leave. This man could be manipulated. He wasn’t safe when Chloe was in his life.
It wasn’t hard for her to construct stories that aligned with her brain’s hard-wired impulse to leave him before he left her.
Even still, had he woken up, Lindsay would’ve chosen to be complicit in his lies, like she did so many times before.
One thing kept her walking: She just knew Sam would have woken up for Her.
She knew it.
And he didn’t for her.
The cold set into her bones — steps slowing, tears freezing on her face — the story that would justify her freedom crimping its edges and coming into focus, details settling comfortably into their grooves.
By the time she got home, four blocks over, she could no longer feel either her extremities or her anguish. Leaving her boots at the door, she bolted the lock, shuffled to her bathroom and turned on the shower as hot as it would go.
From her phone, a tinny iteration of Joni Mitchell echoed against the old mildewed tiles.
She stripped naked, wrapped her arms around herself — feeling the softness that he adored and she hated- and sank to the porcelain as the black of the night started to gray through the window.
It took 25 minutes in the near-scalding water for the shivering to stop.
Dripping wet, skin red and blotchy from contact with the steaming spray, she wiped away the fog and gazed into the mirror.
She breathed deeply and inhaled the pain, giving it residence in her body once again. Upon exhale, she was alone with only her certainty and her doubt which inexplicably managed to peacefully coexist.
She picked up her phone, pulled up Sam’s contact, and hit <delete>.
She was safe again.
Part II — Sam
The sheets Lindsay gave him several months before were red satin and didn’t remotely match his decor. He always tried to put them on when he knew she’d be coming over. Lindsay wouldn’t say anything, but she would notice. She said she had bought them because they were her favorite brand and she joked that his bachelor flannels needed an upgrade if she was going to be staying overnight.
This from the girl who lived in a 4th-floor walkup with temperamental radiator and couch cushion through which you could literally see the stuffing. Sam knew the sheets were more than a creature comfort. Lindsay needed to mark a place in his life. To be part of his room. To have some evidence of her existence in the space where he lived.
Which made sense. She had never had a real home. She had never belonged to anyone.
But it was a dance of satisfaction and frustration, trying to make her feel loved. And he did try- most the time, at least. He tried even when his actions were rendered invisible by the background noise of her insecurities. Even she forced him to defend himself against an undisclosed storyline where he was perpetually the persecutor, and she the victim.
But he couldn’t blame her.
She’d never known love before. She thought it was a feeling, not a verb.
Sometimes her pain was meek. Sometimes it was defensive.
Sometimes it was a predator.
As he roused from his sleep, he knew before his eyes opened that he was alone. He didn’t even have to roll over to feel the emptiness of the bed. There was a moment of doubt, in the twilight between non-REM and consciousness, that she may have just gone to the bathroom, but all it took was a horizontal squint down the dark hall to see there was no light on anywhere.
And he knew.
He checked his phone. No text. No call. No blue checks to the message he sent just as she arrived late the night before.
No profile pic or “last seen” timestamp.
“God-fucking-dammit!” echoed through the dark bedroom.
Sam fancied himself a thoughtful, intelligent man. And he was generally correct. One of his heuristics was that if he was angry, it meant that he was doing something wrong. His brain went into overdrive. Why was she gone? What did he miss? What did he do this time?
He was her leader and it was on him to make her feel safe.
But it only took a second to figure it out and the heels of his hands instinctively found their way to his eye sockets to preempt a headache that was already starting to build. Sam suffered terribly from headaches.
It had to be that he shared with Lindsay his feelings about Chloe…again.
And he chastised himself because Sam knew, while he was vomiting out the confession, that he would regret it. Everything he believed to be true about women told him it would. Lindsay reassured him it was okay to be vulnerable — that she wanted him to share and that she felt closer when he did — and he rationalized that it wouldn’t hurt to run the experiment…again.
And instead of listening to the nagging voice in his head that said, “Shut your goddamn mouth” he succumbed to the fantasy that he could be loved exactly as he was. That his weakness wouldn’t be exploited.
The same thing happened a year prior, the day she bought him the sheets. He took a chance and, after nine months of dating, told Lindsay about Chloe for the first time. Lindsay was sweet and supportive in the moment, reassuring him that she was glad he had shared and that she felt closer to him than ever. In that safe space, he questioned if maybe his instincts to protect his privacy from the women he loved were off-base. As a solidifying gesture, she had gone out and bought him the sheets. Then, three days later, she imploded and sought comfort in the sheets of another man.
He learned that day that her words were meaningless. That her actions were the only real feedback she offered him. His sharing hurt her and that’s why he decided not to do it anymore.
And that’s why her absconding was his fault.
He slipped on his jeans, a sweater, and some boots and flipped the kitchen light on to grab his coffee and her keys from the bowl.
“I’ll be here as long as you’ll have me,” she said just the week before.
The bowl was empty.
She was a mother-fucking liar.
When she gave him her key, he didn’t add it to his ring with his others. He had his reasons. If the women whom he invested 17 years and put a child in could leave, so could Lindsay. He wasn’t going to put it on there just to take it off again. It wasn’t as easy as changing sheets. That was probably his most oft-repeated justification. Also, he already had too many keys as it was. Plus, they spent most of their time at his place. And, he rarely found the need to have it with him and when he did, he could always go home and grab it.
Most of his visits over there were planned, anyway.
And all that made logical sense.
But there was a part of him that also didn’t want it to get back to Chloe. They shared mutual friends and it wasn’t worth the risk.
When the sweater of his marriage unraveled, he used the same yarn to knit a new relationship with Chloe. She was younger, brighter, new and shiny, and made him feel attractive and validated. They worked in the same office. They had shared friends and interests and sometimes even thoughts. They traded the role of being each other’s savior back and forth when their respective marriages went to hell. He wasn’t ready to let Her go. He didn’t know if he ever would be.
When he finally got the courage to end his marriage, it was because Chloe’s arms were there to fall into.
But Chloe had her own pain which interfered with their bliss, as pain is want to do. Sam slowly realized that their attraction was one more of deprivation than aspiration. She struggled with empathy and would vacillate between anxious and avoidant. She would abandon him, with no contact, for long stretches when he didn’t give her what she wanted: control, and would only concede when he finally gave chase. She would tell him how awful he was and then leave. He felt abandoned. Abused. Neglected.
So he went looking elsewhere and found Lindsay. He knew, in the honest place that he rarely accessed, that Lindsay was a stand-in. A second to his primary. A runner-up. And as long as there was a sliver of hope with Chloe, he wouldn’t put that key on his ring.
But that didn’t make Lindsay any less important.
She saved him, too.
Same yarn, but only enough left for a scarf. Sam + Chloe no longer worked without Lindsay. He couldn’t stay warm.
Lindsay filled in the gaps. And he loved her for it.
After all the things he did for Lindsay — gotten her into treatment for her eating disorder, helped her find a gallery for her paintings when she was just a nameless starving artist, helped her find a new apartment that allowed her to let go of the past — she goes and fucking bails. Just like Chloe. She knew how that withdrawal harmed him, so of course, it was Lindsay’s weapon of choice.
He knew Lindsay was a better woman for the challenges he’d set before her, and she knew it, too. She wanted to be better. To be worth something. Lindsay didn’t want to be broken anymore. He wanted that for her as well. There were times when he conjured a future with Lindsay, and they felt as real as the fantasies he had about Chloe. She taught him things about women and sex that were life-changing. Through her, he came to believe that there were women in the world who didn’t want quite as much from him. There were fleeting moments where he believed that she understood him — that they were on the same team.
But he thought that long ago about Chloe, too. Obviously, he was wrong.
Because they always fucking bailed on him.
He kicked off his boots, laid back down in the bed and sighed as he looked out his window and watched the night begin its transformation into the morning.
It was his favorite time of day. Their favorite. If Lindsay were there they’d be making love in the dark or sharing both coffee and the thoughts that came to them in the twilight of their sleep. That’s when they got some of their best ideas.
Sam scanned the street. The man was there, as always. Jon, his across-the-street neighbor, allowed the man to seek shelter next to his porch on winter nights, as long as he was gone by daybreak. He always found the man’s eyes unsettling…like they were looking through him. Today was no exception. They locked gaze — for a split second — before Sam broke contact and rolled on his side, picking up his phone again.
14 Twitter notifications. 17 degrees outside. 5 pm in Guangzhou.
“Hey,” he texted Her on an impulse. “Thinking about you.”
As he drifted back to sleep, he sank deeper into his sad and his pain. Every few minutes he sleepily checked his phone. Blue checks? No. Blue checks? No. It was now three months since She left. Still, each flutter of his eyes brought hope that Chloe would read it. That She’d save him from loss as she saved him three years before.
It made sense.
Anything was better than being alone.
Part III — Chloe
Chloe wasn’t as delighted by China as she hoped she would be. The University was a stimulating workplace and Mandarin wasn’t as difficult to learn as she had been warned, but the culture was alienating. Minimal eye contact. No expressive voices. For a woman like her, blonde and bubbly and full of light, everything felt sedated. Oppressive, crowded, and insincere.
What choice did she have? If Sam was anywhere near, she’d never stay away.
She tried like hell, but always found her way back. And she couldn’t keep going back. Everyone told her how unhealthy their relationship was. How he was a narcissist and an abuser. How she needed to leave to protect herself.
And, yet, her life was better with him in it. She often left that part out of the retelling of her tales of woe.
In her sleep, she dreamed of going back. Back to the times when they were co-workers forbidden to fraternize. When the taboo of their relationship added fuel to their lust for each other. She remembered the nights they would wake up at 3 am and walk the block, with the city all to themselves. They talked about their passions and their tragedies. She felt safe. Sam protected her in a way that she never experienced before and he did it by being her rock, both at work and in their private life. Her father didn’t do it. Her ex-husband didn’t do it. No one did. Only him.
And for her, it was a Catch-22.
It was simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. Relinquishing control was not Chloe’s thing.
As they looped the sidewalk, again and again, they’d pass the homeless man — a staple on the block. He was as much a fixture as the crooked streetlamp that glowed dimmer than the others or the bright blue door that distinguished Sam’s brownstone from the others.
She often wondered how that could happen to people. How had a beautiful baby, with a mother and his very own birthday, found his way curled against a stoop? From her position of privilege, she couldn’t imagine it. Chloe always averted her eyes, conscious of staring because she told herself that didn’t want to make him feel bad. In reality, she didn’t look because the man made her feel bad…like there was something she was supposed to want to do for him that she never did. Did that make her a bad person? She’d rather not think about it.
People did that to Chloe a lot…made her feel bad. She couldn’t figure out why. Why did the people around her abuse her so much? Why did they want to hurt her? What made her such an easy mark?
Even Sam. He did it, too. Why else would he start dating…whatever her name was…when he had Chloe? Who drives a Hyundai when they have a Cadillac in the garage? Sure, he was loving and generous in any given moment, but he couldn’t even keep his dick in his pants during their disagreements or her work trips. Was fidelity too much to ask? She wanted forever with Sam and he told her — granted, not in so many words — that he wanted it, too. But his actions spoke otherwise. She felt misled.
Her therapist advised, “You need to go no contact,” on multiple occasions after she recounted how he had surreptitiously been seeing other women without disclosure. Her friends said, “Girl, you deserve better,” when she lamented to them that he wouldn’t be exclusive to her, even after years together.
“No contact” turned out to be a tool to make Sam stop taking her for granted, so she used it as a protest when she was feeling neglected or hurt. It proved pretty effective at getting his attention, so her disappearing act became part of their dance. She never mentioned this part to her friends or her therapist. They wouldn’t understand.
She loved to fantasize about their future. Her favorite was a scene was the one where they got married and had a daughter and traveled the world doing interesting things and eating amazing food. In her dream, he was tech C.E.O. and her, a traveling guest lecturer. It was the fantasy where she was most safe and secure. The one where he would take care of her and she’d never be let down again. In her dream, she was his, “The One”. Chloe so needed to be “The One”.
There were times when she believed it was possible. But not so much anymore.
Because Sam decided that She wasn’t enough.
Her stride was longer than her fellow residents’ so she walked on the edges of the hoard where she could skirt the masses without clipping peoples’ heels or tripping over her own feet. The cold bit at her toes as she traversed down to the subway. She was never more grateful for her height than when it allowed her to see above the crowds and she didn’t feel as claustrophobic.
Cramped apartment. Chinese TV. The food was good, at least. She relied on a VPN to stay in touch with family and friends at home. More than a few times a week she would ask herself, “What the fuck am I doing here?” The official answer was that she relocated for an incredible job opportunity. More money. More prestige. More research. The truth was that she had taken this particular game of “no contact” chicken way too far.
She wouldn’t have her new job without Sam. She wouldn’t have left her rudderless marriage without Sam. Her life was empirically better for having him in it. And, yet, here she was living halfway across the world, feigning that she was better off for having successfully escaped. She couldn’t let him know she was pining. She couldn’t let him know that she made a mistake. Her ego wouldn’t allow it. She couldn’t let him win.
If he won, she would lose.
She knew couldn’t afford to lose.
She just didn’t know what or why.
Every time her phone buzzed, like it did on the train ride home that very day, there was a split second where she hoped his name would appear on the notification. Sometimes she would wait to look and savor the moment where it was still possible that maybe it could be/might be/may be Sam, after all this time.
And with every day that passed, her righteous indignation faded a little and her need for his attention increased.
As she emerged from the subway tunnel, she ducked into her favorite tea shop, ordered ginger and lemon, deposited her bag at her favorite table and made her way to the restroom.
On her way, she glimpsed her reflection in the mirror.
Beautiful. Strong. Capable. Independent.
She locked the bathroom stall behind her, sat down, opened her phone, and read. She stared at the words from the man who both saved her and broke her, time and time again. She never needed him more. Could he hear her thoughts from this far across the world?
“Hey. I’m thinking about you.”
The tears came like a landslide and didn’t stop until she had nothing left. She wrapped her arms around herself, rocked back and forth, and offered the only real embrace she experienced since she left three months ago. She imagined they were his arms. What the fuck was she really running from?
“I’m here,” she replied as she cried herself quiet.
It took several minutes for the tears to clear so that she could see again. When she looked back down, her heart skipped a beat.
He saw a lot of people. They did not always see him. Sometimes it was because he was shrouded in the darkness of the night. Other times it was broad daylight, but he was simply invisible in their world. A part of the scenery. To some, he was offensive or frightening. Some felt his pain and couldn’t handle it.
He felt the same way about them.
“The guy across the way keeps busy,” he thought to himself often. Beautiful home. Interesting guests. Different women coming and going at all hours. He saw her and Her the most, but he hadn’t seen Her in a while and, after this morning, wasn’t sure he’d see her again.
There would be more, of that he was sure. The saga would continue. And he’d be there watching from across the street as if viewing a TV drama.
None of it was real. None of it.
He shivered, grateful for the budding dawn and promise of the sun.
He stood up and stretched his legs and back, and while mulling over the morning’s development, he mumbled the same quote he learned in the poetry class he took at his east coast liberal arts college. It was the only thing he ever said out loud and he barked it at strangers, and cinder block walls and feral cats who crossed his path:
“In the end, we’ll all become stories.”