by Zahra Barnes
“Grant? Can you hear me? You’re all frozen again.”
Grant’s face on my laptop screen was so warped it looked like something from The Ring, post-Samara encounter. The FaceTime connection sputtered defiantly, so all the pixels that composed my maybe-possibly-not-quite-boyfriend jerked in a sluggish imitation of the movements he was actually making nine hours and 6,843 miles away.
I groaned and ended our FaceTime session, giving my computer a second before I tried to reach him again. We should have agreed on who would call who if this happened, I realized. It would be typical for both of us to hit the call button at the exact same time, creating some technological tangle that would prevent us from connecting and deliver some sort of foreboding message about our real-life relationship in one fell swoop.
His email said he had big news, I reminded myself. That could be either good or bad. The thing was, I didn’t know what would qualify as good or bad in this situation. The stolen conversations and fired off emails we’d shared since he’d been in Abu Dhabi had a certain romanticism to them, that much was true. But spending this time alone was different from my period of self-imposed solitary confinement when I’d just found out about him and Sophie. I wasn’t in mourning this time around.
Instead, I was coming to life. I was rekindling my love affair with the city, exploring, experimenting, evolving. All the worries and scheduling and maintenance that came with a long-distance relationship weren’t part of the rosy picture I was painting for myself. I was slowly realizing that ever since I found out about Sophie, I had been straddling a line. This time on my own had shown me which side I fell on.
That’s not to say I didn’t miss Grant, or wish it could have worked out at the time. Sometimes I did so much that it ached, the pain radiating from my core into the tips of my fingers and spilling out of my eyes. Still, even though I had never understood why people sometimes said love wasn’t enough, I was getting it now. I adored him. I treasured him. I loved him, but as the inimitable Samantha Jones said, I loved myself more.
The video sparked to life and I crossed my legs to stop my body’s jittering. I hadn’t had coffee all day, but I was still reacting like I’d mainlined caffeine through an IV. I smoothed my curls down as Grant’s face appeared in front of me.
“Is this better?” he asked, his mouth finally moving smoothly. I could see his sleek hotel room in the background. The couch behind him looked so plush. Perfect for hotel sex. Why has no one created a teleportation machine yet? I wondered for the hundredth time.
I shoved away the intrusive thought. “Yeah, that works! You look so good. Nice beard.” It went perfectly with his flannel shirt.
“Thanks. Someone told me facial hair can be seen as a sign of maturity here, so I’m taking it a little further than usual. But I feel like I’m verging on looking a little like a vagabond, so I’ll probably shave soon.” As he stroked his whiskers, I felt the urge to reach through the screen and do the same.
“You shouldn’t. Between that and the flannel, you’re prime lumbersexual material.”
“Sexy lumberjack. How are you not keeping up with the American zeitgeist while you’re in Abu Dhabi?” I joked. I knew he was doing much more exciting stuff than reading trend pieces about millennials’ sexual urges.
“Well, the flannel’s just because my hotel room is freezing. I could take it off.” He arched an eyebrow at me, and I knew we were both thinking of just giving into FaceTime sex instead of discussing what I’d started thinking of as The Issue of Us. If only it were that easy.
“No! You’re cold, keep it on,” I blurted out. “So, how are you?”
He told me how things were going on his side of the world. Part of the reason we’d barely talked was because he was immersing himself in the city and falling head over heels in love with it. The stories surged out of him with the kind of enthusiasm I hadn’t really heard from him in months. Then he moved into asking more about my neighbor Brian and the faux break-in. After he’d gotten the texts I’d sent him that night, he’d practically had a conniption. Now, he still had more to say.
“You need to get him kicked out.”
“It was just a drunk college kid. He didn’t take anything and he didn’t hurt me, so seriously, don’t worry. And Finn came to make sure everything was okay.”
“Still, I wish I could have been there. This kid sounds like a creep.”
“I promise, it’s fine. We made sure to get a new lock installed, so we’re totally safe. You couldn’t break in if you tried.” It was time for a distraction. “I got your letter.”
He had mailed me a letter but also emailed me to tell me not to open it until we FaceTimed. There were technological methods from three different decades involved in that one request, but I’d done what he’d asked.
He looked torn, and I could tell he wanted to pursue the break-in conversation. He decided to let it be. “I was worried it wouldn’t get there in time.”
“Can I finally open it?” I waved it around in front of my laptop’s camera. Ever since I’d gotten it via express mail two days before, I’d taken to holding it in my hand at random moments. I liked feeling its heft and trying to divine the meaning tucked away on the leaf of paper inside. I knew I was potentially holding the future of our relationship in our hands.
“I think you should wait until we talk a little more.”
“Okay. Well, let me guess what it says. You’re staying?” I was tired of dancing around the subject in some sorry impersonation of a ballerina. My heart wasn’t that nimble.
He held eye contact, and for a moment, the screen faded away. I could feel him, and his wistful presence, in the room with me like a ghost. He nodded.
“Yeah, they figured out they want me to stay on already. They can’t tell me how long, but they said something about a big showcase in May. So we’re talking months, not weeks.” He explained that the market for a company like his in Abu Dhabi was wide open, and he’d be a fool to leave so soon.
I agreed, but still, my sadness and resignation mingled in a way that made my heart feel like it was taking up all the available space in my chest. “I thought so. And I’m so, so happy for you.” He looked confused, but I continued. “Even if it means the end for us.”
“Do you think it does?”
I stared at him until his face was seared so hotly into my brain its ghost twin remained when I squeezed my eyes shut. “I think we are. Right? It’s just…so much. It’s been so much. My job, and Sophie, and the distance. Now we’re both doing different things, and maybe wanting different things, and growing into different people.” I didn’t realize I was yanking a curl until I felt a tug of pain at my scalp. I focused in on the dark brown shot through with gold in that one lock of hair. As simple as it was, it grounded me.
“Right. I mean, maybe things would be different when I get back. Maybe we just do our own things now and see what happens in the future.”
We fell into silence. I knew I couldn’t only have one all-consuming love in my time. I didn’t believe that life was unfair, that it would give me a glimpse of the magic that can happen when you recognize part of your soul in someone else’s, then never let me discover it again.
“Tell me what you’re thinking,” I said quietly.
“I don’t really know. I agree with you, and I’ve been thinking the same thing ever since they told me they want me to stay. But it’s different to say it out loud.”
“I know. It’s pretty weird, especially after everything we’ve been through. But isn’t it better to realize it now than drag it out and end up hating each other? We can still be friends when we’re 80 and look back on the time we were together and you would show up on my stoop without warning,” I said.
He smiled weakly. After a beat, he cleared his throat. “You can read the letter now, if you want.”
I moved my finger under the envelope’s flap as tenderly as possible, feeling like I owed the letter the delicacy our relationship sometimes lacked. When I looked up to ask Grant if he was sure, I caught him swiping irritatedly at his eyes. I pretended I didn’t see and hurriedly glanced down at the letter, which I’d worked out of the envelope. I unfolded the lined sheet of paper and started to read.
First, let me say that no matter what conversation we just had, this will always be a love letter. Stop rolling your eyes and keep reading. Do you have to be so stubborn? I guess if you weren’t, you wouldn’t be you.
I wrote this because I wanted to get my feelings down before we decided what we’re doing. I want to have something physical that proves what we had. That we were something special to each other once, and hopefully always will be. I know I sometimes have a hard time expressing myself. And I know I’ve fucked up. Trust me, I do. But no matter what happens, I’ll always give you the last olive.
I looked up at him through blurred vision, tears swimming in my eyes.
“Can you promise me one thing?” he asked, giving me enough time to choke down the golf ball-sized lump in my throat.
“Depends on what it is.”
“Can you promise me one day, years from now…” The rest of his question hung in the air, heavy with oaths and regret and many things left unsaid. “Just don’t forget about me.”
I hesitated. This sounded like something from an eyeroll-worthy romantic comedy, like, if we’re 40 and haven’t found anyone else, why not come together again? But aren’t romantic comedies so seductive precisely because they portray what we wish we could have, deep down?
“I can’t make any promises, but I’ll do my best. As long as you don’t forget about me, either.”
We spent the next four hours reminiscing about every moment of us as a couple. We covered when we first met on the subway, how wracked with nerves he was on our first date, the first orgasm he gave me (through my lace underwear, like the magician I suspected he was), and the first time he leaned his forehead against mine and whispered that he loved me. I bashfully fessed up that even though I teased him about his Old Spice addiction, I still had the ratty sweatshirt of his that smelled faintly of it because it comforted me. He whipped out the love haiku I’d once written him on a Post-it, which I’d never realized he always kept in his wallet. We talked about Sophie, and how things were almost back to being perfect until Abu Dhabi came up. And how maybe they still could be, just in a different way than we pictured.
Finally, we quieted. It felt almost too easy and too syrupy-sweet. Where was the ugliness? The screaming? Where was the rawness that usually came as the sister of the heartache in a breakup? I knew it might arrive in the future, but in the moment, all of that was absent. As I studied the familiar planes and shadows of Grant’s face, conflicting relief and sadness swelled in me. This was really it.
We finally said our goodbyes, each of us murmuring two “I love yous” apiece. I scanned his letter over again until my monitor winked off, the heat that had always burned between me and Grant finally cooling into embers of us.