After he helped me stick them all across the slanted ceiling above my bed, he explained to me that glow-in-the-dark stars borrow their glimmer from other brighter light sources. Never having had a glowing galaxy in my bedroom as a kid, I was a novice to the simple science of glow stars, but I was entranced by their translucent green glow and the way they made the shallow space above my loft bed seem almost convincingly infinite. For the first few nights, I would leave the overhead light on during the long minutes before bed so that the ceiling sky would continue to radiate in the shallow darkness even when I folded my glasses on the bedside table. I had imagined countless nights together under that makeshift sky.
Mostly the room had come together at his hands, with my vision. My high school boyfriend helped me decorate my bedroom in the apartment I moved into with five of my friends after my second year of college. He did the lifting while I did the dreaming. So much of that room came together with us in mind–the annoyingly ornate pillows, the eventide lighting, even those stupid stars he’d kiss me under.
When I moved away for college, he had stayed and done his undergrad locally. And suddenly he had made my small Appalachian town something to miss. Instead of the confining belt of the mountains, I remembered being safely swathed by its comforting verdure, instead of dilapidated acres of nothingness, I remembered glittering skies above inky fields of possibility, instead of ramshackled roads and ghosted streets, I remembered the fullness of a place where he was waiting for me. I assured myself and everyone else that I wasn’t eager to return home during breaks and on weekends just for a boy, but because it was the only home I had known and once you’re away you become sentimental about those sorts of things.
I spent all of college with him named in the “about” section of my Facebook profile, but spent most of our relationship pining for him, telling myself this was either poetic or pathetic, and wrongly assuring myself I hadn’t heard from him that day because he was already in his car on his way to surprise me.
Our often tenuous long-distance correspondence was forged through ever-pending texts and stuttering FaceTime connections for almost four years, until, after months of a proliferating resentment that maybe both of us had let fester for too long, one more moment missed became one too many.
One embittered “I’m not doing this anymore,” two days before Valentine’s Day led to a weekend closed in my bedroom eating boneless wings, soaking in sad baths and buying myself an entirely new skincare routine (not because I was pity-shopping, but because the winter chill was drying my skin and I needed it). I still thought he might come. I tried to do homework, but mostly I just watched lots of Parks and Rec. I missed him most when it snowed and I cried into the collar of my shirt while my apartment calmly creaked.
One text didn’t immediately deconstruct the apparatus of affection in which the two of us managed to somehow exist together even when apart. In fact, there was a long, confusing, purgatory period before I was sure that I was absolutely single. We spoke intermittently well into May, feeding the mercurial vacillations from attachment to antagonism.
A month after the breakup, blinds tightly shut, Indian takeout on the way, and a paused Leslie Knope and co. as an audience, I sobbed into the phone. After weeks of doubt and uncertainty, in an email from my dream graduate program I found the words “great pleasure to inform you…” and not, “regret to inform you…” I choked out a Hallmark-worthy, “It’s been so hard,” because I was elated. Because I wanted to share it with him. Because in the moments and days that followed, I knew that I should have been a lot happier than I actually was. And because he was still really genuinely happy for me.
And then, a few weeks later, he excitedly informed me that after I graduated, he would finally be where I had always wanted him. Just without me. As I planned to move out of my college town, he would be attending grad school at what was soon to be my alma mater. After years of wishing that he could see the orange of that sunset over the hills, feel the breathlessness of that night out, shrink the emptiness of my dark bedroom, he would finally be there. Just without me. He would probably find his future wife in those five years and they’d go to apple orchards and vineyards together and get married in the university chapel. He thought the irony of it was funny, he kept saying so. I just thought the universe was cruel.
My final night in that apartment, after sunsets, and ciders, and a forced and lackluster last bar outing, my roommates and I talked about love and distance and things left behind.
Some wondered what distance would do to romances and friendships after graduation, some lamented what it had already done.
I heard complaints that I knew all too well and nodded “yeah, totally” until my throat felt dry. And I quietly envied promises of patience and perseverance.
“I want him to contact you,” said my friend who read my silence, “so you can say ‘fuck off.’”
I thought about how satisfying that would be. To know that he cared enough to agonize over me at least a little, to not be the one desperately floundering, but not to be fishing either. I had learned while pretending not to care on social media that he had already moved and was in town somewhere. I wondered if he had been half fearing and half hoping he would run into me too. A part of me hoped the entire town reeked of my essence, that every walk on the campus cued a memory reel set to some really great, cinematic music.
I realized that any contact we had had since, every provoked “I miss you,” every irresistibly shareable meme, had been prompted by my prodding. Aside from that satisfying week when he realized he was getting the oh-so-mature silent treatment, I had initiated every single interaction.
“He’s not going to.”
Then I closed the door and I stripped the walls. I stacked and stuffed the carpet’s contents and two years’ tears and triumphs and trinkets.
There was the blanket his mom had given me two Christmases ago. The one with giant photos of us screenprinted into the shape of a heart. I had kept it even after the stuffed puppies had wilted in the dumpster, sopping up day-old-rain and after the Valentine’s bear had been sliced and gutted until cotton was all over the floor. Maybe because I was sentimental, maybe because I was scared of the idea of someone getting my blanket at Goodwill and sleeping tucked under my ballet recital photo.
There was the electric blanket he gave me one birthday. For the days he wasn’t there to keep me warm, he had said. It seemed like there were 360 of them.
I finally unfolded the purple flea market folding chairs that had been leaning in the corner and the yard sale glass table his mother purchased for me. “You don’t have to take them if you don’t want them,” he had told me when she first presented them to me. I had no lawn, only a nubby brown carpet dotted with paint stains. But still, I let them take up space. The only time they were ever unfolded was on the few occasions that he was in town. They would sag under the weight of his black duffel bag and the room felt much too small.
I reluctantly tossed all of the origami cranes he had folded while sitting at my desk waiting for me to get out of a Friday class.
There were the packets of sugars from my coat pocket that I stuffed into my desk–surrogate kisses he had once gifted me for safekeeping.
There were the fairy lights he had woven through the railing of my loft and around my window.
The shower curtain he helped me hang.
The cheap but decidedly chic Chinese inspired bowls he took me to TJ Maxx to buy because I didn’t want him to think that I was high-maintenance.
The desperately festive dresses that I bought for the Valentine’s Days he never showed up for.
Polaroids from when our drive-through order took too long that I quickly shoved into a box.
The dent in the wall that matched the corner of the picture frame he gave me one Christmas.
Though not quite ready to be profiled on TLC, I’m not exactly good at letting things go. I keep every card, press every flower, and once I found a lollipop in my dresser from when we went to prom together. But there was some sort of relief in throwing away the folded papers that had clumsily tumbled out of my drawer each time I reached for a pen, there was some release in finally putting those purple chairs outside next to the trash bins.
But I still had the poorly painted teacup from the homemade wine-‘n-design night my friends and I had put together with Walmart paints and hard ciders.
The Nuns Having Fun Calendar that I had been presented with on my birthday by a friend I’d known since second grade.
The chalkboard wall my friend and I stood on the kitchen table to paint one Valentine’s day.
The unraveling lei from the mini golf course on our group beach trip.
The card my friend gave me when it seemed like I was going to sulk at my desk forever.
The framed Degas print from a friend who tried his hardest to teach me to be good at art history.
Eventually the glow-in-the-dark stars had lost their childish novelty. I stopped trying to force their gleam. And mostly, I had forgotten they were there until I was scraping the sticky tack from the ceiling with my fingernail while my roommates scrubbed the fridge in the other room, Beyoncé playing in the background.
“Remember when you were up there and you were throwing all the cotton from the teddy bear everywhere?” one of my roommates asked looking up at the loft as she escorted me through the threshold of my now empty bedroom for the last time. She made it sound like a festive mall Christmas display that we had all been a part of.
“Yeah… that was… a time.”
“That’s the only memory I have in here,” she said, somewhat apologetically.
I was reminded of my first year of college when I opted to stay closed in my room and FaceTime, wishing to be someplace else rather than connecting with the people I was with. I thought of the well-meaning end-of-semester note from my first year hallmate that said little of who I was and mostly spoke of what a cute couple we were even though she’d met him only once. I remembered all the times that I was unsatisfied with what I had and where I was and hadn’t allowed it to be enough. I let him tear my focus from what people call the best time of your life, ensnared in the memory of what Grease and Molly Ringwald will wrongly have you believe is actually the best time of your life. With the surety of first love, I had hoarded an assemblage of longing for four years. I was always looking back to where I thought I’d find him.