Continued from Clairvoyant, Clarity, Catharsis
I left my cousin’s wedding with a knot in my stomach. It had already been five months since the breakup, but my cynicism towards romance showed no sign of fatigue.
Yet tucked away in the back of my mind was the forecast of that seer from Salem: 2016, year of healing; 2017, year of love. Was it okay that I scoffed at stories of serendipity and saw all men as shallow pigs? Hell yeah. Because it was presently November of 2015, and I still had a whole year to come around. And even though I was a grinch on the subject of love, I’d be lying if I told you that I wasn’t staring at the moon that night, humming the melody to “Somewhere Out There” from An American Tail.
Consequently, when Ian Shoelace began sending me messages, I felt both wary and intrigued. We had crossed paths on Facebook months before when I had flirted with the idea of making a documentary. I needed someone to shoot the video, and Ian was the first videographer I stumbled upon, so I sent him a message. The idea never materialized and we spoke no more.
Until that night at the wedding.
We spent the next day trading Facebook messages. “I usually wake up to movie scores…” I shared. “Cloud Atlas is my favorite score,” he replied. “That’s my favorite film!” I told him. “I’ve probably watched it ten times,” he answered. The exchange carried on long enough that we decided to get together once I arrived back in Mobile.
The next night, I met Ian at a bar adjacent to the University of South Alabama. It was a Monday; the place was dead. As I waited for him to arrive, two thoughts crossed my mind: first, what am I doing here? and second, Shoelace? What an unfortunate last name.
As soon as he sat down, I knew that I was in trouble. Ian was magnetic—thoughtful eyes, a disarming smile. Conversation was easy. We talked about creativity. We discussed our pasts in the church and how we both left the Christianity with which we grew up. He listed a few of his favorite bands. “What about you?” he probed. I thought about it for a second. “There’s this group called The Middle East. Not very well known. My favorite song is done by them.” His eyes went wide, “Oh my god, I listened to one of their songs on repeat when I lived in the dorms. It’s called Blood.” “WHAT?! That’s the song!” When I realized how engrossed I was by the dialogue, I excused myself to the restroom.
There, I stared down the boy in the mirror. All sorts of strange feelings were bubbling to the surface: fear, excitement, distrust, desire, self-loathing. Deep wounds from my past relationship began to sting. Vulnerability opens us up to everything—good and bad—and being around Ian was opening me up. You’re not ready, I reminded my reflection.
Then something happened. When I returned to the bar, Ian disclosed that he was shopping for jobs in New Orleans. He had recently graduated and was ready to immerse himself in a new place. He didn’t expect to be in Mobile much longer.
My chest was suddenly a pandemonium of butterflies. I wasn’t ready for a boyfriend. But something transient? Something I could fall into but didn’t have to hold on to? Maybe I could handle that.
A few minutes later, I told Ian that I had to go. “I’ve got to be up pretty early.” It was a lie. I would’ve stayed until the bar shut down, but the inner-dialogue was becoming too intense. “Thanks for hanging out with me,” I said. “Let’s do this again soon,” he replied.
I hardly slept that night. Instead, I put on “Blood” by the Middle East and tuned in to the ebb and flow of my body, so full of longing and fear. Should I text him? Should I pretend he never existed? Should I see a therapist? I caught myself grinning, and then I realized that even if my head was holding out, the rest of me was already surrendering to the subliminal wiles of Ian Shoelace.
We met at a restaurant a couple nights later and another tireless conversation ensued. He talked about his brother and about shooting film. I talked about songwriting. Two hours later, we were outside the restaurant saying goodbye when I stepped in for a hug. He patted me on the back a few times—youth pastor style—and quickly pulled away.
“I think he friend-zoned me,” I later told my friend Mike, reenacting the hug. “It was just a hug,” said Mike.
The following week, Ian came over for a movie night. We kicked it off with a short film that he had just finished shooting and directing. “Can we watch it again with commentary?” I asked. “Sure,” he said smiling. We restarted the short and he gave me a play-by-play, pausing the film at times to explain his process and point out details.
Then we eased into a full length movie. After downing a bottle of wine, I decided to make a move. I slipped off to the bathroom and upon returning plopped right in the middle of the couch—markedly closer to Ian than I was before. For the next two hours, he never budged.
“What happened?” Mike asked the next morning. “Nothing.” “Did you make a move?” “I moved towards his end of the couch.” “That’s all?”
While I was busy trying to read his mind, Ian was finding job openings, and a few of them looked promising. Time was running out. One night, we were texting after an evening on the town with his friends. “Give me a song,” I wrote, “something that aches.” He sent a Spotify snapshot. “You’ll like this one. Now you give me a song.”
“Ohhh I love this”
“It’s one of my faves.”
“It’s really really good.”
“If I try to kiss you before you move to NOLA, will you let me?”
“Yeah, without a doubt.”
The next evening, I met him and a couple of his friends downtown. While the four of us played a drinking game at The Merry Widow, Ian and I played footsies beneath the table.
Later, he offered me a ride to my car. During the ride, I remember my heart beating so hard that I thought I could feel its vibration in my toes. When he brought us to a final stop, “Wait” by M83 was blaring through the speakers. Soft downstrokes of an acoustic guitar grew into a swell of strings and atmospheric vocals. It crescendoed into something heavy and fragile, something that matched the pulse of the night. I reached over and hugged him, and for a moment, we held on, our cheeks pressing against each other, absorbed by a tension that had been growing for weeks. When we finally kissed, it was the closest thing to human magic I have ever known.
The next day, New Orleans called. A few days later, he was offered the job. They wanted him to start in a few weeks.
“Whatever this is, let’s make it count,” I said. “Deal,” he replied. So for three weeks, we fell asleep to good movies—Cloud Atlas, Celeste & Jesse Forever, Her, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Me Earl and the Dying Girl. I built us a soundtrack of nostalgic songs. We went for jogs and cooked dinners. He shared his photography and I shared my poetry. When we had work to do, we worked silently in each other’s company. When we were alone, we unlocked the most fragile parts of ourselves. On New Years Eve, we ping-ponged from bar to bar with our friends and danced until our bodies were sore and soaked with sweat.
When our time ran out, I helped him move to New Orleans. We packed up his belongings in both our cars and took off. After we unloaded his things, we found a small art exhibit and a restaurant with live music. I could tell the reality of the move was beginning to weigh on him. “You’re going to have so many options here,” I observed, “look at all these restaurants.” He’d smile, but the smiles were distant. As the night wore on, I began to feel it too.
The next morning, we stalled for as long as we could—sleeping in, getting breakfast, fantasizing about the future—until there were no more excuses to procrastinate. On his new front porch, we hugged one last time. Please don’t forget me, I wanted to say. When I stepped back, there were tears in his eyes. I mustered up a smile, kissed him, and walked to my car. When I drove down the street and out of sight, it was my turn to cry. But after a few minutes, the sadness was replaced by peace. “We did it, Ian Shoelace,” I said aloud, and then, as though he might one day hear it in a dream: “Thank you for giving me the chance to love you.”
Why do we think that romantic relationships fail if they end?
All kinds of relationships open and close throughout our lives. Like the friends who first teach us about fun, vulnerability, patience, courage; who give us an archive of memories—the sleepovers, the treehouse, the parties, the game nights; who meet us at 2AM when the world falls apart; who bring champagne when it falls back in place. When those friends move or drift away, we might mourn the loss, but we don’t say “it didn’t work out.”
The same is true of pets, family, even home. How else would we learn the value of responsibility, interdependence, security, boundaries, belonging. When our favorite pet dies or a close family member passes, it doesn’t invalidate the formative impact they’ve had on our lives.
Isn’t the same true of romantic relationships? Aren’t they just as formative as the others? Sure, most of us are looking for someone who’ll stick around. We work hard to make it last. It makes sense that the loss might feel enormous. But instead of judging the success of a relationship with the question: “Did it last?”, perhaps we ought to be asking: “Did I grow?”
Here’s what I know: because of Ian Shoelace, I discovered a slew of new favorite things, I made incredible memories, and I learned how to trust again.
Three months later, I found myself on the road to New Orleans. M83 was performing at The Civic, and Ian had invited me to join him for the show. As I pulled up to his apartment, I wondered how it would feel to see him again. A few minutes later, we were sitting on his couch catching up. He talked about weekly get-togethers with new friends. I told him about my plans to backpack Thailand in May. It felt just as easy as old times.
We arrived at the Civic early enough to get a spot right in front of the stage. The opener was YACHT, a duo whose infectious melodies and synthy arrangements served as a perfect preface for the heavier-hearted headliner. When M83 took over and the lights began to dance, the auditorium came alive.
Three-quarters of the way through the show, the lights came to a standstill and the first notes of “Wait” rang through the speakers. My whole body tingled with nostalgia. At some point, Anthony Gonzalez began strumming the electric guitar and the song ascended into ethereal bliss. Ian turned around—baptized in blue lights—took my face in his hands and kissed me. Like it was the first time. Like it could be the last. Like something that goes on forever, long after it ends.
This is the final entry of a six-part series. To start from the beginning, head over to The End of the World Often Comes and follow me on my journey up the East Coast in the subsequent entries.
“Blood” can be found on the album Recordings of the Middle East and “Wait” on Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. Featured photo belongs to Stuart Sox.
For more about letting go and impermanence, check out the section “What Backpackers Teach You” in my post Same, Same, but Different.