We played a game of softball Truth or Dare at your house while waiting for the sun to go down, letting the lazy evening in all its dry heat sink us into your large grey couch lining two of the white walls of your living room with its signature vaulted ceiling. There were six of us -you and four of your friends who considered your house a regular haunt, and me, the only girl, like always. We were sipping vodka Sprites casually with nowhere to be since it had been another sweltering day in the San Francisco Valley that August, but it was a Friday and since it was a Friday, we all felt like we had something to prove. We all quietly felt like we needed to go somewhere in order to preserve some measure of social standing, like some perennial Millennial internal panic. I had always found the house an anomaly -a long bungalow in the Valley with a looming living room in the back that made the whole thing feel a lot bigger even though the two-bedroom house was made for a bachelor. You loved this house, because it now bore your history all over the walls: art that you’d collected over the years, and nicks on the wall from drunken minor mishaps. With time, you’d worn the house down to make it all your own.
E tapped on his phone to show the next instruction in the virtual card game, and he looks at me. It’s my turn.
“Oh this one’s a good one,” he muses and reads the instruction aloud. “Say something that will make us all uncomfortable.”
E had always been somewhat enigmatic for me in a manner I found hard to explain. In general, he was an open book: always down to share whatever salacious and wild story had happened to him from the night before with a laid back ease that almost bordered on humility, always unfiltered and uncensored, game to talk about anything from his kids to his cordial yet strained relationship with his kids’ mother, to the women he was currently sleeping with, to his shortfalls, his failures, to private details about his work. He could always make fun of himself even on the most damaging points, he was always the biggest flirt whose spell from which I could never fully unwind, even after months and months of practice. He wore his demeanour -the smoothness of a laid back city playboy – on his sleeve rolled up for all to see; sure, he was over forty now and shouldn’t be partying so hard, sure he should be a better father figure to his kids, but this was his life and this was how he was going to live it. He was crafting tacit cultural history: how to be the unassuming rockstar, hacker of cultural waves. I loathed him but I couldn’t fully let him go. And it worked. People loved him, you most of all since you looked him as a mentor, the person who believed in your work when you were nobody in this sprawling city. What is a god if not simultaneously revered, feared, and resented? Yet there was always this feeling at the back of my head that his closest held secrets were impenetrable, that his refusal to apologize for anything or to change his lifestyle bordered on a refusal for self-reflection, a quiet sign of denial of brewing conflicts in the undercurrents. And because these latter suspicions kept coloring the way I viewed him, I always kept a calculated distance from him.
My eyes go cold for a moment but nobody catches it in the moment they swivel their heads at me. And immediately, I am on; I’m smirking my signature smirk, glass in hand, sitting straight with my hair tousled neatly behind my shoulders. Everyone in the room is your friend, and by extension, my friends of course.
“Okay, give me a moment. I’ve got to think of a good one.” I say playfully, and pause to think. I purse my lips for good measure. “Hmmm… okay… I got it.”
Y’s eyes light up. I never disappoint with the uncomfortable and controversial in games like these.
“All of you want to fuck me.” I announce steadily and draw out the consonants as my lips curl up in another mischievous smile.
All the boys burst out laughing. No one denies it. You chuckle. There’s a flash of irritation that crosses your face, but it’s fleeting and it wouldn’t have been noticeable to anyone else. After all, it was true. It’s the elephant in the room but obviously not the greatest and most pressing one, and it’s all in good fun. Everyone in this room is easy going; you most of all. You never disappoint with that full chuckle taken to such heights and volume that everyone can’t help but smile and roll their eyes. And the game resumes with I’s turn and we don’t think it about it again as the words dissipate into the air and up into that high ceiling. Because they’re all in love with me and all want to fuck me. And we act like and tell ourselves that we’re okay with that. Except everything is unwinding between us but none of your four friends who are sitting on that same living room couch look close enough to bear witness to the crumbling.
“Are you any good?” Those were your first words to me.
We met at S’s house party in LA four years ago, a few months after my break-up with the boy who shared the same name as you albeit a different spelling, a fun fact that all my friends mused and that I’d had to take with a wry smile and glassy eyes, and laugh. Yes, what a coincidence, huh?
I was on my ongoing crawl out of rock bottom, having finally made strides in kicking a decade-long addiction to cigarettes that started in my rebellious teenage years as well as ending a brief bender of self-destructive behaviours to help numb the pain of my recent breakup. I almost hadn’t come to S’s party in large part because LA was so far from where I was working now and I didn’t know any of S’s friends except one (whom I also didn’t consider a friend but more of an obliged acquaintance), but S had been a kind soul when I met him -it had been so easy to talk to him the first night we met, and I thought that even if nothing grew out of our handful of run-ins at parties, he was a friend that I wanted to keep. So I showed up on that Sunday night in a sprawling, beautifully and eclectically-decorated West Hollywood two-floor penthouse, paying my friendship dues surrounded by people I didn’t know, whom I didn’t look like, who certainly shared no interests. I recall vividly the ocean of black bomber jackets, skinny jeans, and bright sneakers, daring haircuts and hair colors, stunning multi-pierced ears and detailed tattoos bumping around me, constant five second scenes of hugs and drunken rejoices as I shuffled awkwardly around the party, confident that I wouldn’t run into anyone I knew, but also desperate for someone to say hello and divert my attention away from my dizzying discomfort. I hadn’t run into S yet to say hello, but given the number of people who were squeezed into this penthouse amplified by the fact that I wasn’t exactly a go-to friend to say hello, I knew S would probably have to bump into me in order for me to have the occasion to say hello. When I’d wandered close to the kitchen, that was when I caught a break.
“Hey, you wanna play beer pong?” A tall wiry guy with wavy blonde hair and of course, a bold Gucci silk bomber, yelled at me from a table tennis table that he had been refurbished -at least for tonight- as a beer pong table. When he realized I was startled by his greeting, he laughed, and nodded, “Yeah, you, the one who looks like a lost deer in headlights.” And as I gingerly walked over, he had instructed that I be paired up with you, the scruffy brown-haired guy, clad in black skinny jeans and a black novelty shirt, with tattoo sleeves laughing to his friend -not about me, you were too caught up in the moment talking to him over the loud music to notice your newly-assigned beer pong partner.
Someone had put us on the same beer pong team, but we were a poorly matched pair. You missed almost all your shots while I made most of them, which hobbled us to victory by slim margins and I constantly rubbed that in. Fuelled by the increasing amount of alcohol in my blood, I spent a great part of the night loudly complaining to everyone about how bad you were at the game and playfully demanding a better partner. And every time I complained, you would shrug over your shoulder, palms open, and smile at me beer in one hand and ball in the other. The smugness pissed me off, but in my drunken stupor, I laughed, took the ball out of your hand with playful force, and would begin the next round. There was something startling about you, maybe it was just the California cool that I wasn’t used to being around, but I refused to think about it so I wouldn’t start digging myself something that resembles a well, so I dismissed it as an annoyance about your character. You pestered me with constant quips about my competitiveness in that game, where you tried to make the argument that this made up for how devastatingly bad you were, and silently I didn’t want the night to end.
“Never trust a pretty girl with two different colored eyes”, you whispered in my ear, once I missed a shot that I had loudly and haughtily announced that I would sink. I smirked and refused to look at you, like some hapless attempt to save face when my heart was already lost and somehow square in your hands. Checkmate. I must have lost while I was too busy trying to win at Checkers. And how right you were: I couldn’t even trust myself.
I went home with you that night. We both saw it coming and I just let my feet lead me away.
I was 22. You were eight years older. You woke up to the sound of my slamming your cupboards looking to make breakfast, and complaining that you were so much of a bachelor that you didn’t have basic breakfast foods. I see eggs and bacon in the fridge, but where’s the toast? Where’s the cheese? Mushrooms? Avocado? Come on, you live in Los Angeles. How do you not have a single avocado in your house? You didn’t like my questions but you were amused, this brash brunette New Yorker visibly out of place in this Valley abode. Later as we sat at your table munching on the eggs and bacon, me visibly defeated, we laughed over our mutual agreement that it was a decent hook-up and that we should do it again. Just like that, it was so casual, so flit of the hands. And before I knew it, I flew across the country two weeks later to see you again like I couldn’t stop myself from coming. That time around, I brought eggs, milk, and cheese so I could make myself an omelette in the morning, and you thought it was the funniest thing ever when I carried that grocery bag into your house.
I didn’t know what to think about you: you were charismatic, effortlessly humorous, amusingly and alarmingly immature. Yet there was always something nagging at me that never sat right, something right at the tip of my tongue but I could never put it into words. Like there was this heaviness that felt empty, this emptiness that felt heavy; the intensity of free falling without the liability of falling in love. And I told myself that’s what I wanted, that you were everything I’d ever wanted in some manifestation that I hadn’t anticipated: to feel free from facing consequences, to feel recklessly happy. Is that what love would feel like when you’re not trying to hold onto it?
We hooked up casually for almost a year and fell out of it for a while due to busy schedules, and the situation felt like the childhood game of holding bubbles in your palm: now you see and feel it, and next, you don’t feel anything at all. The high would last for a night, and then afterwards for a fortnight, we would claim there was never anything there except some remnants of chemistry that you could wipe off your hands and onto your shirt to be forgotten. And we laughed. All the time. And I acted like it didn’t start to hurt every time the morning came around, because how can you hurt when you weren’t supposed to feel anything at all?
I vividly remember when I dove head-first into the sharks. We went to Dave and Buster’s, one of your go-to casual haunts for a typical meal, and I insisted it was a date.
We’re grabbing dinner and you took me out for a night of fun. I asserted.
Yeah, but a date requires both parties to agree that it’s a date. And we’re at Dave and Busters to eat because I like the food. We’re not here to play games so therefore it’s not a date. You retorted.
No it doesn’t. You can accidentally go on a date. You chuckled at that.
Fine. I replied. Let’s ask the girl working the prize counter.
I laid out my case for both parties’ amusement, and she ultimately agreed with me. I bought us 20 tokens. On me. I said gleefully, looking back at you. You shook your head and smiled. We used all of them on a basketball game. You won only because I’m atrocious at basketball.
You naturally lit up every room you walked in. You could start a conversation with anyone so effortlessly that I would feel a small pang of resentment. I’d watch you from afar at our mutual friends’ house parties and it never ceased to impress me how everyone could fall for your sneaky concoction of easy-going California cool, a red solo cup in hand, and a smile that would spread to your eyes. It was an open secret that we were hooking up and it was not at all exclusive, and I played it off as though it were an afterthought for the both of us. Because I too was supposed to be cool. I was what Gone Girl would call a Cool Girl, except I wanted so badly to convince myself that she were real, she was me, that I had somehow defied the laws of physics and wholly embodied the girl who could drink beer and hold her liquor without gaining any weight, who could laugh with the boys, who didn’t treat anything too seriously. I was done treating things seriously, dealing with this insatiable hunger to prove to myself that a break-up that had broken me had instead made me stronger. I wanted to be cool among your friends, who were all jet-setter creative types who always knew what the next big thing would be. They were underground Valley royalty, whereas my only LA childhood connection was a smattering of early teenage years growing up in Brentwood playing lacrosse and taking ocean pictures in American Apparel hoodies. You could tell that I was a kid from the Hills (by some liberal means of naturalization, I suppose) from a mile away. I never really fit in. In hindsight, I’m not sure why I had even tried.
Eventually it caught up to me though, because like Gone Girl’s Cool Girl, she doesn’t exist. And when you feel like you’ve been living a lie on weekend nights for a full year, it breaks you the instance you let your mask slide and are reckoned with an about-face. So I said I needed to talk to you on a Wednesday afternoon out of the blue, and I know it must have been a strange message to receive given the nature of our usual conversation. I asked for 30 minutes of your time; I needed to talk. I would fly home afterwards. I was literally flying coast-to-coast to have a conversation with you. Please. I reticently pleaded.
You know I’ve never actually visited your house without sleeping with you. I muse as I stepped apprehensively into your bungalow. We were both standing awkwardly, too stoic for this to feel familiar or natural. Not sure where to keep our hands, how to stand, where our feet should go, where we should look, how to fill this silence in a manner that wasn’t physical. How ironically comical this all was given that down the hall from your foyer in the enclave of your bedroom, we had never had that problem.
First time for everything. You said curtly, breaking out in a smile. There was silence that we both didn’t know how to cut or fill. I think you knew what was coming, but thought it was ludicrous that I would bring it up now. You had been working that morning, clad in a black hoodie and flannel pyjama pants, hair dishevelled, stubble out to play. It was heartbreaking to see you dressed like that -it would probably be the last time I’d see you so unfiltered.
I told you that I couldn’t keep doing this. I told you that it was fun at the beginning but I slowly realized I liked you too much for this to be nothing. This had dragged on for a year and I was kidding myself. And if this was going to end, I’d rather have the Band-Aid ripped off in one go than have this prolong itself into something that felt like self-torture mixed with false hope, to endure this game knowing I would never win. I cried and told you not to hug me.
No, just let me go through with this. It’s not you, you’re a good person. You’ve been nothing but honest about where you saw this going. I said. I don’t hate you. I just… I just needed to do this, and I’m going to cry but I’m going to be happy after this. Please don’t hate me.
I smiled weakly through tears. It really wasn’t your fault. I just needed to be honest with myself.
About a month later, you asked me for lunch and I knew that it was futile to fight the urge, so I said yes. When I got on the plane, I kept telling myself that I was crazy to fly across the country once again for some remnants of false hope that I still had left in my heart. I was apprehensive when my car pulled up to Chateau Marmont, slowly walking to the back restaurant with thoughts racing through my head about whether or not this was a joke. When we sat down, exchanged platitudes, and ordered our food, you asked me if I wanted to go to Dave and Buster’s afterwards. You know… like a date, you said. And your smile curled up and almost reached your eyes and I felt my stomach drop and my heart break once again. I felt a lot of things, but I was feeling so many things at once that it was difficult for me to compartmentalise and lay out exactly what I felt.
I don’t understand where this is coming from. I told you, rather bewildered.
You told me that you had thought about our parting conversation quite a lot over the past month, but not by choice. I would pop into your head as you were doing other things, and you began to realize that you kind of, well, missed me around your house, in your car running errands with you, and going to Dave and Buster’s. Specifically, you told me the amusing and grand classic story of how you had gotten a blonde into your bed and it was going so horribly for so many reasons that you knew this would make a great story. So you had started to laugh and turned to the right to tell me exactly that, except I wasn’t there on my usual side of the bed, and there wasn’t going to be me on that side of the bed any longer, and in some strange twist it started to feel lonely in your bachelor house without the usual plus one. And I laughed sheepishly at the story and told you that I didn’t find it that funny at all, because I actually still really liked you and frankly, this story wasn’t really helping any cause. So you digressed, and said you acknowledged that it wasn’t executed well since you hadn’t fully thought how you were going to tell it but just that you needed to tell it when I got to lunch. And I smiled, I said I understood. I said that whichever way this story goes from here, I would not win.
And despite all my reservations, I went with you anyway to Dave and Busters after that lunch. I went home with you that night just like clockwork except this time we didn’t punch out. I was just shy of 23. Your birthday had recently passed. I hadn’t said happy birthday.
I had a reputation for jokingly charging my friends $1,000 exclusive of travel and accommodations as a wedding-date-for-hire because I knew all their mothers and peers, and was a good conversationalist. I also loved going to these weddings because it almost counted as crashing them. I’d done about 11 before you asked me in the car while we were running an errand if you could hire me as a wedding date for a family friend’s wedding. It was three weeks after the Dave and Buster’s Official Date. Your parents along with your extended family would be there . You said you’d throw in an extra $2000 if that would convince me to come. You were nervous asking me. It was the first time I’d ever seen you nervous and uncomfortable. I smirked and didn’t look at you so you could save face just a little.
For you, it’s free.
And when I said that, you kept your eyes on the road and didn’t look at me. And you were trying not to smile, but I could tell. It was settled then: it was another date.
What a perfect love story.
When E had said “Say something that will make us all uncomfortable”, I had immediately thought of something else. The thought came naturally to me since I’d been thinking about it for a long time although I had never hinted it at you. It was something that I knew would have won me the whole damn game, ended the game, cleared the room. It was a sore topic, frankly, as its iterations appeared more often as you had gotten older and your parents had been insinuating that they were hoping you were going to settle down and have a family soon. But I did’t know how to bring it up without it seeming like a terrible omen.
You see, it would be World War III if we ever broke up. We weren’t mature enough to handle a break-up because we were still patting ourselves on the back for making this relationship work, for recounting how we met and how we started dating to all our friends at parties and gatherings like it was this triumphant, timeless love story. Imagine two people who were casually hooking up, but they fell in love! They live on different coasts, but they still visit each other! They work on their relationship, because if they didn’t it would fall apart! Five-foot-eleven cheeky golden boy posing with his five-foot-five WASP girlfriend on a friend’s Malibu balcony, both with their charming smiles and convincing body language!
It’s not a lie, not at all. But how much do you work on a relationship until your relationship can’t exist without intervention? How much glue can you squeeze in the cracks of the relationship before it seems like a side project that should have long been abandoned? Our personalities meant we each had to win in order to feel good about ourselves, and that meant denying that we both felt this reckless yet empty happy, that we were tying each other down for no reason, that we had made a mistake.
Our lives and our relationship with each other’s friends and family were so entwined now that if we were to break up, we couldn’t stay friends, our friends couldn’t stay friends with each other, we couldn’t stay friends with each other’s friends. I would have to move out, you would not visit me. You’d have to start again but now, the bed would feel undeniably empty. I’d hit rock bottom again and have to climb back out again. People like us don’t settle down, we hustle. Sticking it out with each other started to feel like we were tethered to proving everyone right and making our parents and friends happy, affording us no chance to drift off to our ambitions. You don’t free fall for this long without repercussions, everyone knows that, and alas, here we are. We couldn’t admit to each other that we should have quit long ago. I couldn’t admit to myself that I regretted coming over to your house three years ago, shouldn’t have said yes to Dave and Buster’s. Was this all my fault?
That was what I had really wanted to say.
It would shatter us. We would never truly recover.
Everywhere around us stood the signs that we wouldn’t last, but neither of us would dare touch the topic: how your friends have kids but aren’t married anymore (or never were), how you still travelled for work, how I had gotten approached about a civil service opportunity in Detroit but haven’t divulged it to you. You would have been so proud of me in some alternate universe or some universe that existed two years ago, but not in this one. Because it is unsaid that I would eventually move to LA and we would live together. And that expectation is supposed to come to fruition soon, if not yesterday. But this is complicated and you hate this topic getting brought up in social situations and with your parents, so we pretend that this arrangement of my living in New York and visiting you almost every weekend like in the nascent days is working fine, like we are still hooking up with nothing to lose. But obviously the most hilarious part is that it wasn’t, but no one wants to point out the omen until the omen has consumed everything.
And that’s why we’re here now, in this living room with its vaulted white ceilings that now seemed to cave us all into this roomy glass-pocked prison. The sun is shining bright and bathing everything with light. E has brought his legs all the way up on the couch, lounging comfortably like he owns this place, no care in the world. It’s not like he would put his legs down if any one of us called him out on it anyway. And I am the only girl in the room, with thirty articles of clothing stashed messily in the right side of your closet like I live here every once in a while. And the game continues. And we all sip our drinks. And the elephant stays in the room and grows larger each day, but it’s a big airy living room, high ceilings and all. So it can grow larger than most elephants can, what a feat. It’s an anomaly that it can grow so big and show no sign of bursting just yet.
And he taps the screen. Another instruction shows up. It’s not my turn.
I never disappoint with the uncomfortable and controversial in games like these.
I say it. Out of the blue.
I got a job in Detroit. I think I’m going to take it.
And then the elephant disappears. But the room doesn’t clear like I imagined it would. The boys are still here and one of them looks up and nods as a polite gesture and gets his head back in the game while the rest are waiting for O to come up with a good answer. But your eyes train on me. Because you understand the ramifications of what I’ve just said. Your head is now completely out of the game and it feels like it’s just me and you in the room. We looking at each other. I breathe in.
I have so much to tell you.