Yo. So. The last story I wrote was Institutionalized Addicts, back in March 2016. That’s right; it’s been almost a whole YEAR. But, as I’ve declared 2017 my writing-intensive year, we should be seeing more short stories, hopefully.
If you’ve read any of my short stories before, please clear all expectations of what you expect this one to be like – or else you might be disappointed for no reason. Please and thank you.
Because this story is really long, I’ve put up a downloadable version on Dropbox, which you can download here.
About My Not-Quite-Ex
Loving her was like hopping onto the fastest, most terrifying-looking roller coaster in sight the second you entered an amusement park, while high on coke and with adrenaline already pumping from having just watched a really good thriller movie. Everything is just set up to make you lose your fucking mind, and I kid you not – I lost my fucking mind.
I mean, it’s not like I was aware of what was happening to me. I thought it was true love. Of course, now, I know it wasn’t even love at all. It was more like infatuation so engulfing, it was like I was under a hypnotic spell. Maybe she was a witch. (For such a wild, untamed, and dangerously talented character, magic couldn’t possibly have been entirely beyond her capabilities.) So I guess I lied in that first paragraph a little bit with the “loving her” part, but I liked the sentence so much that I couldn’t be bothered to change it. Now allow me to tell you about the first person on earth to drive me insane.
Between Lydia and I, for the duration of our relationship, there was hardly a moment of cool. Everything was always pure, destructive heat. She was the fire to my gasoline.
I remember the day we first met, the day she first talked to me. I was standing outside the dining hall, with my arms crossed and a pair of shades on, even though the night was black as my ebony skin by then. I was leaning against the wall, silent, while the other new kids around me socialized with each other. I was trying not to look socially awkward by using the nonchalant lean-against-the-wall and the shades as a cover-up for my inability to comprehend how total strangers could strike up meaningless conversations with other total strangers with such apparent ease. (Lydia told me at some point that my coping mechanism involved convincing myself that all their chatter was vapid and not worth joining in with anyway because it helped me deal with not feeling welcome to the conversations in the first place. She always explained me to myself in frustratingly accurate ways.) Consequently though, looking socially awkward was probably the only thing I managed to achieve with my gimmicks.
So there I was, silent and awkward against the wall, and then this girl seemed to materialize from the darkness like an apparition right in front of my sunglassed face, and casually AF, as if this wasn’t the first time we’d ever even seen each other, said, “You remind me of a strawberry.”
Can you imagine not falling in love with a person whose first words to you ever are “You remind me of a strawberry”?
You will think I am exaggerating when I say this, and you might continue to think this until you have the misfortune to experience her for yourself, but Lydia’s personality bore a striking resemblance to a natural disaster. It was a mighty wind, a tornado that swept you up so fast into its swirling chaos that you barely knew what was happening. Colours, sounds and scents meshed and you felt like you had transcended a realm, metamorphosed into some sort of superhero. Your senses deceived you into thinking they were hyperaware and more functional than ever before, when really, they were just overwhelmed and confused. And somehow, you were only vaguely aware that you’d lost your breath, remaining entirely oblivious until you actually began to asphyxiate. And asphyxiate I did, eventually.
From my lightning-quick response, though, you wouldn’t even have been able to tell that I’d just had the wind knocked out of me. That’s one thing about me: my mouth has always been the quickest part of my entire being, saving and condemning me within split seconds in any situation before my brain has even had a whisper in edgewise about the matter.
“You remind me of a strawberry,” she’d said.
“Must be because I’m sweet, juicy, alluring and an aphrodisiac,” I responded, immediately striking one of my atrocious impressions of a male model pose, with one palm cupping the back of my head and the other on my hip.
“Nah,” she said. “It’s probably because of the shape of your face. And the fact that you’re wearing red.”
How anticlimactic, I thought, even as my emotional temperature rose higher and higher. Everything about her personality worked in her favor. It all added to her unpredictability, the way she would go from outrageous to less outrageous when you expected her to level it up. Because when you thought about it, really, these were actually semi-logical reasons for someone to remind you of a strawberry. But then, she levelled up the outrageousness again.
“I’m going to call you Strawberry from now on,” she declared. “Bye, Strawberry.”
Then she disappeared into the dining hall, leaving me to process whatever the hell had just happened. (I kid you not: she called me “Strawberry” nearly exclusively for half a year.) This first encounter probably lasted about 20 seconds, or even less. But it was like someone turned on the stove under me and the heat could only go in one direction: higher. There was no way to turn me off.
The Catastrophic Crush must have begun right at that moment when she said those fateful words: “You remind me of a strawberry”. And like an avalanche, it was all downhill from there. But just as water takes a while to heat up, so may an avalanche begin with a flurry of pebbles rolling down a steep slope. The first changes within me weren’t major causes for concern. The Catastrophic Crush was like a background application running in my mind, constantly tuned in to Lydia. I began to experience the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. As soon as I was exposed to her once, I started involuntarily seeing her everywhere. I knew her name was Lydia before she ever told it to me. (Did she ever even tell it to me? She might never have.) She was a year older than me and a year ahead of me in school, which were just two of the many things in life with which she had a head-start on me. Between classes, I spotted her. I heard her name dropped in several conversations I was not meant to have been listening to. My eye would find her seemingly without searching in the midst of a crowded cafeteria. Lydia. Lydia. Lydia. She was my brain’s refrain. It was looking for her all the time and could never get enough.
The true story of how we became friends is still slightly fuzzy to me; all my memories are clouded by the smoke of the emotional heat, like old photographs burned almost past recognition in a destructive house fire. In retrospect, though, I can confirm that it was all Lydia’s work. She played life with a deliberate, impressively manipulative technique masquerading as innocent. She was always in the driver’s seat, no matter how often I thought I was steering.
Before heat starts being alarming and uncomfortable, it is warm, inviting and fuzzy. My warm stages were when I was certain I was in love with her and everything about her, down to her shoelaces.
Let me tell you about her shoelaces. She collected them; old, new, stray, bought, donated, plain, colorful, all kinds of laces. The story is that one day, she had gone through all the pairs of sneakers she’d owned since a child, and before her mother donated the shoes to an orphanage, she had removed their laces and begun to braid them together. (I don’t know how she expected the orphans to wear sneakers without shoelaces but hopefully the kids figured it out.) She ended up with a chain long enough to be used as a necklace. So she wore it as one. Then, for a year, she began to collect more, of any color and type whatsoever, and as soon as she had three of similar length, she would attach them to the pre-existing chain and braid them together.
“It’s a necklace made of shoelaces,” she told me when I asked about it. “A lace-necklace.”
“Why don’t you just call it The Neck-Lace?” I suggested with a wink and exaggerated emphasis on the word “lace”.
“That’s brilliant,” she declared.
And from that moment, it was christened The Neck-Lace.
By the time we ended, The Neck-Lace went around her neck several times like a scarf and she no longer bothered to tie the ends together, calling it cumbersome to have to mess with ties before and after every shower. It was her “visual signature”, making her immediately recognizable in the midst of crowds, even as it confounded everybody not only that such an object could exist, but that someone could possess them with such unrelenting devotion. She wore it every day, to school, to church, at home, on weekends. It almost made her Public Enemy Number 1 with the school authorities, but she was inexorable. The Neck-Lace was technically not against legitimate school rules, and she was quick to point out to the authorities that whatever problems they had with her shoelaces were not formal and objective, but personal and emotional, and they needed to deal with their issues as such. She got away with ten times the amount of rudeness I would ever have been able to. She was a rebel to the core, and this defiant, chin-up-to-danger attitude she possessed only added to her attractiveness. Her addictiveness.
Her essence felt like it could be inhaled. That’s what I was getting high as the moon off (until it brought me hella low). Her personality was the reason I lost my fucking mind. The strange Neck-Lace was just a small part of a mystique so deep it seemed bottomless. She was the kind of eccentric, exhilarating girl John Green writes YA novels about. Even I, whom she called her “best friend” for about 2 years, never could fully understand her. I don’t think it was possible for anyone to. To believe one has understood Lydia to the extent that they can even so much as predict her opinion on something is like being under the delusion that you hold the very same molecules of wind in your hands that passed you by ten minutes ago. But somehow she was the kind of changing that remained sort of the same throughout the changing process. Everything unexpected that Lydia did was still a Lydia-like thing to do. And I know this might not make a lot of sense to you but it does to me, so I don’t care. This feat was like a difficult and impressive magic trick she managed to master, seemingly without trying. She was complex, magical, and her existence had no boundaries. Ah, look. I’m talking like I’m in love with her again. And maybe I still feel like I am. She’s one of those people – when you’ve been close enough to them for long enough, the effect they’ve had on you never truly leaves you. They turn into permanent stains, like tattoos branded into your psychological makeup.
I fell hard because she was digging my pit. I would be sitting there, minding my own business – or pretending to – and then she’d show up with her classically bouncy step and her Neck-Lace, drop down into the seat opposite or beside me, nearly yelling what I supposed was her greeting: “Strawberry!” Later, she changed my official nickname. She called me several things, but the one that stuck the longest after “Strawberry” was “Bunny”. When I tried growing my facial hair out for as long as I could against school regulations, my moustache began to come in bristly and uneven, and it looked, according to Lydia, as if I had whiskers. Hence the nickname “Bunny”. (Come to think of it, I must really have been far, far gone, if I allowed someone to call me “Strawberry” or “Bunny” for any amount of time, especially when I couldn’t even stand being referred to as Marcus.)
When she called me, it wouldn’t even matter whether she said my name (which she always pronounced right) or a ridiculous nickname, because whenever she called me, she would make it seem like she was happier to see me than she was to see anyone else in the world. I fell even harder because I was ignited by the idea of being liked, being somebody’s favorite person, especially if that somebody was Lydia. As a weirdo, outcast, people-hater, constantly feeling rejected and unimpressed by the society around me, being actively sought out was a huge deal for me. I felt more important being sought out by Lydia than I had ever felt in my life. She made me feel good about myself. She would call me and my breath would catch, and it would take me a while to register that it was me being called, then I would remember to breathe again, and once it registered, I’d want her to call me again and again, because no one else sounded like that when they called me. Half the time, they couldn’t even get my actual name right.
I remember how she watched with rapt attention, her intelligent eyes switching back and forth between me and a classmate of mine, who had just referred to me as “Marcus”. When he had pronounced it, my fists had clenched as an automatic reflex, my eyes narrowed, and my throat constricted.
I forced out, “It’s Markos.”
“Marcus?” he repeated himself, with a daft expression I wanted so badly to slap off his face, and maybe make him bite his own tongue in the process. “Isn’t that what I said?”
“Not Marcus; Markos. With a ‘K-O’, not a ‘C-U’. It’s really not that difficult.” I was struggling to keep my cool.
His face scrunched up in what I could only interpret as disgust – illegitimate, I might add, because what right had he to be disgusted with my name?
“What kind of name is Markos?” he wanted to know.
“It’s my kind of name, and it’s the Greek equivalent of the Latin name Marcus, if that answers your unspoken question about where the ‘K-O-S’ came from.”
“Ah, so it’s the same thing, so that means if I call you Marcus, there’s no difference.”
He was begging for slaps now. And now, more than wanting to make him bite his tongue, I kind of wanted to knock out a tooth out as well. I had to grab on to the edge of the table to prevent myself from flying out of my chair in an uncontrollable rage.
“The difference,” I said slowly, with a false and forced calm, is that ‘Markos’ is my name, and ‘Marcus’ isn’t.”
“Can I just call you Mark?”
“You may not.”
“Whatever, bro. You’re weird.”
As he walked away, I internally debated whether it would be worth it to throw my cup at the back of his head.
Right after he was out of sight and hearing range, Lydia, who had silently and acutely observed and absorbed all of this, asked me calmly, as if I hadn’t nearly reached boiling point, “How was your day, Strawberry?”
Lydia told me, near The End, that I was a very angry person. Nobody, not even myself, knew what to do with all the anger and frustration in me. It made me wild, untamable and could also be the death of me. I hated her for saying it because that wasn’t something I wanted to hear or admit to myself. Ironically enough, being told the truth of my inherent anger made me angry. The sizzling started as soon as she said it, and perhaps with her witchcraft, she could see the metaphorical smoke coming out of my ears, and so she quickly made a joke out of the situation, attributing my unearthly anger to my name, Markos, which was associated with Mars, the Roman god of war. I was always angry, she explained, because my name wanted to make me a war god. This kind of bullshit, I did like to hear. Bullshit aside though, she was completely right. The word to describe me is flammable. There has always been something within me, just below the surface, waiting to explode, and the smallest flame could have set it off. Unfortunate, then, that Lydia was something several times more potent than a small flame.
To this day, I can’t even tell if she was really attractive or not. My 14-year-old self thought she was absolutely gorgeous. But then my brain was full of shit at 14. (Still is, anyway.) Looking back, I can’t say whether I just thought of her when I got hard, or I got hard because I thought of her, but either way, “Lydia” and erection occupied the same space and time where I was concerned on multiple occasions. Puberty was the worst possible time to meet a girl like that. You can’t meet a girl like Lydia when your hormones are raging out of control. I try to stay away from her still, just in case I see her and lose my fucking mind again, because I don’t trust myself anymore.
I wanted to kiss her all the time. Of course, I couldn’t do it at school, not just because of rules but because she wouldn’t let me. Which is not to say I didn’t at least try. Every opportunity I got, my hands were on her waist; lower down whenever I could manage it, which wasn’t often. And I know I sexualized our way-longer-than-average hugs, but how could I not, when I was on fire for her? The mistake I made was trying to convince myself that all the feelings were mutual, even though I knew deep down that they weren’t.
We weren’t dating. I knew we couldn’t date from the very beginning, back in the Strawberry days, when we had casual conversations that weren’t as deep and hot as our interactions grew to be in the two years following. She didn’t date because her psyche wouldn’t allow her to believe in the practicality of her dating anyone yet, or something like that. (She phrased it better, I swear.) That people around her always looked like they were wasting their time with people they didn’t even truly like, and after five months of flirting, would break up after less than three months of dating anyway. She said she had no time to waste on all that; she had important stuff to do. And what on earth was the point of getting into a romantic relationship with someone she knew she couldn’t marry in the long run? If there was a foreseeable, certain end in sight, she wouldn’t bother with the beginning (Makes you wonder, doesn’t it, if she ever foresaw The End with me.) “In any case,” she had said conclusively, “I don’t feel attraction towards anyone. I don’t think I ever have.” To be very honest, I don’t think I understood just about anything she said on this topic. I convinced myself it all made sense, though. Because even at those early stages, Lydia was an infallible genius in my eyes, and I hung on to every word that fell off her lips like I was desperately clinging for life; like without them, I’d fall into a bottomless abyss. And because I believed she was right, wanting to date her would have put me in the wrong. So I convinced myself that I didn’t want to ask her to be my girlfriend, and consequently, I never did.
If anything at all she said was true though, at the very least, the asexuality part certainly appeared to be. And so it baffles even me how I tried to tell myself she wanted me carnally, as much as I wanted her – or that she wanted me carnally at all. The first time I kissed her, nothing but our lips touched. She didn’t kiss me back, she just… let me do it. I couldn’t stop thinking about that kiss for a week; she looked like she’d gotten over it a second after it happened. Now that I think about it, whenever I replay the event in my mind, I see derisive amusement in her eyes. I’ve probably infused it into the memory myself as a way to justify hating her, but I think even then, she was probably aware, probably laughing at me for the effect she was having on me. She probably knew, all along, that she was playing me. That I was letting myself be played by her.
Subsequent times, she would always be the one to pull away, cutting me off when I made it very clear that I was half-crazed with wanting more, consumed with heat, smoking uncomfortably with desire. Eventually, she refused to let me kiss her at all, stopped letting me touch her entirely. The Chrife in her had come all the way out. She said I was “encouraging lust” and that it wouldn’t benefit either of us. And what about her, I wanted to know. But I think I already knew. She’d kind of told me before; before all of it even got so messy. None of it was lustful for her the way it was for me. She engaged in it all to humor me, until she got too bored to do it anymore. She wasn’t attracted to me; she wasn’t attracted to anyone. She never had been. She felt nothing when our bodies connected, when our lips collided. They meant nothing more to her than letting me have my fun at the playground, like a kid in nursery school – and perhaps, for her, an experimental game that was easy enough to turn off whenever she felt like it. I think that was wicked. For this, at least, I feel like my hatred of her is justified.
So she was never quite my girlfriend, no matter how much it seemed to the outside world that she was. It used to please me when she let people believe it, or insinuated that it was true. It was admittedly too much work to explain that our “best-friendship” (with some benefits for a while) was more complicated than even my brain could grasp. I resent it now. I wish everyone who called us or thought of us as a “power couple” could understand what a bloody mess our relationship really was.
Back then, it gave me a sense of power and pride, to be associated so closely with such an enigmatic, artistic celebrity figure. This is where I mention probably the most important thing about her identity to the outside world: she was a visual artist. Half her clothes had permanent stains of acrylic paint on them, including her school uniforms. (You can imagine how they complemented her Neck-Lace.) More often than not, she had a couple of paintbrushes and pencils stuck in her braided hair or unkempt Afro, and charcoal stuck in the fingernails of her still-elegant hands. By the time she was 16, her reputation as an artist had begun to rise faster than anyone could ever have anticipated. Even among people that didn’t know her as personally as I did, Lydia was the image of a shockingly young, fierce, rebellious, talented, outspoken influence, and being Markos, the best-friend-that-everyone-assumed-was-her-boyfriend gave me a share of the power spotlight. I resent her for it now because I can’t look back at those times and see myself as her companion; the image of me as her fucking pet keeps getting in the way.
Now, boys and girls, pay close attention: if you ever meet a “Lydia” (or Lydia herself, since I’m not sure there’s anyone else on the planet like her), make sure you don’t fall in love with her. It will be an uphill battle and I’m not certain if it’s even possible to resist the temptation to fall, but at least try. Because if you fall, you will land in something too big for you to handle. She will burn you up, and while you’re smothered in cinders, she will walk out unscathed. She looks vulnerable when she wants to, and when she talks to you sweetly and intimately, you will think that she is softer than you, but in reality, she’s titanium and you’re nothing better than wood.
Our friendship – or whatever the hell it was – lasted nearly 3 years. More like 2½. I don’t think I will ever be fully able to explain how The End happened because I still don’t fully understand it myself. It definitely ended, I can say that – not fizzled away the way natural friendships do; ended, like the way a movie ends. No cliffhangers, but no resolution either. It’s just that the credits rolled, and you knew the story was over. It didn’t end with a big, dramatic, explosive disagreement either. There was nothing, really, to explode. The explosions were happening throughout the relationship, not at The End. The explosions were happening within her, and between us. She was the explosion, spontaneously combusting every second of every day. Through it all, I didn’t know I was on fire – but it ended when I was burned to a crisp.
I think Lydia loved me. Yeah, I think she really did. She said she did, and she wasn’t one to lie about these things. Just as her depression when she experienced it was as low as the realm of Hades, her capacity to love was as intense as the temperature of the sun. Her love for me was deeper and more genuine than I think I will ever experience again. Shame, since I don’t really want to ever see her again. It frustrates me now how I don’t know why she loved me until The End, why she loved me through my jealous hatred of her, why she probably still loves me even now. I wish she hated me back so I could feel like my hatred of her is warranted, but she never has and never will. It’s just another admirable quality of hers that will always mean another way I can never match up to her.
You may be wondering: if she loved me so much, and if I doted on her so much, why in hell’s name did we end? Well, the answer sounds kind of daft. And if our beginning was Lydia’s doing, our ending was my fault.
Being her “best friend” was like running next to a machine on a renewable power source. In the beginning, I could keep up easily, matching the machine step-for-step. But then, being human, I began to get tired and the machine did not. I had thought I was a machine as well. I had an over-esteemed image of myself which her apparent adoration of me had only augmented. So when I began to involuntarily slow down and she didn’t, when I began to huff and puff and she didn’t, when I lagged behind and she looked back as if to say, “Well, what are you doing all the way back there, Markos?”, that was all kindling for the hate-fire.
And it wasn’t just her overwhelming character that burned me out – it was what she was doing with her life as well. Blink once, and suddenly, she had won a local drawing competition. Blink twice, and suddenly, she had a painting being showcased in a new and expensive hotel. Blink three times, and suddenly she was hosting her own exhibition in a different hotel. You know how you see headlines of teenage prodigies on social media that make you think “So what the hell am I doing with my life?” Well, imagine being “best friends” with one of those bloody teenage prodigies. If you’re anything like me, your morale will fray until there’s nothing left. Your heart will turn black from bitterness and jealousy from all the times you ask, “What am I worth, next to someone like her?”
From being close to Lydia alone, I had lost my fucking mind. But from being close to her achievements? I had lost my fucking mind. I couldn’t contain my jealousy, so I exploded on multiple occasions for no apparent reason. My fuse became as short as a matchstick and I’d lose my temper at every opportunity. I cried a lot of angry tears, walked or got kicked out of a bunch of classes, ended up in the principal’s office and almost got suspended a couple of times. Nobody could explain the multitude of my explosions, least of all myself. And the only reason I can describe my actions with their triggers to you is, of course, because Lydia explained them all to me. I hate her for having come to understand me more than I could ever understand myself, and more than I could understand her in 20 years if I had that long with her. And I detest how she spoke the truth about me kindly, even when it hurt. Because all this means I can’t hate her properly.
So now that I knew my problems, and Lydia was still sweet about all of it, why did we still get to The End? Because I’m a little bitch, that’s why. I knew about my jealousy but couldn’t do a thing about it. It was a demon within me that was threatening to eat me up from the inside out. I knew her intensity was burning me, but I couldn’t make myself impervious to it. In short, I just couldn’t deal – with her, or with myself in relation to her, or with myself in general. I didn’t leave gracefully. I simply disappeared into a cloud of bravado, pretending to be stronger and more cocksure than I was (ha – as if that had ever done any good for me before), blocking her on instant message platforms so she could no longer bother me with the honest love and sweetness that I could neither comprehend nor reciprocate.
And you would think, because she loved me and I didn’t love her, that she would have come out worse from the situation than I did – but I was the one who walked out bruised and broken, with an excruciating identity crisis, while she, like a rubber ball, just returned to her original shape effortlessly. No matter the weight of the whatever or whomever was placed on it, it would not disfigure. Nothing happened to her which she couldn’t bounce back from with force. Lydia was a constant. I wasn’t like that. I’ve never been. And so I’m pretty sure that if I ever meet another Lydia, she is going to thoroughly destroy me. A wooden stick can’t magically re-grow its fallen off charred parts. And if I am burned any further, no force on earth will be able to bring me back.