Jan/Feb 2019 Nonfiction

Return Address: The Labyrinth

by Leigh Stevens

Image salvaged from public domain


This is not my first time writing this letter. I'm not sure if it's the 6th or 12th or 100th draft. Sometimes I give up halfway through writing it. Sometimes I persist to the signature and it still feels unfinished. I suppose I keep writing this letter with the hope that this time, it will finally end.

I'm not crazy—at least, no crazier than you or anyone else. I do my best to act on evidence rather than assumptions. I resist delusion. When our paths crossed, I had reason to think my actions were justified, but absent that context, I understand why my behavior seemed crazy.

I assume you have not given me more than a moment's thought since the last time we saw each other. I recognize these events were only ever important to me. Nonetheless, it has always bothered me that I never got to have an honest or sober conversation with you to explain what happened. While your memories of what happened are conveniently hazy and degraded, I have all these journal entries keeping my memory too clear for comfort, and a streak of obsessiveness that has not granted me more than a handful of days in the intervening years in which you have not occurred to me in some form, either as a person, or a stab of shame, or a turn of phrase to describe something fleeting, beautiful, and just as meaningful or meaningless as anything else.

You get a lot of letters, so it's unlikely you'll ever read this one. That's fine. Most of its value is in the writing, anyway.


The year I met you was an odd one. I was still nursing my wounds from a particularly painful breakup a year or so earlier. I had just finished graduate school and had no solid prospects for employment. Despite an auspicious prelude to my academic career, I had yet to receive any job offers from the hundreds of applications I sent out for teaching positions, ranging from the permanent and high-paying to the temporary and shit-paying. I was beginning to panic. I'd spent six years living in the plains of fucking Nebraska, despite the fact that it was not the kind of place I could have ever called home, on the promise I would obtain my dream job somewhere else. Each year I spent there eroded me. I never found my people there. It felt as though my life could not really begin until I got out, went anywhere, other than Nebraska.

It was a month or so after we defended our dissertations that my friend and I decided on a whim to drive the three hours south to see your show. You commented later that three hours was a long way to drive, which made me wonder if you had any concept of the (literal and psychological) landscape of the Plains States. Our little oasis of a "city" in the endless farmland offered little entertainment; anything and everything interesting was at least a few hours away. Six years of living in a place like that changes your perception of distance and interims. We had driven twice as far to do things half as exciting as your show. I had been keeping up with your work for years, and yet this was the first opportunity I'd ever had to see you perform live. It was easily worth a paltry three-hour drive.

By the way, I wasn't in love with you then. I loved your music; I'd discovered and loved each of your many projects in turn. I was excited to have the chance to tell you how much your work had meant to me. But I wasn't in love with you. I didn't know anything about you.

It was unexpected that you hung out with us after the show. And over the course of those few hours, I found myself continually surprised at how familiar you seemed and how much there was to like about you. I felt bemused and flattered when you said my dissertation—of all things—sounded interesting and that you wanted to read it.

Later, my friend insisted there was a there there, and I wanted desperately to agree with her. Despite the rational bits of my brain telling me not to take any of your kindness too personally, I felt a connection with you I hadn't felt with anyone in a long time. My friend said I wasn't imagining it, that by all appearances, it hadn't been one-sided. She insisted I would be an idiot not to "go for it."

I gave you my contact information before we departed and maintained a flickering hope for a while that you would use it, but you never did. You did, however, Google me; you probably didn't know I knew that. I'm sorry. What one Googles from the privacy of one's own phone should be nobody else's business, but alas, analytics make that impossible these days. It was a small but important detail for me. It gave me hope that something about this connection was reciprocal, that some bit of me persisted in you as you did in me.

I spent an unmentionable amount of time on Google trying to find some way to get in touch with you. I found nothing but dead-ends. But, I found previously unknown pieces of you scattered around the internet to help pass the time. I found a trove of unreleased demos I'd never heard before, which made me feel like a kid on Christmas morning. I remember thinking when I listened to a couple of those songs in particular that if I ever talked to you again, I'd offer my totally amateur opinion that a solo piano record would be an amazing decision. When you released exactly that album a year later, the coincidence felt heavy.

After enough silence had passed that I was pretty certain you wouldn't get in touch with me directly, I decided going to another show was the only way to talk to you again and figure out whether what I'd felt had been mutual. In retrospect, I realize how odd that sounds; your silence should have said it all. But it seemed to me that there was more than one plausible explanation for your silence, and the ambiguity felt worth resolving.

I determined the nearest, soonest show that was feasible, which was in Austin, and I bought a plane ticket. Doing so felt strange. I've never done anything like it before or since. I felt deeply repulsed by the possibility that what I was doing was tantamount to stalking, or even worse, "following the band." I worried that if you remembered me at all, you would think less of me for being there.

So, I thought very carefully about how to approach the trip in a way that would neither assume nor demand anything of you. I accepted that the most likely scenario was you would not remember me at all. Part of me hoped that would be the case. It would have been unambiguous confirmation that whatever happened that night had been as one-sided as listening to your music had been in the years prior. I would be able to go back to the safety of anonymity and stop wishing for the impossible. I tried to explain this later, but I don't think you understood me. You said: That's what you hoped to get out of all of this? Sadness? Yes. In this case, sadness would have been a kind result.

But that's not what happened when I saw you in Austin. You remembered me, and you certainly didn't seem creeped out that I was there; in fact, you told me that you were "really happy to see my face again." The night that unfolded was beautiful, surreal, and—I should add—perfectly chaste. That's all I can bring myself to say about it for now.

In the months that followed, I felt consumed by you. I was initially sure you would stay in touch—you promised as much. But as days passed in silence, I felt increasingly confused and uncertain. My memories felt impossible, and I couldn't square them with the growing certainty I would never hear from you. I felt like an unreliable narrator in my own life story. I found myself looking back at flight confirmations, ticket stubs, YouTube videos of the show, the poetry book you gave me, just to reassure myself it had all really happened.

In comparison to the vividness of that night and my feelings for you, everything else in my life felt faded, low-contrast, like a photograph left out in the sun. Professionally, I was reaching milestones, but none of it made me feel accomplished. I had accepted a professorship at a private college on the east coast but felt no pride or excitement about starting work there the following August. I made a good-faith effort to date, hoping one of the men I met would turn out to be a real, solid, flesh-and-blood person for whom I could develop real, solid, flesh-and-blood feelings, but none of them was you. Everything felt temporary, and nothing felt meaningful, except when I was able to retreat into my memories.

I knew it was unhealthy to live this way, but I felt trapped in the obsession; I couldn't find the door. Believe me, I tried. I tried to transform my understanding of that night into an aesthetic experience or a moment of awakening or a Greek tragedy. I told myself the meaning of the moment we created couldn't be reduced to something as mundane as "attraction." I told myself it had been a performance art piece about the beauty of irresolution, something about how a moment could stand on its own, and its value did not depend on its ultimate consequences. It was a puzzle I saw everywhere, in every moment to which I paid attention, and I wrote about each moment. I wrote hundreds of pieces, hoping each time that by the end of this sentence, or maybe the next one, I would feel some sense of resolution.

But nothing worked. The writing led only to an awfully large portfolio of words but never closure. My efforts to date more, make new friends, work harder, all amounted to little more than a series of temporary distractions. I had a persistent sense I was not really grading or on a date or taking an afternoon walk by a lake; I was just pretending to do those things while I remembered you.

I finally admitted to myself that I needed your help to get out of this beautiful quagmire. I needed you to let me down. I felt guilty for needing anything from you; it felt implausible and unreasonable to ask. But after months of failed attempts on my own, asking you to help me confront the monster head-on seemed like my last hope.


This was the place to which I had gotten myself when I developed a friendship with Gina, just a few months before you met her.

I was teaching at a university in Nebraska temporarily, to pay the bills until my permanent position began, and Gina was my student. After she finished my class, she volunteered to help me with research. Also, Gina was in love with me. I sensed this early and tried my best to extinguish any hope she was cultivating. In the course of her incessant (yet somehow charming) questioning, I told her enough about myself to make it clear to her that I was (1) not attracted to women, and that (2) even if I were, I had a strong sense of ethical discomfort with the idea of having a relationship with a student, former or otherwise. But some people can extract hope from even the most hopeless situations, and Gina is one of those people. Despite all my attempts to maintain a safe emotional distance from her, she found my Achilles heel, and she pounced.

She had a pair of outrageously expensive, noise-canceling headphones, and I had been getting into bootlegs of some of your old live shows. I asked if I could listen to something on her kick-ass headphones. She happily obliged and asked about this mysterious music I was desperate to listen to more closely.

Gina claimed she was obsessed with your music before the end of the first song I played for her. Then, she claimed she was obsessed with every single album I loaned to her. While a part of me was skeptical of her enthusiasm (no offense), most of me just wanted it to be true that someone else in my real, actual life, might be able to understand what I was going through.

At first, our conversations were only about your music. But she sensed there was more to the story, and after a few weeks of pressing, she drew everything out of me. It was unprofessional, this level of sharing, and I still feel guilty about that. I knew better. It was my responsibility to be better.

Gina spent time with me speculating about all the things on which I had been ruminating alone. I shared with her the blog on which I had been posting much of my writing, and she raved about how compelling it was and asked incisive questions about how certain pieces were connected to you. Talking with her about you was like finally drinking water after days in the desert. And even though I knew, somewhere in me, that she was largely pretending to be invested in this situation because she wanted to be close to me, I ignored my doubts and continued to drink.

Once, she described a dream in which she was running around deserted city streets at night, chasing you, but you were a cloud of mist. She said that she kept trying to capture you in a bottle so that she could restore you to solid form. Somewhere near the end of her retelling, she slipped up and said my name instead of yours. I didn't let on I'd noticed.

I made plans to go to another show and talked through my plans with Gina. This one was much farther away than the others, and I felt self-conscious and uncertain about going. I told Gina how exhausted I was by my preoccupation with you, and how this seemed like my only hope of resolving it. I needed you to quash the hopes that stubbornly remained in me. I needed to be let down. Gina was incensed by my pessimism. I couldn't give up, she said, there was more hope here than I was admitting. If any part of me understood that she was really talking about herself and me, I ignored it. It was too pleasurable arguing with her. You are so wrong, I said. There is nothing here, I told her. Abandon all hope, ye who enter, I said.

Gina impulsively bought a ticket to a different show, scheduled for a week before mine. Ostensibly, she did this because she was "obsessed" with the new music you were touring and "couldn't help herself," and only secondarily did the trip become a fact-finding mission for me.

When she came back, she gushed to me about the way you supposedly talked about me. She said that every word you spoke betrayed more than you were willing to say directly. She told me you treated another girl ("some psycho fan," as Gina described her) unkindly, and did the work for me of contrasting the way you had been with me. She drew outlandish inferences about your "true feelings" for me. She said she ran into you the morning after the show as well, and that the two of you had a moment, and that the memory of me hung heavy in it. And what she was saying was a little too perfect to be true. I knew it was.

(I should interject that Gina started getting harassing text messages from the "psycho fan" a day or two after the show. They were relentlessly cruel, filled with disgusting slurs. I wasn't sure what to make of the girl's rage. Gina speculated that because you blew her off when she tried to interrupt Gina's conversation with you, she considered Gina a threat, but that didn't seem like a satisfying explanation. The vitriol was too disproportionate and bizarre. Anyway—more on that later.)

My resolve to see you again wavered more than once prior to the show. Gina's version of events complicated things—I wasn't sure why I was going anymore, and that seemed like good reason to question going at all. Maybe I wanted to be let down, or maybe I wanted something else. I couldn't bring myself to hope for the latter, but I was no longer certain about the former.

Nonetheless, a week later, I made the 15-hour drive. The performance itself was completely worth it, and I'll never regret being there to see it. But the trip was a nightmare. I was so wracked with anxiety that I couldn't eat for days before the trip and was living on liquid calories, too many of them alcoholic. When I saw you outside the venue before the show, the conversation was impoverished. I couldn't think clearly.

Unprompted, you apologized for not emailing (and recited my email address from memory). You said that you "hated email," and that anyway, there was just "nothing to say." I said I understood, but that was a lie. I told you about Gina's harassment woes, and you were sympathetic. You mused about whether you could help. We talked about the weather. We talked about a dead bird. We talked about how it probably would have been smarter of me to just fly instead of driving 15 hours.

And then you said I should find a jacket, because I hadn't dressed appropriately for the sudden cold front, and you went inside, and I kept standing out there, smoking my cigarette, marveling at the fact that sidewalks really are the same everywhere. Even here, a world away from anything or anyone familiar, I could trust this sidewalk to be as solid as any sidewalk at home. If I were to fall, this sidewalk wouldn't catch me exactly, not like a lover or a friend or even a concerned stranger might, but it would continue to be a real and solid presence in my life.

After the show, I hung around and tried to collect my thoughts, hoping to have a brief conversation with you that would put all of this to rest. I was palpably self-conscious. I felt exposed under everyone's gaze, convinced they could see the insanity that had led up to this moment. This sense was increased when I finally asked someone who worked there if you were still around, and he said that you "left, out the back." I don't think there was a "back." I think he was protecting you. I can still see the look on his face. It was a look I'd never had directed at me before, but I recognized it: he was uncertain and vigilant. He was sizing me up and trying to anticipate my next move and finding it difficult, because I might be an unpredictable person. He looked at me like I was insane.

As I walked back to my hotel, I kept asking myself what I had expected to happen, and why, and where it went wrong, and what I should do now. It was clear that travelling to this show had been beyond the pale. I felt bewildered by how I had ever convinced myself that this was reasonable behavior.

I talked to Gina when I got back to my room, and she frantically begged me to get back to the venue and wait for you. "He's still there. He has to come out eventually," she said. I told her I was not a goddamned stalker, and that I wasn't going to try to find you when you clearly didn't want to be found. It was over, I said.

I slept fitfully for about three hours, laid awake for another two, and then decided around 5:00 AM to drive home. If possible, it was worse than the drive to see you had been. In retrospect, what I experienced on that trip were the first symptoms of a panic disorder that would persist for the next several years, but at the time I assumed I was either very humiliated by what had just transpired, coming down with a flu, or possibly both. I collapsed when I got home, grateful I had no imminent responsibilities. For about 72 hours, I alternately drank, slept, and self-flagellated.

My wallowing was interrupted when Gina forwarded me a text message from the psycho fan, cursing Gina for "ruining her chances" with you. Clearly, you must have asked her to stop bothering Gina, and clearly this woman assumed it had been Gina who talked to you. I felt bad to have rekindled the fan's fading rage, but I also felt reassured by your gesture. I felt so embarrassed in the wake of the last trip and was certain you thought I was insane; this seemed to suggest you still felt some measure of good will toward me. I mulled over the wisdom of trying to send you a "thank you" through someone I knew who was in contact with you, and ultimately I did. She didn't reply, so I wasn't sure whether you ever received the message.

Things with the fan escalated quickly. Over the course of the summer, her texts became increasingly threatening. I tried to advise Gina on how to deescalate things. I told her to stop responding, hoping the girl would eventually lose steam. But the texts just kept coming. Some nights, Gina got texts every few seconds, strings of repetitive abuse and profanity for hours upon hours. It didn't seem as though the girl ever slept. I begged Gina to block her number, but she said she wanted to be able to monitor her texts in case things became dangerous. At least, I told her, she needed to document everything and file a police report.

After one tearful conversation too many, I intervened directly. I asked Gina for the fan's number, and I called her and left her a polite "cease and desist" voicemail. I told her that if she wanted to talk to me she could, but to stop harassing Gina, and that I was only willing to speak on the phone—no texts. I thought that if we could hear each other's voices, I would have a better shot of getting through to her. She refused to speak to me, and the abuse continued. Now, at least, it was mostly directed toward me rather than Gina. I considered this progress of a kind. Eventually, after months during which neither Gina nor I responded to her, the texts became fewer and further between, and then they stopped completely. It seemed as though the entire episode might be behind us.

Then, after a month or so of silence, I got a text from the fan saying she was on her way to Nebraska. She asked for Gina's address. I was incredulous. I told Gina to be vigilant but reassured her that this was clearly just an intimidation tactic. There was no way that she was actually driving from Maine to Nebraska. That would be insane.

A few days later, Gina called me in a panic. The fan had found Gina's address somehow, and she and a group of her friends were on their way to her house. I told her to call the police, and I headed over, too. I had just missed the confrontation when I arrived. Gina, frantic and scared, said they had screamed at and threatened her, and had only left because her neighbor had come out to see what all the fuss was. They told Gina they would be back; she was terrified to be at her house alone. For the better part of that afternoon, I sat in front of her house in sweltering summer heat, in a car without A/C, phone at the ready to call the police if they returned. They did not.

Later that night, Gina texted saying she had run into them at a gas station, and the guys had beaten her up. She was pretty sure her ribs were fractured. There were assault charges pending. They were trying to blame everything on Gina. She didn't know what to do; she was afraid that she might go to jail.

I sprang into action. I helped Gina organize all the evidence that she had—the months and months of phone records, the saved text messages, and so on. I reached out to some of my lawyer friends and got a recommendation for a good defense attorney, whom Gina hired.

Gina's assailants were wealthy and had a cutthroat lawyer. The assault had been caught on a security camera at the gas station, which I initially thought was great news, but Gina said it made her look like the instigator of the fight. Didn't it matter, I asked, that this woman had been harassing her for months? That there were two police reports on record? According to Gina, it did not, which I found baffling and infuriating. I don't know how many nights I stayed up talking with Gina, reassuring her, strategizing about her case and pieces of evidence that might be useful. No one deserves to go through such an ordeal alone.


All of this was ongoing when I came to see you one last time. Gina had just returned from a settlement hearing, and the results seemed promising. The end was in sight.

Primarily, I was hoping to have the conversation I had failed to have with you previously; my feelings for you remained as preoccupying as they ever had been. But, I also wanted to give you the broad strokes of the shit-storm we'd been through. As exhausting and bewildering and painful as it had been, it was also a hell of a story, and I was sheepishly a little excited to relay it to you. So imagine my surprise when your first words to me were, "I never emailed her."

My first thought was that you must have gotten my thank you note after all.

I never emailed her.

Your words ping-ponged around in my head. It only took a fraction of a second for some deep, visceral truth to click into place, but its full implications weren't quite in focus yet. I was trying to concentrate on the other things I needed to resolve with you. I couldn't split my attention between that and the task of sorting through just how much of my time, energy, and sympathy had been futilely expended over the last six months.

I think all I managed to get out in response was: "Oh my god. If you never emailed her, then... But she was assaulted, they broke her ribs. But then how did she know?" That was all gibberish to you.

Translated: If you never emailed her, psycho-fan had no way of knowing that I talked to you. And thus, she had no cause to escalate her abuse. And she had no cause to come to Nebraska and have her friends beat the shit out of Gina. And if Gina hadn't had the shit beaten out of her, then every single word Gina had spoken to me over the past six months had been a complete fabrication. I realized that she must have faked the text messages, although I couldn't imagine how she had done it.

Later, Gina would tell me that anyone can claim an unused number on the internet and send texts from it; Gina even thought to choose a Maine area code.

The constant anxiety, hours-long conversations, and sleepless nights had all been toward solving a fictional problem. Gina had never been arrested. Gina had never been deposed. Gina had never met with the real, actual lawyer that I found for her. Gina, not the woman, had kept me up for hours with incessant texts. Gina had called me a "dyke" and a "whore" and Gina had told me countless times to go "fuck myself." Gina had texted herself, in the wake of a devastating tornado in our area, the hope that the next tornado would kill her and her entire family and her dogs. Gina had somehow justified all of this to herself under the guise of some fictional villain, despite the fact that she knew I was using that information to make actual, real-life decisions. Now I knew how M. Night Shyamalan characters felt right after the reveal.

And if Gina hadn't been struggling with a criminal-legal battle over the last several months, what else had been a lie? I knew she had really met you, because you confirmed that directly. But had she really hung out with you after the show that night? Had she really seen you the next morning? Had you two really had conversations during which it was clear that you harbored feelings for me? Or had she lied about everything? Did she think I had been lying about what happened between you and me? Is that how she justified her behavior?

Fragments of these thoughts were murmuring (and occasionally shouting) in the back of my mind as I tried to focus on the comparatively mundane issue of "what happened in Austin" with your inebriated ass.

I asked you what had happened that night, from your perspective. You told me that "sometimes a moment is just a moment." I responded that I'd tried very hard to just be "literary" about the whole thing, appreciate it as a fleeting, beautiful moment and nothing more, but that when it came down to it, I was a real, actual human, and I had ultimately failed to convince myself that the night meant nothing to me, or that your very real words and actions had not had an impact. You countered that you had been direct with me. To the contrary, I said, I had found much of your behavior contradictory and confusing. I told you that my goal in having this conversation was to try to put a period at the end of our sentence, and in a way, if possible, that didn't necessitate me being a naïve idiot or you being a dick. I think that's when you almost fell over (from the whiskey, not my words) and asked chidingly if I was "mad" at you.

You were being boring. That was something you'd never done before. And you were addressing the concerns of a version of me who was also boring. That was the worst part of it. You kept saying I needed to accept that you were in a relationship. I tried to tell you that I wasn't there to poach you away from your girlfriend, that I didn't regret the real world in which I lived, and that I didn't begrudge you happiness and never had. But I don't think you believed me. I can understand why. I said that I just wanted to understand why all of this had felt so important. You said that I was "just a kid," and that at some point (when I grew the fuck up, ostensibly), I would recognize how silly and trivial all of this was.

I asked you if this was something you did a lot with people; that seemed to make you feel defensive, but it wasn't my intention. It was a genuine question. I was trying to contextualize what had happened, construct a new alternative explanation for how you behaved toward me and the juxtaposed silences. Instead of answering, you told me to "stop psychoanalyzing you." That was so cliché, it stung.

In fairness, you didn't have any reason to make charitable assumptions about why I was there. And I'm ultimately glad you said the things you did; I wish you had said them sooner. It was finally clear that you harbored no feelings about me or that night. You didn't even remember most of it. You didn't find it cute or endearing that I kept coming to your shows. I was not as special as I had felt, and that was exactly the confirmation I had been craving. It was a relief to finally feel wounded by you.

I told you I'd stop. You said, "Good. It makes both of us crazy." I stiffly accepted one last hug from you, and that was that.

My feelings for you didn't immediately switch off that night, but they were punctured, and all the air leaked out of them over the next few months, and with them, a great deal of the self-hatred I had built up. Eventually, I was able to talk with a couple of people about what happened without feeling like I was revealing the most shameful thing I'd ever done.

I haven't talked to Gina in years. She caved quickly when I confronted her, admitted to the fake phone number, lying about the assault, the charges, the lawsuit. She had lied about even more than she admitted—but that's another story. I wanted to forgive her; she had a hundred excuses for why she had done it all, and I felt genuine sympathy for her. She must have been truly sick, hurting, and lonely to have done all that she did. But I quickly realized I couldn't maintain a friendship with her because I didn't have a friendship with her. I had a fictional friendship with some pretend person. I've found such relationships are hard to sustain.

Within a year of my last conversation with you, I fell in love with someone else: a real flesh-and-blood man, with whom I had a mutual, flesh-and-blood connection. I was relieved to discover I was still capable of such things. I am married to him now. We feel lucky to be with one another. He is older than you but does not think of me as a child. We love each other without self-consciousness. We have never lied to one another.

That's why I feel guilty that all these years later, this story still haunts me, gnaws at the edges of my consciousness, periodically taps me on the shoulder and demands to be told. Despite what you predicted, it has never ceased to feel important. When I look back on it, I do not feel anything like condescension for my past self. I can totally see where past-me was coming from.

I think that brings us up to date.


I watched the pilot of a '90s drama the other night; it reminded me of something, as badly scripted television so often does.

All this time, I've been thinking you were special, and that I was special, and that there had to have been some special explanation for what happened between us. Specialness has been the premise underlying all of my shame and self-hatred. I was especially repugnant for the importance I placed on everything that happened between the two of us, and the way I couldn't let it go. You were especially desirable and blameless. There's nothing like a '90s drama to underscore how mundane and overplayed our special problems are.

There's nothing strange about the fact that Austin haunted me. We played chess by candle light. You had your arm around my waist as we played, and you pulled me close to you and told me you wished we could "just stay like this." And then you called yourself dumb and solicited my reassurance. You held my hand. Later, you pulled me away from the others and into a back room. Dawn was breaking in the window behind you; you were looking at me so intently and steadily. You hesitated and then revealed that you had a girlfriend. You told me you were sorry. I reassured you there was no need to apologize, despite the sinking sensation in my stomach.

Hours later, we sat on a bench outside your hotel and smoked cigarettes, savoring the last moments until I had to leave for the airport. You told me I was beautiful. You found my sarcastic edge attractive. You said what we were doing was the shitty, indie-movie version of cheating, and that you and I were the ones the audience would root for to get together in the end. You gave me a poetry book you said resembled me in its dark humor. You kissed me on the cheek again and said you would keep in touch. You asked me not to forget about you.

And I didn't. Because those were powerful words and meaningful actions. Because I was attracted to you. Because I'd been living in an interpersonal wasteland for years. Because you were the first person I had connected with in a very long time. Because despite the tender moments between us, we didn't sleep together, and that felt important. I knew better than to pursue you. I knew how unrealistic everything about that situation was. But I wasn't crazy for hanging on to that moment. I didn't make up what happened.

My guess is that you have spoken words to other people like the words you spoke to me. You have said them to people who, compared to me, had less time, less persistence, less money for plane tickets and gas, and more meaning and connection in their lives, so you didn't hear from them. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, you (as in, you, specifically) can say and do what you did and forget about them, because you're comfortably siloed. You get to pick and choose who can email you and who can't. But the ripples from those stones you throw don't cease to exist just because you turn away from them.

I can't fault you for dismissing me, or for finding it irritating that I insisted on talking to you that last night, or for thinking I must be "crazy." When I reflect on those months, I too question whether my characteristic level-headedness is an illusion that will shatter at any moment. I am always surprised when it doesn't. But, of course it doesn't. None of this happened because I was especially strange. None of this was especially anything. It was a TV trope.

The last time we spoke, you wished for me that I, too, would be able to consider all of this unimportant someday. I guess you thought that was a kind thing to wish. But I don't. The torch I used to carry is out; if it weren't, I wouldn't be able to stomach writing this letter, much less sending it. But I respect the person I was enough to admit that there was something explicable about the way she reacted to you, and that it was worth paying attention to that moment. Past-me was guilty of nothing more than trying not to "miss it," of trying earnestly to understand the same things anyone is ever seeking to understand.



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