Derived from Latin līmen: “a threshold”
“The transitional period or phase of a rite of passage,
during which the participant lacks social status or rank,
remains anonymous, shows obedience and humility,
and follows prescribed forms of conduct, dress, etc.”
“The quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs
in the middle stage of a rite of passage… [when]
Participants ‘stand at the threshold’ between their previous
way of structuring their identity…and a new way.”
Once upon a time, I met a girl.
Now, you’re probably thinking two things. One: Jacob, for God’s sake, you’re a writer. You’re really going to begin the story with ‘once upon a time’? What is this, a Grimm fairytale? And two: a long, extended groan followed by, another story about a boy and a girl?
But it’s not like you think.
She’s not like you think.
I want to start from the beginning, but right now she’s next to me, and I’m reminded of why I haven’t been able to write a single thing for the last six months. It’s been like this, every second. It’s been me, next to her, and I can’t focus on anything. She’s barefoot on the couch, her computer’s in her lap, it’s just a normal day. But her feet are next to me, and when she’s thinking she splays her toes and arches them against each other. There’s a coffee stain shaped like Australia on her pale pink leggings that she keeps pulling at. I wonder if she remembers how it got there. I do.
She catches me looking. She smiles and says “stop,” a laugh breaking through her voice like it so often does. “What are you looking at? Is there something on my face?”
Yes, I answer internally, you are. But I can’t let her know how much I love her. How much she burns like a sun in my vision, like a plague in my mind. It makes me sound insane. It is insane. But it’s not lust, it’s not possession, it’s not even romance. It’s something more than that. It’s that she could leave me right now and I could let her go, but I could never forget her.
It’s that I fall into her when I look at her. It’s that she’s depthless, she’s unknowable, she’s a muse, she’s a goddess, I fucking swear it. There’s something otherworldly about her. I say I’m the writer, but she—she’s like a story. She’s like if you took all the gut-twisting, heart-wrenching moments from all your favorite movies and books—all those things that make you feel so much it hurts, even though you can’t explain why—and you made them into a person. She is the story.
Or, more than that, she’s full of stories. She’s torn by stories, pulled apart by them like bread by starving hands. They take pieces of her—steal them like thieves—and use them to build great cities. To build worlds and people and love and hate and everything in between. She is both a canvas and the paint, a whole whose heart was claimed by places and people no one else could even see. You see it when you look at her—the infinities in her eyes.
I’ve been in love before. It was wonderful. This is wonderful. And it is love. But the way she distracts me is separate from the way I love her. She distracts me as a writer, not as a man. Because there’s so much of her. So much to learn and know.
“I’m writing about you,” I tell her.
She groans. “What if I don’t want to be written about? What if I have a secret identity and you’re blowing it all?” Her eyes flash when she teases me, her brows doing a little jump and her lips tugging back into that sharply canine, flicker of a sunrise smile.
“I can’t help it,” I rejoin in a semi-offensive Russian accent as I type, “you are my muse.”
She chuckles again, setting her laptop aside and leaning forward. “You aren’t writing all this down, are you?”
My gaze flicks up to her, missing nothing. Not the morning, city sunlight laying its diffuse glow on her face. Not the slight lift in one brow—more so than the other—that’s almost always there. Not the way one finger is running around the rim of her brown-speckled, empty tea mug. Not the way her collar bone juts out when she leans like this. Not the spill of her hair down in front of her shoulders. Not the discomfited twitch of her mouth. She really doesn’t want to be written about, does she?
My fingers still. “I was.”
She stands up, mug in hand, calling back, “It won’t sell if you do!”
“Why not?” I stare at the words on my laptop screen. The page looks pleasantly elegant, half modern—minimalist, techy—and half rustic—Baskerville font, the aesthetic of the written word.
“Because…” she says, trailing off.
I glance out one of the nearly wall-to-ceiling windows at the yellow-toned city beyond, old towering buildings with spires overlapping with the new, mirrored ones that shoot shards of sunlight everywhere.
“It’s silly,” she adds. “It’s like a romance novel. But—like a YA romance novel. Cheesy. Boring.”
“What do you want me to do?” I rejoin, folding my hands beneath my chin. “Sex it up? Or say I hate you? Worry you’re cheating? Be like Joe from ‘You’?”
“From what you’re telling me, it seems like you already sound like the guy from ‘You.’ You are, after all, writing obsessively about your white, blond girlfriend.”
I scan the page as dishes clink in the kitchen. “I do sound like a stalker,” I admit, shutting the laptop. “Are you making breakfast?”
“It’s already made. Get in here.”
I sigh and stretch and try not to think about how much writing I haven’t gotten done as I go into the kitchen. The tile’s cool on my feet, our high wooden table already set with two ceramic plates and matching mason jars of ice-less water.
I sit down and take a sip, remarking, “God, we’re such hipsters.”
“But we’re not poor like hipsters,” she quips with a smile, her brown eyes aflame over the rim of her mason jar, sitting in front of her plate but not touching the mess of eggs, spinach, and who-knows-what-else (kale? Arugula? Acai, whatever that is?).
I gesture at her plate with my fork, making a halfhearted attempt at swallowing and asking, “You gonna eat?”
She stands up again, fighting a frown. “No, I’m not hungry. I’ve gotta get to work anyway.” She grabs a beige jacket—the long kind, with the lapels and the buttons, like a dress—and sweeps around the table to kiss me goodbye. “See you after work. Have dinner on the table, my sensitive, homemaker man.” She winks as she opens the door and leaves, gone in a flash.
I eat with the dismal resignation of someone who knows they’re either going to get no work done or going to hate everything they create. Thus is the writer’s life, I comment inwardly, pondering which I would like to procrastinate more: working out or writing.
I decide on the former and pop my laptop back open at the kitchen table with a wineglass of cold brew next to me (we only have two mason jars—the only reason we’re not poor is because we’re frugal—so I’m left with a wineglass or nothing, but I do feel stupid). A half-filled page greets me, with an expanse of simultaneously daunting and exhilarating blankness beneath it. I decide to begin in the simplest place:
Let me tell you about our life.
Here’s the kicker: I know we seem like thirty-somethings living a quintessential, unmarried life (“because we don’t need rings to know how much we love each other”), but we’re actually quite far from thirty-something. I am twenty-five, and she is twenty.
She graduated early with no friends but kickass test scores, then graduated college early, and now works at a company doing stuff that’s complicated enough even I don’t understand it and makes beaucoup bucks enough for us both to live in the middle of Glasgow. I am unemployed (I have an English degree).
Part of me wonders if she is some kind of spy. All of me is too afraid to ask.
I think I’ll buy a dog today.
As I walk through the city streets, I realize that what I’ve written up to now has been pretty shitty. I’ve left all the magic out. I’ve left all of my sensitive-homemaker, gushy predilections out. It’s not my fault. She was the one who made me feel insecure about accidentally writing a bad, PG-rated romance novel, of all things.
“I’m thinking… a dog?” I tell the lady at the animal shelter counter, pulling out my phone to jot down add in the magic. Like that’ll fix it.
“A dog,” she repeats dubiously, the corners of her mouth falling down in tandem with her gaze. Her accent makes dog into dohge.
“Yes.” I tuck my phone back into the pocket of my jacket and wipe my hands on my jeans. I recognize the pop song playing faintly on the speakers and am distracted by it for a moment too long. Either my writer-senses are helping me notice details or my ADD is getting worse. (According to Her, it’s quirky and cute that I have ADD and get distracted. I, on the other hand, think it’s going to be the death of my career because I can’t write five words without going off on a tangent.) “Do you—have one?”
“Yes,” the clerk says after a partly stunned, partly confused moment of hesitation. The loose skin under her chin jiggles in a definitive nod. “We have quite a few. It’s just… Most people have more details than, erm, dog.”
“Right,” I answer, nodding slowly. “Maybe I could see them, to choose?”
This seems to appease her, and she leads me to the back hallway, asking jovially, “You wake up early just needing a friend?”
The distant barks become louder as we descend into the dark, cement walled kennels, and I spare one last glance behind me at the windows—the still-orange morning sun and powder-blue sky shining from behind the gray-blue, mammoth shadows of the buildings. My watch ticks like a pulse at my wrist, the hands pointing accusatorially to 7:49 A.M.
“Time’s going slow lately,” I tell the clerk honestly, which seems to make her distrust me again. I think she’s worried I want this dog for some kind of satanic ritual.
(I text this to Her—omitting the dog part since that’s a surprise—and she says, “Well, you could be misconstrued as foreign.” I replied: “Why? How would you describe me? I’ll have to describe myself eventually, and I won’t know how.” She answers, “Say this: I am, after all, incredibly handsome and considerably foreign looking, what with my caramel-toned skin, dark brown eyes, and boyishly curly, medium length black hair that contrasts sharply and beautifully with the rugged, manly angles of my jaw.” Then she adds, “That’s perfect fodder for a YA romance novel. Might be a run-on though.” I respond with an emoji that could be best described as “distantly disappointed.”)
“Well, here they are,” the clerks says, sweeping a hand towards two rows of chain-length cells, most of them with a depressed looking creature inside. I regret this instantly; I should have told her to just bring me a random one. Now I want them all. I can barely stand still in this low-ceilinged, gray-walled, garage-style-hell; the lights hang on low chains, so bright they burn my eyes and warm the tops of my shoulders. I can scarcely imagine how a creature could live here.
“Any ideas at all?” the clerk asks from behind me. Either she’s still trying to help or she really is worried I’m going to kill it. “If you tell me what you want it for I can help you find the right breed.”
Oh, she definitely thinks I’m going to kill it.
“It’s a surprise,” I say, walking down the aisle and trailing my hand down the cold diamonds of wire. “For my girlfriend. And… I’m a writer. I read sometimes it can help you to focus if you have an animal to be with you or, be still, or—it sounds stupid, but to read or talk aloud to.”
“Ah,” she breathes, falling silent, then adding in a light but awkward sort of way, “a smart dog, then.”
“I suppose.” Without meaning to, I stop at a kennel. An amber-eyed, square headed, boxer-like pooch stares dismally back up at me. “Maybe,” I mutter, “I should get a cat.”
“Writers generally are the cat types,” the clerk chimes, “we have those too.”
And then I turn around.
What the hell is this? I think, crouching down in front of the poor creature. It’s a little ragged lump of fur with various scars, cuts, and missing patches of fur, curled up and glaring at me the way I imagine a disgruntled sixty-year-old man would stare at a teen over the edge of a whiskey glass. It looks like an absolute asshole.
“I want this one,” I tell the clerk as I stand up, already running a hand wearily down my face, exhausted by my own sensitive homemaker predilections even as I give into them.
“Oh.” The sound comes out of her like a bursting bubble, short and light and surprised. “That… one?”
“Yep.” It looks like a wolf-hybrid. Maybe it is.
“We don’t know what breed that one is.”
It’s definitely part wolf. I like to think it is.
“I’ll take it.”
* * *
And that, reader, was how I ended up walking out of the hellish depths of a city kennel with a dog that looked like a wolf who’d been put through a washing machine and then allowed to dry, wrinkled, on a dirty floor. It presses up against the side of my knee, warm and strangely possessive.
“What even are you?” I ask the dog as we cross through the now-crowded streets. The paperwork took long enough that a pale cloud cover has shrouded the city like one great shadow cast across everything. Several raindrops hit the pavement, splattering in dark creases. Who knows where they began? A lake, a puddle, someone’s spilled margarita? Each one has a story, but the clouds must be hungry to hoard their secrets and stories; the rain stops after only a few drops.
(Or maybe it’s just rain.)
The creature and I run as many errands as we can in dog friendly shops, his body an ever-present weight against me. He follows obediently as I step out of a store and skew off to the side, leaning against the wall and stopping to text Her: “Lunch at Brew Lab?”
The typing bubble instantly appears, rolling for a few seconds and then disappearing. “Come on,” I mutter, causing the dog to look up at me dolefully. It appears and disappears twice more before a text pops up: “Okay.”
“Wow,” I tell the dog, sarcastically typing back, meet me outside. “She’s excited.”
But She’s there when I arrive, looking down at Her phone and wearing that exquisite beige coat. “Hey,” I say, staving off a smile as I wait for her reaction.
“He—” Her hey is cut off as Her eyes flick upwards and catch on the dog. “Oh fuck,” she spits, leaping up, “what is that?”
“This is…” I realize he’s unnamed. “This is our dog. Surprise!” I smile and wait but her eyes stay wide, her lips half-parted in shock.
“Our what?” she repeats, deadly quiet.
“Our dog.” My smile becomes almost sardonic, trying its best to stay put but realizing this might have been an awful surprise. “Aren’t you happy?”
Her gaze lifts from the ragged creature to mine, searching my face and expression carefully. “Yes,” she says at last, hesitantly, like she’s trying to convince herself of it too. “Yes.” Again, firmer. She frowns like she’s confused. Like she’s only just now realizing how she was supposed to react. She clears her throat and lifts her eyes from the pavement to me, her brows lifting from their furrow and a faltering smile flickering on and off her face like a broken Christmas light.
“I am,” she says, that smile softening and pulling on fully. It’s as if she tugged a mask over the vulnerable reality of her face that was there seconds before.
“You can tell me if you aren’t,” I tell her, sliding onto the bench. “I’ll take him back.”
She reads my face carefully. “No.” It’s a careful word, like a single plucked string. Again—like what she thinks she’s supposed to say. “No, he’s… he’s great. But you know we can’t eat here, right? We need outside seating.”
“Oh,” I say after a moment’s stunned pause. I expected her to be happier, I suppose. Or at least pretend she was, if she wants us to keep him. “Right.”
We stroll down the street until we find somewhere, the dog on one side of me and her as far as she can acceptably get on the other. We sit down and order with the companionable silence I can only assume all in-love long-term couples have. When our food comes I look up at her, asking, “How was your day?”
She plucks an invisible piece of fuzz off her pants, saying, “Fine.”
I motion to her salad with my fork. “Aren’t you going to eat?”
“I had a croissant at work.”
“Still… It’s lunch and you didn’t have breakfast. I haven’t seen you eat in days.”
“God, Jacob,” she huffs, adding a breathy laugh in a too-late attempt to make it sound more joking than I know it was really meant. “Are you keeping a journal?”
“No,” I say, in that tone that makes her look up, realizing this is going to be one of those instances where I stand my ground against her. I’m a pushover by choice most of the time, but damnably stubborn when I choose to be—and she knows it. I see the expectation of an argument flash in the brief widening of her eyes just before I add, “I don’t want to fight with you. But it’s okay for me to notice you’ve been eating even less than usual. It’d be bad if I didn’t, actually.”
She’s already standing up, wiping her mouth with disdain, throwing the lipstick stained napkin down.
“And it’s okay for me to say something. Because if it’s an issue, we need—”
“No,” she interrupts with infuriating calm. Like she doesn’t even care. “You are being overbearing… again. And I am fine. And I have to work. We will talk about this when I get home.” I stand up as she turns away, reaching for her wrist. She freezes the second my fingers touch her skin, and I do too, because all down her arm there are—scratches? Cuts? I can’t tell.
“What are these from?” I ask, any pressure instantly gone from my voice.
She pulls her arm away. “Nothing. I just cut it at the gym the other day. On the ropes.”
She’s already feet away but I follow after, the dog at my side. “Hey—”
“No, Jacob.” She turns around and walks backwards a few steps. “I’m fine. We’re fine. We can talk more later.”
Slowly, as her platinum hair and wind-swept jacket fade into the crowd, I sink back down. The dog sits next to me, its mournful, thoughtful brown boring eyes into my own—which probably look the same right now. I stroke its head and tell it quietly, “I don’t know what to make of this. Am I being overbearing?”
My lips purse of their own volition, my day suddenly dimmed. The dog lies down at my feet, its head in its paws.
“Is everything all right, sir?” the waitress asks, sympathy weighing the corners of her eyes though she can’t be more than sixteen.
“Everything’s fine,” I tell her, running a ponderous finger across my lower lip. “Could I just get some coffee?”
By the time her polite “of course” registers in my mind, she’s already turned and left. Luckily, none of the other customers are staring at me piteously—at least not anymore, if they were—and I take this as fate’s way of telling me to get some work done.
Now that you’ve seen that, I should admit that I haven’t been entirely honest about Her.
She is inordinately intelligent. She is gorgeous. I am in love with her. We are madly in love. We are happy together. So happy.
But I am not blind.
I know there are faults in her. In me and in her. But those faults are so much of what make her a wonder—what make her a story, a mystery. Maybe it’s something broken in me, but I love that she’s like the clouded sky above me now—dripping only the occasional true piece of herself, and otherwise an enigma. A lock which I must gradually shape myself into a key for. A puzzle to be pieced together over years of love. She does not give herself easily, and I like being one of the only people who has even the barest pieces of her.
I know what you’re thinking.
How trite, how classic, how boring. Playing hard to get doesn’t—or shouldn’t—work. She’s not some treasure chest you only get a gold coin out of as a reward now and then. Love isn’t like that. Love shouldn’t be like that.
No, it shouldn’t. And it’s not. She’s not. Today is a bad example—it’s a bad day. One of her bad days. Normally she’s easygoing, lighthearted, witty. Better than me—so much better than me. She’s this… this piece of passion in a universe pitifully devoid of it. She sees everything differently. It’s why I say she should be the writer. She’s intensity and vivacity and a heart that bleeds just to watch the world turn the loveliest, brightest shade of red.
That’s it—that’s a good way of explaining why I love her. Red. That’s what I think of when I see her. Strawberries in fingers. Red nail polish and red stilettos. Tight backless dresses and lips tugged into a feline grin. Cherry-toned, retro muscle cars and vivid polaroids.
When I think of myself I see black.
Because I’m part of everything else. When she looks at the world, it’s like a child would see it, only better. Everything is new to her, something full of wonder. Something to be explored. Discovered. Revealed.
And yet it’s also a canvas. A new piece of blankness for Her to remake—to conquer like a goddess.
She’s a force. A force of joy—because who isn’t joyful, when everything in the world feels new and exciting?—and a force of power—because she knows she can bend that world to her will.
Someone like that is bound to have fractures. Tears. You can’t be so much and not have a few missing pieces. But you never realize how beautiful people are until you can see inside them. Through those cracks.
The night I met her she was standing on the side of the road. On a cliffside, to be exact. The pale, eerie light of my headlights swept over her when I passed, illuminating her for only a few seconds. Like a mirage, I glimpsed her back against the railing, the black expanse of the clear night sky yawning beyond her, the smooth linen of her white blazer, and the platinum of her dyed hair.
I thought she was going to commit suicide.
So I stopped.
I remember the dissonant crunching of the gravel as I veered over towards the edge. I remember her eyes—fever-bright, an edge otherworldly, her pupils constricted to near-nonexistence in the headlights.
“Hello,” she said when I stepped out. The first thing I noticed was that she sounded remarkably unconcerned, for someone ready to die. The second was that she was American.
“Please.” The word fell out before I could keep it in. “Come inside the rail.”
“Why?” Her teeth were tiny white squares between full, shadowed lips. She turned back to the sky. “It’s beautiful.”
I took a stumbling, unintended step forward. “What’s your name?” I asked in a breathy rush, remembering some long-ago bestowed piece of advice to keep them talking in this kind of situation.
She looked slowly back at me again, confusion dampening the unadulterated wonder that had shone on her face just a moment before. “Oh,” she said in an exhale, after a moment’s pause. “You thought… oh.” She chuckled, airy and apologetic, and then climbed back over the fence.
The tension left my body in a rush.
She rocked on her heels, hands in her pockets. “I wasn’t going to—to, you know. I was just looking.”
I managed a nod. “Good. Good. Well, that was…” I trailed off, surprisingly breathless, and pushed a hand through my hair. “That was—that.”
“Are you okay?” she asked with an ironically raised brow.
“I’m fine, I’m just…” I wasn’t convinced. I still felt like she was about to turn around and leap over that railing before I could do anything. Of course she wouldn’t admit it if she’d really been about to… “Will you come with me? Or to dinner or… anything? Where’s your car?”
“I might be safer on the edge of a cliffside than in a car with a strange man,” she countered. “But your care is very…sweet. I’m glad to know there’s good people like you. Who want to help. But I’ll walk home.”
She started to do just that, walking along the edge of the cliffside—the cliff that continued for at least another mile into the yawning darkness beyond, where she could easily hop the fence and swoosh, vanish into the rocky sea below.
“Wait.” My voice rang out in the darkness, uncannily loud. Perhaps it was just a trick of the winds—they were fierce that night, obscuring sound and sensation—but it felt more like a trick of fate. Like this was one of those moments. The ones you look back on as a pinnacle, an angle, a turning point. A marker in your life, beyond which everything is different.
Finally, I offered, “I’ll let you drive.”
She looked at me. The sea crashed in the distance. Wind coursed around us, a deafening rush in my ears.
* * *
Everything smelled of dying roses. But the cloying stench of the drooping, ruined, rain-soaked blooms and all the fallen petals around me didn’t enter my consciousness until the sharp, obnoxious ping of a text pulled me straight out of my writing reverie.
“I’m sorry,” the text from Her reads. “I overreacted. You were worried about me and you weren’t being overbearing. I should have been grateful, not mad.” A picture swishes in after it, of Her making a comical face as she bites into a large chocolate croissant with a text stripe across it that says, “lOvE yoU.”
I type back, “No worries—sorry if I overreacted or anything. Love you too.”
Then I scanned what I’d written, highlighting "She looked at me. The sea crashed in the distance. Wind coursed around us, a deafening rush in my ears” to remind myself to, you know, make it better. The car ride had been innocuous, with an excess of Cigarettes After Sex playing and an incredibly uncomfortable lack of any conversation.
She had pulled us up to somewhere I’d never been before. I don’t remember the details clearly. It was one of those… liminal spaces. Like an airport. Like a school at night. Surreal. Manufactured. The floor seemed to roll beneath my feet, like a plate on top of a ball, and no matter how many times I blinked I couldn’t make myself see reality. It was a place made to be forgotten.
But I couldn’t forget Her.
Here’s what I remember:
Pink lights in the lobby, a shade above ultraviolet. A shadowy blue, somehow both neon and dark, filling the spaces between them. Fake palm trees and a bartender with a black suit vest and a white smile. The rattle of a metal cocktail shaker. A woman’s laugh. Her going up the stairs in front of me.
A balcony, the same night sky framing her blond hair just like on the cliffside. Her elbow on the table. Indistinct voices from behind me—not as many as there should have been for a restaurant that looked like this.
A lemon wedge on the edge of her glass. A water ring in a square napkin. Her lips—red. The reflection of the light from behind us limning the thinnest edge of the glass guardrail behind her. Her smile—shy. An assault of scents: lemon, vodka, spiced meat, ocean breeze, tire rubber, perfume, something fried.
“What do you do?”
The world coming into focus. She was wearing mascara—I could see it in the clumps in her eyelashes. And her lipstick was brighter. Had she—had she done that here, or had it been that way on the cliff? Would someone want to look pretty to die?
“I’m a writer.”
A breathy, delighted laugh and her hair fanning out briefly as she dropped her head back to gaze up at the night sky. “A writer.” She had one of those voices. Like she’d be on TV. Like she was meant to be listened to. Like she had something to say. “What do you write?”
“Oh.” I pushed my fork forward an inch. “You know. Everybody writes.” I didn’t answer her question. I thought maybe I was nervous but I felt more drunk than nervous. She’d unhinged me, in some vital way. She made the world feel… cockeyed. Sideways. Off. Dizzy. Like I hadn’t slept for three days.
“I don’t,” she insisted. Her eyes fell to the table, then drug back up to me. Is she flirting with me?
“I bet you’re a poet.” I felt dangerously dizzy and jet-lag confused, but my voice came out smooth and confident. At least it knew what to say. “You write poetry because you know no one sees the world the way you do, and you have to catalogue it. But you won’t share it with anyone.”
Those crimson lips—the only clear image in the world right now—twisted into a smirk. “I’m not a poet,” she countered, “I could never capture the world just right. I could try—with words, images…” She waved a hand, lips twitching into something like a grimace. “But it could never look the way I see it.” Her words were so smooth, her voice so perfect I could practically see honey flooding in thick, streaming drops over her bottom lip.
For some godforsaken reason, I leaned forward towards her. “If you’re not a poet, you’re poetry.”
In that moment, it was only her eyes and her lips and the night sky, and my eyes and my lips so keenly aware of every detail within hers.
And then she kissed me. And she whispered, her breath a tickling hiss against my lips, “Poetry can’t be fit into a person. Write me a world, that I may fill it.”
She was poetry. She was a poem—only a poem would bring me here so recklessly, to this strange and beautifully unnerving place. Only a poem could make your mind dissolve like sugar without a single drug. Only a poem would be unable to hide her smile every time she looked at the stars. Only a poem would remember to look at the stars.
“I will write you a world,” I murmured back, kissing her once more, “if you will show it to me how you see it.”
That’s how She always is—sending my world careening in the best ways. A photograph, perfectly captured in a moment of life. A Pinterest post out of context.
I see Her in my memory, standing in navy blue coveralls, one loosely tied strap fallen off one shoulder, the jut of a tanned collarbone and the low scooping neck of a canary yellow tank top beneath. Pale hair tugged into a messy knot, a paint roller gripped in one hand and her bare feet on canvas, Her face splattered with white and her shoulders curved forward in a laugh as bright and burning as her smile.
I blink against the flare of evening sun off Her hair as she drives fast, windows down, singing along to the radio.
I see Her poised before the kitchen cabinet, on Her tiptoes reaching high for a mug, Her back to me and her legs bared by the short shirt—my shirt—She wears.
I hear Her tuneless humming through the door of the bathroom while She showers. I feel the humid heat of the steam creeping through the crack as I lean against the door to hear Her better, grinning.
I swallow a laugh rising through my belly and chest after She makes yet another sarcastic quip while making pancakes.
Through my kaleidoscope of memories, that’s how She is: poetry.
One memory sorts itself out like an ember rising from ashes. A grayscale scene refracting slowly into place. An image in smoke, in ink, in charcoal, and suddenly I’m lost to it. To Her.
Feeling Her skin whisper against mine in the gray half-light of four AM in an apartment we live in now but have no curtains for—no furniture at all. The emptiness, the manufactured almost dawn of the city light, the pinch of new, overly starched white sheets, and the cool exhale of the air conditioner make it feel like we’re in a hotel as She whispers, “You did save me.”
I pull Her tighter, her skin sticking to mine, hot and intimate in a dark chill that would otherwise be unbearably lonely. “What?” I ask.
Her nose trails down my cheek, her fingernail running a shivery line from the hollow of my throat to the bottom of my bare sternum. “That night, when you found me.”
I try to sit up—to look at Her. But She lays Her head on my chest, keeping me blind.
“You know what I mean.”
I stay silent for a long moment, breathing in and out shakily in the black and white. It feels right that the world should be colorless when She tells me this. This is how the world would be without Her in it.
“I thought about driving my car off that cliff enough times to know what you meant to do.” I want to pull Her closer, tighter. Press Her face to mine. Kiss Her slowly. Never let Her go. But I’m scared to move.
At last, She speaks. “Then we saved each other.”
Creature—the nameless dog—and I walk home through a dim twilight, as clouded as the rest of the day, only a darker shade of gray. Faintly yellow-tinged, flickering fluorescent light presses against the glass of the windows we pass, and the paper bags in my arms are beginning to rip with the weight of groceries and take-out food.
“Nearly home,” I tell the Creature, inhaling sharply when I nearly drop everything. Readjusting it all is a fumbling, ungraceful endeavor involving far too many knees and elbows, but once I’ve got it all in hand we’re only minutes from the apartment. The walls are graffiti-lined and night’s nearly fallen now, the smell of exhaust mingling with scents of spiced food, spilled beer, and long-past whiffs of cheap cologne. They’re markers of the kind of life and togetherness the city is always, inexorably full of, and yet there’s a certain loneliness in the commonality. A sense of being one amongst many, doomed to remain separate.
Perhaps, though, it’s just the day getting to me. It’s been long and stressful, full of rain and cold lights. I managed to visit three places that all looked the same: the pound, the grocery store, and the gym. All cement, tile, energy-efficient and blindingly bright bar lights, the smell of rinsed bleach, skin-prickling air conditioner, a sense of inhuman desolation, and the ever-present thought: how much longer do I have to be here?
The apartment lobby greets me with a rush of warm air and a sense of escaping to another time. All is warmly lit and lushly carpeted, with shades of red and gold and rich, baroque patterns. The lights are kept dim, letting shadows give everything a vignette, dreamlike quality. I never feel like I belong here, in this high-class, expensive bubble-world beneath a small chandelier with a curving, gold leaf embossed bannister and an ever-polite doorman always watching with his hands behind his back. But today I am glad to arrive home.
And upstairs, I’m glad to see that She’s home, too.
When I come in, She’s at Her stand-up desk with her back to me. I pause a moment and breathe a sigh of simple, content relief, watching the sharp angles of Her shoulder blades rise and fall with her inhales. One shoulder sits a bit lower than the other; I haven’t noticed that before. She bends down to scratch the top of her foot, and I notice yet another flaw I’ve never seen before—there’s a scar on top of her foot, long and brown and raised.
I wouldn’t think anything of it except it’s large enough I should have noticed it before. I should know the story behind that scar.
“Hey,” I call out, setting everything down. The groceries crinkle and lean unsteadily, my keys rattling against the table. She startles at my voice, whirling around. Her eyes are wide and her arms pulled slightly back like she’s shrinking in on herself. It takes a long moment for recognition—and then calmness—to seep into Her gaze.
“You scared me,” She says at last, clearly fighting to keep genuine fear from her voice.
I apologize and hug her as usual, then point to her foot, asking, “Where’s that scar from?”
She blinks slowly. “What scar?”
“That one.” I wait until She looks down at it to add, “I’ve never noticed it before. Just wondering.”
“I don’t know, a bike accident?” She bends her foot and frowns at it. “Something like that.”
I make a small hmm sound, feeling wary without knowing why. It runs right over the top of Her foot—right on that vital artery. “It wasn’t… I mean, that’s somewhere people cut. Instead of their wrists.” I meet her eyes.
She’s silent for a long moment, staring back at me. “I said I don’t know what it’s from, Jacob,” She says at last, her voice cold and flat.
“Sorry.” I swallow and nod, tucking her hair behind her ear and admitting, “I don’t know what’s up with me today. Everything feels off.”
“You’re probably just tired.” She moves away, towards the bag of carry-out. “Don’t overthink it.”
“Right, of course,” I mutter, helping Her unpack everything and lay dinner out on the table. It’s a quiet Wednesday, darkened earlier than usual by today’s storm. She must have started working as soon as She got home—only the hanging light above the table is on. We sit beneath it, styrofoam boxes, plastic cutlery, and over salted noodles littered on the expanse of marble between us.
Her eyes trace my hands as I pop the plastic on a silverware packet. My fork hits the bottom of the styrofoam box when I spear my food, the four prongs sinking in with a squeak. Her gaze makes me keenly aware of each shift of my knuckles, the movement of my fingers and the labyrinth of dry cracks lacing my hands like gloves. She seems to realize this, and her stare drops to the table.
“Is something wrong?” I ask at last, my food already half eaten and hers untouched.
“No,” she replies, seemingly genuine. Her gaze meets mine again. “No. I’m just not hungry, is all.”
I want to ask: “Again?” But I’ve drained my bank of annoyances today. It’s late and we’re both tired; there’s no use starting something. So I say only, “Okay.”
The simple word fails to fill the space between us, and I sense a restlessness in Her. A fracturing. Something really does feel off—and not just tiredness. It’s like… It’s like She’s not all here.
“You would tell me,” I say over the bright sheen of condensation-slicked takeaway boxes and the modern-art-like picture of too sharply illuminated fast food, “wouldn’t you? If you weren’t okay.”
“Jacob.” She sighs through her nose, dragging her fork over the top of her noodles. The smell of soy sauce and paper napkins mingles with the smell of our apartment—expensive candles and fashionably antique wood. “I don’t mean this to sound unkind, but you’ve never had more than one foot in the real world.”
The food turns ashen in my mouth. I become gradually aware of someone in the apartment beneath us playing piano. It’s a beginners’ tune, almost no chords—just plucked, slow, minor-key notes. “What does that mean?” I ask flatly, more tired and frayed then upset.
“People… are real.”
I set my fork in my box and close it, retorting a bit snippily, “Thank you, I know that.”
“Do you though?” She counters, curling her fingers around a steaming mug in front of her and watching me as I put boxes in the fridge. Her elbows remain firmly on the table, her astute gaze tracking me as I clean it all up. “You… you’re bothered, when things aren’t a fairytale. You’re so—so unbearably perfect, it’s like you can’t love anybody or anything that isn’t.”
“I’m not perfect” is my first response, and then I add hastily, “and that’s not true.”
“You are perfect.” She leans her head onto one hand, her hair escaping her chignon and falling around Her face, her enormous sweater sleeve almost falling into the tea. I reach forward and push it back without thinking, but (intelligently) refrain from touching her hair. She frowns at her wrist as if my touch burned it. “And I think you’re just now beginning to realize that I’m not. Maybe that’s a flaw in me. Maybe I wasn’t” —an inhale breaks her words, shaky and sudden and strange— “honest.” Her mouth forms the word like it tastes sour. “About me. About the broken and dark and twisted pieces of me.”
Oh. Oh. I have been blind. She’s clearly going through something. She’s clearly forgotten how wonderful She is.
“No,” I say in a breathed rush, sinking into the seat beside Her and reaching for Her hands imploringly. “No, not at all. You aren’t broken.” The word can’t come out of my mouth without cracking—not when She really believes it applies to Her. “Or dark or twisted or…” I give in and tuck Her hair behind Her ear, letting my hand trail across Her cheek. “Anything bad. Anything bad at all.”
“No, Jacob, I am,” She insists, shaking her head like she can’t make me understand.
“Like how?” I challenge, sitting back a little. Creature’s toenails click on the floor as he creeps up cautiously behind me.
“Like—like I’ve lied to you. About things.” She swallows and looks down at the table. “Many things.”
“Like what?” I reach a hand back and Creature leans into it. I rub the long fur atop his hard head, a low, sinking feeling of dread beginning to boil in my low belly. Like fear or illness; the sensation that something is wrong. And just like I can’t place the sensation of timeless, eternal drifting of standing beneath the fluorescence at a grocery store or in the gym shower or in front of the dingy dark gray desk at the pound, I can’t tell the where or why of this feeling, only what it means.
It means something bad. Really bad. Something shifting, as if the earth beneath my feet has begun to move like sand sucked out by the tide, like I’ll never escape the oblivion sensation of not knowing but being deeply afraid. The feeling that passes over you like a fever chill when you ponder the why of existence—or worse, the how. The feeling of sitting in the windowless doctor’s office, cold but leaving sweat marks on the crinkly paper, and waiting.
“Please.” My voice comes out dim. The single light above the table suddenly seems too feeble. The apartment itself suddenly feels surreal. “Tell me.”
“I can’t,” She replies with equal deadly softness, picking at the knit edge of her sleeve. “I can tell you that… that they weren’t betrayals of you, in trust or fidelity or anything like that. They’re my secrets. For now I need to keep them. For now…” She trails off, biting her lip so hard it nearly draws blood. “I can’t face them.”
There are moments where your mind whispers something’s wrong. You try to ignore it, you try to say, no, nothing’s wrong. But it shakes its head and hisses again, wrong wrong wrong, plaguing you until you acknowledge it, fix it, or realize you can’t.
That night was one of those moments for me. Wrong, my mind sang, making the normal world feel unfamiliar. I told it no but it embossed that night—the smells, the unnerved feeling, her words—into my mind. Like when you close your eyes but the light leaves shapes behind.
Life continued as normal, as it usually does. But something had shifted between us. I was becoming increasingly more aware of her cracks: her impatience with me and the dog, her tendency to take things out on others, her mercurialness. I found out she got a promotion at her job and took three days to tell me. (Why didn’t you tell me? I’d asked. I didn’t need help deciding, she told me, and I knew you would support me. She was right, so why did I still feel slighted?)
Weeks after that day, I came across a pamphlet on the counter: “Eating Disorder Recovery.” I wanted to know why she’d blown me off when I had confronted her and why she hadn’t told me. I was letting myself come to the realization slowly, she said with her brows furrowed again. And I got myself help. I didn’t want to upset you. It would have upset you, wouldn’t it?
It would have. I didn’t know why—it shouldn’t have, but it would.
See, she’d added without anger, you can’t handle the reality of me. You think I’m perfect. You want to think I’m perfect. That’s not real life, that’s fiction.
I liked fiction. My job—my passion—was fiction. And it wasn’t that I couldn’t love her with her flaws, more that it… unsettled me. Because it meant she wasn’t like me. It meant she was unhappy. Unhappy with me. I could live in a trashcan but so long as I was with her my troubles would be only passing ones, like spring clouds drifting by.
And yet life did as it does, and continued. We cooked together, ate together, slept together. We still laughed and talked. It was just different. Not divided, but… fissured.
She stands beneath strange constellations, before the jagged silhouette of a dark horizon line. The sky above glows purple, blue, cobalt. The stars hang back, reticent and pale like the sequins on an old-fashioned gown. Odd orange swirls tangle slowly where the moon should be.
Strange, how the night sky is both beautiful and lonely. Like her.
My name brings me careening back to the present. She faces me now, the honey toned strands of her hair glowing suffusely, like living, liquid flame against the cooly toned night. Her lips, though, are pale. Chapped.
A freckling of half-concealed zits marks the angle of one cheekbone. Her skin is more sallow than I remembered.
I meet her eyes. Tired purple bags weigh them, yes, but they are still gemstone blue.
“Do you know what that means?” Somehow I know she means my name—what my name means.
I shake my head no. Why don’t I know the meaning of my own name? I can’t find words to speak. Or maybe I can’t find my voice.
“It means follower. One who comes behind.”
I stay silent. I feel cowed, though I don’t know why.
She half turns, breathing in slow as the night sky gilds her face in pearlescent shades. Water lily, I think, my addled brain latching on hungrily to that bit of coherence. That’s what she looks like. A lilac water lily.
“I’ve been writing, Jacob.” Her voice sounds far away and dreamy, muffled as if she’s underwater. Or I am.
You don’t write, I think. But does she?
Slowly as the moon wheeling overhead, she turns back to me. Pain—such pain crumples those lovely features. Her voice shakes, her lips tremble, and her eyes shut tightly, like she can’t bear to see me as she says, “Such beautiful things.” A sucking, hitched inhale tears itself through her lips. I want—need—to go to her, comfort her. But I find I cannot move.
She wipes away a tear with her knuckle and seems to rally herself. She always does. Always so strong, so independent. She shouldn’t have to be.
She opens her eyes, and the blue orbs that meet mine are as cool and crystalline as the night sky beyond them. Yet they aren’t empty, not cold. No, they seem to burn, as if the sky was feeding into and through them, fueling them.
“Forgive me,” she says simply, her words no longer muffled and distant but clear. An order. Ringing through me like the echo of a tolling bell. I have the sensation the sun is rising behind me, dawn bleeding its orange flames over the horizon as if to consume it.
At last, I stumble upon my voice. “Forgive you for what?”
* * *
I jolt awake, cold sweat coating my skin.
She’s not next to me. Across the room, a pale square of light glows eerily, all at once too bright and yet illuminating nothing but itself. After a moment, my eyes adjust and I see Her—hunched in front of the light, her face wan with fatigue. It’s a laptop—Her laptop—and she’s…
“Why are you awake?” I ask, a flood of heat rolling out from beneath the sheets when I lift them. My hair is stuck to the nape of my neck, the sensation of that dream—the confusion, the sense of being somewhere between existence and something else, something unknown—won’t leave me.
She turns to me, eyes swollen. “Couldn’t sleep,” She answers in a croaking voice.
“What’s wrong?” My voice is little more than an exhale. Maybe it’s the echo of that dream, or maybe something else, but… I can’t shake the feeling that something is very wrong.
“Go back to bed, Jacob,” She tells me, an edge of impatience in her voice as she turns back to the screen.
“No,” I reach for her wrist, hardly able to see it in this complete darkness, only the computer screen to guide me. “Let me in. Tell me what’s—”
“I can’t!” She shouts, yanking her arm away. “I can’t tell you what’s wrong, because you’re not real.”
“What?” I stumble back, startled, and grip the foot of the bed hard enough to break skin—just to feel its solidity, the reality of touch. I can’t be not real, I tell myself. She’s tired, she doesn’t know what she’s saying. Maybe she needs help—professional help.
But some long-buried thread in me—a smoky tendril of doubt—knows that she’s right.
“Think, Jacob,” She hisses, and I wish She would stop saying my name. Wish She would just stop talking. “What’s the first thing you remember?”
I wrack my brain, searching for—a parent, a sibling, a pet like Creature—anything. They’re there but…fuzzy. Blurred. Vague.
“The dentist,” I say the instant it dawns on me. A memory slides into focus in my mind, a hazed picture of yellow and blue. Hands, I realize. Blue-gloved hands, the taste and texture of latex. A burning orb of light behind them, obscuring faces and the world beyond—everything but those hands, prying my jaw open, and speckled, off-white cellophane ceiling tiles.
“Exactly,” She hisses, a strange, condescending kind of vitriol in Her voice. “Jacob went to a very cruel dentist as a child. It’s part of his tragic, trite backstory.”
“Jacob…” I murmur aloud without meaning to, confusion quieting my voice like cotton.
“I was seventeen,” She says, swiveling the desk chair back and forth in this blue light hell that was once our bedroom. Now… a labyrinth. Unfamiliar and threatening, like an operating table I know I’ll die on.
She motions towards the hieroglyphs of black text devouring the world processor page. Her irises are ringed with the white light, her face and voice a terrifying kind of empty as She adds, “When I wrote you.”
“When you…” Wrote me. It lodges in my throat, choking; I can’t say it aloud.
“Seventeen, depressed, and lonely.” The cavalier edge in Her words hurts worse than any blade ever could. For the first time, I understand why She starves herself. Perhaps hunger could drown a pain this big. Or at least deaden it.
“I don’t understand.” My voice shakes, headlights passing over the blinds in a transient pulse of feeble, manufactured paleness. She rolls those white-limned eyes, so blended with this room—this unraveling existence of a world—that I feel I am alone here, trapped.
“Where are your friends, Jacob?” She asks with a deadly softness.
My friends are your friends. The answer is immediate, chipper, popping up between my ears like someone else placed it here. “Stop saying my name.” It’s halfway between an order and a plea, shock sapping the emotion from my voice.
“Why should I?” Again, that curling cruelty, her tongue a knife. “I chose it. After Jacob Grimm.”
“Well you gave it to me.” Anger thrums beneath my voice now, a distant thunder.
“You aren’t real,” She retorts, leaning forward and speaking louder. “What do you remember?”
I shut my eyes tight against her shout, thinking so hard it hurts. “Parties,” I tell her, multicolor lights, solo cups, and messily dancing people flashing through my mind. “Coffee shops.” Cozily lit, almost too perfect, forests outside their clean, tall windows.
“Generic,” she scoffs, looking away. “I was so unskilled.”
“Look at me.” It is an order now—a command And she doesn’t listen. After all my time—all my love, and she can’t even—“Fucking look at me!”
Slowly, eyes narrowed in a petulant shade of defiance, she turns. “Don’t you understand? I am the writer, Jacob. You are nothing.”
“Why.” The snarl in my voice and the roar in my head threatens to clock out the entire world, yet still, dazedly I feel Creature come and lean against my leg. “Why did you write me? For company? For sex? Was being alone really so awful?” I realize, with a dull kind of pang, that this is the first time I’ve ever been angry.
The realization shocks me, and only then I do notice she’s crying—wiping away tears furiously.
“Why?” I breathe, quiet now, myself again. If there is even a myself to be.
“To save me,” She yells through tears, “to save me, okay?"
I rush to her, kneeling down in front of Her legs. “So why,” I ask, hating the patheticness of the question even as I do, “...don’t you love me?” My voice cracks saying it—finally acknowledging the truth I’ve known for a while.
“Because I made you,” She whispers. “I saved myself. I am still alone.”
Pain echoes through my heart so deeply I go numb—like coldness, so sharp you cannot feel it. Is that pain—my pain—even real? My hate? My happiness? Or is it all Hers, written and foretold? “You may have saved yourself,” I hear myself say, muffled as if through a wall, “but the fact that you made me isn’t the problem.” I’m gathering things, I don’t even know what. A wallet, a laptop, a jacket—did she write those, too?
I look at her, so small and thin in this mockery of life. This scene she’s set for us.
“It’s that you won’t let me become my own.”
“Where are you going.” Her voice is flat at first, Her body so still the tear on her cheek doesn’t move.
But when I step towards the door—
“Where are you going!?” She fists Her sweater sleeves in her long fake nails—I hate those, too—lurching up.
“I’m leaving,” I answer, my voice as calm and heavy as cement.
“You can’t do that.”
Is she shrieking, or are my ears just ringing for no reason?
“I ca—” I can. But my voice is stopped. Cut off.
She rushes to the computer, face growing blotchy and red, and clicks at something furiously.
I gasp for words first, then just breath. My knees hit the floor, my body collapsing. My hands close over my neck, clawing for air, for the piercing whine in my ears to quiet, for the throbbing, racing beat of my heart to stop trying to make my ribs burst and my head explode, for—
What is She doing.
Great blue squares, highlighting text. A damning click as She hits the delete button. Inexorable. Unrecoverable.
What is She doing to me?
Text rolls across my skin in great streams, black and dark as the living night around us, etched on me like tattoos.
Jacob steps close to me. “Hi,” he says, flashing a smile.“I missed you today.”
I remember that. I remember Her, and almost only Her. Rage lights my veins like petrol on the sea, granting me my voice once more.
“You’re deleting me.”
She doesn’t answer. The text on my skin starts lifting off, a scream rending the air as flecks of blood and sinew—patches of flesh—tear off with it. My scream, I realize. And I’m still screaming, because the agony—being torn apart, ripped to shreds like paper. I sound like a man being burned alive. It feels like I’m being burned alive.
I’m going to die.
Do I have a soul?
“I’m sorry,” She weeps, thick-throated. But all I can hear is the pain. The heat of blood sliding down from my nose and ears.
You can’t do this.
No. I have to decide.
I won’t let her do this.
Everything in me tightens.
The pain banks.
My hand finds my wrist, clamping the words down. Creature whines for me, tail between his legs. For me, not her.
She watches me, shock plain on her face.
“You can’t erase me.”
She stands up. Backs up fast, against the wall. Something in my voice scares her. Something she’s never heard before. Something my voice is not supposed to have.
Something she didn’t write.
Just like she didn’t write me buying Creature.
Just like she didn’t write this.
I stand. “I’m glad you’re done with me,” I said, low and warning. My things are in my arms again, the door just behind me. “Because from now on…” I open it, backing out, Creature beside me.
“I write my own story.”
On my first day of freedom, I walk through a lovely winter dawn. Every shade of pastel—only more vivid, closer. Creamed orange and pink with powder blue and stormy streaks of dark lilac. Coffee and winter winds fill the air along with thick, awakening exhaust, the cobblestones sunlit and overflowing with people. We’ve walked all night, Creature and I, thinking.
I’ve made my peace with being written. Who can say whether they’re written or not? We’re all living in our own stories, half author, half protagonist—often too much the latter, as if we have no say in our fates. Perhaps someone wrote you. But does that make you any less real?
We are all, in some way, created—by our parents, our teachers, what we’re taught, where we live, how we see ourselves. I feel my future out there—so many stories unwritten. Love and family, snow and sunrises. Hot summers, farmland, places I’ve never seen before and things I’ve never done. I feel lighter, more hopeful, and more free than I ever have been, because I know this:
My story is just beginning.