by Violet Piper
I ache with Love.
I have bent over and around myself for months, avoiding the mirror. There I am, though, in the reflection on the subway window, with the tunnel behind me. I look pained and afraid of the pain—like I stubbed my toe on the podium during a public speech. I still cannot swallow any of it.
That’s it! I am interminably aware of my throat in the months since he moved. When I hear his voice over the phone, muffled and flattened by the nearly five thousand miles between us, my throat tightens with Love.
Every feeling, and subfeeling, and nonfeeling is a novelty. Throat Awareness: That’s new. And the way I fixate on pieces of him: Rewind and play, rewind and play. His hair, for example, is so blond in the sun and so dark when soaking wet. The way it feels to pinch a curl and squeeze a droplet out onto my leg. The time it takes for the water to fall. The soft mop of it on my face when he’s on top of me; he always looks me right in the eye.
He has a sound for feeling things he can’t say aloud—this ephemeral hum and sharp exhale. Even if he were farther, if my phone speaker were broken, and if he were driving on the freeway with the sunroof open, I could still discern the sound. He also makes it when he kisses me. Like a trained animal, I hear it and impulsively close my eyes.
They also close whenever I smell wood, like last November when I was sitting on a friend’s porch, shivering in the weak winter sunrise. He and I mostly kissed inside cabins, or behind them, under the trees. Everything at camp smells like wood, dead and alive, wet and dry.
I closed my eyes and let the steam from my coffee mug collect under my chin. A group of us drove upstate for a weekend away to enjoy the porches and roads without traffic lights. He called me the first night, and my friends disappointedly watched me slip up the stairs.
“I think I’m going to break up with her,” he said. “I don’t think she’s The One.”
“Who is, then?” I asked as quietly and flatly as I could.
He couldn’t say it.
His Love for me is like that—on the tip of his tongue. It’s like his sound: less than words but more than he can smother. It is not like my Love for him: a vast, shallow pool. He can cuff his pants, wade through, stand in the center.
After the call, I returned downstairs, tragic and still drunk. Everyone wants it to be over except for me. I know better than to wait around for someone to love me, but that wasn’t this! I was just waiting for him to tell me. That’s different, isn’t it? After a while, people get worn down and tell you what they want, don’t they?
You know what? I never actually liked that shirt.
Mom, I’m gay.
I’m putting in my two weeks. Thanks for this opportunity!
Love had to wear him down eventually. He met me one day, dreamt of me that night, and never stopped; he dreams about me while in bed with her. I’m the lead role, offer only, and signed on for five seasons. Eyes closed: me. Eyes open: her. I’ll never understand it.
“I think there were moments this summer where, maybe, I loved you,” he said on another call. He’d been making the sound repeatedly for an hour straight and could barely get the sentence out. They were like his dying words.
Loved. Past tense. Does that count? What was I waiting for now? I rubbed my throat and paced around my room, traversing my pool of Love.
“Are you going to tell her that?” I asked.
“I guess I have to.”
Yes, he was worn down, but not in the way I wanted. He was tired of hurting her, not me.
Technically, he and I met a long time ago. We attended the same summer camp but never the same session, sometimes missing each other by a single day. I would tearily pack up my trunk, arms wrapped around girls from the tri-state area I’d just met but loved so vehemently I could hardly crawl into the car. He’d arrive the next day in a fancier car driven by his fancier father, legs to be bitten, skin to be burned. There are photos of us hugging the same counselors, standing on the same oval of dirt. It makes me sad in such a specific way. Novelties.
When I was seventeen, I dubiously joined the staff as a Junior Counselor. It’s the summer infamous for making you resent camp: you barely get paid, can’t see your friends during the day, and are forbidden to kiss any of the sexy international staff. Camp magic isn’t for you anymore—it’s for the babies, and you must conjure it out of sweat and melted Hershey bars.
He was a year below me (still a magic-demanding baby), and as part of his training to join the staff the following summer, he shadowed me for a day. We took a group of kids in canoes across the lake to Turtle Cove, where they splashed around a gentle waterfall for a few minutes before complaining about starvation. It was hours before I looked him in the face, which I regretted putting off once I did. He was so sweetly handsome, like he never thought about it too hard.
Six years later, after the worst nine months of my life, I called the new camp director and asked if any positions were still open. On the drive up, the familiarity was so intense—the smell of cut grass and the silhouette of the dining hall—I burst into tears. I collected myself in the parking lot before climbing the hill to the camp office.
He was inside on a wicker couch, among the other higher-ups who arrived for training before the staff. I noticed immediately he’d grown aware of his own face. When he looked up at me, I already knew Love was coming. People have told me similar stories of Love, and I did not believe them until I was standing there in that cool office, walls adorned with hand-painted oars, with his eyes on me.
It unfolded so effortlessly like I had creased and tucked it away for me to discover again. After a week, I ended it over the phone with my long-distance boyfriend. He, on the other hand, was in an incredibly forward-thinking open relationship with his supposedly easy-going horse-riding yoga-instructing girlfriend. He had nothing to lose.
Except for everything. He knew that. He would have been honest with her if he didn’t know that. Once when lying together, I whispered,
“Is there anything we do that you aren’t allowed to? Is there anything she wouldn’t like?”
He made the Stubbed Toe on The Podium face.
“She wouldn’t like how often I tell you I like you,” he finally landed on. And he really did like me, so outwardly and assuredly that everyone assumed we were together.
“He looks at you a lot,” my boss told me during my mid-summer review. We had strayed off-topic, both eager to escape the constructive criticism session. My boss had been in the sleep-away camp business his entire life and viscerally understood the acute passion of on-site romance. He said it happily like he wasn’t worried about our job performance, just curious about Love.
My boss must have noticed The Looking during Morning Meetings when we directors sit at a round table, describe the disasters of the previous day, and troubleshoot the ones to come. He always took the seat across from me.
I felt his gaze whenever standing on opposite sides of a room, in respective conversations. Meeting him from hundreds of feet in an open field, he would unblinkingly observe my whole approach. While telling a story to my cackling lunchtime table during staff training, I saw him in the corner of my eye, trying to make out the plot. Later, he told a mutual friend, “She’s so expressive.”
I am. When we found moments to touch, I had to feel him everywhere: down the length of his arms, around his lower back, and through his curly hair. I was always afraid it would be the last time. Once when locking up the camp store together in the middle of the day, he pulled me up onto the counter and kissed me so exasperatedly as if in pain. Maybe he was.
At night, wrapped around each other in secret, I sometimes felt the pain too. But it was blissful during the day, with the sun, the lake, and the children. He was astounding with them. The opening and closing campfires—haphazard collections of nonsensical staff skits and camp songs—would have collapsed without him. He performed confidently, pulling people onto their feet and crossing the stage in long strides. I was better with the children in more personal settings, like comforting the homesick before bed and telling stories at sunset gatherings.
There was only one day when we both had empty agendas. We moved between activity areas together, checking on the various age groups and engaging however we could. When we stumbled upon a shrieking gaggle at the play tower, I climbed the ladder and assigned roles to each camper.
“You are a princess and own a shoe shop,” I declared. Standing on the wood chips below, he beamed up at me so lovingly that I had to look away.
And as quickly as it began, summer came to its inevitable end. Then: The Unfair Thoughts.
Don’t go; pick me.
Suddenly, all of my amenable nods and even-toned pronouncements felt like alien memories. They could not be mine; I could never have agreed to this! I laugh off deadlines, and then they knock the wind out of me. It was like everyone watched me build this windowless room around myself. Why didn’t they scream? Why didn’t they pull me out and stick me on the Metro-North?
I am too impossibly capable of Love. I wish I had to chip away at it like my grandmother does. She hugs us now, but it’s dubious and impassionate. I am sick of passion; it’s heavy, itchy, and circular—no good or bad, just Very Much of something.
No, it was Very Much miserable. I had never been less excited about Love than during the first months of his absence.
Go away! I would think about Love.
Please, float away from me like a loosely gripped receipt when a car whips past me to make the light. I want to be flippant and charming at every party and cafe I walk into, not looking at the carpet with my hand pathetically hovering over the phone in my back pocket.
I couldn’t tell my friends it was Love—they would not make the correct faces. I couldn’t say it to my parents because I spent too much time at the dinner table, meticulously explaining why seeing him would be Easy, Loveless, and Fine.
At one time, it brought me so much ease—the fact that he belonged to someone else. If he were mean, it would hurt, but it wouldn’t lead to some sober conversation about Expectations or Our Future. We didn’t have a future! What’s more appealing than that? The Future is the scariest, most soul-crushing notion, and we didn’t have one! Or don’t. We don’t. But then, I was sitting in a cafe, hand pathetically hovering over the phone in my back pocket. He’d be off the plane in a few hours and horizontal with someone he had a future with. It was so pitifully gut-wrenching, I had to throw up in the bathroom.
He always knew their rules, and I didn’t. So the rules slowly revealed themselves to me. Or didn’t. He decided. He initiated hand-holding, secret-sharing, and gift-giving. If I did, I might do the wrong thing, too much, too serious, against the rules.
“That’s unfair,” I explained late one night. “You have veto power. What do I have?” I asked.
It was the only time he agreed about something being “unfair.” He says I care too much about Fair and that things are often not. But that time, he agreed, apologized, and we sat quietly. He always looks like he’s going to cry but doesn’t, and I always look like I’m going to cry and then do. That’s unfair.
He had just graduated college. His plan was to live with her for a year in Hawaii to figure out their futures while chugging mimosas and having threesomes on the beach.
I told him I did not want to see him in the city—where we’re both from, but have never crossed paths—before he left for the island. I insisted we say goodbye at camp, so We could stay at camp, and They could transition back to in-person, in-Hawaii Love. The suggestion angered him.
“I don’t need to ‘transition’ [he used air quotes], and I don’t see why we can’t say goodbye at home, like on the street or a subway platform.”
So we were together in the metropolis for many hours in a row, on streets and subway platforms, and I felt Love poking me in the ribs. We put our shoes on in his apartment to go out for dinner, and she called. For the first time, he didn’t step out of the room but answered with one hand, the other tightening his laces. I heard her voice; I was cooked spaghetti.
Later, I sobbed, “Why do you think you need to remind me you’re in love and moving to Hawaii?”
He (looking like he might cry but, of course, did not) admitted, “I was reminding myself.”
What do we do with that? It felt like all three of us were in the room. I hated being tethered to a stranger through him. I hated that he would get to hold someone he loves when missing me. I hated how unaware he was of his feelings In The Moment, only for everything to come to him too late.
And I knew the silence was coming. What, like he would call me in front of her? No, he can only do that to me. We don’t have rules, only jokes and apologies. I’m the comedic relief.
“Thank you for the summer. I spent my favorite days with you,” he said.
It was the last time I saw him before Hawaii. He was so close to crying I could see the brewing liquid. How could he leave if it made him so sad? I wanted to be furious, but there was nowhere to direct it. No one did the wrong thing; nothing was unfair. That was then. Six months and a hundred phone calls later, I’m so furious all the time I can’t hold glass cups.
“Why the fuck are you keeping me in your life?” I scream into the phone resting on my nightstand (also glass—can’t hold that either). But I know why. I want to scream so loud that wherever she is—however many doors are between them, she can hear me. He makes the sound. Ephemeral vocalization, sharp exhale. I’m sure he’ll make it during my wedding. Probably at my funeral. He’ll wordlessly watch me slip further and further away, forever, knowing full well the moment he saw me in that cool office, he no longer wanted to go to Hawaii, or the dining hall, or anywhere without me.
Duality of Dreams
by Igor Zusev
Violet Piper is a writer, artist’s assistant, camp director, and astrophysicist. She has written poems, essays, and stories for Slate, Olit, Harpur Palate, and more.
Igor Zusev is a creator of chaos art. After a lengthy career in tech and AV project management, Igor discovered art as a way to unwind and connect with himself…and it all started with adult coloring books, shortly followed by a gifted paint set. He dove into it with enthusiasm, often scouring thrift stores for elements he could add and experiment with. Igor settled into his unique style of using rollers to paint, and layering cut-outs onto canvas. Sometimes he’ll produce a deeply personal piece, and other times you’ll find him exploring messages he wants to portray in his style.