“I learned to yawn and make my eyes water so that when I squinted, temporary lenses formed over my pupils. Then I could see for a moment.”
“Squint” by Elise Wallace
This morning I woke up to a letter lying on the empty side of my bed. At first I smiled with surprise, thinking it was full of sweet words from him. When I picked it up, it was heavy with pages. The lick-sealed envelope only added to its weight.
The still-sealed letter lays next to me on the concrete stoop of my apartment but it’s closer to the planter of ripe tomatoes than it is to me. We never write notes to each other. We only occasionally communicate with writing — a text to plan dinner or coordinate social plans. Writing to each other is what we do at work. We write meticulously crafted e-mails for clients or detailed followup lists from meetings. Writing is what we each share a love for, privately in our journals. Letters are the result of carefully placed thoughts and artful composition. A letter from him holds formality and finality.
I look up at the sunset sky. The fading yellows, sharp blues and soft oranges could be composed for a sunrise instead. It’s evening in late summer. I’m sitting on my front stoop with a glass of wine in my hand. The door is open and the music spinning on my record player tinkles softly in the background. I keep thinking that the sky could be mistaken for morning.
I’ve been playing this perspective-flipping game with my mind since I was a kid growing up across town. I blur my vision and block out enough observations to trick my mind into thinking it is looking at something that it is not. I take a sip of cheap red wine. The stemless glass—stemmed glasses make me nervous—probably doesn’t help convince my brain that it is early morning instead of fading day. The smells and sounds are different too. Cicadas, mosquitoes, birds and the occasional bat prelude the crescendo of summer night buzzing and clicking. Morning sounds are softer, less heated.
I tilt my head and squint my eyes at the sky. I try to convince myself that it is earlier that morning, before I got the letter.
I knew from our first night together. I knew he didn’t want me in the way I deserve to be desired. We worked in the same office for over a year and became close friends. We each brought a bit of warmth and stimulation to the dreary office life that neither of us wanted for much longer. Each day we set aside a few minutes to have a conversation about anything but work: outer space, books, music.
He sat in his desk chair, wearing a dutiful pair of khakis, faux leather shoes he bought online, and a t-shirt or button up, depending on the meetings for that day. T-shirts were for days we brainstormed with internal staff. His two or three button-ups were reserved for presentation meetings with clients. I pulled up the extra chair and spun around: first seeing his bearded face, then a framed Rilke poem on the wall, then a window, a large whiteboard with the next three months mapped out in color coded marker, then the back of his head as he turned to pull up a song or video to share. His dark hair extended down the back of his neck, whether it kept going I could only assume at the time. Now I know that it does. His chest is wide and deep and covered in the same dark, thick hair.
After friendly dinners or during work trips kisses, and mutually supported cuddle sessions, but nothing more than that. For most of that year we were happy with the arrangement. There was comfort, but no commitment and it seemed neither of us were inclined to delve into a formal relationship with each other. I never felt compelled. I even dated other people and got broken up with a couple times.
Then he invited me on a surprise weekend getaway.
He wouldn’t reveal where we were going, what we were doing or any of his intentions for the vacation. We both felt stressed and burned out by our jobs, and needed a break. That was his inspiration for the trip. He was an expert at indulgent relaxation. I knew this from his warm, cheese-filled meals on snow days or the impeccably planned dinners at exceptional restaurants with bills charged to the company card. Sometimes extra bottles of champagne appeared at the end of work trips and there were frequent mid-afternoon whiskies at the bar next door to the office. He was skilled in the art of self-restraint but only because he was a connoisseur of indulgences.
We arrived at an upscale hotel less than an hour from town. This was just far enough away that neither of us would see co-workers or friends. The ornate Victorian building sat next to the interstate but the deep red velvet curtains, dim bulb lights and palm-fronded courtyards resisted any outside intrusion. While we waited for a dinner reservation, he proposed the idea that we each come up with characters to play. I entered the bar while he checked into the room.
My name was Genevieve. I was a jazz singer in town for a show. I was dressed in all black, sipping on an old-fashioned. The theatrical bar conversation flowed into a candlelit dinner in a lofty dining room with live piano music. A bottle of wine and a shared dessert were not spared.
Afterwards, I joined him outside for a post-meal cigarette. We walked up and down the sidewalk. His smoke and my breath mingled around us in the cold February night. Our conversation had slowed but neither of us were uncomfortable with the silence. He complimented my navy stand-up collar wool jacket. I took a drag from his cigarette even though I didn’t smoke and couldn’t inhale. I didn’t that night, I pretended.
I grew up in the suburbs, across town under the same sunset-sunrise I like to switch around. The neighborhood of my childhood has well-grown trees and smooth paved streets with beige, gradual curbs that lead to angular, grass lawns. Outside of the neighborhood the sprawl of strip malls, fast food chains, banks, gas stations and car repair shops expand to mark the boundaries of my childhood world.
As a kid, I developed a habit of playing tricks on my mind using my eyes — flipping my perspective, changing what I see. Some evenings, in the back seat of a roomy suburban, I’d catch glimpses of the horizon piled high with dark blue and purple clouds. Back then I squinted my eyes to trick myself into thinking we were driving towards a giant mountain range. To me it was believable that those mountains were just behind the power lines and restaurant signs.
Once I noticed the envelope, and felt its weight, my head hit the pillow. My eyes focused on the layers of dust clinging to the ceiling fan blades. The blades remained fixed in place, despite the spinning in my head.
I listened and the silence of the sunlit apartment was only broken by the birds outside my second story windows. The quietness felt heavy and I was reminded of the collective inward breath of a music ensemble before the start of a song. Only the musicians know the sound of the first few notes in their heads, silently, while the audience waits, unknowing.
I walked the short length of the apartment from the eastward facing windows in the warmly lit bedroom to the kitchen. At the west end of the house, the light in the kitchen was cool and blue. There wasn’t any coffee brewed, not even a used cup. He had brought over some of his expensive cooking utensils for dinner: his best set of Japanese culinary knives, a microplane grater for gourmet Pecorino Romano, and a small but powerful blender. He had taken those as well, but that was to be expected.
The premonitions I felt in my chest weren’t new or surprising. Looking back in a moment of honest reflection, I had felt them before. At the same time, I recalled the delicious pasta dinner the night before paired with wine. I thought of cuddling on the couch listening to one of our favorite albums. With those memories running through my mind I attempted to feign disbelief that anything could be wrong. Not being surprised by something is a result of retrospection. Observations of that past bring clarity to the present moment.
This is different than seeing what is coming. I have a habit of sticking around until I am the one broken up with — even if I know and truly believe the relationship is doomed. There had been ripples of unhappiness within our relationship. A palpable fear existed between us and it was managed, like we managed our communications at work, with diplomatic tones, formal requests and careful control of private emotions. Truthfully, the fear was what would happen if I let loose my true thoughts and feelings. Our arguments and moments of discomfort were always associated with my ardent attempts to suppress a strongly emotional reaction. Seeing what is coming towards you from the future. That’s called foresight.
It was the lack of a morning kiss or any effort to leave me with a few whispered words that told me what was inevitable. A sense of flight and freedom coursed through my body, immediately followed by a crushing wave of anticipated loneliness.
The record reaches the end of side B. My wine glass is empty and despite my squinting, the night isn’t turning into day. I blame it on how few early mornings I experience. No matter how much I want to be a ‘morning’ person I can’t get up early enough to watch the sun rise. I scold myself sometimes and set multiple alarms. At one point I even recorded my voice yelling obscenities and constructive criticisms and set it to play at 6am. The only time I get out of bed early is for work because it is required, or for plans with a friend, because of the guilt at having someone waiting on me.
I stand up and go inside my apartment intending to pick another record but pour myself another glass of wine instead. I place the bottle back on my desk, which is next to the record player, which is next to the couch. Nothing is very far from anything in my apartment and the AC window units only make it feel smaller by blocking the sunlight. I look at the crate of records again.
There are so many albums I can’t play anymore, at least not until the memories fade. The albums he shared weren’t only songs I enjoyed listening to, they meant something beneath the chords and lyrics. He showed me the rewards of listening intentionally and the value of form well-matched to content.
In our conversations I began to see what it was to approach and truly absorb a piece of artwork, how to pull out threads and weave them into my own life. I had never listened to music with a desire for it to change or inform my perspective. Music had always been a medium on which to project my preformed thoughts and ideas. While he made coconut butter blended coffees in the kitchen, I sat in bed listening to whatever song he had chosen to play on his way out of the bedroom. Two professional-level speakers flanked the end of the bed and faced me.
It is dark now. Night peeks through open windows, on a warm breeze and cicada choruses. I don’t feel lonely on summer nights. Restless, perhaps, but not lonely. Tonight was a night we would have cooked dinner and eaten outside, underneath a string of lights.
I pick up a Leon Bridges album, Coming Home. There’s a loose association with the crooning melodies and bright red cover art, but it isn’t painful. The music had not been a part of the soundtrack of our relationship. I place it on the turntable. Before I walk away I notice the corner of another album, one that I can’t bear to hear. We listened to it that night in the hotel.
In the hotel room there was champagne and one bed. He started drawing a warm bath. He stood by the window with the curtains pulled closed and looked at me. I stood with a glass in my hand. We were both fully dressed. Then he made an announcement.
“I want to say, there are no expectations about tonight. We both should only do whatever we want and what we are comfortable with.”
His habitual diplomatic tone, I knew, was an effort to dissuade any volatile emotional response. I had learned to give him curated responses while I developed my own script.
“Thank you for saying that, I appreciate it.”
My eyes moved from the champagne, to the bed, to the bathroom. The wine and drag on the cigarette made me feel tipsy. I wasn’t sure what other options the evening offered, the story seemed to be well on its way. But his announcement had reminded me of the question that had been burning in my mind, threatening to flash to the surface of conversation during all those workday whiskies and late night music sessions. I was confused by the feelings I was developing for this man, the feelings that made sense in the context of such a night with its symbols and scenery: dinner, hotel room, champagne, drawn bath, one bed.
I began speaking. The wine and the champagne had unsettled me enough that my voice cracked when I spoke and I hoped it wasn’t obvious I was about to cry. I squinted my eyes to stop the tears.
“So, you don’t have any feelings for me?”
I looked directly at him. I knew this was not what he wanted me to say — though he had, with his obsessive penchant for planning ahead, most likely anticipated that I may have this reaction — and I wanted to watch his own.
He looked uncomfortable, and upset by my hurtful tone. I wondered if he was disappointed that his evening was no longer so enjoyably indulgent.
“No. Not like that.”
“Then what is this?”
“We both have been stressed and needed to get away. I thought an evening of good food, drinks, and companionship would feel nice. I like your company, and talking with you, your friendship is wonderful but this is just something —because we’re both adults — that I thought we could enjoy together. But if you want, I’ll call a cab and you can go home.”
I swallowed my tears and said something about coming to terms with the situation and that I still had enjoyed the evening, and still could. The story wasn’t going to have the emotional structure I wanted, but I didn’t have the strength to leave the momentum of the night. The story of a free dinner, expensive wine, champagne and a hotel room was one I’d heard before.
We sat in the steaming bathtub together, drinking and talking. I felt relaxed when we crawled into bed. He sat on my back and gave me a massage.
The story set in motion continued, and I struggled to envision a platonic cuddle session ending the night. I saw the rest of the scene played out this way: naked massage leads to sex. I felt helpless to change the script. My helplessness didn’t come from alcohol or fancy food. What I struggled to see what my own power. I wanted to shake my fist at the author of this play. Somehow I’d convinced myself that there was an author besides myself. While I lay quietly, his hands moved over my back, never straying from the small bones of my shoulders and ribs.
I played another scene in my head with a different ending: I refused his hands on my body and request that we crawl under the covers and talk through the night, or fall asleep embracing. Such an end to the night felt like a move backwards when the most plots move forward, or at least the ones that sell books and movie tickets. I struggled to discern an element of choice from the clear trajectory indicated by the placement of his genitals over my backside.
I made sure I was on top when it happened. I made sure I could control this part, at least. When I lowered myself on top of him, he was barely present. His breath came out in wheezes. His eyes were closed. I knew it had been a very long time for him.
We didn’t start dating until months later, after I was let go by our agency and started another job. I had been out of the office for a few weeks when he came over to my apartment for coffee and a break from work. His job was much more hectic now that I was gone. He looked stressed, unshaven, and tired. When I greeted him with a hug, he held on longer than usual. He asked me if I would like to come over to his house for dinner later that week. The formal invitation, and earnestness in his eyes — I knew what he would ask me. He missed me.
He proposed a relationship after a home-cooked meal of pasta and wine. We were sitting across the table from each other. I don’t remember that we even held hands. The proposition was respectful, formal and somewhat presumptuous. I realized, and I’m sure he did as well, that I would not have come over for dinner if I hadn’t known my answer. I remember feeling triumphant. We spent the rest of the evening listening to music and partaking in the indulgences he had bought for the specific outcome of my acceptance.
The next day I called my best friend and she voiced my deepest inner thoughts: were he and I really right for each other? Did I really feel enough interest to pursue him? She hadn’t gotten that sense from me until now. My response was a hopeful justification of our year of friendship, and sex, as a foundation for a solid relationship. Though I felt a deep set resistance to a relationship with him — foresight I ignored — now that the opportunity had presented itself, I saw things differently.
“Why not?”, I responded.
We spent many nights and weekends together at his historic country house. The home was originally a barn and was set back from the road in a small field ringed with trees. There was a perfect view of the sunset from the top of the field. He kept two chairs at that spot for our evenings together. His orchestrated meals were exquisite, and I hardly had to bring anything other than wine. The mornings were quiet by the trees and most mornings he cooked breakfast.
After breakfast our conversation usually stopped. We had outlined our days ahead and there wasn’t much else to add to subjects we’d covered the night before. I was quiet while I sipped coffee. During this time of the morning I had gotten into the habit of watching him clean up the dishes with his usual efficiency. If I wanted to help, I asked first what task he preferred me to take on. We used to say that we knew how to manage each other, like we managed our clients. It reduced his stress level if he was able to delegate rather than accommodate a fellow manager, or dish cleaner.
Usually I wandered over to the books on his mantle — the most influential for him, and many that he had bought copies of for me — and pulled one to sit down and pretend to read. Sitting on the couch I listened and watched and waited. I could sit on the couch in his company for hours, reading, and talking and drinking coffee, but he preferred solitary productivity. I hoped that he wouldn’t notice my need to be with people. I viewed that as a weakness.
Our differences collided one tearful night at my apartment. In a state of severe emotional need I asked if he would stay the night.
“I don’t want to be alone tonight.”
“I’d prefer to go home and sleep in my own bed before work tomorrow.”
I broke the facade I worked so hard to polish for him. Though I knew an outburst was the last thing he wanted to deal with, I could not walk on eggshells, balancing my emotions, any longer.
He asked for time to consider whether or not the relationship was working for him. Through my tears and hopeless thoughts, I still presented a desire to pursue a relationship together. A dinner was arranged for his final decision that had kept me waiting a sleepless week.
I brought a bottle of white wine for a meal of fish at the outdoor table facing the rising field of new spring grass. I feigned a hopeful attitude and kept conversation relaxed, mature and calm. I was shaky and sweaty underneath my dress, which I’d worn in case he gave me the answer I knew he wouldn’t. In case we could embrace and he could reach his hands around me and underneath my dress. It would be easy for him to touch me.
On the other hand, in my car was a prepared bag of things to return: a pair of shoes, books, an old t-shirt and unused toys he’d purchased for us: handcuffs, a ball mouth gag.
After I climbed into my car crying and left his house, I drove to my favorite park in town to drink the rest of the white wine. I walked back through trails on a carpet of leaves beneath spindly trees and fading light. I reached a secluded spot, sat on the ground and turned off my phone. Watching the sunset across a marshy pond, I didn’t squint to change the light.
When I was in fifth grade, my teacher called my mother to report my squinting. For months, maybe longer, I purposefully chose to sit at the front of the class. When that wasn’t close enough, I learned to yawn and make my eyes water so that when I squinted, temporary lenses formed over my pupils. Then I could see for a moment.
I was embarrassed when my mother asked me about this technique. I thought no one noticed my secret trick. Mother told me that having weak eyes wasn’t a flaw. I didn’t like my first pair of glasses but always remembered looking out the window on the drive home. I could see each individual leaf on the trees. I didn’t need tears to see clearly any longer.
The sun was low and the sky such a dark blue that I could not pretend it was morning. I looked up at the sky and saw a few faint stars and blurry darts of fluttering bats.
I knew, that night at the hotel, when we both asked different questions of each other, that he didn’t want me. He wanted the meals, and the conversation, the physical touch and the emotional support, but not me. I was a woman that fit nicely with his edges. He wasn’t concerned with the edges on the other side of me that made me whole, the ones that scared him, or scratched him. No matter how hard I squinted, how much I wanted to see it, we didn’t fit together.
The letter still lays next to me. I squint at the envelope trying to read the typed pages underneath. There are too many pages, too many layers to make anything out. Only my name on the front is intentional in its purpose. That letter is for me and I’m not going to open it.
Elise Wallace is a Winston-Salem, NC native, barista coffee-slinger and freelance non-profit consultant (fancy word for fundraising, strategizing and doing whatever it takes to make arts nonprofits be successful). She is on Instagram @ee_wallace.