The telling of this story comes in different versions. There are my recreations: fallible, beautiful, and naive. There is a truth: unattainable, likely nonexistent. There’s his version, muted. There’s a version written in the heat and pain of our separation. Words flowing from a place of desperation, scribbled onto a page to hold onto him, onto us, to prevent our reality from dissolving into a fading memory. Much of that writing is raw, desperate, repetitive. These words were therapy, a way of making sense of a person I hadn’t been ready to let go of. Words as a stand-in for speech. Words preventing me from saying words to him and making a fool of myself. Words written in passion, with an automatic urgency. Words that felt like a lifeline whenever I felt like I was drowning. A way for me to understand and reaffirm myself; in my writing of him, I wrote myself.
Then there’s another version of this story, one written with intentionality. Words arranged and edited, documented as a story—fictionalized and reconstructed to make sense to someone not living inside my heart. Words contemplated and selected to fall onto a page. In a way, it’s all fiction, selection, recreation. I get the urge to keep writing about him to preserve his relevance, even whilst I’m unsure of why I so desperately need to maintain his status in my life. As more time comes between us, I wonder if eventually he will become insignificant, just a mere blip in the timeline of my existence.
Maybe these are words about obsession. Maybe they are words about memory.
Or maybe these are the musings of a foolish woman.
Maybe this is art, or maybe it’s self-indulgence. Maybe, just maybe, it can be both.
It was only after our affair that I realized I may have been in love with him. During our time together, I told myself, and anyone who asked (as well as those who didn’t), that my feelings weren’t serious. There were, in fact, no feelings at all. I was just passing the time. I could leave when I wanted to. I was in control. I don’t know what it means to be in love because it always happens to me after the fact. Always a little bit too late. Sometimes I think that’s the only way I know how to love another person. It feels weird now, writing about him in the past tense, as though he is dead, or dead to me, when really, he has never been more alive. I don’t know how to write about a living being whose story with me is in the past and yet not entirely. We live in the present, and we live in the past.
It was a Wednesday, it was raining, and I was slipping into a familiar depression I hadn’t felt in months, probably since before I met him. I was splitting at the seams and didn’t know how to hold myself together, fighting the wobbly tension of tears that were hovering right behind my eyelids. It was a down, after months of feeling up, and the prospect of seeing him was my light in an otherwise bleak day. I didn’t know then how the night would play out, but when I look back on it now, my fragile mental state seems foreboding, as though somewhere in my subconscious I knew what was about to happen. I got to the bar before he did, ordered a beer and waited for him to arrive. When he did, he slid into the seat next to me and asked the bartender to bring him the same lager I was drinking. I may have been beaming. Seeing him elicited a special flavor of happiness.
He asks if we can go outside to smoke a cigarette. It has stopped raining, but all the benches are wet, so we stand in the corner of the beer garden. He smokes and I watch, listening, as the world I had started building falls apart.
I don’t know if I’ll regret this. I’m going crazy, but I think we need to stop seeing each other.
Shock, shatter, confusion. A prickle in the corner of my eyes, a lump so big in my throat. I can’t speak, I can hardly breathe. I start scuffing my Doc Martens on the side of a wooden planter. I bury my hands deep in my jacket pockets. I resist the urge to start screaming. We’re starting to care about each other.
He talks about feeling out of control. He talks about the uncertainty of his expiring visa, the one that may result in his deportation, and how much it is weighing on him. He talks about how unstable his life is, how uncertain his future is, how his future with me is even more unstable. He doesn’t have to say it, but the only solution is to remove one of those cards from the table. I am the easiest one for him to turn over, to stop thinking about.
I can’t look up, I can’t stop scuffing my boot, and I can’t stop the tears from rolling down my face. He begs me to stop crying. He reaches out to touch me, and I flinch. I don’t want to be touched. He pleads for me to say something. I say nothing.
I’m circling the drain.
I can’t stop thinking about my future, and the uncertainty.
I can’t be good to you. I can barely text. I can barely show up. You deserve better.
I’m drinking a lot these days; this is not the person I want to be.
I don’t want to waste your time.
I scuff and I scuff and I scuff. He talks and he talks and he talks. I don’t know what to say; my brain, my heart, were not prepared for this. Anything but this. I don’t know if I’m sad, or if I’m in a state of shock. I keep kicking my feet, clenching and unclenching my fists, wiping my eyes aggressively with the edge of my sleeve.
This is for the best. I’m protecting us.
A rage I’m familiar with bubbles through my body and pours out of my mouth. Do not tell me what’s best for me. I snap. I crackle. I implode.
I just want you to know you’ve done nothing wrong; you’ve been nothing but amazing.
I want to crawl inside of myself. I want to turn into a salt statue and disintegrate. I want to stop crying, I want to stop scuffing, I want him to stop speaking. I’m overflowing and I’m empty. For some reason, I’m fixated on the plans we had for the weekend, to go to a music festival together.
He keeps saying it’s for the best. He looks sad. He looks at my scuffing feet. He tries to touch me; I pull away again. I stare at my boots.
This was doomed from the start. What did you think would happen?
What did I think, I’m not sure? I thought we would cross this bridge when we came to it. I was convinced everything with his visa would work out. I didn’t believe in a bitter end.
A few days later, I’m sitting on my couch flicking through old photos on my phone and I come across a series of snaps taken in Brooklyn five years earlier, the first time I ever visited New York. Years before I would ever meet him. They are poorly shot photographs, mostly pictures of streets or some graffiti that I saw and liked. I pause on a long shot of a road in Bushwick. It’s the road we would both end up living on (he probably lived on it then), though it’s the south side with factories covered in street art as opposed to the northern residential side. The shot is terrible and slanted; a shot that may have been taken by accident but is more likely the result of my inability to take good photographs. On the last factory there’s a mural, characteristically his with bright primary colors and a ball-like figure. It feels poetic that I took a photograph of his art five years before he came into my life. That somewhere in the storage of my life he already existed, a dormant presence waiting to make an appearance.
After seeing that photo I become fixated on the idea of six degrees of separation. The notion that we are all connected fascinates me. I bring it up frequently to people in conversation. Don’t you think it’s wild? I ask them. I clearly think so. I think about these six degrees a few times a week. Sometimes a few times a day. While doing a frantic Google search one night I find a site that says that in our shrinking world the six degrees of separation are actually two degrees of separation. This blows my mind even further.
I become obsessed with degrees of separation in physical space. I think of walls with eyes, of roads trampled by his feet and mine. I think of objects and the countless people who have touched them.
I think of how we are linked by these spaces we have all shared. I obsess over the people who have walked on roads before me, who drank from the same glass in a bar, who admired the same art. I’m fixated on how settings are colored with possibility because of the people who travel through them. I think about how many times we’ve walked past a building and a person we knew was inside of it, unbeknownst to both, our lives in that moment were linked through time, through the spaces we inhabit. I think of how this possibility makes our worlds mystical and illuminated. How it makes everything feel alive. I pass walls that he has painted and feel comforted by the knowledge that he was there, and now I am here. Inanimates are now animated because I can imagine him walking on them, laughing at them, because I remember the stories he told about them.
In the aftermath of our separation, my life became more filled with him than it ever was when we were together. I can see now it was a decision to hold onto him so ferociously. I didn’t know how to let go and I don’t think I wanted to. I needed our time together to matter and holding onto him made me feel alive. My misery transformed our fling into a tragic romance; into a story worth telling. I submerged myself wholeheartedly in my obsession. I checked Instagram manically, looking for some sort of clue, a sign that he was pining for me. I went beyond just his page. I found his friends, I stalked their pages too. I changed my run route so that I could go by his house, and when I did, I would sneak glances into his window from across the street, wondering if he was there.
I thought about him constantly. I dragged my friends to the bars that I knew he frequented. At a friend’s house I would smoke cigarettes out the window, looking out, hoping to see him on the street. Out in the city I started seeing him everywhere—in the thick black rimmed glasses of a man on the subway, in the flash of salt and pepper hair from the corner of my eye, in any person, male or female, who was tall and lanky. My heart would race as I braced myself, squinting and electrified by the possibility of it being him, dreading the possibility that it might be, all the while yearning for a glimpse of him. It never was, and I was always left with a hot flush and dull throbbing shame. I felt filthy and I hated myself, but I couldn’t stop. The loss left a haunting in its wake, a shadow which seeped into my every moment. A shadow I conjured even as I (half-heartedly) begged it to leave me alone.
What would I do if I saw him, if the shadow came to life?
Most likely, most definitely, I would spring into some form of practiced self-defense. Self-defense that looks like (practiced) indifference. Indifference: My seventh gear in motion. What is it that I’m exuding? Probably some fabricated form of cool. Cool in how much I don’t care. I hate the concept of cool, of things so chilled they are no longer living. Of things frozen in a moment in time. Of reactions steeped in inaction. Of the removal of that which is exciting, ephemeral.
I mentally rehearse what that meeting would look like. I play the scene over and over again: A light hair flip to remind him of what he gave up, but also to create a curtain to hide behind. (My hair is a shield. My hair is ammunition.) Here I objectify myself, as though I am a thing to be lost. My living bodily attributes the props I use to re-emphasize a point. Look at me, I am a woman. The strength of my pain reinforces a narrative that I am only as valuable as the men who surround me. Cue my shame, cue its obliteration by compulsion. A gentle shift of weight onto one leg. A discreet lick of my lips, just enough to wet them but not enough for him to notice. I would probably say something nonsensical at best, totally idiotic at worst. But, still, I obsess over the possibility of seeing him out in the world.
What’s the point of yearning? What would seeing him actually change? What would it do besides satisfying a need to know that I am not obsolete, that I will not fade, that seeing my flesh in front of him may remind him that I am in fact real, that I am in fact here, that I am in fact alive.
And then we meet on the street.
It’s a Sunday, and I’m charging down a Brooklyn sidewalk, distracted by the growling of my empty stomach and the rivulet of sweat crawling down the space between my breasts. It’s uncomfortably hot, the air thick from summertime humidity and lingering pollution. Heat and hunger have me aggravated, my attention focused solely on my destination, which will likely include the welcoming chill of air conditioning and some form of meal. I turn off Grand Street onto Graham Avenue, and I wonder if in my delirium I have started hallucinating too. The sun is shining straight into my eyes and I don’t trust the wavy mirages of summer. The loping bounce in the step of a person across the street alerts me to the possibility that this someone might be him. My already cloudy mind begins to spin and my heart ricochets frantically against my ribcage. I’ve dreamt of this moment, obsessed over it, willed it to happen, but now that it is here, I am paralyzed.
In my panic, my first reaction is to look down and check what I’m wearing—white crop top and flowery shorts, fire engine red fingernails freshly done that morning. This moment is not quite as curated as I’d hoped. He’s spotted me now, so I gracelessly thrust my hand into the air acknowledging that I’ve seen him too, willing my feet not to start sprinting in the other direction. Instead, in a trance, I start walking to the streetlight, ready to cross over to his side of the street, but he cuts through the cars and makes a beeline to where I’m standing. I’m immobile again, but every nerve in my body is alert, electrified. After weeks of imagining him, suddenly here he is, alive, breathing, no longer just a figment of my imagination but a living human, animated and real. He’s amused and cracks a joke about my unwillingness to jaywalk across the street. I’m mute, still stranded in the space between imagination and reality.
I find myself admiring him as we stand across from each other under the burning July sunshine. He’s wearing black shorts and a white t-shirt, black Wayfarer Ray-Bans. I’ve never seen him in shorts. Come to think of it, I’ve never seen him in sunglasses either. He’s wearing new sneakers. For some reason his new shoes make me miss him. I think it has to do with the familiarity contained in recognizing their newness, in facing an object brought into his life after I exited. We converse, talk about our plans that day, about his art that’s been vandalized on the wall next to us, my upcoming trip to Vancouver, his pending visa, all permeated with awkward silences and silent awkwardness. And with that, he’s gone again.
I fight the temptation to look back as we walk away.
The last time I saw him was about two months after the night he broke things off, and just a few weeks after I ran into him in the street. He texts me, a message which made my heart race uncontrollably. Hey. Long time. I consider not texting back, but something about his text fills me with dread. I decide to reply. Long time indeed. What’s up? He texts back immediately. Bad News. His visa has been declined, and that he is leaving for Argentina in three days. I was shocked, but I was also relieved. Him leaving the country was the cleanest break. I felt guilty that I was thinking about myself when his whole life was turned upside down, but for the first time in months I felt a sigh of release, freed from the ruminating prison of my obsession.
We agree to meet for a coffee at a café to say a final goodbye. Before leaving my house, I change my outfit three times. I finally settle on a blue dress with little white flowers and white sneakers. For some reason I want to look girly as though this would make me more desirable (how deep my indoctrination runs). We sit at a table outside; I drink an iced coffee while he eats a ham and cheese croissant. He offers me a bite forgetting that I don’t eat meat, which upsets me. I leave my sunglasses on even though my seat is in the shade and his isn’t. I try to make space for him under the umbrella, which frustrates him, and he moves his seat more defiantly into the sun. It’s hot that day, and I point out that his neck is going to burn; he brushes my comment away. I ignore the strangeness of this reaction.
We catch up on what’s been going since we last saw each other. Something surfaces between us that I’m not prepared for, a familiar intimacy of two people who shared something once but don’t share it anymore. Our conversation is referential to a time when our lives moved in parallel. I ask him if he plans to try and come back to New York. He doesn’t know and isn’t ready to think about it yet. I want to ask him what happened, if we mattered, what he’ll miss the most. I lose my nerve and yammer on about something insignificant. We leave the cafe together and walk toward our houses. We hug on a street corner, the one where our journeys separate, the same street corner we hugged the night we broke up. It was raining then, and it’s sunny now. I wonder if there’s some meaningful significance to this.
I run past his house a few days later and it’s visibly empty. I see a bottle of cleaning spray on the windowsill and nothing else. This time he really is gone. Gone from the physical space we shared. The roads which once formed the artery of life that connected me to him crumpled suddenly, overnight. Electrified streets shut down. My excitement withered. Even when we were actively not talking, somehow, I felt a comfort in knowing that it was always possible, always plausible, to see him on these streets. I trusted those six degrees.
This was the second break in our story. With the first, my world contracted around me. Everything became about him. I developed an unhinged talent in associating everything in my life to him. Obsession and retrospection became my modus operandi. With the second, I found expansion. Without possibility, I was suddenly free again. Without any chance of him, I could unapologetically be me.
About the Author
Nicole Drakopoulos is an idealist who came to New York on a whim and decided to stay. Raised in Athens (Greece, not Georgia), educated in London, with some roots in Chicago, she feels most at home in the spaces she can be a stranger – on a park bench, in a crowd (pre-pandemic), or walking on a city street. Currently she is a nameless corporate worker by day, a graduate student at CUNY by night, a voracious reader, and an occasional writer. Nicole survives daily life by drinking black coffee, reading first-person creative non-fiction, and taking care of her plants.