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No One Will Ever Love You

  One of the few horrific day dreams that I remember from my childhood is standing in a city at dusk. I’m alone and not. Surrounded by shadowy figures, yet everyone is ignoring me. The only face with any features is that of my mother. No matter how I plead, she won’t acknowledge me.

  Finally, I manage to get her to turn to me. It’s a slow turn, contempt radiating off of her. When she stops, her eyes recognize me, but there’s disgust where I had normally found affection.

  I was wide awake while my imagination rolled this out for me. I was on my parents’ bed, self-swaddled in a pale blanket, zoning out while The Fresh Prince of Bel Air played on their tiny television. Swaddled in the comforts of a life that they gave me, the white noise of a childhood of privilege at least tacitly suggesting love and safety, my mind’s eye obsessively played out the opposite tale.

  I still remember the image of my mother, backlit from the blazing orange sky, clearly wanting nothing to do with me.

* * *

  “You’re fat. No one will ever love you.”

  I’d like to say something poetic, like the words hung in the humid summer afternoon, haunting in their presence. But that’s not the case. I can’t really tell you anything other than it couldn’t have been overcast, because I recall feeling the sun on my skin. I know we were behind the crab apple tree in the backyard, facing the cornfield.

  I can tell you my hair was short, but that’s because my hair was always short—it would be years before my first act of hair-related rebellion. My widow’s peak may have receded by this point in my personal history, or perhaps it was still going strong. When I try to put myself there, I’m in my blue sweater, smiling widely, because that’s the most prominent family portrait we had in our living room.

  But I couldn’t be in the sweater. It was before school had started, and it was one of the few Wisconsin summers that had actually bothered to start on time.

  This wasn’t one of those flashbulb memory moments. It also wasn’t particularly worthy enough to remember in lurid detail. If I still dedicated myself to memorializing every insult or negative comment I’ve ever received, I’d probably never leave my bed.

  “You’re fat. No one will ever love you.”

  That, however, I have no problem remembering.

  It’s so easy to convey spite with just eight words, to create an idea so sharp it cuts through a water-colored blur of an afternoon. It swirled about for less than a breath, then painlessly burrowed inside my chest. To sleep. To wait.

  I didn’t have the vocabulary to point out that one does not necessitate the other. That the proposition by its very nature is horrific, body-shaming bullshit. I, in that moment, didn’t even have the capacity to care.

* * *

  Unlike that afternoon, my first kiss is something I remember almost perfectly. Well, I shouldn’t say it quite like that. I remember it like a scene in a movie. She grabbed my face with glittened hands (she wore a hybrid glove/mitten, you see) and kissed me. I remember it as tactile sensation, but also from the point of view from the backseat, like I was watching this happen to me.

  It’s not even 2000, and I’m already seeing the world—my world—as though it’s a film.

  I doubt I was watching it play out like that at the time. If I did, I’m glad I am the only one who is ever in the audience. The fact that she drove a stick shift would probably lead to no end of tittering in what is a formative moment.

  The immediate aftermath is a bit hazy. I didn’t (and still don’t) know what to say in that situation. “Thanks” seems a bit… you know… misinterpretable. You know, like the fact like I’m 90% sure I just made up that word. “Wow!” or any of its derivatives are probably less than stellar, too.

  My brain thankfully expunged whatever I managed to react with. Not because it was unpleasant, but because I’m sure I’d be mortified, just one more thing to forever ruminate on in anxiety-choked moments. I walked up the driveway in the brisk night air, watched her leave, and went inside the restroom to wait out the adrenaline that was pumping through my veins.

  I spend time staring at my reflection the mirror. Am I different now? Have I crossed some threshold?

  “You’re fat. No one will ever love you.”

  I don’t know when I decided that it had to be done, but the first time I felt my heart drop out at the memory I started doing sit ups. By the time of my first kiss, I condemned my lower back to 300 crunches per night. I was convinced this, and not my newly awakened metabolism, had driven back my recalcitrant baby fat.

  Even though the voice hissed away in my chest, filling it with that familiar burn, I had struck a mortal wound.

  I would be free.

  I was a demonstrably slight man. I had someone who cared.

  An idea, no matter how poisonous, could be broken up and destroyed.

  The boiling prickle didn’t seem to go away no matter how much I told myself that.

* * *

  It’s 2007.

  I hate my job. It’s stressful and the hours have me on a sleep schedule that seems more cruel than kind. At least one close and one open a week is a lot more brutal that the powers that be would like to think.

  It’s more than that, though. I’m aimless. When I manage to take classes at college, it’s something I know I can do well in and enjoy. This means a lot of accumulated credits that mean a lot less than they should. It also means that I’m feeding my gnawing fear of the unknown. I’ve been told I’m smart so long that I can’t risk anything that could prove it wrong.

  In all of this, I have to remind myself to eat, otherwise I won’t.

  This has the potential to go on for days at a time.

  I don’t do this out of an attempt to shed weight. I simply don’t remember that I need to put something in my body so I won’t fade away. I work at a job where I will get hungry in the middle of a stretch, then be fine when I can actually sit and eat. Rather than eat, then, I call my girlfriend. It seems like something a boyfriend should do. When I’m at school, I’m running between classes to spend as little time on campus as much as possible.

  To a limited extent, this is done to also reduce any possible friendships with women from happening. Lady coworkers and school chums are to be had in secret—to discuss them at all is to risk an argument.

  I withdraw. I turn inward. I only have female friends when my girlfriend can see them, and only if they are ones she approves of.

  “You’re fat. No one will ever love you.”

  My relationship has made me push others away. I’m not overweight—in fact, I all too often skirt a dangerous opposite.

  When I’m home, she often laments being overweight. She’s not, but she feels she is because she’s heavier than when she was in high school. I can’t say anything. What can I possibly say?

  That remembering to eat is hard? That forcing myself to get enough food—food I don’t even want—is a challenge that requires conscious effort? That I suffer from chronic headaches and irritability because my body routine fools me into thinking I’m well enough to go without?

  Wait… I did actually say this. Once.

  “I wish I had your problems,” she said, glaring.

  Then, coring out my heart and replacing it with a hot emptiness, the parasitic words hatch again. “You’re fat. No one will ever love you.”

  I frown at this. I’m certainly not the first. Therefore, the second can be waved off.

  I don’t talk about my weight despite the fact that it’s something that most people feel comfortable with. I can’t say a word, because somehow no matter what I say, no matter how I say it, it comes off as gloating. Better to not say anything at all, because these are problems that people apparently want to have. Ergo, they’re not problems.

  In 2009, I’ll be down to less than 120 pounds.

* * *

  It’s the summer of 2015.

  I’m reading more and more about trigger warnings. Typically, it’s a thinkpiece from some privileged shithead trying to defend their right to say whatever they want to whomever they want without repercussion. Occasionally, it’s someone who acknowledges the warnings’ utility while lamenting how difficult it can be to anticipate everyone’s needs. It tends to be the same dance for every side, every time. Freedom of speech is under attack so much that I don’t think anyone really knows what it means anymore.

  I am bad at providing content warnings in my class, but I’ve been getting better. I talk a lot of history, and a lot of history is a vicious place. I try to just mention to students when our conversations are about to get dark. It’s a courtesy. They still have to do the work, but I’d rather have someone learn at a speed they’re comfortable with over any desire I have of being unfiltered.

  But triggers are a weird thing. We know the big things, the words and descriptions we shouldn’t use, but it can be a fragment of that experience which sends us back. A smell. A sound. An inconsequential comment.

  Over the summer, I play a lot of games. This summer in particular, it’s Our Darker Purpose. In the game’s lore, Mr. L, Cordy’s teacher, muses “You know, an idea is difficult to destroy, but perhaps a fragment of one is even more dangerous.”

  It only strikes me now, writing these words, what that really means to me.

  Occasionally, I brake too hard, and suddenly I’m careening toward a stopped SUV before its trailer hitch demolishes my Plymouth Neon.

  I’ll hear someone say something with just the right pitch and tone, and I’m immediately terrified an unwelcome-but-too-familiar face will be staring me down.

  Open doors leading to dark rooms can kick in my fight-or-flight reflexes something fierce.

  But those fragments are easy to understand.

  It’s the ones you didn’t know were small enough to have embedded in your heart that surprise you.

  The thing that I’m afraid of—that fragment of an idea—is that my relationship with others is cursory and plastic at best. No matter how much I want to bond and feel like I have, my anxiety makes me feel like I’m only ever moments away from being abandoned. I live with the idea that I have to be everything to everyone at all times, lest it all falls away. As time has gone by, I’ve managed to smash that fragment into tinier and tinier pieces.

  The problem is that it’s always there. No matter how tiny it gets, there’s a sliver that escapes and nests where I can’t get at it.

* * *

  It’s 2016.

  I’m sitting in a coffee shop with friends, chatting.

  They make passing reference to someone they find attractive, a shared personal fantasy that I am not privy to. It’s the kind of brain-meltingly attractive that causes all functionality to stop. The kind of person you wouldn’t want to get to know, lest the illusion is shattered.

  I’m only half listening.

  My insides have been suddenly, unceremoniously hollowed.

  My mouth has gone dry.

  I wonder if I’m anyone’s silent crush.

  And in that moment, I want—need—to be.

  Every relationship I made hinges on this.

  This is a sign of the people I love getting ready to walk away.

  I’m in that cityscape again, and this time my only company is a string of eight words.

  “You’re fat. No one will ever love you.”

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