“I still think of her when I masturbate,” I blurt out as I stick a cigarette between my teeth. Raising my lighter to the end and watching it ignite and burn an acidic red.
Winnie looks over at me, a scoff leaving her lips as she collapses onto an exposed tree root—our favorite smoking spot in the city park. She snags the lighter from my hand as I sit beside her. “You have to be joking, right?” Despite her thumb rolling over the wheel, it refuses to spark. I cup my hands around the lighter to block the wind—the flame finally catching and tickling the end of her stick.
“It’s not that I want to picture her when getting off, okay? It just kind of happens,” I reply. I cannot fully explain with adequate words as to why I picture Marie when in my most vulnerable moments. Perhaps it’s just habit or longing, or even a lust-fueled addiction. All I know is that her face always appears between my legs when I’m orgasming—her hazel eyes drooping in desire, fiery yet pure. Although slightly psychotic and obsessive to think of an ex in that way, it seems to be the only way I can release the built-up tension.
I take a drag from my cigarette, holding in the smoke so that it burns the back of my throat. Winnie is shaking her head, the floral bandana that’s tied around her hair slipping. She has a look of pity in her eyes, the blue of her iris’ clouded with a sense of confusion and sympathy. “Don’t look at me like that. I realize it’s wrong, okay?” I say.
“Have you tried thinking of other people? You know, I like to picture someone unattainable so I don’t grow overly attached. Like lately, I’ve been on a bit of a Kate McKinnon kick. There’s just something about her that really gets me going,” she speaks through giggles, lightly nudging me with her shoulder.
“I’ve tried. At this point, I think I’ve tried almost everything, but nothing works,” I groan out a response, “I’ve even tried punishing myself, like trying to teach myself to not think of her.”
I Googled ways to kick a bad habit a few weeks ago when I realized that my actions were less than superb, that’s where I found an online chat log about ending addictions. Although I’m not necessarily addicted to anything, especially not what the anonymous group members spoke about, their advice had sparked a few ideas in me. KarmaKat0212 spoke about how as an attempt to stop drinking, every time she took a shot, she’d force herself to eat a spoonful of hot sauce. That way, she associated drinking with pain, a runny nose, and teary eyes. So, as my own form of punishment, when I think of her while I’m bathing and go to grab the showerhead, I turn the water to freezing cold and force myself to stand there for at least three minutes.
Winnie slaps a hand over her mouth to stop her from laughing. Her eyes are bright with humor as she tilts her head back. Her bandana falls completely off, but she doesn’t notice, so I grab it and stuff it in her pocket. “You’re telling me that Marie was so good in bed that you can’t even torture yourself out of not thinking about her? Did she improve near the end, because you always told me that she had no idea how to use her fingers properly? Actually, I believe your exact words were ‘my gynecologist could get me off quicker with a pelvic exam,” Winnie said. She lifts her free hand, extending her middle and pointer finger and thrusts them in the air dramatically while cackling.
I quickly grab her wrist and lower her hand, scanning the area to make sure no one is watching us. “Okay so foreplay was never her strong suit, but that’s beside the point. I don’t think that I miss having sex with her, I think I just miss her.”
When Marie and I had first gotten together, it was a clash of teeth and tongue—a chaotic mess of limbs, clothes, and bedsheets. Most of the time, the bedroom echoed with the sounds of giggles rather than moans. Sex was never important. Intimacy was different for us, it was more about building emotional connections than physical ones. Although we had found ways to pleasure each other, it wasn’t a necessity. We never craved each other. Or, to be more precise, I didn’t crave her sexually until weeks after she left. We decided not to talk after the breakup, as a way to heal and create a space where the hurt could be resolved through personal mending. That was until three weeks after our split, when her name popped up on my phone with a new picture message. I hesitated before opening it, afraid it would solidify the closing of our love. I assumed it was a picture of something I left behind, a question of whether I wanted it or if she could toss it. Instead, it was a picture of her—camera pointing at the bathroom mirror— wearing nothing but a baby blue satin thong. Her lips were painted a soft plum color, her nails a chipped black. When we were together she had never sent me such intimate photos, so it didn’t surprise me when she quickly texted “OMG WRONG PERSON. I am so sorry!” I never responded, Although sometimes, when it’s late at night and the loneliness creeps in, I stare at that photo and try to convince myself that it was meant for me, but that she was too embarrassed to admit it. That photo was what sparked my thoughts of her.
Winnie’s face slowly falls, starting with her lips pursing and drifting into her eyebrows cinching together. All playfulness that previously rippled within her disappears. She places a hand on my thigh, it’s a delicate and timid touch, one that’s meant to comfort without offending. Winnie’s hands are big for how small she is, they’re overly masculine for the dainty rings and french manicure they’re adorned in. Strong knuckles and slightly protruding veins, yet so soft. She slowly pulls her hand away when she notices the way I’m analyzing it—nervous and cautious. She leans forward, her elbows resting on her bare knees. “It’s been five months, Carmine. I know it’s hard to move on, trust me, but it’s time. She’s with someone else now,” she replies. Her tone is too sweet and wispy. I usually love the honey-dipped syllables of Winnie’s voice, but right now it’s irritating. It feels too forced.
I shiver into my jacket as the wind bites at us. I can already feel my ears and cheeks turning a deep red. I close my eyes to bask in the feeling of it for just a moment. Marie used to cup her hands around my ears when they’d start to blush from the cold. Every time she’d tell me that she needed to invest in a pair of earmuffs for me, and each time I’d tell her that I didn’t need a pair because I had her to keep me warm. I cup my own hands over my ears, the tips of them freezing against my palms, and for a second I can trick myself into believing that they’re hers.
“Carmine?” Winnie interrupts my daydream, her voice is slightly breathy. She tilts her head to the side, her smile uncertain. Her lips pull up, her rosy cheeks bunching, but her eyes are too guarded. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have brought up the new girlfriend, I know that’s a touchy subject for you.”
“She’s not even new, that’s the issue. They’ve been together for four months now. I mean, who the fuck moves on from a two-year relationship in a month? Two or three weeks really considering that they had to have the talking and dating stage first,” I bite back. “She’s moved on, and I’m still alone and getting off on the idea of her. How pathetic is that?”
“It’s not pathetic—” Winnies starts to speak but I quickly cut her off.
“But it is! I can’t escape her!” I can feel the tears begin to well up in my eyes, the knot in my throat growing, and the ache in my chest throbbing. I take another drag from the cigarette. I found out that Marie had started seeing her co-worker, Heather, a month after our breakup because a mutual friend of ours posted a picture of them together on Instagram. It was just the two of them at a club down the street from my apartment, arms entrapping each other in an embrace and noses nearly touching as they stared at each other the way only lovers do. I thought maybe I was reading too deeply into it, but after spending two hours stalking Heather on every form of social media she had, I realized that Marie was never coming back. She was dating the woman that I had met at work parties, that I helped buy presents for, that I made cupcakes for when Marie told me that she had lost her dog. Now, she’s the woman that lives the life that used to be mine. That gets to sleep in the bed where we used to make love.
We were always at Marie’s studio apartment because it was in the nicer part of the city and was closer to both of our jobs. We’d lay in her bed for hours, limbs intertwined and lips pressing against skin. She would lay her head on my chest as I played with her hair, running my fingers through it. I always felt bad when my knuckles would get stuck on a knot, not because it hurt her but because she was always embarrassed by how tangled her hair was. We’d turn on old reruns of Saturday Night Live and laugh at the skits between kisses. Then we’d order Chinese food from our favorite place down the block, and she’d mock me for how I couldn’t use chopsticks and had to ask for a plastic fork. I often fear that those moments were not ours, but that she shares the same with her new girlfriend. That the only true uniqueness I had was my inability to use proper utensils and my talent at memorizing each line of dialogue from her favorite episodes.
Winnie is chewing on her bottom lip, watching me under a careful glance. It’s not often that Winnie is speechless. I can tell by the way her leg is bouncing and her fingers are twitching that she’s trying to analyze my potential reaction to what she wants to say. She’s searching for the right words yet continuously coming up short. So, instead of waiting for her to find the proper sentiment, I take a deep breath and say, “You know, sometimes when I can’t sleep, I fantasize about her coming back. Leaving her girlfriend for me.”
The fantasy rarely changes. Sometimes my mind will slightly edit the format of the room, or the appearance of my hair, but besides that, it always plays out the exact same. I’m in my apartment, wearing nothing but panties, fuzzy socks, and one of her oversized t-shirts. I still wear them to sleep even though I know I should return, sell, or throw them out, but they’ve become a source of comfort for me. I’m making myself dinner, or sometimes an ice cream sundae depending on my mood, and listening to music. As soon as our song comes on and I go to skip it, there’s a knock on the door. It’s all a cliche—the idea of her appearing as soon as the song we used to slow dance to in the kitchen starts to play—but that’s what makes it magical. When I open the door, Marie is standing there, sopping wet from walking in the rainstorm outside with waterlogged pink carnations in her hand. We shared a mutual hatred for wet weather. I usher her inside, wrap a blanket around her, and push her damp auburn hair out of her face. I’d ask her what she’s doing there as I place the flowers on the counter and begin making her a hot cup of tea—specifically lavender chamomile because it’s her favorite. As I pour the hot water from the kettle into her mug, she admits that she still loves me and regrets ever walking away from me. Then when I turn around, she’s standing in my kitchen, stripped down to nothing but her intimates, shivering from the cold, and begging me to take her back. I do, of course. I walk straight into her arms and kiss her the way I wish I had when she had left me. Then, as expected, she takes me to bed and we make love slowly and passionately. And once again, everything is okay.
I snuff out my cigarette, rolling the filter into a ball and flicking it off into the grass. “Sometimes, I even think of her cheating on her girlfriend with me. I’ll never condone cheating, but I just want her back so badly that even the idea of being her secret is enough,” I admit softly.
I suppose I live in fantasies. A prospect of the future that everyone knows will never become a reality. On my lowest days, usually when listening to playlists that we created together, I try to picture what would happen if we became friends. Any grasp at keeping her in my life. Yet when those thoughts come in, so do the daydreams of her choosing me. In that fantasy, we’re sitting on my couch watching a movie, probably one of the Indiana Jones or James Bond franchises because she’s always loved them. My sofa only fits two people, so our thighs are brushing against each other, my arm around her to make us more comfortable. We’ll be talking and laughing over most of the movie, stealing quick heated glances at one another. Then she’ll kiss me. In my fantasy, it’s always her who kisses me, never the other way around. I, after a few moments, push her away and ask her about her girlfriend, but she just shakes her head and asks if I still love her—which of course I do. I never think what would happen after that, because I know my mind would wonder if she’d leave her girlfriend or just use me to relive our past love. That’s why I know we could never be friends. Because I know part of me will always want her to choose me in the end.
Every fantasy I’ve ever had of Marie takes place in my apartment. I think it has to do with the security of being in my space, but also the privacy and meaning behind it. She always hated my apartment. She thought it was too dirty and cluttered, and hated how it wasn’t in a presumably “safe” part of the city. She hated how the bathroom was all pink and the bedroom had sage green wallpaper. She hated the teal carpets and how outdated all the appliances were. Most importantly, she hated how I didn’t have a bathtub, only a shower. Or better yet, how small and cramped it was. So her arriving at my apartment would represent her overcoming her hatred of it for her love for me. In a way, it shows her dedication to making us work.
“Is this all part of your sexual fantasy? You get off on the idea of being her second choice?” Winnie responds harshly, snapping me out of my hazy thoughts. She stubs her cigarette off on the tree root, shoving the butt of it into her jacket pocket.
“The fuck is that supposed to mean?”
“Carmine, open your eyes and realize how sad that all is. Marie left you. She chose someone else. I know that hurts, and I know you love her but rather than moving on, you’re okay with being in her back pocket. You’re okay with being the girl that she crawls back to when things don’t work out with the girl she left you for.” Winnie reaches for my hands, but I stuff them between my thighs and turn away from her.
“She didn’t leave me for someone else,” I whisper.
Winnie places her hand on my shoulder, her touch is gentle and warm. A tear finally falls and rolls down my cheek. Instead of wiping it away, I allow more to fall—my cheeks coated in salty moisture. She wraps me in a side hug, the sweet smell of vanilla and coconut engulfing me. Her chin rests on my shoulder, one of her hands tracing circles on my back. “Sweetheart, I know you don’t want to believe it, but we both know deep down that she didn’t leave you because she was unhappy. She left you because—”
“Stop it!” I twist around, knocking her off of me, and slip off of the tree root—the back of my thighs scraping against the bark. “She loved me! She loved me like I loved her!” I cry out. My entire body is quivering, but I’m not sure if it’s from the cold or the pain of losing the only woman I ever loved.
“I never said she didn’t love you. Just sometimes, loving someone isn’t enough. Sometimes, it’s best for you to just let go,” she responds. She stands up, smoothing out her skirt and zipping up her puffy jacket, clearly ready to end the conversation and our smoke break. She reaches out her hand to help me up, but I refuse it, standing up on my own.
I don’t want to admit that I wasn’t enough for Marie to stay. I tried everything I could. We started slipping the last two months of our relationship—Marie became more distant, busier, always had an excuse not to see me. Even when we were together, it felt different. I told myself it was because she was stressed from her job promotion and mother’s declining health—that she was struggling with change and possible loss. I didn’t know how to help, but I tried my best. Everyone told me that relationships have bumps, but with time and dedication, that we’d be able to climb over them. So, I took her out to our favorite Italian restaurant and asked her if she wanted to live together. I already put my apartment on the market, even started packing a box to get a head start. I thought after two years of dating and practically living at her place, that it was the right time. Not to mention that she would have a rent cut and would have more help in her day-to-day life. Instead, she rejected my proposal and broke up with me. I had a mouthful of gnocchi when she told me it was over. She then sipped her wine and took a bite of her pasta. It was so nonchalant. No tears or a sense of remorse. Just an ending to a chapter. I had so many questions, but I didn’t want to cry and scream in the middle of a public place, so we finished our meal in silence. I paid for our dinner, walked her home, and said goodbye. I waited two weeks for her to call me, thinking maybe the idea of living together had just scared her. But she never called. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I did it differently.
“I don’t know how to let go,” I whisper, looking up at the moon—nearly full but not quite. Winnie responds, but I can’t focus on her words, it’s just a blur of muted syllables. She hugs me, her hand cupping the back of my head, holding my face against the nape of her neck. She probably mumbles a form of encouragement, advice, or a sweet sentiment, but I don’t bother to listen to it. She releases me, placing a gentle kiss on my forehead, rubbing a ringed thumb against my cheek, before turning and heading to her apartment. I follow suit and walk to mine in silence, hands shoved in my pockets and breath coming out in tendrils of smoke.
When I make it home, I drop my bag and shed my clothes, crawling into bed and hiding beneath the sea of white sheets. I look up at my ceiling, tracing my eyes across the strokes of paint, and slip my hand between my legs. My touch is frigid, fingers a pruned red from the cold, as I stroke myself. Marie’s hazel eyes look back at me, that sinister smile across her silky lips. My hand becomes hers as her hair tickles the tip of my nose and cascades onto my pillow. For a second, I allow myself to get lost in the feeling of her on top of me, her breath hot against my throat. Right before I allow the pleasure to consume me, I snag my hand away and watch as it trembles in remembrance. My body aches for her.
I roll onto my side and curl my legs up to my chest, thick globs of tears sweeping across my cheeks and coating my eyelashes in a layer of moisture. I grab my phone from the nightstand and pull up the photo of her she sent months before, my eyes roaming over the smooth expanses of skin. They linger on her face, trying to memorize every feature and angle of her. Sometimes I don’t even recognize her anymore.
I take a deep breath and press on her contact, tucking my phone against my ear. With each ring, my heart beats louder and my stomach squeezes. When I get her voicemail, a breath of air releases from my chest and my eyes flutter close. The sound of her voice reverberates through me and I melt into myself, warmth seeping through my body to the tips of my fingers.
“Marie? It’s me. I miss you, and it makes me feel crude.”
Ava Sofia Bratt is currently a junior at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts, working towards a degree in Writing, Literature, & Publishing, with a double minor in Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies and Peace & Social Justice. She is being published in Sinister Wisdom’s upcoming summer 2022 issue. She focuses on short contemporary fiction and is a lesbian woman who is working towards exposing societal perception of love and loss and the uniqueness of interpersonal relationships.