At the beginning of my first class, my teacher, Mrs. Tigress, asked us all to say our favorite gifts from the holidays. Charlie Hanna went first, passing around his brand-new teal blue Game Boy. Then, I raised my hand.
I pushed to my feet. “I got this,” I said. I stuck my arms out and rocked back and forth on my heels, waiting for everyone’s awestruck reactions.
From the back of the classroom, Clara O’Hara called out, “That’s not from Santa! I saw that at the church present drive.” She clutched a bright pink Furby to her chest.
“My mom said that’s for homeless people,” Lizzy Bradshaw added.
I didn’t know what they meant, only that they sounded like they did when they told me my nose was too pointy or my lips were too big. My face went hot. The sweater that had just been soft and homey suddenly felt scratchy and stiff. The turtle neck that once reminded me of the stylish girls I saw on the posters in my cousin’s room now closed in around my throat and forced me to sit back down.
Mrs. Tigress blinked, once.
“Sweetie, why don’t we take a trip to the principal’s office?”
I didn’t move. I wanted to cry. I wanted to change. I wanted to punch Clara O’Hara in the big mouth. But I didn’t want to move.
I felt someone tug at my arm, and then Mrs. Tigress was right there, helping me from my desk and out the door.
“You’re not in trouble,” she said. Even through the closed classroom door, I could hear as everyone roared with laughter, the kind that makes your eyes teary and your head beg you not to cry.
I didn’t, not until we were outside the principal’s office. The receptionist spoke with Mrs. Tigress in whispers, the kind my parents used when they had grown-up conversations. I could only hear a few strange words like “immigrant” and “poor”. Then the tears came in big drops, burning down my face and onto the tiles. Sobs wracked my body, and I kept gasping for air until my lungs ached and my head throbbed and I didn’t feel better, just emptier.
Mrs. Tigress sat me in the comfy chair next to the desk, and went to make me some hot chocolate in the staff kitchen in the back. While I waited for her, knees pulled into my chest, you came in. I knew you from the photos on Mrs. Tigress’s wall, but you looked different now. Your shoes were covered in mud, and you wore a faded Cavaliers shirt with the old logo on it. You bounced up to the desk like a man on the mission, with the biggest smile on your face. Almost as an afterthought, you smiled at me and said, “I like your sweater.”
You never said anything about the church drive.
The first time I thought I was too Italian was in sophomore year, after our first date. You asked me out after soccer practice and I was so nervous that I didn’t eat leading up to it. You picked me up in your dad’s new car, and told me you’d never been over to North Hill before.
My dad didn’t come to meet you, because he was busy getting bouquets ready for the DiCarlos wedding that weekend. I didn’t mind: my dad’s accent was thick, and his English still broken, even after all the years he’d been here. He never spoke Italian anymore, but people like you still couldn’t understand him.
I picked the restaurant, a little family-owned place a few blocks over that had red-white-and-green flags painted on the glass doors. It was smokey and warm inside, and smelled like my dad after a few glasses of wine. I breathed in the scent just a little longer than usual. It felt like home. You wrinkled your nose at the smell, but I didn’t care. I was still so excited to show you this part of myself.
We sat in a booth under the mural of Venice that lined the back wall, and you studied it like I did growing up. “Is that where you’re from?” you asked. I shook my head.
“My dad’s from Naples. He met my mom in Florence when she was young.” The blank look on your face told me you had no idea what I meant. I changed the subject.
When the waitress came, I ordered for us: two plates of homemades in their house red sauce, and a plate of tiramisu.
“Does that come with unlimited salad?” you asked.
“Like at Olive Garden?”
I’d never been to an Olive Garden, except back when we drove to visit my cousins in Detroit and I used their bathroom. So I told him that.
“You’re joking.” I shook my head. “But it’s Italian food.”
I opened my mouth to tell you that it wasn’t, not really, but then it dawned on me: I shouldn’t have brought you here.
You, and the way you couldn’t pronounce gnocchi or cannoli or tiramisu. You, and your perfectly midwestern accent, unscathed by what lingered under your mother’s rhythmic English. You, and your blue eyes and blond hair and suburban last name, shining on daddy’s plastic. Even my red hair and winter-faded skin, marks of a once-wealthy old country family, stood out less in that restaurant, surrounded by dark-haired immigrants and their families. My thin eyebrows, my crooked Roman nose, my defined cupid’s bow, it all screamed Italian.
But the look on your face just screamed “Lost.”
I never brought you back there, and you never asked to go. We went where you wanted after that, and I pretended that was fine. I ended up hating Olive Garden.
The first time I thought I was in love was in the summer, in the bed of your truck. I’d never watched a movie like this: you’d set up your yard with lights and a big screen and the science department’s rentable projector. We had sex, right out there in the open, and my skin prickled with cool late-night air. Your body burned against mine as you wrapped your arms around me from behind. Pressed to your chest, I felt safe.
“Was that good?”
It never was, not for me, because you’d thrust in and out of me hard and fast until I didn’t feel it but I knew I ought to. Hell, it wasn’t good because half the time I didn’t even want to. But I put on a smile and said, “Yes,” and I meant it.
The sex was bad, but afterwards, you held me so tightly, I didn’t even mind. You kissed me like your life depended on it, your lips tracing the dips in my shoulders and the small bones in my neck. Your fingers drew hearts over the stretchmarks on my thighs, my stomach. I could feel your heartbeat jump through your tee shirt, impossibly matching mine. And when it was quiet on screen for just a moment during the overproduced slasher flick you picked, you told me you loved me.
Love. That’s what this was.
“I love you too.” Was that enough? Was I supposed to say more?
Or was I just supposed to let you fuck me in the truck bed again? Because I could feel you, then, start to grind against me. You’d never go this slow once you were inside me, but I rode with you anyway. Even as I felt you get hard again I didn’t want to.
But I was in love, love, love. I could pretend to like it one more time.
The first time I knew I was human was after the breakup, laying on the bathroom floor. My small CD player crooned Taylor Swift’s new album. And I sobbed.
There’s something about finding your boyfriend on top of another girl that hurts more than a normal breakup. Maybe it’s the instantaneous destruction of trust, or the reminder that I could never be good enough. Or maybe it’s just the physical, undeniable proof that I was replaceable all along. That you never loved me enough to see past the way I looked on your arm, or the shitty sex where I never came.
It's the proof that you never loved me, only the parts I chose to show you.
I thought back on our relationship, on every little transgression. I thought about all the good memories of us: flying down the freeway with your hand on my thigh; dancing in your room when we were too drunk to stand; holding you close on the bad nights until they felt good. But then I thought of the fights, the judgmental comments. I thought of me now, lying on the bathroom floor in your shirt. It still smelled like you, and I thought then that it would never smell like anything else. Like me, it would always belong to you, no matter how long it’d been since you’d worn it.
I changed myself for you, hid the undesirable parts away so you never saw the cracks. But even as I lied to you again and again I couldn’t protect myself from this numbing hurt. You studied me like a Monet painting, never getting close enough to uncover my flaws. I made myself hazy and lovely and for what? For love from a guy that I never truly fell for?
Because that was my last lie, saying I loved you. Love implies an equality and reciprocity that I never knew could exist with you. I was so bent on hiding my imperfections that I never got to share every part of myself. And so you took what I gave until I had nothing left but fragments, and then you left. Maybe if I gave you a chance to love all of me, you wouldn’t have fucked her. Maybe if I had loved all of me, I wouldn’t have stayed with you.
“Last Kiss” switched to “Long Live.” And instead of hitting replay again, I got up. I stood in the mirror, and I made myself smile through the tears. Smile at the person I could become, because I did lose you that day.
But I also got me back.