I’m sitting in the passenger seat of Alison’s car and we’re making small talk. The conversation we want to be having — we’ll soon be having — simmers under every word. Finally, there’s a silence and I fill it with meaning.
“I guess we should talk about the letter,” I say softly. I feel myself starting to shiver, but it’s not cold. It’s June. It’s two days before their high school graduation.
Phrases from the 7.5 page typed single-spaced letter they taped in my yearbook race through my mind. I think what they were trying to say — two months after my own love confession — is that they love me too. They think I’m attractive! They said I have stunning wolf eyes. Sure, they’re two years older and they’re about to graduate and they’ve had a lot of life experience and I’ve never even been drunk or had my first kiss and they just don’t think we’d work. But they love me too! That’s my interpretation. That’s what I want to focus on.
They start to repeat some of what’s in their letter. I listen closely. I stare at them closely. I’m so used to listening to this voice and staring at this face and smelling the distinct scent of their perfume mixed with stale cigarette smoke. The passenger seat of this car is the closest thing I have to a happy place.
I’m sixteen and no one understands me, but them.
We pull into the parking lot of a restaurant called the Natural Café. We’re talking in circles. I’m not arguing. I’m just confused. If they love me why does anything else matter? I’ve had my feelings for almost two years and I never imagined they’d be returned. But they are, so why worry about the rest? I don’t care if they don’t know where they’ll be next year. I don’t care that I’m young. I’m so young.
They start to tear up and I realize I shouldn’t say anything more.
“I really do love you,” they say to me, and a single tear slides down their face. I wipe it away like we’re in a movie.
We drift into silence. They lay their head on my lap. We’re like that for minutes, for hours, for months, for seconds. They’re looking up at me. I’m trying so hard to stop shivering.
I finally say what I’ve been fighting back: “I know we’re being smart about this, but I really want to kiss you.”
“You can kiss me,” they say with a smile, their eyes still glossy with tears.
And we kiss.
Alison and I would kiss only one more time. Two days before they left for their Senior Europe Trip, they came over and we made out on my bed. My hands hovered six inches from their body, because I was terrified I’d accidentally touch their boobs. They placed my hands on themself for me.
I’d been anxious about kissing for years and as I watched my peers gain experience, my insecurities only deepened. But like our first kiss, this was so easy. It was everything I ever wanted.
Then they burst into tears.
I held them as they told me things about themself they hadn’t shared before. They were begging me to understand why even though they loved me in their own way, this couldn’t work. But they didn’t say that outright and I didn’t understand. Or they did say it outright and I chose not to understand. They loved me and I loved them. And now we’d kissed. Twice. As far as I was concerned, we were dating.
Away at my own summer program, I wrote them verbose letters filled with my adolescent love and — when my own words failed me — quotes from John Keats. They didn’t write back. The last day of my trip they sent me a message on Facebook ending whatever it was we were doing.
I returned home determined to still be their best friend. But then I found out they’d already started dating someone else.
I’d spent a month thinking we were a couple while they were off cheating on me. I was so sad. I was so hurt. The narrative quickly spread that Alison had cheated on sweet baby Drew. Our mutual friends chose me and stopped talking to them.
They obviously had not cheated on me. We weren’t in a relationship.
I hadn’t wanted to hurt them. I’d just wanted to control them. I wanted to control our relationship. I wanted the acknowledgement that these feelings I’d had for two years were not one-sided. I wanted our romance to last forever. I wanted to take care of them. I wanted to hold them. I wanted to hold onto them.
If I’d accepted it was over that night in my room, it might not have taken so many years for us to reconnect and be friends again. But when you’re young you know very little about love. You certainly don’t know how to let it go.
I didn’t understand the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice until last fall when I saw Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Around the time I was pining over Alison, the myth consumed me. Folk singer Anaïs Mitchell had just released her Orpheus-inspired concept album Hadestown and I latched onto its story of art and romance. But as much as I loved this album and the myth itself I hated the ending. And as I began to imagine turning Mitchell’s album into a musical film I decided I’d have to change its tragic conclusion.
Flash forward a decade and I’m sitting in a theatre watching Sciamma’s masterpiece about an artist named Marianne who is hired to paint the marriage portrait for a stubborn woman named Héloïse. Héloïse has refused to sit for a previous painter — doing all she can to avoid wedding a stranger in Milan — so Marianne must pretend to be her companion on walks and paint in secret.
As Marianne watches and studies, she falls in love. As Héloïse is watched and studied — and watches and studies — she falls in love too. The hook of the plot disappears and the women form a sapphic utopia in Héloïse’s mother’s absence. They become lovers. The whole world is just Marianne, Héloïse, and Héloïse’s servant Sophie — their surrogate daughter.
Marianne brought one book with her and Héloïse has been reading it. The book is Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which contains, of course, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. One night Héloïse reads the passage out loud to Marianne and Sophie.
The tale is about a musician, Orpheus, who marries the beautiful Eurydice. When she dies, Orpheus performs his way into the underworld desperate for more time with his love. But when faced with the decision to keep her forever or steal a glance at her as they escape he chooses to look. He defies Hades’ one command. He dooms her life — and their love.
Like my high school self, Sophie is incensed by the ending. Why would Orpheus look behind him? Why would he kill her with impatience after all that effort? It doesn’t make sense.
“That’s horrible,” Sophie says. “Poor woman. Why did he turn? He was told not to but did, for no reason.”
Marianne says there are reasons. She seems delighted by Sophie’s innocence.
Héloïse rereads the passage and Sophie still doesn’t understand. Héloïse explains that Orpheus’ love is simply too great. He can’t resist. But Marianne disagrees with that too.
“Perhaps he makes a choice,” she explains. “He chooses the memory of her. That’s why he turns. He doesn’t make the lover’s choice, but the poet’s.”
Héloïse finishes the passage, her face lost in melancholy thought. She searches for the deeper truth beyond the feelings and adds: “Perhaps she was the one who said, ‘Turn around.’”
Marianne’s confident grin falls slowly away.
We’re walking around the museum and I’m worried Rachel is annoyed.
NYU students aren’t supposed to go below Canal Street or above 59th and here I am dragging us out to Queens. It’s February and it’s cold and the least I could have done was look up how far the museum was from the subway – the least I could have done was not gotten us lost.
I’ve lived in New York for less than seven months and Rachel and I have been dating for less than three. I’m navigating my first serious relationship and she’s navigating hers. We’re both having sex for the first time and it’s somehow the greatest thing ever and also highly distressing. And now here I am at the Noguchi Museum trying to interpret her body language like she’s another one of the abstract sculptures.
There are moments where our eyes catch or she makes a joke or she grabs my hand and I feel an excited tingling. This is what I was waiting for all these years. This is a real relationship. This is what it’s like to have a girlfriend. But every warm feeling is met with a breeze of panic. If I’m not perfect I will fuck this up. How do I not fuck this up. How do I figure out exactly what she wants so I can make that happen and she will love me and never leave me and I will be a good boyfriend and this will be good. She can’t read my mind but she can read my energy. And each one of these thoughts pushes her away.
We decide to leave the museum and I’ve decided the day is a failure. This time I’m determined to return to the subway without any detours. But after walking a block in the right direction we stumble upon a gate labeled: Socrates Sculpture Park. I look to Rachel for approval and she’s already walking inside. The sun has started to come out.
The space is filled with the oddest collection of sculptures. Some are figural, most are surreal, and then there’s a big white gazebo with white plastic chains hanging down. Rachel goes inside and I take her picture.
We walk towards the edge of the park holding hands, delighted with our surroundings. At the water, we look out and see Roosevelt Island and in the distance the bigger island we both call home. She wraps her arms around me, burrowing into my coat, and we just stand there. I can feel her body move with each one of my breaths. I know that I am breathing.
It feels so nice to be breathing.
The spring and summer quickly passed. A week before Rachel left for her year abroad in Florence, we went to her favorite bakery uptown. We got their special chocolate chip cookies that were so thick they looked like scones. We walked to Central Park and sat on the ground. I started to cry. I remember nervously plucking grass and struggling to swallow the cookie as I tried to say what I wanted to say. I didn’t think we should stay together. I didn’t think long distance would work. She teased me for my tears.
We spent the next six days grasping for every second, until finally it was the night before. We stayed up late watching movies we’d already seen. We talked about our past nine months together. This time we both cried. We had sex for what should’ve been the last time.
The next day I walked her to the subway and we said goodbye and we cried and we cried and we cried. And I cried and I cried and I cried. And it should have been goodbye. It should have been goodbye.
Four days later she called me from Florence and said she wanted to try long distance and after four days of depressing solitude I gave into my loneliness.
As she settled into her new environment, she started to pull away, as I’d expected. But not before I moved my own study abroad up a year, so we could spend the spring traveling around Europe together.
The fall semester was miserable as communication grew increasingly strained. I pretended that everything would be okay once we met up in Paris. But then she missed her flight. A few days later she sent me a 2am text message ending the relationship. It was long overdue. And yet I still spent the next four months pining over her and relishing in Parisian melancholy.
She fulfilled her long-promised visit at the end of the semester and stayed with me in my tiny studio apartment. All my friends told me it was a mistake. I didn’t care. We spent the first few days fighting. We spent the next few days fighting and fucking. Finally, the last night, there was no fighting. We treated ourselves to a nice dinner, and we reminisced about those same nine months as before. That night the sex was sad. It would be the last time. But we still didn’t accept goodbye.
We spent the whole summer back in New York in something we called a friendship, but more closely resembled a sexless codependent relationship. We fought more than we ever had when we were together. Finally, a year after our first break up attempt, we stopped talking in a huff of anger.
The night before Rachel missed her flight to Paris she had sex with a friend of mine. I didn’t find out until years later. And while I was hurt she and my friend had lied, I found myself straining to care about the cheating itself. At that point why did it matter?
The first time I was cheated on it was fake, because we weren’t together. This time it felt fake because we shouldn’t have been. But it takes effort to choose an ending. It’s a lot easier to get back together, to catch a flight, to miss a flight, to fuck someone else.
It’s easier to be with someone until you hate them than to walk away with love.
Marianne and Héloïse have kissed and fucked and done drugs together and Marianne has painted Héloïse and spit an entire glass of water into her mouth and they have watched each other and watched each other watch each other. Days have passed and days will pass again, time is always slipping slipping slipping.
There has been an understanding. Marianne and Héloïse will enjoy each other — enjoy the fantasy they’ve created — and then they will say goodbye. But the day before Héloïse’s mother is set to return, Marianne begins to falter. She tells Héloïse she wishes she could destroy the painting. She wishes she never had to give Héloïse to another — as if Héloïse is hers to give.
“It’s terrible. Now you possess me a little, you bear me a grudge,” Héloïse says her eyes brimming with tears.
Marianne denies this. But it’s true. She wants Héloïse to resist her fate — their fate.
Facing the impending reality, their unspoken agreement starts to crack. The impermanence of their affair no longer feels inevitable. Marianne imagines there must be something they can do. And when she can think of no solution, she grows bitter towards her love.
But the impossibility is neither of their doing — it just is. If only they could blame each other. That would be so much easier.
Sophie tells Marianne that Héloïse’s mother is set to return and Marianne realizes what she’s done. They have mere hours together and Marianne is wasting time with her petty attempts at control.
She begins frantically looking for Héloïse. She makes her way down to the beach and sees her standing by the waves. Marianne runs. She grabs Héloïse from behind. She holds her. She asks her for forgiveness.
They kiss. They cry together. They let go of blame. They start to accept.
I’m waiting for K at Grand Central Station. We’ve only met once before.
The way we met was a fantasy come to life: a one-on-one at New York’s biggest immersive show Sleep No More. But I’m trying to move beyond fantasies. I’m looking for something real.
And yet I was the one who suggested our first date be an hour train ride upstate. K wanted to spend time in nature before winter came and I said I knew a perfect little town called Cold Spring. I didn’t tell her my ex Rachel had taken me there.
It was a bold first date suggestion and I start to think she’s changed her mind. I wouldn’t blame her the way men can be. The train is leaving soon and I’m about to give up when she texts me. She’s five minutes away. I tell her I’ll buy our tickets.
She runs up to me with a minute to spare. She looks the same as she did at the Sleep No More bar but she’s bundled in coats and jackets. We run onto the train and gasp for breath as we settle into our seats.
We’re strangers. The absurdity — the commitment — of our day weighs on our first attempts at small talk. But God does that fade quickly. None of my usual first date nerves exist. I just enjoy getting to know her.
We get off the train. The small town is engulfed in fall leaves still burning with color. I buy K a coffee, because it’s cash only, and she doesn’t have cash. We pop into thrift store after thrift store, every trinket offering a new conversation starter. Not that we need it. Conversation comes easy.
We make our way to a hiking trail and we end up along the water. It’s cold and the wind whips at our faces. The air is so fresh. I remember that the person next to me is a stranger. She doesn’t feel like a stranger.
We walk back and get a late lunch. She insists on paying, because I got the train tickets and the coffee. Later, my sister will tell me that if a guy didn’t pay for her entire first date she’d never talk to him again. But I have nothing to prove.
K has a performance that night, so we head back to the train. She spends a half hour enthusiastically describing beat by beat a concept she has for Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. She talks for so long, totally unconcerned.
The thought flashes across my mind that this is the moment I’ve fallen in love with her and I’ll need to remember it forever.
I tell myself that’s absurd.
Seven months after our first date, K and I went to see the stage adaptation of Hadestown at the New York Theatre Workshop. I still hated the ending. I still hoped to someday make it into a movie and change it — two millennia post-Ovid I would be the one to fix the Orpheus myth.
I was about to graduate college and I was confused about a lot of things, but I wasn’t confused about my relationship with K. Despite the heightened romance of our first encounter and first date, this was by far the most mature and stable relationship I’d ever had. I loved K so much and it was all so simple. It wasn’t perfect, but the imperfections seemed to come from the outside. When it was just her and me it worked so well.
The years passed. I came out. She came out. We moved in together. We tumbled into our queerness as we stumbled through our careers. The harder life became the harder it was to sustain a relationship — and the more essential it felt to try. I don’t know how I would have made it through those years without her and I don’t know how she would have made it through those years without me. I’ll always love her — or, at least, I’ll always love the memory of her.
K booked a show out of town. At first I planned to move with her for the year, but then decided against it. Instead we were going to try long distance and open our relationship.
Both of us knew we had queer exploration left to do — she hadn’t dated as a queer person since high school; I’d never dated as a queer person or as a woman. We’d discussed opening our relationship in the hypothetical, but now we were presented with the perfect excuse. We could postpone all our other plans — buying a dog, getting married, leaning more into our nascent domesticity — and have a sort of queer rumspringa. If we still wanted to be together after a year of long distance — and a year of casual sex with strangers — then we could build our life together without regret.
Then her job got canceled.
I’d been so nervous about her leaving that I wasn’t prepared for the disappointment of her staying. Flushed with guilt, I suggested we still open our relationship. I loved her. I knew that I loved her. For three years she’d been my partner. We lived together. We made friends together. We made work together. Our lives — our names — were linked. But I wanted more. I wanted less.
After K’s job got canceled, I booked a job of my own, and we ended up spending December and January in Los Angeles. I was working and she was not and she was bored and I was tired and she wanted me and I didn’t know what I wanted. The fights we used to have once a season then once a month began happening once a week and then every day.
I got another job in LA and she went back to New York and I wanted that to make things better, but it just made things worse. The truth is I didn’t want to be in the relationship anymore. I just wouldn’t admit it to myself. I wanted to find a way for us to be together and not be together at the same time. I was busy and eager and confused and I hurt the person I loved most.
Three weeks after starting long distance, she told me that our new normal of distance, and non-monogamy, and me being busy, didn’t feel sustainable for a relationship. I said I was sorry. I said that I knew she was right. We both cried a lot. I said I couldn’t believe we were breaking up. She said we didn’t have to break up.
But I knew that I wasn’t going to suddenly be a better partner to her again. I finally accepted that what we had — as special as it had been — was over.
I spent the next few weeks fighting back tears at my desk — running to the bathroom so I wouldn’t embarrass myself in front of new coworkers. K kept wanting to talk. She kept wanting to get back together. And part of me did too. But I knew it was over. I’d learned my lesson. Once something feels done, denial will only make it worse.
But by the time we ended our relationship it was already too late. It’s not actually about learning to let go at the end — it’s about learning to let go the whole time. It’s about not trying to control someone or your relationship from the moment you meet until the moment it’s over. It’s about being present and trusting. It’s about appreciating the other person on their own terms. It’s about not making the lover’s choice — greedy, possessive, timeless — and making the poet’s choice — grateful, accepting, temporary.
As the months passed and I reflected on this relationship — this partnership — I realized we’d never done that. I realized how in supporting each other, we controlled each other. I realized that we found comfort in codependence. Maybe that’s what I needed during those years. Maybe that’s what she needed too. But maybe if we’d respected each other’s independence we could’ve found a partnership just as loving and even more fulfilling.
Maybe our relationship would’ve been more sustainable beyond romance. Maybe we’d be friends. Maybe we wouldn’t still be drowning in all this bitterness.
The night before Héloïse’s mother returns, Héloïse and Marianne lie in bed. They stare at each other feeling the weight of their last night. I thought of Alison. I thought of Rachel. I thought of K. Those last nights. You can always feel it. Héloïse’s eyes begin to close and Marianne wakes her back up with a kiss.
“I feel something new,” Héloïse says. “Regret.”
“Don’t regret,” Marianne insists. “Remember.”
They begin to share details from their time together. They reminisce. Héloïse says she’ll remember the first time she wanted them to kiss.
Marianne asks when that was and she inches her body closer. She’s sinking into this moment and so are we. Héloïse doesn’t say, but she asks the same question back.
“When you asked if I had known love. I could tell the answer was yes. And that it was now,” Marianne admits.
“I remember.” As these words leave Héloïse’s lips we cut to the harsh daylight of morning.
Almost every moment in the movie ends this abruptly. The scenes in the present are the only times we settle. Most of the film is a memory and most of the film is fleeting. That’s how time works. It’s impossible to grasp. Love will always end too soon. Love will always become a memory. The choice is whether we cherish the memory or fight until it sours.
Heavy with morning, Marianne gets up and dresses. She goes downstairs. She sees a man eating a meal — the first man she’s seen in days. He’s the captain of a ferry. He’s the captain of her ferry.
The next moments ache with time. There is no lengthy goodbye allowed for our lovers — just a brief hug. Marianne must leave. She walks down the same stairs where she first saw Héloïse.
As she’s about to exit, she hears Héloïse’s voice of Eurydice.
It’s been almost a year since K and I broke up and I’m sitting on my couch next to someone new. She doesn’t feel new. It feels like she’s been in my life for a very long time. It’s so rare to connect with someone — really connect with someone — and I feel that scarcity fighting its way from my stomach to my brain.
One moment we’re making out, the next she has to leave. One moment her hands are on me, the next she has to leave. Maybe there will be a tomorrow or a next week or a next year or a never, but now she has to leave. She’s standing in my doorway and we’re looking at each other and we’re kissing again and then she’s leaving, and then she’s left, and then she’s gone. And I let go, and I say goodbye, and I let go. I try.🌋
Edited by Kamala Puligandla