It’s official. I am a writer now. I received my first rejection notice. It’s funny because my submission was about being rejected. Maybe the irony still stings a little. I had promised if my submission were turned down, I would post it here for you all to read. As a writer, I find I often pull from past experiences to build my characters and plot. Below is a little bit of that.
This thing called life sure has its ups and downs. I’m glad to be here able to experience all of it. Even being dumped! Sounds crazy maybe, but it showed me another dimension of my heart and what it’s capable of.
Better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. – Alfred Lord Tennyson
This is What I Look Like
By Melisa Lewis
The wine is making my head tingle, in a good way. I’m attending a wedding with Michael, the man I love. While he isn’t much of a dancer, I let it slide because of how handsome he is and how electric his touches are. He leaves the table to retrieve another round of drinks; I cannot help myself, I lean over to a friend and say, “I think I’m going to marry him one day.” Verbalizing this inner thought is dangerous; I feel the warmth of red grow up my cheeks, and I turn from sight. What if he had heard me? We have only been together for a few weeks, at least officially. I’ve banked a lot of years pondering our future and figuring out the best way to get next to him.
The first time we met was in high school over a decade ago. I was an awkward fifteen-year-old standing on the sideline at the homecoming dance tagging along with a group of girls I hardly knew. We were busy observing the other girls sway their hips on the dance floor, and steal kisses from their dates when chaperones weren’t paying attention. I gawked at their maturity. How could these girls be the same age as me? Everything about them amazed and terrified me. Their painted faces, professionally coiffed hair and artificial French manicures reminded me of adult actresses on television. I felt out of place in my old floral dress stuffed with shoulder pads. The pantyhose I wore were my mother’s and sagged around the knees; my white dress shoes had no heel and reminded me of canoes. My frizzy hair and spiked bangs marked the end of the 1980’s era; a generation with fashion as ugly as I felt.
The room was dark, which allowed me to hide along the wall behind other wallflowers. Most of the girls seemed so alive and ready to burst with a peppy flair I could not quite master. I stood silent, taking in the show, while a group of boys walked over. I recognized a few of them from previous school years, but one, in particular, was new to me. He was tall with sandy blonde hair that curled in odd directions. I remember looking at his soft face and thinking how handsome he was.
“Hi. Would you like to dance?” He said.
I did not make eye contact. Clearly, he was not talking to me. I had been sizing myself up to the girls next to me all night, and I classified myself as a six at best. I stood next to solid tens; girls with breasts and lip gloss. I bet they smoked cigarettes too. Clutching my hands in front of me, I looked for the girl he was addressing.
“Um. Hi? Do you want to dance?”
I stared at him and then looked at my girlfriends who were in their own conversations. The boy was talking to me, his hand outstretched as if I had already given him an answer. He wasn’t smiling, his eyes told me he might be as scared of me as I am of him. I did not breathe as he took my hand and led me to the dance floor. The music faded away, and the gymnasium became suddenly bright as if there were a spotlight on us. I could tell I was blushing again and my palms were slippery with sweat. Maybe it was also his hands that were wet. I gained enough courage to ask the boy’s name.
“So. What’s your name?” As soon as I said it, I felt inadequate to be in this situation. My stomach tightened, and I wondered how long the song would be.
“Michael. What’s yours?”
“Sara. Are you in tenth grade too?
I was engaged, but with several thoughts springing into my head on what to say or do next I became confused. I hit autopilot – a nice option I didn’t know existed until that very moment. Smile, speak, be interested, don’t pass out. My goals were clear. We said a few more sentences to each other that consisted of a few words each. Our dance was stiff, and I could feel the hair on the back of my neck sticking straight out, matching every nerve in my body. Total awareness of how close his body was to mine caused me to feel abnormally light.
We only shared one awkward dance, but it was enough to last me for years. He was the first boy to ever show interest in me—well the first attractive boy anyway. Michael called me once, and I stumbled through the conversation unsure of how to keep it alive. I had never been in a position to try to hold someone’s attention or impress them with my wit. After I hung up the phone, I walked to my room and let my mind torment me on the hipper things I should have said. I failed, he never called again, and anxiety told me to hide from him in the hallways at school. The torch I carried dulled and I packed it away while I discovered other boys in the typical teenager fashion.
I sit at the wedding thinking how this boy at the high school dance remained out of my life for so long, yet here we are. He brings me a glass of white wine and smiles as he sits next to me. His hand rests on my knee and gives a gentle squeeze. I lean my head towards him and give a kiss on his freshly shaved jaw. His scent and heat have me picturing the tangled sheets I hope to share with him later. The wedding music changes direction and a slow song comes on. Michael tilts his head towards the dance floor with a wink. Leaving our drinks behind, we interlock hands and make our way. I rest my face on his scratchy wool jacket and feel him lean forward and kiss the top of my head. Our chests touch and my soul blends in with his. He sings along in a silly voice, and I shake my head and roll my eyes. When I look up he flicks his eyebrows up proclaiming his innocence. This boy has my heart, possibly more than is healthy for a girl like me.
As the music plays, I remember when Michael resurfaced during my college years. We were at the local bar that let anyone in with a decent fake ID. Michael stood taller than the young men around him, wearing baggy jeans and a fitted t-shirt. He had the same sandy blond hair cut shorter and perfect smile. I tensed as soon as I recognized it was him. It was almost hard to look at him, his eyes intimidated me still. The uncomfortable dance from our teenage years replayed and my instinct was to hide. It was too late I had been seen. Michael walked up to me, and I froze.
“Sara right? I think we went to high school together.”
“Yeah. Michael, I remember. I didn’t know you went to school here?” I began to second guess my intuition; how could we have been going to the same college all these years? He had been this close, and I hadn’t sensed it or run into him before? The thought of us living a parallel but separate life was impossible for me to believe.
“I transferred in last semester. It’s closer to home, and my girlfriend goes to school here.”
Hearing that he was involved with someone hit me with a strange mix of emotions. I was relieved because the thought of trying to woo him terrified me, yet the devastation of thinking I would not be able to get closer to him was crushing. From that point forward, I made it my mission to maneuver into his path as much as possible, regardless of his commitment to another girl. I managed to have a few conversations with him during the year and even crashed at his small apartment off campus when a friend left me behind at a party. His girlfriend still hadn’t made an appearance; I questioned if she existed. His mysterious girlfriend kept my walls up though. I created a profile of her, I was sure she was gorgeous and tall and thin. Noticing my round bottom, curly hair, and lack of confidence drew me to the conclusion that Michael was out of my league. I accepted that we would never be intimate and I drew up rules about how I treated him.
Desperate to keep him in my life, I threw him into the friend category and ignored lustful thoughts. Every night before I fell asleep, I would dream of his hands on my shoulders, leaning in to exchange breaths and press our lips together. I guessed what he might look like as he slept and how messy his hair is in the morning. I wondered how smooth his back would be without a shirt on and how he might take his coffee.
These silly games played out in my imaginary world for several more months, and then it was time for everyone to graduate and disperse throughout the country. I had no idea where Michael landed and dared not ask around in fear that someone would figure out how desperate my soul was to connect with his.
The song at the wedding comes to an end, and he whispers in my ear asking if I am ready to get going. Michael does not appreciate formal events; he is eager to get home and remove the tight shoes and noose around his neck. My apartment is closer. Already late in the evening, we put on comfortable clothes and curl up next to each other on the couch with a nightcap. He seems to be sitting further away than I prefer, so I inch toward him and lean on his shoulder.
“Do you remember when I came back to the city?” He asks, somewhat stiff.
“I do. I remember hearing that you were coming back after that company went under. I can’t say I’m sorry, it brought you here, and I’m happy about that,” I smile and take his hand in mine. I love his big warm grip, it always lets me feel safe and invited.
“Sometimes I have this feeling that something isn’t connecting for me like I thought it would.”
“You mean your new job? It’s a big city, you can look for another.”
“No, not my job. This place. This city. I’m not sure I belong here.”
“What do you mean? You have a ton of friends here, your family is close, you have a good job, a nice place to live. Me. You have me. You also have a fish. That seems pretty connected to me.” I try to lighten the mood. Something is eating at him, I can tell by the way he sits up so that we aren’t touching. Fear spikes inside of me as I worry about the unknown path of this conversation. He isn’t happy, I have to fix this.
“It’s not about the material things in my life. I don’t know….” He trails off in his thoughts.
I flashback to the first time I saw him again after college. There was a picture of him on social media with a thumbs down and a tagline that explained he had lost his job and was coming home. Being single at the time I dug around to figure out where he would land. Trying not to sound overly interested, I figured out which of his friends he would most likely be seen with. Placing myself at the right place at the right time I was sure to be invited to gatherings where I may run into him. My friends and I were all in our late twenties now, and a lot of people were settling down. At the time I only wanted to see him, to be sure he was still the person I thought he was. Someone I could role play within my dreams. Then there he was at a holiday party, a bit older and more filled out. I surveyed him from head to toe every few minutes and made sure to be within a five-foot radius of him all night. By the end of the evening, we were elbow to elbow in laughs and conversation. We sat on a bench outside with other partygoers still waltzing to the beat of being twenty-something and carefree. His hand rested under my ear, and he brought my face to meet his.
“Do you know what I mean? I’m not sure this is the right place for me,” he says.
“I’m not sure how you can say that or where this is coming from. We just had a really great evening,” I check his expression to see if I’m getting through, but he won’t look at me. He stands and walks to the kitchen, dodging inquisition.
“I get this feeling that you’re not into this like I am,” he says from the other room. The accusation is an avalanche falling on top of me. My chest heaves; zipping panic races around my forehead leaving me dizzy.
“What are you saying?” How can he think that I am not wholly committed to being with him? My life has orbited around him for years. I stumble to my feet needing to see his body and prove to myself that he is still here and we are even coupled. In the kitchen, his hands are on the counter, and he’s looking at the ground.
“I’m sorry. I just don’t feel as if this relationship is what I thought it would be. When I danced with you, it felt like we lost something. Did you feel that too?”
“Are you kidding me?! No, I didn’t feel that.” The floor under my feet is shaking, or it’s my knees giving out. I love him, but I will not let him see me cry. My pride wonders if this is a test. If I show him I’m weak he will throw me away. I grit my teeth as he picks up his overnight bag and starts towards the door. I am unable to move, my heart thunders. My brows are so furrowed they are pinching my forehead. A spike of tears threatens me, I bite them back but my nose refuses, and I sniffle.
“Is this what it looks like when I’ve hurt you?”
“You can’t hurt me. Get out.” I’m flat. I stand firm with my chin up, the expression wiped from my face. Michael will never know how many years of myself I gave to him. I twirled my imaginary life around his image, and when we became a reality, I tiptoed into the relationship as if walking on glass. Now it’s breaking. Broken.
He leaves. Solitude forms a bubble around me with a staggering swiftness. I’m alone again. My footsteps, hollow and slow, carry me to the couch where I remained silent and perched for hours. Fear, depression, anxiety, confusion scramble around my insides so fast I cannot hold onto one of them long enough to process. My boy has left me.
An ax cuts me in half and tears a scream out in ways I did not know my body could. My back jerks up and down from violent sobs that explode; I try to catch my breath between gasping cries. I replay Michael’s question if this is what I look like when he has hurt me. Clenching my fist, I pound the couch. Plumes of dust escape, catching in my throat. How dare I allow myself to get so close and hopeful. I’ve been careful all these years to keep him just arms distance away so I could live beside him safely. It was his idea to date, I wasn’t sure I should. This is his fault—or is it mine?
Coughing, I head to my bedroom to find a dark place to hide from the cruelty of lost love. On top of the blankets, I curl into a ball and feel hot tears roll sideways past my cheekbone and into my ear. I no longer care. This is not how this night was supposed to go. A few hours before we were dancing, I was breathing in the soap that clung to his neck while he held me on the dance floor. He was smiling the entire time. I was sure of it. I replay the scene over and over, a vicious merry-go-round of thoughts which make me ill. Pulling a pillow under my head, I close my eyes to sleep.
Hours later, light breaks through my blinds. Morning, I hate you. Why has the sun been permitted to rise? It is signaling that today is another day, life will be forced to go on. The brightness fills my room in a taunting manner, telling me I should get up. My bones ache from sleeping on my side and hugging my knees. I swivel to stand and am hit with a head rush which forces me to lie again. I must have cried enough salty tears to fill the ocean, and my body feels empty. Rising again much slower, I make my way to the bathroom and notice my reflection in horror. There I am, knotty hair, red eyes and nose, puffy cheeks, and a glassy look that shows the disconnection of a wanted reality, “What did I do wrong?”
The question urges the tears to reappear. I’m not clever enough or worthy of love. I thought I was unique and special, a ruse only an idiot could make. The air escaping my throat feels foreign as if his leaving somehow changed the oxygen levels on his way out.
What do I do with myself today? Shower? Dress? Eat? None of these feel vital. I feel like my pulse no longer pumps through my ugly body. This is what a broken heart is. A crash of desperation and self-hatred brings me to my knees. A dull driving pain around my head and chest sinks my heart deeper. Anger and sadness teeter back and forth. I go back to bed, where I remain the entire day.
If the sun refuses to stay hidden beneath the horizon, I will bury myself in my room and hibernate until the shroud of distress lifts enough for me to care again. This is good-bye.
Hidden in solitude, this is what I look like when I am hurt.