Absolution

By: Lindsey Knapp

I’m reading a book of essays in Bongo Java when I remember that one of his eyes is slightly lazier than the other. I look up from the page and stare into space for a second while I replay the memory in my mind. Me, in the passenger seat. Him, in the driver’s seat (my car, the one with the rust-covered roof, he didn’t have his own then). Him, saying something sweet to me. I remember it was sweet from his little half-smile and the feeling I had after, like he’d covered me with a soft blanket. His hands, left on the still steering wheel and right just between us, twitching a bit so I could tell he wanted to touch me. His eyes, one on mine and one focused somewhere over my right ear. I remember commenting on that: “sometimes I can’t tell whether you’re looking at me or looking behind me,” with a laugh. He bantered back. I do not remember what he said. I remember sunshine, but not where we were or where we were going.

***

 There are several things I would like to be thanked for. One of them is about the flowers. I did a lot of things on the day of his sister’s wedding—set the tables under the tent for two hundred and fifty, distributed place cards, put out the candlesticks, introduced myself to aunts and cousins and family friends—but I remember the flowers most. I tied twine around each bunch and hung them around the edge of the tent, and then I climbed back up the ladder to take a picture, braving the indulgent smiles of the aunts and cousins and family friends because I so wanted proof that it had all really happened. I was jittery. I barely ate the Chick-fil-A offered to me at lunch. My hair was frizzing, and I was sweating circles under the arms of my sundress.

I would like to be thanked because it hurt me, all the trying and sweating and hanging flowers. I was a girl who’d planned her wedding-going outfit for weeks, skirt-shirt-heels-earrings-bracelet, asking a boy to smile at her effort. The boy was just mad he’d been made to wear a suit.

The picture of the flowers is still on my phone. It was the one I saved, after I deleted all the others.

***

The first time we made out was under a magnolia tree, up against the red brick of one of the music buildings. It was late at night, September 26th, freshman year. I remember the date because we’d started dating the day before. I try not to think about the kissing itself because that’s sad. Instead I remember one thing I said, and his response:

“This just…doesn’t feel like my story, you know?” I said it breathlessly, my face very close to his. We were baby freshmen, our dorm rooms barely unpacked, and we’d met only five weeks before. I had every right to pause. My memory is cast in cynical tones now, though. It’s easy to voice your doubts when you know the boy will kiss you straightaway and make it all better.

He had the perfect big-strong-boyfriend response: “I want your story to be my story.”

***

I see him once or twice a week now. I come to Bongo Java three days a week in the morning, two days a week in the afternoon, and usually on Sunday nights. He is here often, usually around 10 on a weekday but sometimes later in the morning. Two weeks ago, when I saw him, I barely recognized him. He’s been so disassociated from me that I can see him as a stranger, his expressions unreadable. He spoke to people I don’t know, or know only by sight: a girl from my math class, a boy I’ve seen at the gym. When I saw him last week, my eyes stayed too long. His shoes are new, I’ve never seen them before; he is even more fit than I remember; his profile, lean and tall, is so familiar I’d know it anywhere. I remember what his forearms feel like and the way he walks, toes slightly in. This scares me. I count the months since we ended, estimate how many shampoo bottles I’ve gone through since then. This is an effort to prove to myself that I am unmoved. I never ignore him, though I want him to think that I do; I always know just exactly which table he’s chosen and who he’s talking to. This morning he read a book, underlined sentences every few minutes, his computer closed inside his bag. He is better at focusing than I am.

***

He visited me at home over summer break, once. We’d been dating for eight months at that point. It was late May in New York, which is one of the best times in the city, behind June and September. We walked twelve miles on the first day: I had an interview for a summer job in Queens, and he met me after and we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, to Wall Street and over the island to the Hudson and then down to the Statue of Liberty. I wore silly, unsupportive shoes, as usual, and once we went into the subway station at Battery Park the protesting pain in my right foot was so bad I had to take a rest every five minutes. By the time we got off the train at 116th street I was hobbling.

“I’m sorry I’m making you go so slowly,” I apologized as we walked up Manhattan Avenue. “This is a pretty annoying first trip to the city for you.”

 “I don’t mind,” he said. He looked down at me and smiled, softly. “You’re not a bother. You’re my Lindsey.”

I thought it was beautiful. Later, I thought it was cruel.

***

We had coffee last month, the latest of a few times we’ve sat in Bongo Java post-breakup and see-sawed between knowing too much about the other person and asking questions like what are you up to lately?. Well, I drank tea because I don’t like coffee, and he drank nothing because he didn’t feel like waiting in line. I mentioned, near the end of the conversation, that it had apparently been exactly two years and one day since we broke up. My roommate had pointed that out to me the day before. His response was delivered with a confidence that grated on me: “I’m really glad neither of us remembered. It wouldn’t say good things, if we’d kept track of it like that.”

He has no idea.

***

    It was the August after freshman year, and twenty-seven days from our one-year anniversary, when we sat across from each other at a table by the windows in the front room at Bongo, and he said this: “After you go to that meeting, could we meet up? There’s something I need to talk to you about.”

    Something about the way he said that—his solemn face and steady voice, like he was about to do a difficult thing but was convinced he was righteous at heart—made everything around me stop moving. “What? You realize this is freaking me out, right?”

    He nodded, just once. “I know.”

    That was when I realized he was going to break up with me. His fixed face laid it out plain, that he cared more about whatever he had to say than he cared about me. Wary of others’ eyes on my devastated face, he walked me out of the coffee shop and across the street, and we sat on a spot of grass in the gravel parking lot behind the Thai place. When I had a panic attack five minutes into his breakup speech, he said, in a miserable voice, “Lindsey, please don’t panic right now.”

    I don’t sit in the front room anymore.

***

    My friends tell me that they think he’s an ass. For breaking up with me, sure, but also just in life. He’s full of himself, he’s arrogant, he grates on your nerves.

    I appreciate this because agreeing with them makes it easier to not feel like shit. I can write nice-and-tidy stories in my head about how he broke up with me because he sucks. He broke up with me because he couldn’t handle commitment; he broke up with me because he was intimidated by my strength; he broke up with me because I loved him too much, too soon, too honest. These are not enough. None of the stories I write explain how I was in love with a boy who left me, and they all reduce him to a stereotype instead of a living-breathing person. I try to ignore this.

But also I think I am an awful person. On that coffee date last month, I asked about his parents—because honestly, will I ever not love them?—and he mentioned that his relationship with them has been strained lately. “They need to come to terms with the fact that I’m not going to ‘go back’ to where they are spiritually,” he says. “I’m not a boomerang.” He says it about his parents, but I can tell he is trying to emphasize this to me, too. “You’d probably get along better with my parents than I do, at this point,” he adds.

    That last bit makes me want to get down on the floor and curl up knees-to-nose and cry. Perhaps I am the cruel one, for being so quick to stuff him in the awful-ex-boyfriend box. I feel guilty for every time I’ve considered reaching out to his mom again. I miss her, but she is his mother.

***

    The two-years-later coffee date ended sooner than I’d expected. After forty-five minutes I could find nothing else to say. We were both doing our level best to convince the other that we were doing beautifully well, everything is great, wow so nice, life is fun always. It gets exhausting. I wondered if I should even have agreed to coffee: am I a masochist, or am I just stupid, or was I prompted by some sense of pain or longing or something in his face and in the way he looked up so quickly when I approached him? “I’d love to hear about your summer sometime!” I’d said when I ran into him the week before, meaning I’d love a ten-minute catchup the next time we ran into each other. He’d responded with “How’s Wednesday? When are you free? I have to put it in my calendar or I won’t remember,” meaning let’s-have-coffee. I could not find a reason to say no. I said yes.

     “Thanks for doing this,” he said when we were done and he got up to go. “It really means a lot to me.”

***

    I met him under a tree on the first day of college. I don’t know what kind of tree it was, but I remember that he had his messenger bag slung over his shoulder and he was wearing a tank top. Or perhaps I’ve convinced myself that that’s how it looked, after so many times sitting with the memory. I made my roommate introduce us, because she’d met him at orientation and I thought he was cute. We kept running into each other after that: we liked the same campus ministry, we both showed up at a lecture for extra credit, we both ate breakfast early in the cafeteria. Well, that last one wasn’t quite true. I’ve never liked breakfast. I went, every day, because I knew he’d be there: set my alarm for 6:15, earlier than any of my friends, so I could go to the gym and get to the cafeteria by 7:15, where I knew he’d be on his second bowl of Rice Krispies and first cup of bad cafeteria coffee. We were often joined by others, people we’d met in classes or through our roommates, but I don’t think either of us was fooled by these smokescreens. I don’t remember a time, that year, when it wasn’t all really just about him.

***

    The summer that came nine months after he broke up with me, I considered myself well on my way to being over it. I told myself that since I could put on the right clothes and hold coherent conversations about things that had nothing to do with him and keep my feelings in neat beige boxes at the top of my closet, I was obviously doing fine. Doing well, in fact.

I was wrong. Because he was there, sitting right beside me in the backseat of the Land Rover, when I landed in Uganda for that summer. He knew Africa better than I did, and he was telling me all the things that I was doing wrong, his voice louder in my head than my own. This should be easier for you, Lindsey, he said. I could see his blue eyes beside me, not looking at me, refusing to look at me because I’d disappointed him. This should not hurt you. This should be fun. You should be good at this. I couldn’t breathe. I closed my eyes to shut him out, and when I woke up half an hour later he was gone—replaced by an empty seat that had been there all along—but I still felt the weight of his words in my mind. Seared like a cattle brand in my skull.

***

    I know that the versions of him my heart knows—sometimes achingly sweet flutter-memories tucked in corners of my past, and sometimes terrifying pronouncements of judgment over parts of me that have been measured and found wanting, always wanting, never enough—are not true. I can run into him every day in this coffee shop and have never-ending every-so-often forty-five-minute coffee dates and never know more than I know now.

Someday I want to stop finding ways it hurts.