During my junior year of high school, I had Spanish class in a room where single-person desks were arranged in an L along two walls, so that our teacher could see all of our faces. I sat near the classroom’s entrance, from where I could see nearly everything. What I noticed that spring, in my second semester of Spanish II, was a particular girl sitting in the corner farthest from me, at the back of an empty row. Her hair was often up, she wore T-shirts with a clever phrases, and the classroom’s too-bright lights evoked the paleness of her skin.
Her name was Jenna, and we eventually met during group work in class one day. She was quiet, hardly energetic during our group activities, or our class discussions. She looked sad somehow, carrying a sort of droopy-eyed look that made me wonder whether she was a good student but a bad sleeper and therefore always tired—or, whether there was something else, like an actual sadness.
I moved toward her throughout the semester in the most nonchalant ways I knew how: by trying to make her laugh when we were paired up to work together, or looking for subtle ways to talk to her outside of class. I got to know her first as an impressive student, finding her smart and beautiful. She was quiet and shy, and I was determined to help her be neither.
I eventually got her phone number and her AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) screen name. Unlike with most people I befriended in high school, Jenna and I talked for hours late at night, either over the phone or on the Internet. Most of our conversations were ways to fill time, or ways for us to just say something in order to fill the silence we found in our shared insomnia, which kept us both awake for more nights than we could count. In talking to her during those late nights, in getting to know her over time, she would come to be my first love.
When I stopped being able to sleep, I spent many long nights watching movies, masturbating, and talking to whomever else was online while our parents slept through the night. This included Jenna, and a part of how she and I bonded in our late-night AIM chats was in teasing ourselves about our mutual inability to drift off. I made fun of my seventeen-year-old body’s dysfunction not only by poking at my own insomnia (which I’d thought only adults experienced), but also by bragging about the moments when my body began to break down. Once, after three nights without sleep, I told Jenna that I began hallucinating invisible hands that stroked my skin, even with no one else in the room. In the same way, Jenna would tell me about her not being able to keep her balance anymore, once falling off of her couch several times during a long, late-night phone call we had. We erupted in laughter every time she tumbled.
We knew, in the beginning, that the ways we teased ourselves and each other were ways to laugh off our teenage problems—ways to dismiss the brokenness of our bodies. But we didn’t know, especially as teenagers, that the fact that neither of us felt whole would become a kind of tractor beam, pulling us into each other. We didn’t know that our love would be built not on the confidence we should have had in our young and vital adolescent bodies, but on the ways we helped these bodies crumble.
In Normal, Illinois, I moved into my first apartment during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college. It had four bedrooms and was furnished, and I lived with three other young men whom I’d known since grade school. The apartment was maybe a five-minute drive to our parents’ houses, where we found ourselves on Sundays for free laundry and dinner. Our rent was $225/person.
By the time I’d moved into that apartment Jenna had moved to Indiana to live with her father, but we’d kept in touch after finishing high school. I missed her, but I’d talked myself into believing that moving on from high school friendships and relationships was just what one did—it was natural, if not outright expected. One afternoon that summer, though, Jenna called me, and told me she’d be in town for a few days to visit her mother. We made plans to have lunch, somewhere neither too far from home, nor too expensive. We decided on a Chinese buffet.
Although we had kept in touch, lunch was the first time we’d seen each other in a little over a year. We spent the afternoon at our table catching up, talking about our classes, making jokes out of the fortunes we ripped from cookies. Jenna said that after lunch she would need to visit Walgreens, where she bought silly string and tampons.
In my Jeep I drove us back to my apartment, which turned out to be empty that afternoon. And in an empty living room we took turns spraying the silly string and, eventually, tickling each other onto my couch, where I asked for permission to kiss her. It was the first time we had ever been so close, and with her back pressed to my chest she asked, “What will it mean if you do?”
I told her that it didn’t have to mean anything if she didn’t want it to since we lived in different states now—although out of a dormant and perhaps unrequited love, it would secretly mean everything to me. From there we moved straight into a kiss, then into my bedroom and behind a closed door where we’d be safe from any homecoming roommates.
As I lay there shirtless, the afternoon light pouring into my bedroom window after kissing for hours, she traced my brown body with a finger and discovered my scars—I told her, the first-ever witness to my self-mutilation, that I had been cutting myself since adolescence. She didn’t flinch, and kept on tracing.
Though some have faded now, I once counted twenty-three scars lining my left forearm and bicep. As a teen I coped with depression and bad days by punishing my body, convincing others (but mostly myself) that it helped me more than it hurt. The razor blade worked like a cigarette, I thought, but it stained my arm blood-red instead of staining my lungs tar black. I was convinced the red was okay.
Jenna then confessed to me that she suffered from both anorexia and bulimia, and that she had struggled for years with her weight and body image. The very body that had itself pressed against mine was imperfect to her, something she could only fix through give-and-take. When she told me, I made sure not to flinch.
I asked a half-dozen questions about when it had started and how often she purged, as if in practice for what I then thought would be an eventual career in psychotherapy. And though I knew therapy isn’t likely to take place in bed, I kept my face as straight as possible, to show both interest and concern. But my questions were like those of a counselor’s instead of a friend’s, which I thought was the only way I could deflect any attention she had put on my body moments earlier. In this moment, I held the magical thinking that maybe our union would become a perfect one if I cared more about her eating disorder than about my cutting—that we could reach a kind of authentic and selfless love.
When the afternoon ended, I drove Jenna to the church where her mother worked as a pastor. We shared an affectionate goodbye in the church’s parking lot, and she walked into the building as I went back to my Jeep. On the drive home I wondered when we’d meet again, when we’d kiss again—whether we would have new confessions about our bodies as we looked at each other in the light. I decided, even more than I’d done so earlier that afternoon, that whether or not I would have new scars to show Jenna, I’d trivialize them. I thought then that I could find ways to show her her own body’s graces, and that I could help her understand that she would never have to starve it again.
About a year later, I moved to Chicago to finish college. Jenna was still in Indiana, and we decided I would visit her in Fort Wayne. I left Chicago for Indiana a few times throughout my first year in the city, trying to compress the distance between us into negligible time zones.
The first time I went to visit, I took a Greyhound bus that stalled in Elkhart, Indiana. And after the stall in Elkhart, the bus’s route from Chicago to Toledo, Ohio, then back to Fort Wayne, would have made me miss an event Jenna was participating in at her college: a poetry reading for eating disorder awareness. I only got to Fort Wayne on time by taking a private shuttle.
After two women who worked for Greyhound drove me to Fort Wayne in a company sedan, they dropped me off in front of a convenience store that served as the town’s Greyhound station. I called Jenna and when she arrived, we didn’t kiss, neither of us perhaps aware of the other’s secret desires.
Crunched for time, we drove straight to the poetry reading.
When we reached the auditorium where the event took place we separated, Jenna walking to the front rows with the other readers, and myself going near the back of the theatre. I sat among strangers, my eyes fixed on Jenna as if she were the only person in the room.
A number of Jenna’s classmates and colleagues went up on stage to read their poems, which I noticed began to commonly mention the name “Ed”: the name they used as an acronym for “eating disorder.” While I at first thought this was a clever move, as the reading progressed I began to see it as peculiar: changing E.D. to Ed wasn’t just an economical way of communicating what they all shared, but they’d personified the disorder. They gave it a name and a gender, maybe as a way of pointing to something that, before, had only been spoken of invisibly.
In retrospect, I recognize this technique. I was eventually coached to do something similar with my depression, by giving it a number on a scale whenever I went to therapy. My therapist, Rebecca, would ask me how I felt at the beginning of every session, expecting me to answer with a number from one to ten. Ten would be the best I could possibly feel, implying my depression was at an all-time low. One would probably mean I’d need a hospital ward, unable to motivate myself to even move. I usually sat at a six or a seven.
Poems about Ed surfaced in repetition, with numerous female students and teachers telling the crowd about their battles with him, prefacing their poetry with stories of struggle and recovery. We applauded when each poet finished, often in tears when they exited the stage. From where I sat, it wasn’t always clear whether the tears were ones of triumph.
Jenna eventually made it onstage. Her language was vivid and vibrant, often moving back and forth between English and Spanish—and, depending on the poem, sometimes French. I remember her pronouncing nouveau like no-voo; I remember Jenna painting her own body in shapes and colors that, for the first time since we had met, helped me understand her perception of her body as separate and external to my perception. And I remember never feeling more in love with her than I did when she read those poems. While the other poets were impactful readers, I didn’t know them—Jenna’s poems, in contrast, found ways to stick. Ways to burrow within me.
After the reading, the audience gathered in an atrium as if following a play or ballet, handing bouquets to their poets to congratulate them on mesmerizing performances. I only had a smile for Jenna, and hoped her other friends might make up for the absence of flowers in my hands. One member of the audience, a charming older woman whose name, I think, was Linda, rushed Jenna with a hug and told her how proud she was. She was Jenna’s therapist, whom Jenna introduced to me after they greeted and hugged. “You’re Micah?” she said with wide eyes. “Oh, you’re beautiful,” she said, as she hugged me and kissed my cheek.
Jenna and I followed the other poets to a café, and then back to her house alone, a single-family home she was renting. With my bags slung over my shoulders, she gave me a tour of the two-story home—furnished, decorated, adoringly lived-in—for the first few minutes I wondered where to put my bags, because they were starting to get heavy.
We walked up the stairs to the second floor, and as we reached the top Jenna gasped. “Ah!” she said. “I forgot to tell you, there’s only one bed.” We both gleamed, then I followed Jenna into her room. After I set my bags down she closed the door. It didn’t open again until morning.
I now see that I was trying to be something for Jenna that wouldn’t have helped either of us in the end, something many young men try to be, which was a man who hoped he could save a woman from self-destruction—the stereotypical narrative of a man trying to save a woman he loves. Through the duration of our relationship, which was casual, I mistook deflection for selflessness and heroism, thinking that every time I visited Indiana I could help Jenna feel less alone, that I could help her find ways to be less hard on herself. I mostly thought my queerness (i.e. bisexuality) might somehow exempt me from making the same tired moves (really, mistakes) straight men make when swooping in to aid a beloved woman. But being queer didn’t let me off the hook from being a man—I still fell “victim” to thinking I could save another person from their own demons, and I thought, at least at the dawn of my twenties, that it was one item on a list of ways to make things easier for our particular relationship.
I thought there were probably a dozen things I could do that would make conditions easier for us. I thought that my being in Chicago gave us a bearable time and distance apart. I thought it would give Jenna the space to recover without my being a witness to every ugly moment. And I thought it would help keep her from bearing witness to my own secret: that, even into my twenties, I was still adding scars to my arm.
I thought it helped that we could watch TV when we were together and pick out mutual male celebrity crushes; I thought it helped that we had learned not to stay up late and to rise early with the sun; I thought it helped that we could talk about poetry; I thought it helped that we had finally learned to speak explicitly about our bodies, and about the ways we perceived them as broken. What didn’t help was that, instead of building our lives based on these bodies, we actually departed reality—we wanted something different from each other’s bodies than what was actually there, which might be why our bodies sometimes came together.
One early morning in Indiana, I woke up and let Jenna remain asleep. I got out of bed, and walked into the office next to her room. Multiple bookshelves lined the walls, and I searched them all for poetry appropriate for dawn. I picked out Rilke and Neruda, poets we’d introduced each other to. I sat on the hardwood floor cross-legged to read their poems and looked for lines about the body, for imagery I could steal and place in a blank journal I had earlier bought for Jenna. I’d been planning, for days, to inscribe it with a poetic message before returning to Chicago.
I must have known then that my inscription, no matter how noble I thought my own intentions, was a sign that I thought I already had or was about to fail us—my inscription translating to failure because it was superfluous, unnecessary, desperate. Our talks, our dinners, our kisses somehow must have felt like they weren’t enough, because I’d turned to writing as a way to prove my regard, and as a secret weapon. I used writing, just as Jenna had, as a way to infiltrate a problem.
I knew of no other way than writing to leave an impression of love that I thought would last. Writing outlives memory, after all, and I hoped through use of the written word that even if I couldn’t save us, I could still preserve us. I hoped that, even if physical presence might fail, words could find a way to soften the blows we discreetly gave ourselves.
Though never formally engaged, we began to have conversations, both up close and from afar, where we imagined being married. We would write each other on Facebook and Myspace when I was in Chicago, and during my visits, we managed to create picture-perfect snapshots forecasting a functional and happy future.
In one snapshot, I revise a short story at Jenna’s dining room table while she cooks lunch, grilled cheese and creamy tomato soup. I break from revision, moving into the kitchen to offer a hand. “Go away,” she says. “I’m being traditional.” She kisses then nudges me through the kitchen’s swinging doors.
In another snapshot we visit her father’s house in Fort Wayne to collect some mail and movies. Her father, a pastor like her mother, is gay, and here I’m unreasonably excited about the prospect of a queer father-in-law. Despite my heteronormative choice in a partner, I think his queerness and liberalism means he’ll understand me. I think Jenna will be happy to see the two of us share in laughter.
In yet another, we get out of the movies after seeing a romantic comedy, then walk to get ice cream and talk about the movie’s star couple. When we’re done, we carry our focus into the car, where the only thing that breaks movie talk is an album, Iron & Wine’s The Shepherd’s Dog, which I thought had been a quirky gift. “Oh my god” and “I love this song” fade in with the movement from track to track.
We imagine a daughter, Alma, Jenna’s choice for a name. Because of one of my short stories, we imagine a honeymoon in Québec City. We take ourselves far away from our bodies, focused on a future where nothing is “wrong” with either of us, where we seem to have healed. We eat and sleep well, we buy each other books at Borders, we continue to make sandwiches and soup. Until one day in Fort Wayne, a bright winter light shining through her living room window, we decide we can no longer do this. Of an entire conversation I only remember three of its lines.
“I want all of the exact same things you want,” Jenna said from a chair across the room. I was on her loveseat. The room felt all too cold.
“Just… not with me,” I said.
“Not with you.”
The portraits of our lives are later taken in other places: First in Bloomington, when Jenna transfers colleges. Then Chicago, which she visits two or three times. Finally, we’re back in our hometown, where we reconnect yearly during our Christmas breaks and annually share bodies and a bed again. Our portraits unfold a story lasting about six years—our world views and wardrobes changing, our jawlines and hairlines changing, our bodies growing (apart) as they become more fully our own.
She is a trained poet. I am a trained reader. She can compose just minutes before standing behind a microphone. Despite my publications, I like to pretend my relationship with writing can be kept private.
She loves to be hot. I love comfortable warmth. In the summer when it gets very hot she revels in sunbeams, showing off her arms and legs and squinting in the bright light. I’m irritable if it’s hot enough that I have to wear shorts, and I like, on days when the weather is right, wearing jeans and a T-shirt beneath an unbuttoned flannel shirt—a wardrobe I learned long ago not only kept me warm, but which covered my scars. She rarely covers her arms.
She speaks Spanish very well; I do not speak Spanish well at all. And though I sometimes translate French poetry, French is not the language that connected us. The language that connected us has since faltered on my tongue.
She’s comfortable with dancing, and I never want to take my own dancing seriously. When slow dancing, however, to Iron & Wine, Art Tatum, or Judy Garland, I can dance happily. She can dance happily to anything, in any way.
Now she is a mother, giving herself to her daughter’s care. I live alone in Ohio, and have given myself to study. When on long walks, I call her to check in, to catch up, and to convince her that I sleep well despite late reading nights, and that I eat well despite my salary. She convinces me that she could also do with more money and that she does not worry for her body; in fact, as a trained massage therapist, she now uses her body to help others. She gives me this news over the phone as I walk, and I’m convinced that she is also well. Over the phone we still erupt in laughter, neither of us now in descent—rather, in a sense of becoming, so wrapped-up and warm, like the spaces we once filled with silence.
Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.