I HAD ALREADY MESSED UP so many text message exchanges that I couldn’t believe I was getting another chance. First, there was the time he’d texted me “Hey, you like secret machines?” and I’d written back “Haha, what kind of secret machines? Like a vibrator?” and he’d said “Um, no the band…” and I’d been too embarrassed to ever respond. Then there was the time he’d come over, fucked me, and left abruptly, though it was pouring rain. “You left your umbrella!!!” I texted him, thinking that he might come back to get it, and once he was there I’d figure out how to keep him. “That’s ok” he wrote back.
So I was caught off guard when out of the blue he called me on a Monday evening. I felt like I was going to throw up, but I managed to answer.
“Hey,” I croaked.
“Hi, it’s Thomas,” he said.
“Ummm.” What should I say is “up”? I thought desperately.
“Umm…” I said again.
“I’m gonna go see the new Spiderman movie on Wednesday and I wanted to see if you wanna come?”
“Oh…uhh…” I felt like I couldn’t remember how to speak. There was silence on the phone. After a few moments: “Ok, I guess not,” he laughed.
“No!” I said. “I do, I was just thinking about my schedule. But yeah, Wednesday’s cool.”
“Ok cool, talk to you later.“ He hung up.
I hadn’t asked any questions for fear of him rescinding the invitation so I realized I had no idea what time or where the movie was. And was this like a date? What did he mean he was seeing it on Wednesday? Like if I said no, he would go see it alone? Or was he already going with other people?
I got my answer on Tuesday when Chris, a mutual friend of mine and Thomas’s, texted me. “Hey, you coming to the movie tomorrow?”
I don’t care I don’t care I repeated to myself in my head as I tried not to cry.
So it was a group thing. So what? Thomas still invited me. Maybe he likes me so much that he was too nervous to go out alone? Maybe he thinks we’re just friends?
I was 22, sexually and romantically inexperienced. I wanted to play it cool, but every time we’d kiss my stomach would lurch and I’d have to bite my lip to stop myself from asking him to never leave.
I spent Wednesday at the art gallery where I worked trying to breathe. I couldn’t eat a thing; my stomach hurt so badly at the idea of sitting next to Thomas at a movie theater. Or what if we didn’t sit next to each other. Who would even be at this thing?
Every beautiful piece of art I had to look up for work only reminded me of Thomas’s beauty. Sure he wasn’t conventionally attractive. But thinking about him filled me with longing. That gently balding head. Those somewhat pudgy hands. He was so intimidating and smart. I hardly ever knew what he was talking about, but I think it was like, philosophy. I had always thought I was pretty “political” until I met Thomas. But he made me feel like I was some mindless automaton sleeping through life. He pointed out things I’d never thought about before. Once I told him mockingly about a boy named John who’d pronounced “epitome” like “epi-tome,” no hard “e.” Thomas was not impressed; that just means he’s read the word more than he’s heard it spoken, he said. Maybe he didn’t grow up around people who said words like that a lot.
I first fell in love with him in the college cafeteria. He’d sit alone reading. He had plenty of friends, but he didn’t need to hide behind them. He approached life with a seriousness that I felt inside, but wasn’t brave enough to act on. Thomas was so many things: an artist, an activist, a scholar… I was nothing. I sat with a gaggle of other kids, giggling and chattering. I was a child, he was a man.
Why did Thomas even want to see something so mainstream as Spiderman? Out of some sort of anthropological interest? Was he studying the consumption habits of the masses? Whatever the reason, with all my fretting I was sweating through my lucky dress, a thin, cotton navy slip that I thought was sexy and I had indefinitely borrowed from my friend Lauren. Around lunchtime, I still hadn’t heard anything from Thomas, so I chickened out and texted Chris.
“Hey,” I wrote casually, “what time and where is movie again?”
“Seven” he wrote back, “68th street.”
“Who else is going?”
“I don’t know,” Chris said, “I think Sammy and Thomas, and maybe Ben?”
I didn’t know who this “Sammy” was, but I knew I needed a Xanax. Usually Xanax made me feel pretty great. It calmed down my crazy inner monologue and made me feel detached. The world felt softer, and my skin felt like it had an extra layer of protection. I’d usually only been taking half a pill, breaking it along the line. But right now I felt panicked, on the verge of tears. I needed the whole thing.
At around three I was so tired I had to go to the handicapped bathroom stall to take a nap. It was a little trick I’d learned my first week on the job. I’d lie on the cool tile floor, set my phone alarm for 10 minutes, and fall fast asleep.
This time, I set it for 15 minutes, and under the Morphean influence of the little white pill, closed my eyes.
I was woken up by a loud knocking.
“Hello? Is someone in there?”
It was my boss. I stumbled out sheepishly and went back to my desk.
I drank an iced coffee, and tried to focus on work. This was my first job out of college and I didn’t want to mess it up. But then again, I had no idea what I really wanted to “do” and I was beginning to feel kind over “art” anyway. Sometimes I’d be struck by the enormous waste…I saw the gallery’s finances; I knew how much it cost to install and suspend the old-fashioned car for one famous artist’s exhibit. And why exactly? I’d walk out of work and pass someone on the street with a sign that said they were starving. I felt like I was part of the problem, not the solution.
Right at five I raced out of work, even though I hadn’t finished the tasks I was supposed to complete. I felt so nervous again thinking about Thomas, and the movie wasn’t for two hours, so I popped into a bar for just a quick drink to calm down my racing thoughts. Ok, so he definitely invited me to this, I thought in my head, I’m not making this up. What’s gonna happen after the movie? Should I text him? I went to the bathroom and stared at my face. My eyebrows looked bushy, and my skin was red and blotchy. I pulled some face powder out of my bag, but I didn’t have the brush that went with it. I spread some on my fingers, and started rubbing it on my nose and cheeks. It was too pale—I looked like I was wearing a mask. I frantically took another half a pill. I walked out of the bathroom, and soon felt better, like I was floating, and the world, far down below, was blurry and pretty.
Lately I’d been noticing that I was getting more anxious than ever, and needing pills more and more often to feel calm. And I worried that the time I felt relaxed after I took one was growing shorter and shorter. But after a whiskey and the Xanax I headed over to the movie, feeling good. I got onto the subway, transferred once, and walked out into the early evening. I walked into the theater, and looked at my phone. Where would we even meet? Was he here yet? I was 10 minutes early, so I bought my ticket. I texted Thomas, “Hi, I’m here, what about you.” My phone started vibrating and I took a deep breath, read the text: “Hi, we’re inside, it hasn’t started yet.”
“Oh ok, thanks, I’ll see you inside!” I wrote. I felt so relieved that this wasn’t a disaster so far. The ticket guy directed me to theater three, and I walked into the dark room, comforted that no one would be able to see my face powder-mask or my frizzy hair. I saw Chris waving at me. He was sitting next to Thomas, Ben and some boy I didn’t know. I walked over and we all said Hi. Chris introduced me to Sammy. Phew, Sammy was a boy. I couldn’t look at Thomas, though he was sitting in the seat nearest to the aisle. I sat down next to him and said hi quietly. Hey, he said, nudging my arm. I felt so happy to be finally sitting next to him, I didn’t care what happened. The movie started, and I could feel my eyes closing. I felt so tired, couldn’t I close them for a second? I felt warmth on my arm from where it was touching Thomas’ arm.
I woke up to Thomas elbowing me. “Hey, it’s over.” I quickly picked my head up, which had been resting on his shoulder. In horror, I realized I had drooled a little on his shirt.
“Wow, this movie must have been really thrilling for you,” he joked.
“Ha,” I laughed weakly. “Wow, I don’t know, I guess I was really tired,” I mumbled.
We all left the theater, and as I began to wake up, I felt panicky again.
“We’re gonna go to a bar,” Chris said, “you wanna come?”
“Sure,” I agreed.
“I gotta get home,” Thomas said. He turned to face me. “It was really good to see you.”
He leaned over to kiss me on the cheek. His beard felt scratchy on my face. I watched his back as he walked away.
Over the next few weeks, I tried to go cold turkey, with Thomas and with Xanax. But when I didn’t get in touch with Thomas or take pills, I felt the same symptoms: fuzziness, inability to concentrate, the feeling that things were closing in on me, and the fear, no the certainty, that I was going to die.
I’d been lying to my doctor about how often I’d been taking Xanax, but eventually I felt so scared that I decided I needed to come clean.
“What’s you’re doing is very dangerous,” he told me. “You need to taper when you stop a powerful drug like that.”
I followed his instructions, shakily taking .25 mg less Xanax per week.
But tapering my doses of Thomas went a little rockier. I’d text him, then freak out when he took too long to write back, decide I was never going to be in contact with him, and eventually break down, get in touch with him again. He’d respond about once every three times, just enough to keep me coming back for more.
Months passed. Then one day, I went to a concert with some friends. I saw Thomas talking to a girl. She was younger than me, pretty in a conventional way, wearing a tight dress.
“Who’s that girl?” I asked Lauren, who was standing next to me.
“Um,” she bit her lip. “Ok, I didn’t know whether I should tell you, but it’s kind of a girl Thomas is dating.”
Unbelieving, I went over to introduce myself to her. “Hi,” I said.
“Hi, I’m Ella, Thomas’s girlfriend.” She blushed, sweetly.
I felt ashamed, sick, followed quickly by a sense of something like relief. My worst nightmare had happened. I could do anything now.
I stopped contacting him, deleted all texts and emails, deleted his number. I slipped up a few times. I’d get drunk and send him a Facebook message. Or get sucked into a black Internet hole researching his girlfriend online. I hardly ever saw him in person anymore. I cried and cried days and nights. I threw my phone. I stopped talking about Thomas to my friends, then eventually, even to my therapist. Once, I Photoshopped a picture of him and a picture of myself so it looked like we were together. I went on some dates and I read and saw movies and willed myself not to mention his name. I cried more and got drunk and got new jobs and moved apartments. I started a job I liked and hung out with my friends and moved again and went on antidepressants and fought with my parents and dropped out of two graduate programs. I started to work hard on my own projects and to feel like maybe I was becoming serious too.
Now, I never take Xanax. When I feel like I’m about to burst out of my skin, I try to practice “distress tolerance” and mindfulness meditation; I try to figure out what’s making me feel that way. And I don’t think about Thomas too much either. I still feel something when I do think about him, though. But it’s not desire, it’s more like nostalgia. For a time when I thought the answers to life could be found so simply in another person, or in a small white pill.