It’s 8pm on a school night when I show up at the bar holding a bouquet of pale purple flowers. My brand new girlfriend sits on the outdoor patio with her best friend, celebrating the job she just said yes to that afternoon. I did not tell her I was coming. It is a 30 minute drive from my house to this bar, an hour round trip. It’s not like I have time to spare — I have so many work deadlines, I am so behind on everything, I theoretically should try to sleep more than four hours tonight — but it also never crossed my mind to not bring her flowers tonight.
“Baby!” she exclaims when she sees me. She hops out of her chair and throws her arms around me, she kisses me and I can feel her grin against my own.
“You’re so nice to me,” she says into my hair. I laugh, thinking back to our first date, just six weeks earlier.
“How am I supposed to be to you?”
She knows exactly the moment I’m referencing. For just a minute, we’re not in the bar, not in this time frame at all but somewhere else.
Her kitchen. Late late night. Just the two of us. Right at the beginning. She smiles that coy closed mouth smirk I have memorized in the weeks since then and holds my gaze. She nods. I nod back. She grabs my hand and squeezes and we sit down and we don’t stop holding hands.
And then we’re back in the present.
“I want to call you babe, but that feels a little weird now, do you know what I mean?”
We’re at her house. It’s the morning after our first date. She’s standing in the kitchen, making us tea. I’m curled up on the couch with her tiny dog, stroking his soft velvet belly. We haven’t fucked yet. We’ve been friends for seven and a half years. I’ve called her babe so many times before; I call all my friends babe.
She smirks at me. Her Scorpio soul is used to becoming all consumed with another person. I’m still so Capricorn careful. I will let go of that soon, but I’m not there just yet. I haven’t quite decided what version of this story I’m going to live.
Here’s how this goes in a different timeline: I keep her at a steady distance. I insist we see each other only once a week for the first few months. I do not lean into the lesbian stereotypes, I do not let her know all the things I desire, I do not get honest with myself about what I need. Maybe I tell her to keep dating other people. Maybe I say I’m not looking for a co-parent. Maybe I insist I can keep doing everything just fine on my own. And it’s not that that’s not true — I am so competent. But what if I want to need someone?
In therapy, I’ve been learning about “opposite action” as a strategy to manage my anxiety. It’s exactly what it sounds like. You look at the coping mechanisms you rely on, you accept they are not serving you, and you do the opposite.
What is the opposite action of thinking I can control the beginning, middle, and end of my own love stories?
Here’s the thing about the other timeline: I have tried it before. I really thought I could protect myself from the potential side effects of falling in love if I was just vigilant enough. But I was so careful in the past, and it ended in heartbreak just the same.
I let myself call her babe. It does not feel weird. It feels like I’m falling. It feels like choosing the correct timeline.
Nine years ago, I was in love with a different girl.
Back then, I lived in a different city and I had a different job. Late at night, I’d sit on this girl’s sofa in the house she shared with five housemates, and we’d read to each other from our works in progress on our laptop screens. I loved her, but I never said it outloud. We built a world together. When we broke up, that world disappeared.
I think about this all the time. How a relationship is its own time zone. How we build worlds with the people we love, and we are the only people who inhabit them. And when something ends, those worlds disappear. It’s not like love is a static place we bring new lovers to every time we feel it. Love is a creation that occurs between the people feeling it. To love someone new is to agree to travel somewhere that doesn’t exist yet together. Love is a brand new place we choose to go every time.
“I’m not a poet,” I tell her, the night we write each other love poems.
It’s after midnight and we’re both drunk and sloppy. I’ve traded my black velvet dress for a cozy black onesie, mascara flaking onto my cheeks. She’s traded her black velvet dress for a tight red onesie, matching red lipstick smeared on her teeth. We’re folded into each other on the couch, giggling about inside jokes we’ve created over the past six weeks. Her small dog is curled between us; he’s sleeping. I want another gin fizz, but I can tell I’m trashed, so I settle for a Diet Coke instead. She smells like the cigarette she went outside to smoke. We spent the past four hours on FaceTime with two of my best friends who live in different states, a virtual happy hour tradition we began in the early days of the pandemic and have held onto. I’ve never brought a date to virtual happy hour before; I’m delighted it went so well.
And now it’s just the two of us again.
She takes out her sketchbook and says we should write each other poems, says we should do the writing exercise I like where we switch off offering a word and then have a limited amount of time to write using that word. I would do anything for her. Five minutes later, we’ve written each other love poems. We read them out loud. Her dog stays sleeping.
Six weeks ago, I didn’t know what her inner thigh crease looks like. Six weeks ago, I didn’t know the way her voice sounds when she says hot, when she says baby, when she says sick, when she says I love you. Six weeks ago, I never would have been sitting on her couch after midnight, reading her a love poem, insisting I’m not a poet. We’re creating this world out of thin air, this space that literally did not exist before we decided to make it. This new world only exists because we say so.
“We make the rules,” she often says, and I can’t stop smiling. “No one has ever felt like this before,” we tease each other, and we laugh because of course we’re being hyperbolic but also, isn’t it true? No one has ever been me and her falling in love with each other as the world ends so — no one has ever felt like this before.
“If you knew how your life was going to play out, would you change anything? Are relationships still worth it even if they eventually end in heartbreak?”
We’re in the car, and she’s describing her favorite movie: Arrival. I don’t like movies and I rarely watch them, but I already know I’m going to watch this one because it matters to her. I don’t like games either but soon I will learn to play Dominion because it’s her favorite. She’s not Jewish, but she offers to come to synagogue with me because I’ve been trying to make it a routine in Portland and it’s scary to go alone. She tells me she doesn’t love talking on the phone, but we spend hours doing just that while she’s away with her family for Christmas.
Arrival is about aliens coming to earth, she tells me. “But it’s really about communication and how language shapes the way you experience life.” She’s a speech pathologist, just like my mom. She’s a Scorpio, just like my mom. We’ve been friends for seven and a half years, we’ve been to all the same gay dance parties, and we’ve shared all the same gay gossip, but we’ve never been close before. She both feels familiar like family and brand new like I made her up.
“And also it’s about choices,” she says.
We’re in the car, because I just picked her up from the airport. We’re both educators so the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve is time off, and we’re going to staycation at her house. She’s supposed to go on a date with a co-worker’s friend in January, but when her co-worker texts about it she explains she no longer wants to.
I fell in love over Christmas break, she writes.
Well fuck yeah, her co-worker writes back.
We stay inside for so many days and we talk and we fuck and we laugh and we cook a Dutch baby for breakfast and we watch Arrival and we fuck more and we roast a whole chicken with oregano and fennel and tomatoes and so much butter and we learn each other and we start to say we feel like we’re time traveling, like we’ve lived different versions of the same lives, or similar versions of different lives.
On January 1, we leave her house for the first time in days and we take her dog to the off-leash park and the sky is crisp blue and the air is cold and we listen to Taylor Swift in the car and we are happy.
We keep finding things we have in common. We keep finding differences to live in, too.
We replay versions of old relationships because we are 32 and 33 respectively, and this is not our first time at the rodeo. I’ve always been obsessed with who owns what in a breakup — what do we keep, what becomes part of our individual makeup, and what do we surrender? We have both collected bits and pieces of other people over the years. I ask her if it’s okay to show her nudes I took years ago, slutty selfies I’ve sent to past lovers, and she laughs, nods yes.
“I’m a slut too,” she says, teasing me. “I’m not into virgins. Show me all your old selfies.”
She lets me go through a box of nostalgia from her childhood and read her old journals and look at photographs she took of her second girlfriend ever. I can tell 16-year-old her loved this girl so much. I wonder what these teens each kept from their relationship when they broke up. I wonder how this girl, a girl I will never know, helped shape the girl I’m in love with now. I wonder how everyone before her helped shape me.
“I wish we’d started dating sooner,” I say, thinking of all the time we could have already shared. But she shakes her head, no. “I think we met at the exact right time,” she says. We’ve known each other for years but we’ve never been these exact versions of ourselves before. It is these two people who needed to fall in love. I understand. She’s right.
“Your priorities change in your thirties,” my dad always said. I tell her this and she laughs and nods. We say this almost daily now. It’s part of the life we’re building together. We share it with our friends when we tell them we’re in love and they smile politely but I can tell they don’t quite believe us. We don’t care.
“We’re unhinged dykes at the end of the world,” we tell each other. “We’re sluts in love!”
She says “I love you” for the first time over the phone at 5 a.m. when she’s in California. We’ve been dating for five minutes; we’ve been friends for so long; we’ve been in love, we’re already in love, we choose to fall in love, what is love? She’s drunk and honest and I’m not freaked out.
I pause for a moment.
I decide to dive off the fucking cliff.
“I love you too,” I say.
Then I read her Don’t Hesitate, by Mary Oliver. I’ll write it in her Christmas card a few days later. Why not. Truly, why the fuck not!
Being vigilant didn’t keep me safe. Being careful never stopped my heart from breaking. I’m 33, and I don’t want to be in love if it’s not the all-consuming kind I felt when I was 19. I didn’t always feel that way, but I do now.
Are relationships still worth it even if they eventually end in heartbreak?
She hasn’t asked me that question yet. She hasn’t explained the plot of Arrival yet.
When I was writing this essay, I searched my inbox over and over, looking for the email she wrote me in California that described the plot of her favorite movie. We wrote so many emails the week she was in California.
She reads all my old work, and I remind her my brain has been changing this whole time, that the things I thought even just a year ago are not necessarily the things I think anymore. A year ago, I was happy with a person who would eventually cheat on me. A year ago, I wasn’t sure I could justify having a baby anymore in a world that looks like ours. A year ago, I was the same, because I am always me, but I was also different, because that’s the reality of being alive.
I tell her how Michelle Tea once told me that being a writer means growing up in public. I’ve written that Valencia is one of my favorite books, that it taught me how to be myself when I was just a baby dyke. “Is that true,” she wants to know. “Yes, it’s true.” She tells me how she read Valencia as a baby dyke, too. “I wonder if we read the same chapters at the same time,” I say, and we giggle in delight, charmed by the idea of our teen selves becoming our adult selves in cosmic unison.
We talk about how people stay the same. We talk about how people change. I want to know her whole life. I send her writing prompts. Tell me about a formative life experience, I write. Tell me about the weirdest sex you’ve ever had. I’m so certain she’s written her personal plot summary of Arrival in these emails; I can envision the paragraph. It is stamped neatly across my brain. But when I finally ask her, she says that’s not what happened.
“I told you about Arrival for the first time in the car when you picked me up at the airport, babe,” she says. I believe her, but that’s not how it happened in my mind.
On January 1 last year my dad died. I was in a different dyke’s bed when my mom called me at 2 a.m. in Portland, which was 5 a.m. in Boston, and she told me that my dad was dead. I ruminated on this all year. My dad died some time between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. on the east coast. That’s 8 p.m. and 12 a.m. on the west coast. That means while I was happy, while I was playing with my new puppy, while I was having sex, my dad was dying. The logic of it is fucked.
But what if I imagine a different sequencing.
My dad died and I was happy. My dad is dead and I am happy. It is hard to write that down — how can I ever be happy because my dad is dead? But it is not because; it is at the same time as. I hold multiple universes in my heart. I think my dad would like that. I think he would laugh at me and remind me I’m in my thirties now, and despite all my protests, some of my priorities have shifted. I think he is right.
I was obsessed with Rilo Kiley in high school. I was obsessed with The Shins, with The Decemberists, with Wilco, with the boys in bands who introduced me to so much indie rock and who I dutifully watched play so many shows in so many church basements.
My girlfriend is the lead singer of a queer cover band. She puts a Jenny Lewis song on the first mix she ever makes me. She takes out her guitar and plays covers just for me. She learns the ten minute version of All Too Well because I love it. We scream-sing along to songs I’ve loved for decades in my car. I tease her that she’s my dream high school boyfriend.
One night after she’s fucked me for hours, and I’ve fucked her for hours, and she tells me she notices my lips get cold when I’m really deep in sub space and that’s how she knows it’s time to untie me from the bed, and I am touched that she is learning all the ways my body can be, when she cuddles into me close and I hold her and stroke the fuzzy back of her head, when she’s sweet and soft, she says “Hey Google, play Rilo Kiley,” and then I’m 16 again and my favorite band is playing, but I’m not 16 I’m 33, but when I was 16 she was 15 and I lived on the east coast and she lived on the west coast but we both listened to this album on repeat over and over, we were both forming our selves and we didn’t know each other yet and we didn’t know that 16 years later we’d be lying in bed, two dykes in love, singing about the Absence of God together.
It’s 2022, and I’m obsessed with this song, specifically the lyric that goes: Rob says you love love love, then you die.
“I think it’s supposed to be sad,” I say to her while we’re driving from her house to mine one rainy afternoon, “but I think it’s kind of beautiful? Like, what else would be the point? Literally what else are we on earth for?”
She agrees with me. “I think it’s kind of a young perspective maybe,” she says. “Like when you’re young that sounds sad, because you die, but when you get older you realize everyone dies and if you can love a lot before you do, that’s fucking great.”
I hit repeat and the song starts over. She lets me hit repeat as many times as I want.
Near the end of the celebratory school night at the bar to celebrate her new job, we’re talking about secure attachment because we’re gay and trying so hard to unlearn all of the bad patterns we’ve picked up in three decades of being alive, and I’m explaining my theory that no matter how much you love a person if you don’t want the same things your relationship is going to be really hard, and then I find myself talking about my dead dad, and how he bought my mom a dozen pink roses every single Friday for the entirety of their relationship, all 38 years of it.
Growing up, I knew that the end of the week meant Shabbat and it also meant my dad’s bouquet for my mom. He’d pick it up on his way home from work, and she’d cut the stems and put them in a vase. The flowers would go next to the Shabbos candles, and I’d gaze at them as we said the Jewish prayers.
I’m tempted to write: As a kid, I wondered what it would be like to have someone love you so much they wanted to buy you flowers every week for 38 years, but that sentence is not true. I did not wonder. That love was right there in front of me. I’m lucky. I bet after a while my dad did not need to remind himself to bring my mom the flowers; the romantic gesture probably became natural, instinctual, part of his routine, part of his life. It never crossed his mind not to bring the flowers, just like it never crossed my mind not to bring a bouquet tonight. Love as muscle memory.
“My dad liked buying my mom the flowers,” I say to my girlfriend and her best friend. “It was easy for him. And my mom loved receiving them. She understood what they meant.”
If either of my parents had not enjoyed this ritual — if my dad thought flowers were frivolous, if my mom found the gesture boring in its repetition — it would not have done its job. But they both wanted the same thing. I know my parents’ relationship wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t really hard. Growing up adjacent to it, I would say for the most part, it was actually pretty easy.
The evening dwindles to a close. My girlfriend’s best friend thanks me for sharing the story about my mom and my dad’s flower ritual. She says she’s going to pick up flowers for her girlfriend on her way home. “I want to show her how much I love her,” she says. We all hug goodbye, and then my girlfriend and I are alone.
She cradles her celebratory bouquet in one arm and laces her fingers through mine with her free hand. We walk toward her car; once we get there she offers to drive me to mine. I climb into the passenger seat and we spend a not insignificant amount of time gazing into each other’s eyes before she puts the key in the ignition.
It’s six weeks ago. We’re back in her kitchen. Late late night. Just the two of us. Right at the beginning.
She’s drunk and pouring a glass of water. I’m less drunk, but I want one too. I ask if I can have my own glass and she immediately hands me the one she just poured for herself, reaches into the cabinet to pull out another jar. I’m struck by the gesture, simple and obvious. So generous. So easy. So the opposite of what I’m used to.
“You’re so nice to me,” I say to her, and she stops pouring immediately and whips around to stare me down.
We have been friends for so long. She knows about my most recent ex. She knows about my ex before that. She knows about my fucking ex before that!
“How am I supposed to be to you?” she asks, head tilted, eyebrows raised, not sweetly but more of a challenge.
She dares me to shirk away from what I deserve. In that moment, she is just as much my friend of seven and a half years as she is my brand new date. In that moment, I already know she loves me.
I bite my lip. Smile slowly. Blink. “Right,” I say.
She nods. I nod back. She grabs my hand and squeezes and we sit down and we don’t stop holding hands.
And then we’re back in the present.
“Can we take turns buying each other flowers every week for the rest of our lives?” she’s asking me.
I nod. She nods back. We are here, and we are twenty years from here, and we are five years before here, and we are, we are, we are, we are.
We call it time travel but I think it might just be falling in love.
Time Zones Week is a series of essays curated and edited by Autostraddle Managing Editor Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya.