James Salt

© Copyright 2018 by James Salt


Photo of a path in the woods.

A couple words on heartbreak from the perspective of a boy who knows the meaning of losing everything important.

I was at a close friendís theater performance a couple weeks ago. I was watching the cast and crew moving props after the show when I saw the lead of the play and realized that she looked like my ex. From the audience, she had just appeared to be any other Asian girl. Up close, the resemblance was slight, but there. A profound, deep-rooted horror shot through me, a mixture of trepidation and primordial infatuation that I wish had died. I managed to mask my surprise when she introduced herself to me, and throughout the cast dinner I stared at her eyes and tried to identify what exactly it was that reminded me of her. I never figured it out, and left the Dennyís feeling unsettled and disconcerted.

When I say ex, it is meant to be just that. She was never my girlfriend, merely a series of months and days and hours and memories I attempted to cross out when she swiftly pulled my heart from my chest. She never meant to hurt me, I believe, because to her I was an anomaly, the x factor: dark matter that she never saw coming or identified until she was left with the devastating consequences of my loss. She was my first love since the beginning, my best friend for the brief moment I had her, but I think sometimes I forgot that she was only a girl. She was just human, and sometimes that feels like the worse part of all. I fell in love with someone so volatile and I let her rip me apart.

We met when we were younger, and despite my ephemeral memory, I remember exactly how it didnít happen. I was walking through the dewy grass towards the junior high when my best friend acknowledged her. At that point in time, she was a small, skinny girl with brown hair and honeyed skin and facial features that reminded me of a mouse. She wore purple rimmed glasses and I did not want to know her.

Eventually we learned of one another through eighth grade English and after school clubs, and through that influx of new conversation I developed feelings for her. It was just puppy love, so I did not think much of the butterflies or the thoughts of holding her hand or kissing her. Things were simple: I had a crush and she had no idea. I was content to admire her secretly.

We talked occasionally, but it wasnít until sophomore year of high school when we became close. She joined winterguard, and I was one of her only friend on the team. We formed a tight camaraderie that stretched, grew, and expanded at an exponential rate. It was one of those annoying friendships where the two participants are close and create many inside jokes that make it seems unwelcoming to outsiders. The only flaw in the plan was that I was falling in love with her while I was seeing someone else, a girl named Jasmyne. We werenít officially together, but I knew I couldnít continue things with Jasmyne while I had other feelings, more intense feelings. Jasmyne was the better person: she said that she understood, and even though I had hurt her deeply, she still wanted to be friends. It felt like I was being let off the hook, but her words soothed the guilt that had been eating at me and I was free.

Eventually, I told the first love of my life that I had a crush on her. Every person that has ever confessed their feelings knows that pause, the silence, the hesitation, as you wait for the other to respond. It loops between two people like a conscious, physical thread. You dream hopelessly that they will repeat the same words back, sometimes to no avail. The void hung between us until she said, ďI was jealous when I saw you and Jasmyne together. I didnít understand why.Ē That felt weirdly cryptic to me, and the space between us rippled strangely. I knew, I was certain that she wouldnít reciprocate, that she would diffuse the situation and return us to our normal world. Instead, she kept sending me mixed messages. When we went our separate ways that night, I was bewildered, but glad that I had gotten it off my chest.

What unfolded during the next couple of weeks I donít remember, but eventually she admitted that she was falling for me as well. She quickly followed up with, ďBut we canít be together,Ē and I felt those words crack against my jaw, a physical hit. It wasnít like I hadnít seen it coming. I had. Thatís why I was so convinced she wouldnít like me back, why I had beaten down the hope. She had brought it back out of my chest just to slam that optimism down. It was circumstance, it was her upbringing, it was her morals. She was from a good Christian family, strict with stereotypical Asian expectations to get good grades and go to a good college. It would be disgraceful and disobedient and against her religion to even have feelings for me. We were impossible from the start.

Iím not a bad person, I promise. This makes it seem like she didnít want to date me because I was a drug addict or an alcoholic, or worse, an atheist, but I wasnít. I was a good kid, just a little bruised and a little dark inside, like the ugly fruit they wonít sell in grocery stores. The reason why she wouldnít date me wasnít because of anything I could change, technically. I wasnít born male, I was born biologically female. It went against everything she believed, for girls to be in love with girls. Back in high school, I wasnít out as female to male transgender. At that time, I hadnít even entertained the fact. I was just a lesbian that wore guyís clothing. My parents hadnít even let me cut my hair short until I was a senior. Sometimes I wonder if things could have been different if I had come out as trans earlier. Would she be willing to commit a similar sin in the name of love?

After that awkward conversation, we were seemingly okay. Everything returned to normal, or as normal as two teenagers can be when theyíre secretly, not-so-secretly, in love with each other. I was trying to come to terms with being just friends, but it wasnít easy. We would brush against each other during practice, and I would get the ache in my throat to just kiss her. There was an instance during a guard competition that we fell asleep on the bus, and when I woke up, her head was on my shoulders.

She would remind me again and again that we would be together if I was a real guy. Recounting each memory is reopening old, old wounds, but in the end it makes me wonder, was I imagining the whole thing? Did these things ever happen? Was I merely twisting her words, misinterpreting her emotions, altering our past? She told me not to tell anyone about us, or what we werenít. Only a couple people knew, including Jasmyne, who was respectively not a dick about it. My friends commented that we always looked happy when we were together, and I guess it was because things felt different with her, like we were lifting the weight of the world off each otherís shoulders like a conjoined Atlas.

So, we continued on like this, flirting and being friendly and constantly reaffirming that we were ďjust friends.Ē I went to San Francisco for a band trip, and the entire time she texted me to say how much she missed me. I looked out the window of the charter bus, thinking about how much better things would be if she was there with me. When my aunt died of liver cancer, she sent me a video of her playing my favorite song on piano. Over time, however, she found that her surmounting emotions towards me were getting dangerous, and she initiated a series of ďbreaksĒ where we cut off all communication in order to get over each other. The first time we lasted a day. The second time a week. The third time two. The fourth time a summer.

The third time we werenít speaking to each other, we were supposed to work on our group project in AP European History. She and her best friend would talk and I would sit behind them, all of us avoiding eye contact, until her friend texted me later to tell me what I had to do. I was so angry about everything that was happening, that she was breaking my heart and being a terrible friend and not speaking to me. It was encompassing. I couldnít contain my rage until I got home. I would punch the brick walls outside of the band room and pummel the metal doors in the empty bathrooms. My fists were always bruised then, and I saw her pointedly ignore the ways that she had hurt me.

The summer was equally as hellish. I went from talking to my best friend all the time to nothing at all. I went from her telling me how much she loved the smell of the night, to falling asleep dreaming about her hands, her tangled brown and silver hair, her eyes when she smiled, and the curve of her chin against my fingertips to the deafening silence. I took everything she had given me: small notes and letters on my birthday and a paper heart and a snow globe, and destroyed them all. I burned the papers with matches in the barren dirt of my backyard, and shattered the glass globe against the side of my house. I wasnít angry anymore, just hollow and shell-shocked. She blocked me on all social media, and I had to hear from my best friend Ė the same one that had tried to introduce to her the first time Ė that she had a new thing with some other guy.

I stopped actively loving her the summer before our sophomore year and ended up doing it passively when we were juniors. I was still in love with her despite every conscientious effort not to be. With the new school year came new changes. She traded me for studying, well-rounded academia and interests. I traded her for another girlfriend and a renewed passion for color guard. We progressed through the most important and viewed year of our high school careers pretending that we were good with each other, even though everyone knew the truth by that point.

It was difficult at times, because towards the end of the year we started to slip back into a comfortable place that once again blurred the lines between friendship and something more. Only this time, it was unspoken: a whisper of a touch or a smile or eye contact here or there. One day, I stole her umbrella and left her stranded in the rain on the way to class. She screamed and chased after me, and inside attempted to smear the wet sleeves of her clothing on my face. I shook the collected droplets from the umbrella onto her in retaliation, smiling at her offended expressions. At the end of history, she stole my phone and hid it in her coat pocket. I cornered her and wrapped my hands around her wrists until she squirmed into my grasp. It felt too intimate, like the love we had forgotten. I dropped her hands because it wasnít supposed to be happening. Not again.

I knew her when she was soft, partially grown. Her skin was always clear, and I remembered the puckered flesh of her arms whenever she would break out into goosebumps. I found it easy to recognize the emotions on her face, so prone I was to examining her. She had a terribly judgmental, intimidating face, but the way her eyes disappeared with the emergence of her smile made her seem like a different person. I think one of the tragedies of our falling out is that I never got to understand her now as I did before. It is saddening to not know how much someone who was vastly important to me has changed in the span of three years.

The funny thing is, she wasnít the first person I fell in love with. I met someone when I was a freshman, and she was my first kiss, my first girlfriend, my first everything. So, technically, the girl who I call my first love shouldnít really hold that title. She shouldnít mean anything to me. In the time afterwards, I couldnít justify why the hell she had hurt me so much. Then, I found a quote from Lang Leav that summarized the entirety of what I felt. She wrote, ďyour first love isnít the first person you give your heart to Ė itís the first one who breaks it.Ē Her words felt like finality, like something being drawn from the pit of my stomach through my throat. I wasnít alone, not anymore.

Iíve had three other girlfriends since, and every single one of them seems to relay some kind of hostility or jealousy towards her. I think itís because in the beginning, Iím honest, and I tell them about the girl that breaks my heart. I try to tell them that I donít love her anymore, and I try to believe it because even I donít know if it is entirely true. For ages, I was in love with her ghost, the girl that she used to be. I have long since realize that that girl doesnít exist any longer. The only thing I can honestly say is that there is a hollow in my heart where I once nursed the idea of making her mine.

In the end, I canít stop myself from telling this story over and over again. I wrote it in poems and short stories and journal entries, translating it through the genres to somehow make it fade. I wasted so much paper and ink and soul to say the same things over and over again, but on some level, I have to thank her. My best writing, my best poetry came out of the misery that she gave me. Whenever I need the inspiration, whenever my mind draws blank, I merely whisk myself back to the darkest corners of my brain to bring her back to life. But itís been so long since then: almost four years to repair. It brings a certain kind of shame to keep thinking about the girl who doesnít deserve anything, much less the construct of my poetry or the title of my muse. It brings me a certain humiliation that I keep beating the dead horse, or in this case, keep loving the ghost.

Is it strange that I keep saying that we couldnít be together? I think the reason I say that is because everything else doesnít seem true. She didnít reject me, because that usually implies that she didnít reciprocate. I canít say that she shared my feelings, because despite the fact that she liked me, we were on opposing sides of the same war. I was willing to do anything for her, but she wasnít ready to do the same.

Maybe itís my curse to keep bringing her back. Maybe 3,000 words about my first love might be enough to purge her from me. I havenít told the whole, honest story ever since we ended, so maybe this is what I need to end this. I know she moved on a long time ago, because she doesnít need me to brighten her creativity like I need her.

When we were still talking, I told her that one of my friends had mistakenly called her Atlantis. She had laughed and said that she liked it.

ďWhat do you want to be?Ē she asked, and I thought for a couple minutes.

I want to be Atlas,Ē I told her. I didnít tell her that Atlantis means Island of Atlas, and
that I wanted to be the one to carry her burdens. I wanted to be that person for her, but I think in her eyes I was more expendable, less important. Or maybe thatís just one of the lies I tell myself to support the theory that she never cared. Either way, Iím so tired of being Atlas and carrying these words and her memory along inside of me.

James Salt is 18 years old and resides in California. 

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