I begin to realize my relationship is over when my boyfriend starts cleaning his gun in our apartment. It’s his apartment, really. He owns it, if you can call taking out a huge mortgage with zero down “owning it” at all. I pay him rent. I helped pick out the sofa. He knows I hate guns, that they scare me. He sets out a TV tray and lays down a cloth and some tools, and he gets to work.
He’s started talking a lot about how he wishes he could’ve enlisted, if health problems hadn’t kept him away. He plugs in the surround sound and we watch Saving Private Ryan, me balled up on a corner of the sofa, hands covering my ears as the bullets fly from the speakers behind us. Sometimes, he lies on the floor of our bedroom and tries to imagine his future, and I can just see the clouds gathering on the horizon.
“Maybe I’ll redecorate the bathroom in wrought iron,” he says one day from the floor.
We decorated that bathroom together, I remind him. Don’t you like it? He nods, from very far away.
We met my senior year of high school. I’d turned 18 a few months before. He was 26. Feeling in love, valid, chosen for the first time and ready to escape my parents’ home, I made my life his. Three years later, we’re living together in his hometown, hanging out with his friends. I work full time and attend community college some nights. We get a dog. My boyfriend rips me DVDs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and I watch Angel, Buffy’s 270 year-old boyfriend, leave during her senior year of high school. I watch her fend off the end of the world as her own world is ending and think:
I can’t imagine. I don’t want to imagine. I can never lose him.
And then, of course, I do. Sitting together on that sofa we picked out, I weep as he tells me words that don’t matter, as he gets up to leave. Numbly, I open my phone and text some friends to come help me pack up my things. He is 29. I am three days shy of my 21st birthday.
Sometimes now, decades later, with that old boyfriend nearly forgotten, when I feel too much of life, or when I can’t feel it at all, I put on a scary movie, turn on the good speakers, and let it tear its way through me. In all my favorites, someone’s world is ending, far more dramatically than mine ever has. Some nights, I watch the Tethered come for Adelaide in Us. On long, hot smoky days in August, I turn on Midsommar, watching Dani’s face as she struggles, moment by moment, to choke down the raw carcass of her grief. When I want a family who stays together with all they’ve got, I turn on A Quiet Place. When I’m ready for a screaming gash of red desert and Charlize Theron’s desperate determination, I put on Fury Road.
I just love a good apocalypse.
When I first sit down to write about these movies, about the stories I return to again and again, I write about all the wrong things. I write about the times I can’t get off the sofa. I write about the suffocation of Red Flag weather in August. I write about desiccation, about the way things sour with entropy and drought.
But these stories aren’t stagnant. In fact, they’re not about endings at all.
At the beginning of 10 Cloverfield Lane, we watch a woman hurriedly pack her suitcase. She’s stressed, fumbling. As she dashes out the door, she pauses to drop her engagement ring onto the dresser. Soon she’ll be on the Interstate, distracted by texts and voicemails from the man she left behind, and a collision with a pick-up truck will send her spinning. She’ll awaken chained to the wall in a half-painted cinderblock room, and that’s where her story really starts.
This past August, I caught Covid. First time. Recovery is still rough. Nearly two months after my first positive test, there are days when I’m not so much tired as empty, when every interaction feels like sleepwalking. I spend my bad days moving between my bed, my sofa and my desk, willing myself to work, to eat, to load the dishwasher. Some days, when I sit down to write, every thought requires a sort of surfacing from deep water, like sending messages to a submarine. Words are needed. Do you copy? Over.
It’s on one of those days, when I’m willing myself out of bed to feed my dog Milo or answer an email or get a drink of water, that I realize what it is that keeps me queueing up these movies. They’re not really apocalypse stories at all. They’re stories of change. Of new beginnings. Because the people in them just keep going.
When she wakes up in that cell, Michelle immediately starts moving, knocking over her makeshift IV pole to fish for the cracked cell phone sitting just out of reach. When Adelaide first sees the Tethered in her driveway in Us, she draws her son to her, tells her daughter to put on her shoes. In A Quiet Place, a year after losing her youngest child to alien invaders, Evelyn labors silently in a bathtub, ready to risk everything, all over again. In Fury Road, with a family of warlords hot on her trail, Furiosa keeps her foot on the gas, moving herself and her charges forward at all costs. Faced with the unspeakable, these women have a choice to make: give up, or keep moving. And somehow they do it. They get back up, and they keep stumbling forward.
Maybe it’s not a choice at all.
When I’m turning 21 and the man at the center of my universe implodes it, I weep for a week on a friend’s sofa. Then I get a second job and start making plans to move to the city I dreamed about before I met him. I’m angry, but I don’t yet have the right words, the right perspective, for my anger. I don’t yet have words for you were too old. I was too young. This wasn’t right. But I keep moving forward. I have to.
After that break up, there will be so many times in my life when I just have to keep going. The horrible, numb decade I spend in the closet, a decade where I can’t see past the enormity of my own isolation. Other break-ups, other months when I can’t get off the sofa. The year my dog Cyrus is dying, and I care for him around the clock. Those first pandemic years, when I think I might never share space with my loved ones again. There will always be hardships and endings and changes.
Sitting on that sofa we picked out together, watching the DVDs my boyfriend made me, decades before I would first see any of my favorite scary movies, this was the real lesson Buffy tried to teach me. It wasn’t about Angel at all. It would just be years before I could fully understand it.
The apocalypse will come, and it will come again. The world will change. You’ll take a beat.
And you’ll keep going.
Horror Is So Gay is a series on queer and trans horror edited by Autostraddle Managing Editor Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya running throughout October.