When I think of you, I smell the candied fennel you're chewing on. I smell that perfume you stole from Nordstrom during that period when you fancied yourself some kind of Stevie Nicks fantasy in that stupid fucking oversized hat. That perfume always smelled like water to me -- like if water were supposed to have a smell.
When we first met we talked about the ocean, and for a second I thought it was corny, but I let myself like it. I was 22 years old and I thought everything was corny. Everything felt trite and done and boring, but you taught me to let the world be kind to me if it wanted to. I was busy rolling my eyes at every spoken word open mic and pretending like I’d heard it all before. I looked at you in the orange light of the cafe and said that I’d heard it all before. You told me to cut that shit out and listen for a minute. You said that some things couldn’t be repeated enough. Some things needed to return to us. Some things were meant to wash over us again and again and feel too sweet and too good and too much. Like the ocean, which you said you had a connection to that was all yours. You were 27 and for years you’d lived in Wilmington with your blonde dog, in your van, all in the interest of returning yourself to the ocean.
I thought you wanted to teach me how to enjoy things like you did. I took you out drinking with my high school friends in downtown Asheville for my birthday. We got in trouble for dancing on the tables. I thought that was corny as fuck. You didn’t care. We were all drunk, but you drove us home in your van, screaming “Landslide” down the parkway. You said you were good at driving drunk, and I believed you because I believed everything you said. I thought you’d seen so many things that I hadn’t. I thought you’d cracked the codes on how to make the world feel interesting. You didn’t mind letting the same things wash over you again and again. You didn’t see the point in fighting it. If something tasted sweet, you let it linger and taste sweet for a while. I thought everything had to taste sad if it tasted sweet at all. I didn’t think I was allowed to let myself like something, I thought I owed it to the world to spit out anything good. I didn’t know why yet. At the time I thought it was because I hadn’t cracked the codes that you had, and I wanted desperately to watch you until I figured out what they were. I thought that everything was boring. I wanted to be someone else. You just wanted me to cut that shit out and listen for a minute. You put your head on my shoulder and sighed during the corny love poem at the open mic. That made my heart beat like crazy. You smelled like water and you were wearing this baby alpaca shawl. I remember thinking I couldn’t believe you were wearing a shawl. I thought it was such a brave thing -- like you were telling the world you could put the blanket over your own shoulders. You said that just because someone says something corny doesn’t mean those feelings are less potent. It doesn’t mean they aren’t sick with love or in so much pain they can’t breathe. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen.
If you wanted something, you took it. I remember the first time we went into a store together. As soon as we walked outside, you pulled something out of your pocket with this kind of childish giddy shame. Maybe shame isn’t the right word. You didn’t feel like it was something that made you wrong, you just knew that sometimes you got away with doing the wrong thing. You’d been taught all your life that actions have consequences, and the world functioned through cause and effect. You became disenchanted when that turned out to not be true, so you did things and then you waited for the effect. You had to keep testing it out. People did horrible things to you and they did not face any consequences. There were times when you asked for help when you didn’t get it. So how could the world actually function through cause and effect?
So you tested it out. You stole a 100 dollar vibrator from that creepy sex shop we always drove by. It was in a shipping container and we had to sign in at this little window in the front. We walked around the store for 20 minutes picking things up and feeling them on our skin and laughing at ourselves and maybe laughing at other people, making fun of people who would use them. It was one part cruel one part honest one part vulnerable one part giddiness one part shame. We knew that we were the people we were making fun of, but neither of us thought the other one knew that.
There is always shame. That is what I came to find out about the codes you’d cracked. You were very ashamed. You didn’t want to be someone else, but you wanted to hurt yourself. You told me that your brother once beat you so bad that he had to take you to the hospital. He felt so justified in beating you up that he didn’t think twice about being the one to drive you to the hospital because in his twisted imagination he hadn’t done anything wrong. You let things be too good and wash over you and be corny because you would do anything to pretend like things were okay. You would do anything to try and escape the shame for a second. You thought that maybe if you pretended the world was really that good that it would become true -- maybe you would become someone who deserved to feel that good and live in a world with that much sweetness. When I met you, you were trying that out and waiting for the effect.
If you wanted something, you took it. Your dorm room was like an overstocked gift shop in a small town. It looked like a place where things were for sale, but they didn’t belong anywhere else but right there. You were desperate to let yourself like things. You were desperate to let yourself consume and let things be delicious. You had stacks of stolen books, pens, scarves, essential oils, big rings that you stacked on your fingers, those fancy soy candles. You had every mug they sold on the shelves at Starbucks. You had 6 copies of the The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath. Every time you saw a copy in a bookstore, you took it.
One night we sat in your parked van and got drunk. You had a copy of that Dixie Chicks album in the CD player and we screamed every song like we were trying to get some kind of message across to anyone listening. We screamed as if everyone walking past needed to hear the lyrics to “Wide Open Spaces” if they wanted to know what was good about life. Nobody had the codes like we did, nobody else knew you had to embrace the corny shit. We kept drinking and we cackled and you got to telling me about people you didn’t like, and I realized that you could be cruel. Just like in the sex shop when we were tickling each other with fuzzy riding crops, you were just as ashamed of everyone else as you were of yourself.
I started to resent you. I started to think you were mean, selfish, and entitled. I started to judge your shelf of stolen Starbucks mugs. I started to think that you were a hoarder of precious things and that you were gluttonous. And then you were gone.
Sometimes, when you would talk about how you wanted to die, I would wonder what the point was, then, in making everything around you so damn beautiful and catalogue-worthy. After you were gone, I realized that you were playing with cause and effect. Like if you made life beautiful enough, would you want to live it? And you did make things beautiful. And you made me find something in myself that I’d beaten up and hidden when I was a child. I found a way to let things wash over me again, to taste the sweetness in things, to love corny shit. Was there anything that could be beautiful enough that it would make you want to stay? Could there have been anything so sanguine, so doused in sugar, so disgustingly fucking corny and good that it could have convinced you not to die? If there was, I probably wouldn’t be able to stand it. It would probably make me squirm. It would probably make me cringe and look around everywhere for a way out -- but I would stand there and let it wash over me. I would stand there and let myself like it.
Emmanuelle Post lives in Durham, NC. She holds a BA in Creative Writing from Warren Wilson College. Her poetry has appeared in Freezeray and in a collaborative poetry zine titled 'Heavy Creatures' distributed by Pioneers Press. This is her first non-fiction publication. She tweets @empopostie