Girl with the purple hair, I’m sad we didn’t date for longer. I know we’re 15, and 15-year-olds are fickle. I know you said the break-up wasn’t about me, that you’re just “not in a good place to have a girlfriend right now,” that you feel “trapped” by labels and that our views on drugs are incompatible. I know all of this. But still I want you.
I daydream about you in class, so flagrantly that stern teachers chastise me and kind teachers ask me if I’m feeling alright. I know which hallways you walk down in between classes, and sometimes I walk where you’ll be, and sometimes I avoid you because you make me feel things that scare me.
I write in my journal, “I could marry that girl.” I put down my pen, stare at the page, and sigh. Because it’s melodramatic and it’s also true.
A contingent of twelfth-graders have organized a clothing swap. It’s one of the minor events written in my calendar; everything that isn’t you feels minor to me lately. Nonetheless, I show up at our school’s sunny, sprawling art room at the appointed time, bag of unwanted clothes in tow to trade away.
I spot you instantly. My eyes are attuned to you, like how cheetahs must have gazelle-dar. (Cheetahs need gazelle meat to live. I don’t know what I need from you, exactly.) You’ve brought some old clothes too, and you’re laying them out on the table to be picked through by intrepid art-school fashionistas.
I say hi to you, because I have to. There isn’t another option. But then I slip away into the throng of girls. I have blushed and giggled in front of you too many times. It feels redundant to do it again, especially now that you don’t want me.
Examining the sartorial offerings on the table, I find, long minutes later, a jacket I’ve seen you wear. It’s brown, with pinstripes, and big masculine shoulderpads. It looks like something Oliver Twist might wear if he was a character in The Breakfast Club. I would never, ever, ever wear this jacket. It offends my femme sensibilities on every level there is.
But it’s yours. So I take it. I make sure you’re not looking my way, and I tuck your jacket under my arm, and then I get the hell out of there. My cheeks burn with shame. Look at you, always making me blush in a million different ways.
Almost a decade later, a friend helps me excavate my closet, harshly insisting I expunge anything I haven’t worn in six months or more. I appreciate her authoritarian approach – but when we get to that brown pinstriped monstrosity, I feel icy fear rush into my veins. I beg. I plead. I clutch the jacket to my chest. I even cry a little. I just can’t give this damn thing away.
My friend lets me keep your jacket, and my sick secret is still safe. From you, at least.
Femmey friend-with-benefits, you are too too sweet. There are limited ways for 16-year-olds to give each other expensive presents, but you have found one. In my lap there is a plastic grocery bag containing two cashmere sweaters your grandmother gave you, which you insist you won’t wear and don’t want.
“Are you sure?” I ask, lipsticked pout gaping with surprise. “Aren’t these, like, really expensive?”
You rake a hand through your hot pink pixie cut. You’re like if Mia Farrow and James Dean had a baby who grew up to be Ramona Flowers. “I want you to have them,” you say. “They’ll look better on you anyway.”
This is a bald-faced lie. You are slim and slight, and I am ample and curvy. If these sweaters have a certain baggy, laissez-faire, Kate Moss-esque charm on you, they’ll cling to me like woollen skin. And indeed, when I try them on in front of you, the one that’s supposed to be a sweaterdress scarcely conceals my hips and ass. But you tell me, “You look hot,” and then we fuck on my twin bed while your sweater’s still hugging me tight.
Grandma, I’m sorry we’re pillaging your house. You always kept it so neat and sparse when you were alive, and now it looks a fright. But we’re doing this with the best of intentions. We need to clean your house up, clear it out, get it ready to be sold. We won’t be here much longer, I promise.
Toward the end of a long, hard-working day, mum says to us: “If there’s anything you guys want to take, you can do that now.” Max and I both bolt. He heads for the basement; maybe there’s a board game or stuffed animal he wants. As for me, I beeline to your bedroom.
I know exactly what I want to take, and I find it sooner than I expect to: the knitted shawl in autumnal tones. It used to cloak your shoulders through falls and winters, but now it’s draped over the headboard of your bed. It was painstakingly crafted by your brother-in-law, my great-uncle, who passed away mere months after you did. I saw this shawl on you so often, warming your cold bones. It looks like a Mondrian painting in sepia tones. When I bury my face in it, it smells like you: fruity soap, hearty dinners, the vaguest hint of a feminine perfume.
When I leave the house carrying your shawl, I wonder if mum will stop me, tell me she wants it instead, or tell me there’s someone else who deserves it more. But she doesn’t. It’s mine now, and I never ever wear it because I want it to always smell like you.
First love, I don’t know how I managed to plan so poorly for this break-up, considering I’ve wanted to bite the bullet for months. I should have given you back all your things before I tearfully told you on a bustling street corner that we shouldn’t be together anymore. Now I’m sitting numbly in my room with a cardboard box full of three and a half years’ worth of love’s detritus.
A graphic novel you lent me ’cause you said I would like it (you were right). A few sex toys you tested so I could review them on my blog. A stuffed doll of my favorite Pokémon, Ampharos, that you scouted out for me on eBay. A pair of your boxers, printed with black-and-white comic strip panels, found under my bed from a passionate moment somewhere along the way.
For weeks and then months, I think about delivering this box to you – leaving it on your doorstep and fleeing. But I don’t want to risk seeing you, even if the risk is small. This wound still feels fresh, this deep sense of failure, like I fucked up something that ought to have lasted.
As 2014 slips away and 2015 fades into view, I decide it’s time to unpack the box. It’s been sitting in my room taking up physical and psychic space, and I want it gone, along with the illusion that I will ever be completely rid of you. I put the graphic novel on my bookshelf, hide the toys in my toy drawers, set the Ampharos next to my Mudkip – and put the boxers on.
Years later, they’ve interwoven with my life the way any beloved item of lounge clothing does – just something to throw on when I’m lazy or sad or sleepy. I rarely remember their romantic origins; it’s only when another boy tells me, “Cool boxers!” in hazy post-coital lamplight that I feel embarrassed to be wearing them. I’m not a comic nerd; the men I date are. “They were my ex’s, and I kept them,” I explain sheepishly. He ruffles my hair and says, “Well, they’re still cool.” Yeah, I guess they are.
Tragically unfeminist ex-boyfriend, you were right: I look better in your green-and-blue plaid shirt than you did. I spot it in your closet and want it it not because it’s yours but because it’s bright, beautiful, cozy and cute. That should be a warning sign that you’re not as perfect for me as I think, but I don’t see it that way yet.
We’ve been lying around naked in the morning light, in your filthy bachelor apartment perched high above the city. Well, I’m naked; you’re almost always clothed around me, guarded, distant, clinical. Your constant sexual rejections and occasional body-shaming barbs have pricked my heart and I feel depleted, but I haven’t noticed that yet. All I know is it feels weird being naked around you. So I put your shirt on.
When you tell me to keep it, I skip home in it, vibrating from the familiar glee of wearing a reminder that somebody likes me.
Weeks later, when your charm has unraveled, I sit in the window of a café with a friend. “I have to break up with him,” I realize aloud, capping off a torrent of complaints. “I have to. Like, today.” I grab my phone and text to ask if you can meet me after your show later. My eyes fall on the shirt I’m wearing, and it’s yours. “Guess I should go home and change out of this before I go break up with him, huh?” I ask my pal, a bitter laugh breaking my voice.
Days after the deed is done, you text me. A post-break-up text: that rarest of things. “Hey you! Hope you have fun on your trip,” you tell me (I am reading your words in a car on a highway, two days deep into a nine-day road trip with friends). “Oh, and keep the shirt!”
It had not even occurred to me to give the shirt back. I’ve earned it, after that shitshow of a relationship. “Haha, thanks,” I text back, and roll my eyes.