“Oh, don’t worry about it,” he said, reaching across the taxi seat to pat my knee — the friendliest, most “don’t worry about it” gesture he could think to make after gulping down three $14 gin and tonics at the only bar we’d been able to find open in Toronto on a Thursday night.
I had met him at Union Station about four hours earlier. I had spent the better part of the afternoon cleaning and tidying my residence bedroom, desperately attempting to bleach the anxiety out of myself. The converted former hotel room housed a private bathroom and Queen-sized bed, two facts that I found myself especially appreciating that Thursday.
His train had pulled in from Montreal at about 8 PM, and we found ourselves in a ridiculous game of cat-and-mouse in the cavernous building. Under construction for what seemed like a decade now, I marched along the lines of Caution tape, peering over at the makeshift gates for any sign of Swedish-blonde hair. Not quite white-blonde, not quite yellow-blonde but somewhere in between.
I finally found him outside, gawking at the skyscrapers on the other side of the street.
“Holy shit, everything is tall here,” he grinned.
I didn’t know what to do when I approached him. The last time I had seen him, I was sneaking out of his parents’ fleuve-front bungalow in Lachine at 3AM. What had started out as old CEGEP friends meeting up for coffee after a year turned into a late-night drive around suburban Montreal before retiring to the living room to the let the tension mount.
It felt like a redemptive moment. We had met in the first week of our literature program, bonding over our mutual distaste for the Harry Potter-obssessees who had immediately inquired about our Hogwarts houses. It’s strange to study literature when you only seem to have read a total of seven books. After realizing that we had five of seven classes in common, we became each other’s go-to.
We made quite the odd couple. Him, an extrovert and perpetual entertainer, who instantly charmed everyone he met. The stories he read aloud in our creative writing seminars — with titles like “Fruitcake Jake” and “Swingers Night”— had our classmates crying from laughter.
“It was a weird position,” he later told me on his parent’s living room couch. “I met you, and, y’know, we clicked pretty quickly, but I had also been dating Candice for two years and didn’t want to just end things with her…”
Before he did end things with Candice, we had begun spending less time together — no more eating $5 metro sushi in the stairwell or holing ourselves up in one of the computer labs and procrastinating essay-writing. In the second semester, we didn’t have any classes together. I later got word from a mutual friend that he had begun seeing someone else.
I half-expected for him to ignore the whole thing, to ignore me. I was barely sure I hadn’t dreamed the whole thing. On the interminable VIA Rail train ride back, I listened to Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” on repeat for the entire six hours, lost in a daze of my own making.
So when my phone lit up on my bed in Toronto a few days later, asking if I could house an additional person in my overpriced university bedroom with a view of run-down halfway houses and the local courthouse, I typed ‘yes’ before I could think twice about it and chucked my old iPhone at the wall.
“I’m done with it, I swear,” he smiled. I turned to examine the towering skyscrapers outside the cab’s window. I felt like Thumbelina in King Kong’s city. I wondered if we all had the same perspective on a month, whether we all considered it to hold the same possibilities, the same limitations, the same length of time.
When we got back to campus, I paid the cab and led us upstairs; past the cafeteria that closed at 7PM, just when the undergrad population was beginning to think about dinner; past the second- or third-year sitting behind the laminate desk, ensuring that no one entered the elevator to the dorms without first scanning their ID in an effort to earn overbearing parents’ trust; past the common room that permanently reeked of reheated Kraft Dinner; and back into my all-in-one space.
He asked me to put on music, so I did. I think I queued Zayn’s “Pillowtalk” up on Spotify — a song I never liked before or since.
I wondered what a relationship meant to an 19-year-old, whether a month really was long enough. He seemed to be wondering the same thing.
I lay back on my bed, resting on top of a series of pads and cushions designed to make the heavily used mattress better serve its purpose. I stared up at the drop-tiled ceiling, the low yellow light blurring my vision until it seemed like the grey speckles were floating down onto my body.
He took my hand and ran his thumb over mine.
Juliana, I thought to myself, feeling the name scratch my tongue. I tasted a little bit of blood. The speckles had grown in size and weight, and they were now pressing down into my chest, rolling off the side of my breasts and onto the bed.
“I’m sorry about the mess,” I said. “I swear, I cleaned.”
Two days later, we found ourselves in the same position — this time propped up against the headboard, watching a movie to kill time before a nighttime trek to the CN Tower. Despite having previously lived in Ontario, I had only attempted to go up once. I was maybe four or five years old and had been driven into the city with my cousin by my parents, who hadn’t planned enough ahead to know the tower was booked for an auto show.
I don’t know how much a ticket for the show was, but I can guarantee that it cost far less and was worth far more than the $40 each of us paid for the elevator trip to walk in a circle and stare down at a perfectly drawn grid.
It had been an unnerving weekend. Julianna hadn’t come up again in conversation, but I felt like I was about to bump into her at every corner that we turned. 550km is really quite a manageable distance when you need it to be.
He reached over and put his arm around my shoulders as the screen flashed the neon purples and greens of the opening credits onto our faces. This feels good, I thought to myself.
“Hey…” he started, fiddling with a thread on the right arm of my sweater. “You don’t mind if we keep this casual, right?”
This time, without even needing to look up, I felt the drop tile above my head suddenly dislodge itself from the frame and come crashing down onto me, breaking into pieces upon hitting my skull.
“No,” I smiled before I had the chance to think twice. “That’s perfectly fine.” And then I chucked myself at the wall.
Maybe a month didn’t suffice, but a few months certainly did.
I continued to show up on his parents’ porch in Lachine during my university’s reading weeks and odd weekends at my parents’ respective homes on the South Shore. I sped my red Honda Fit over the Mercier bridge, blasting hip hop songs about fucking each other into oblivion as I bumped over the monstrous potholes that littered the road. Anything to make me momentarily forget that sex meant anything more for anyone else.
“I’m going to a friend’s house on the island,” I would call out as I laced up my boots in the front entrance. I was lucky that, to my parents, my friends had morphed into a single faceless entity. After I had moved away for school, it became all too easy for them to stop trying. No need to learn the names of friends they would likely never meet from a province they would likely never return to.
Then, Juliana quickly became Niamh.
I’m not sure why I ever thought there was a waitlist, and that, if there was, I was in the top spot, about to be plucked off of it. I seemed to assume that, because I was available and already present, it would be crazy, even stupid for him to make the effort of getting to know someone else. There I was, petting his dog, chatting with his parents, sleeping in his bed… We were together half the week — about as much as two people still living with their parents could be. We went on dates to movies and restaurants. We confided in each other, made each other laugh, encouraged each other. I felt like I was training for a competition that I’d never be given the chance to participate in.
Meanwhile, Niamh did to him what he was doing to me.
They had met in his university theatre program. And apparently connected pretty quickly, as seems to be the pattern.
Niamh, though, was in a relationship, not that she seemed too concerned about it. She had come to Montreal from Ontario and clearly saw the distance between the two stretch out far longer than I did.
They flirted at theatre parties as theatre kids are wont to do. They got together, hooked up, talked constantly but ignored any urge to discuss what they were doing, were — for all intents and purposes — exclusive to anyone else, engaged in the most relationship-like non-relationship… And he told me absolutely everything about it.
If it looks like a relationship and feels like a relationship, is it a relationship?
“Can I be honest about something?” he turned to me while I squinted at the disappearing street signs on Rene-Levesque. The more I squinted, the less anything seemed to be there.
“I just want to get on the fucking 720!” I gritted through my teeth, attempting to merge into the left lane as a silver Toyota Camry pulled ahead, blocking me out.
“Hey, did you hear me?” he touched my arm lightly.
“Gimme a second,” I growled, turning to give a death stare at the driver encroaching on my blind spot.
Why we had made the very dumb decision to venture downtown mid-afternoon only to be accosted by vengeful Anglophones during rush hour, I still don’t know. After being parked on the main artery for an hour, my normally strong patience was wearing thin.
As I pulled onto the highway, I felt my chest give out like a deflated balloon. “Sorry, what is it?”
“I think I’m in love with her.”
Three years later, I was home.
I had just left him behind in Toronto. He had moved there about eight months earlier, only bothering to let me know some time after he had settled in. The townhouse he shared with two other men was only a five-minute drive from my mouse-infested basement apartment. Midtown was now the only viable area for non-six-figureheads. I now looked up at a yellowed community housing building, my windows giving way to the alleyway that separated us. The mostly Black neighbourhood had been dubbed “Little Jamaica” for the jerk chicken shops and hair-braiding places that lined our little stretch of Eglinton.
Everyone else I knew lived much farther south, a much more reasonable distance from everything Toronto did not have to offer.
When he had finally worked up the nerve to text me about his arrival, I reacted like an elastic band, snapping back into my designated start position.
Things started back up instantly. This time, I knew better. I didn’t put myself back on the waitlist because I knew it was temporary seat-filling. I went to my classes, to work, applied for internships, and kept him on the periphery of my life.
After a few months, completely miserable in Toronto, and hanging onto something that would never develop past what it was, I decided to graduate a semester early and pack up the contents of apartment. It helped that a surprise flood had hit the city while I was on vacation and effectively waterlogged half of my possessions.
The last time I spoke to him, it was because I texted him. I was completely perplexed about the status of our non-existence, not to mention about to move provinces again and in a state of transition in pretty much every other aspect of my life as well. I took the easy way out.
“Hey,” I typed. “I think I’m starting to develop feelings for you.”
“Oh, okay. Thanks for telling me.”
I smiled down at my screen. It really was that easy.
“I’ll be back by 9PM,” I called out, slipping on my coat and lacing up my boots in the entryway. I settled into the driver’s seat of my red Honda Fit and made my way onto the Champlain.
But I wasn’t. I came home the next day in the evening.
I had somehow convinced myself to go on another Tinder date. With little optimism for success but a desperate need to get away from my hometown just upon re-entering it, I agreed to grab drinks.
Instantly, he charmed me. He was smart, well-spoken, funny in an asshole-kinda-way that had always endeared me. He was six years older, six inches taller, and all I wanted was to keep talking to him.
“How do you feel about discussing past relationships?” he asked me, sipping on his Alexander Keith’s Red.
I looked for the nearest wall.
“Fine, I guess, as long as it’s more analytical than emotional.” I didn’t know what I was saying.
That first date lasted nearly 24 hours.
I hadn’t exactly fallen head-over-heels or in love-at-first-sight or any other cliché that makes people amplify their own emotions, but I had a very certain feeling that this was something. A tarot reader — brother of a childhood friend — had given me a reading in his Church&Wellesley high-rise back in Toronto. He told me that I would meet someone significant and that I would need to fight every instinct I had to push him away. My best friend at that time burst out laughing. “I could have told you that,” he said. I chose to believe that this date was who he was referencing. It made the $40 I spent on the session seem more worth it.
For the record, he did wind up talking about his past relationship.
About how she had let her own mental illness ruin the relationship; about how she had given up on him and it before cheating; about the significance of the damage she had done. I found it almost refreshing. Not only was I not hearing what made this other woman so uniquely loveable but I was hearing how she was wrong, how she fucked it all up.
I found myself referring a little less to the scene from 10 Things I Hate About You that I always escaped to in my mind when talk turned to this unnameable, intoxicating and unique greatness that I was told possessed these women.
“What’s with this chick,” I would imagine Heath Ledger saying with a hint of Australian lilt. “She have beer-flavoured nipples?” It’s an uncharacteristically anti-feminist inside joke I still maintain with myself when I’m insecure.
“My mom couldn’t understand why I broke up with her,” he told me one day. “She said that making a relationship work involves tolerating your partner’s mistakes.”
In May, after we had been dating for about three months, his parents were coming down from Maine for the weekend. I had met his mom during a quick trip East, but meeting his dad was where the true intimidation lay.
The night before, I sat in front of the television, trying to think about anything else. I sipped my wine and tried to focus on the advice Frasier was doling out to the lonely spinster calling his radio show. They’re always lonely spinsters.
I felt a prick on my leg.
I’m self-conscious about the first impressions I make. It’s not insecurity but an acknowledgment of reality: I make pretty terrible ones. My shyness is often taken for disinterest, my sarcasm as rudeness, my dark sense of humour as illness… Over time, it makes more sense, but initially, most people I meet aren’t quite sure what to make of me.
My phone grew hot in my pocket, beginning to burn a hole through the denim. I pulled it out, yelping, and touched the scar that was already beginning to form on my skin. The phone that, in my surprise, I had dropped onto the couch cushion completely contained the flames, not so much as charring the tan leather.
“What the fuck?”
I waved my hand over the phone and watched as the flames licked my fingertips.
“I have a Reddit, but don’t look at it,” he said once when showing me a thread on his phone.
I had responded that I had a private Twitter account that he maybe shouldn’t look at either. In truth, the account didn’t hold much other than complaints about anti-depressants and long-winded rants about anorexia. I was more embarrassed by my need for a public forum to air my inane thoughts than anything else.
My phone, now engulfed in flames, still managed to flash its screen up at me, like a silent alarm going off.
I typed in the username that I had accidentally memorized and began to scroll down the page. It didn’t really make sense to me that someone would have a publicly accessible social media account that they treated as completely anonymous and private. I took it as Internet naivety on their part. Of course, I was also trying to justify what I was doing. Breaching privacy somehow made far more sense as an act of self-preservation.
The flames suddenly began creeping up my arm, singing the dark hair that was beginning to growing back.
“I miss all the small things she used to do when she didn’t know I was looking. The way she played with my dog, the way her face looked when she painted a perfect flower on her nail… Sadly, she was abusive, but I miss her energy every day.”
It was dated a month earlier. The flames had reached my shoulder. I continued to scroll.
I read paragraphs of tips he gave — sexual things she used to do to him. I read about how hard it had been for him to get over her, how he wasn’t sure he really had. I read about the incredible passion he felt in that relationship, and then read about how he had wanted to avoid it ever since. I read about all the things he went out of his way to do for her. I read about all the things he looked for in his ideal partner, knowing that the fact I only checked off two of them meant it wasn’t written with me in mind. I read about how he had discussed marriage with her.
I kept reading. I was chasing the dragon. Like a sadistic drug addict trying to put the pain back rather than take it away.
The flames were at my neck now, curling around my head and enmeshing with my hair.
It would have been one thing if these posts had been put online during his year of singlehood. It might have indicated something different.
I read about how he was dating someone new. I read about how she was nice to him, and how grateful he was for it. It was followed by a statement that, despite the kindness, he couldn’t quite get the other out of his mind.
I sat in the leather loveseat in my tiny living room in Rosemont, Frasier faintly babbling about sherry in the background. I held my phone limply in my hand. The walls were simultaneously too far away and closing in, and I was stuck to the couch. The flames crept over the back of my head and slid down my face, crackling as they began to break my body down into ash.
From 7e avenue below another woman was making her way north to the Plaza St-Hubert when an orange glow caught her eye. She dismounted her old Giant and rolled it onto the sidewalk, peering up at the wall of patio doors and fire escapes in front of her.
There, she watched in the completely still night, on the third floor, first apartment from the right — and though she couldn’t be completely sure — an ignited but otherwise immobile figure ablaze.
First loves are always special.
At least, that’s what I’m told.
I, myself, have never had a true first love, so I can’t really understand. My first love wasn’t my first love but a casual, nameless non-relationship? He had just broken up with his second girlfriend who wasn’t really his second girlfriend but his first real love.
And my second love couldn’t really be my first love either because my first love was still technically my first boyfriend, even though he wasn’t.
I’m a follower, I guess. I don’t initiate a guy’s romantic trajectory; I just fall into it, help him back on the track. A second, third, fourth, nineteenth. It doesn’t matter.
All I’ve been told is that the first is important, that it’s special.
It’s not that I’ve been told that the ones that follow are decidedly Not Special. It’s just that… They’re the ones that follow.
And it’s never your fault, no. The point isn’t to make you feel bad; this is just how things are. And it’s not condescending because it’s just true.
You fall in line, into the order, organically. It just so happens that you were never the first.
Hey, good for you! Those first girls? They’re gone! You’re still here, or you were at some point in time.
But how much does that count for when they hang in the air like the decades-old dust that just becomes a part of your house, seeping into the walls, colouring it differently over time?
It’s an incredibly narcissistic thing, to want to be told that you’re special. The very concept of a special person and of desperately wanting to be designated one is a human flaw. Our collective hamartia.
I suppose it’s only that much worse, then, when someone declares the concept of specialness openly, and you know that it’s been committed to the past.
Sometimes first just means novelty, but there is still just enough magic in novelty to keep the subject engaged. We love to be surprised. But once we know what’s possible, we’re much more difficult to impress.