To All the Boys
An excerpt from STARGAZING IS NECROPHILIA. Proper title: To All the Boys I Never Fucked.
It occurs to me to feel shame I never loved you. I liked you so profusely; in another world, would that have been enough? Why is liking so easily dismissed? Love requires obstacles, which hardly seems desirable. Falling, jumping, leaping, it all implies something standing in the way, but with you I simply walked around in my feelings, strolled them, wandered. In retrospect, it was a very safe way to feel, a dangerless utopia. Just an apex predator without a consequence in sight.
Why can’t love be like that? I always wanted to love reasonably, perhaps even loftily. Things are safest from on high. I would argue (of course I would) that in some ways, love defies evolution—how many have died for it, or for lack of it?—and thus, maybe we’ve made too much of it. These things we’re supposed to feel, this programming that we have to seek love above all things, it must be social, anthropological; it must be some diabolical set of limitations placed on us by men who didn’t understand science. How else would they subdue us, if love wasn’t what they said it was? If they didn’t lure us with poetry and lies—with the seduction of passion and other petty crimes—then wouldn’t I have chosen you? But no, what good am I to them if, from the safety of perfectly likable contentment, I begin to question why the rich are so rich? And then worse, because I lack some desperate search for a soulmate, I have the time to do something about it? No, better the Vatican commissioned a sense of splendor so that one day I would kindly tell you no, no thank you, I don’t want to ruin our friendship, and then waste the energy of my twenties looking for something impossible to feel.
I suppose sex is the evolution part of love, only I think I would have gladly had sex with you, once or twice on the days you were particularly appealing. (Remember when you let your hair go a little long? I lamented the haircut, the loss of your pheromones, or maybe that was just the fever breaking from something we all mostly understood, which was that finals were driving us insane.) But again, society failed us. We couldn’t have had sex, not without love; do you see what I’m saying? I would have been irresponsible, you would have been tricked, so in the end I was trying to spare us both, even though I think it would have been perfectly lovely. I think you would have stroked my hair afterwards and said nice things to me about my body. I think my liking for your innocuity was compelling in its own way. If I had given you my heart, I think you would have cared for it. You and I are proof it’s both a relief and a pity that people mostly get what they deserve.
People overuse the word nice, though that’s precisely what you were. You were thoughtful and polite, and I wonder who I can blame for convincing me those things were not enough. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton? Love is a curable illness, however lethal it feels. Love comes and goes, but liking I would not have recovered from; I think I could have liked you for the rest of my life and never worried I would stray from it. Somewhere in a pocket of time or the multiverse I am waking up to have breakfast with you, and you’ve made the eggs perfectly, and yes I will imagine myself getting positively railed by a stranger on the train and you’ll wonder when, exactly, I became so cruel, but isn’t it a pretty picture? What a lovely mediocrity we could have had together.
You were right to never speak to me again.
You will be relieved to know my memory has transformed you. I wrote my first stories for you in my head, always with you as the hero and me, the girl you hardly noticed at first, steadfastly at your side. I went from adoration to reality back to adoration, and as far as I can tell, the pendulum swing has been mostly without structural damage. Everyone needs an origin story, and you are mine. I suppose I love myself too much to build my foundation on disillusion. (Am I a narcissist? Something for a future letter, I expect.)
When I do think about what you were like, managing to see beyond the fog of my altered narrative, I remember that the cruelest thing I ever did to myself was becoming someone you could love. Why on earth did I let myself win you over? I should have permitted you to live as a deity untouched. You have no idea what damage I did, spoiling my own version of you with some juvenile first taste of adultery. I loved the you of my mind but touched the real you, and never once was it not a betrayal. If the you in my mind had known the version of you I kissed! He would be so disappointed in me. It’s no wonder I never got to love him. Aside from the minor detail of his non-existence, it is quite obvious to me now that he would never have been interested in a girl like me. He might have existed that way forever, an exquisite portrait of the masculine ideal, if not for you.
Your love was my first disappointment. It was the shattering of someone I had been, which was (unbeknownst to me) a person capable of invention to the highest degree. Following that, I learned I was beholden to an abject coldness. Don’t you understand, I made you? I stitched you like a quilt from tiny pieces, you glancing in my direction after class or walking around in your soccer uniform; I made your entire personality out of the back of your head in Honors Algebra and the varsity letter you earned at fourteen. It was nothing! It was certainly nothing tangible, and somehow I stitched that into someone I could love. Then you loved me and it was terrible, I hated every moment of it, and now we are adults and you have children and the three months we spent together were probably nothing, only they are preceded by years of me quietly perfecting my craft. You were my first protagonist, and now you are my redemption arc.
Eventually in my recollections I hit a wall and remember nothing except the beginning, which was my very first daydream. We were thirteen, you had just discovered you were actually an inheriting noble, only your title required you to wed. To wed, at thirteen? A scoff. You refused—unless, of course, it could be someone you trusted, someone you respected. Someone smart. Her, you said, pointing to me, and I said me? And you said yes you, and we moved to your manor house together, and slowly, very slowly, we fell in love, and you relied on me for answers and I relied on you for company and also, we were very wealthy. And we were happy. That’s the important part, that you and I still live there in that house; aristocratically, beatifically happy.
By the way, congratulations on the birth of your third child. Your life, as far as I can tell, is wonderful, and I hate it. Thank you for not giving it to me.
It is one of my biggest regrets that I never fucked you first. Out of everyone who ever put their hands under my shirt, I think you were the most insatiably curious about my body. I suspect your enthusiasm for being inside of me would have been genuinely close to awe. Your interest in religion rendered you highly capable of devotion, and I often think this is the sort of thing that could have forever altered the course of my teenage life. Imagine: if we had just slept together, then you might not have been convinced to marry the first serious girlfriend who made you too horny to function and I might have realized sooner that my body was perfectly not-disgusting; in fact, it was fine.
It’s so hard to come by the perfect first sexual partner. Someone who is willing to try things and to learn—someone who has nothing to prove but everything to gain—is, as I now understand it, a rarity. Yes, your religion had quite a firm stance on the matter, but I think you and I can agree they would have disapproved already, had they known the places you had me put my hands when your parents weren’t home. What’s one or two more eternities of punishment?
I feel a bit sad sometimes when I’m doing the dishes or recalling your boredom with accounting that for you, sex will always feel a little dirty, like desire is something you have to wash clean. Your penitent life seems to have led you somewhere unsatisfactory. On the other hand, even a blow job has all the zest of taboo, so maybe that works for you. You did enjoy the taste of things forbidden. Are they still vanilla, like my chapstick?
When I think of dirty things I remember the red bikini I put on for you, with the ties you could have easily taken off but didn’t. You should have done it, I think. Yes, it would have mortified us after, but then we would have done it again, and probably many times after and never told a soul. I never told anyone about any of the other things, did I? They’re just for you now, filed under ‘memories,’ and just for me, filed under ‘opportunities lost.’
Enclosed is a duplicate copy of this letter. Please give it to your brother. Apologies again.
For someone not conventionally attractive, you were, for one night, the most beautiful man I had ever seen. I know I was dating your friend at the time, but I think we both knew I was going to break up with him. He adored me too much, and I have a taste for untouchable things.
It was late when I saw you in that rehearsal space. There is always some implied sense of bacchanalia to every form of art, isn’t there? Late nights, people smoking and drinking and lamenting lost loves, fucking somewhere just out of sight from the hallways. We are artists, we don’t sleep or eat; our nourishment is creation. We are ravenous for something that will never be satisfied or quelled, and half of us will die in pursuit of it. Another half (you) will abandon it in favor of sanity. Half of whoever remains (me) will ultimately fail.
Your roommate, my sort-of boyfriend, was an engineer. Those are the sorts of men who, later in life, would ultimately choose to pursue me: the ones whose minds are so organized and susceptible to colonization they don’t see mine as a threat. Artists typically recognize something dangerous in me; they are skittish with me, going rigid in the orbit of something dangerously familiar and hastily darting away.
You were rehearsing your cello and I walked in, claiming my right to your space just as I had to your roommate’s bed. I had no idea I would fall in love with you the moment I asked you to play for me; I don’t think you suspected either of us would suffer much pleasure when you said yes. Come to think of it, I think we did fuck that night. Whatever you did to me and I did back to you, I think it’s clear we had consent.
On the occasions I try to destroy myself with sadness I think of you. You’re a lawyer now, which means you are conventionally unattractive all the time and your cello sits untouched. The women who should be throwing themselves at you are thinking: Well, maybe I could see it; at least he’s tall. Art loses again, and so does sex. You weren’t sure it was worth killing yourself interpreting Bach’s intentions seven hours a night just to pay the rent (or so you told me drily), but I’m not sure you’re right about that.
I broke up with the boyfriend shortly after and saw very little of you as a result, not that it matters. You say it’s not worth killing yourself? Fair enough.
I say the man I fell in love with is beautiful and dead.
When I think of you, I am instantly a child again. Not that I knew you as a child, but you always rendered me that way. You were older, wiser—one of those drunks who orated the strangeness of your life experiences without much prompting—and I was rapt when you spoke. It would not surprise me to discover later you were almost universally disliked by your peers, which makes sense to me. As far as I’m concerned, none of them were your peers and either you were very strange or I was (and I definitely was).
Whatever we were was very brief: me seeking your approval. (Daddy problems? Freud would say yes, but I have grown up to make a habit of dismissing his opinion.) Sometimes I find myself close to forgetting you entirely, but then I remember your last letter to me, delivered on a Monday: “‘When are you going to kiss me and get it over with?’” (A quote from me.) And then, for whatever reason, you had written in a line beneath that: “Never change.”
Ah, so stay a child forever, you meant. (“We should probably never kiss,” you said to me without explanation, doing me the favor of walking away before I could beg.) Is that what you wanted me to do, beg? I imagine you knew that you could break me of my illusions, my fanciful notions of idolatry and lust. What power that is, then, and how admirable for you to decline. Admirable? No, not really. I suppose you might have thought it was, but I already knew you weren’t perfect. I already understood my attraction to you was the same kind of madness that made women want to fuck the gods; to accept Zeus as a shower of gold coins, or let him take me in the form of a goose.
I wish you hadn’t been too lazy to break my heart. I wish you’d done it, because I think I would have happily been crushed for your entertainment; eyes wide, ribs pried open just for you. It was the only time in my life I had ever been too young for someone, intellectually-speaking, and it will have to be the last. Yours was a soul even older than mine, and I’d have liked to take a bite of whatever it was you kept from me. Wisdom, maybe. I’d have stolen a bit of it for myself and hidden it, locked it away, smiling to myself later over my transgressions like something I’d thieved from a giant.
Then again, maybe this is why we never kissed. It’s possible you knew you would be robbed.
I ask myself most often where we went wrong. In all the time I spent with you, I never found a flaw. Presumably you never let me close enough to see one, and I imagine that was the problem. Why come all that way to see me, then? Why drive around in my car for hours? I have to believe I failed some sort of test that day, and it kills me to think of it. I had not been met with failure much before that; at least, not in such a pointed, identifiable way. You have been scarred into my memory, burned there by some unknowable mistake.
I was slow to recognize your feelings. You walked me home one night and told me, in some abstract pattern of cryptic words, that you would happily be the man in my life, and I was bewildered by the concept. You said why else would I walk you home and I said I don’t know, because you’re a gentleman? And you laughed darkly, humorlessly, and you informed me with great indignation: “I am not a gentleman.”
I hear it from time to time in my thoughts, trapped in there like an echo: “I am not a gentleman.” I will think myself fine, recovered or even possibly untouched, and there you are again: “I am not a gentleman.” Where did you go, why did you leave? You generously paid the bill and you opened my car door for me; what happened?
Ah, of course, you already gave me my answer.
“I am not a gentleman.”
I was never a lady, but I expect you knew that, somehow. Do me a favor and let me keep your mysteries; I think I will need a puzzle to play with later in life, when the rest of my thoughts have gone dry.
As I’m writing this I have a boyfriend you know nothing about, but you should know betrayal is in my code. Even when I’m not a traitor, I am. I am faithless by nature, and I cannot apologize for that, even if I wanted to. I don’t know how to be anything else.
I anticipate this letter will be worthless soon enough. The strange thing is I think I could be happy with what we have if it were only this, but then with you, I have no desire for happiness. I’ve become reckless with time, and happiness holds no appeal for me now. I regret that my love always falls somewhere shy of coldness, because I care deeply. I hate to cause pain, and for that, love will always take pieces from me. In the moments I catch myself happy, I have to wonder whether I have given too little away. I know that with you, I would be buried alive with misery, and I admit, I find it grotesquely appealing. Whatever I have with you will be ugly, and that’s how I know it would be true.
You would hate him. The idea that I’ve chosen to be with him embarrasses me a bit, but only when it comes to you. You are a skeptic, your values are skewed, and I know you will look at him and think: Him? Really, him? I hate it, the thought makes me itch. I love him, he loves me. Isn’t love important, isn’t it valuable? Don’t shit on love, A., it’s been done. It’s passé, really, this idea that what N. and I share doesn’t matter because he’s not smart enough for me and you are. Which he isn’t, maybe—and which you maybe are—but that’s not the point. There’s more to life than that.
Sometimes, of course, I say that and I know it’s complete bullshit, because it’s a truth that stares me in the face whenever my boyfriend shows no reaction to something I know would spark a light in your eyes. Sometimes I have to ask myself if he’s even listening, which is nothing I ever have to ask with you. It’s not enough for me to leave him—I love him, I really do, ignore what I’m saying and listen to my voice when I say it—but it’s enough to make me suspect I’m not at full charge. Loving him drains some piece of me that you easily return, only I struggle equally to imagine myself with you alone. Wouldn’t you drain me, too? Maybe that’s all love is: two people filling each other up until they’re empty.
In a world where you and I never take this too far (I don’t think it will be this one for much longer) I imagine everything is probably fine. Yes, there will still be pieces missing from my relationship, but isn’t that inevitable? How can one person ever really be enough to plug up all the holes we amass in life? There will always be misery that predates us; the sins and flaws of our parents, the many injuries we collect for ourselves along the way. Is N. supposed to fix the friend in third grade who betrayed me? To give me all the approval in adolescence I never received? Is he supposed to salve my sense of failure, to soothe my ambitions, to lessen my compulsions in order to help me breathe? I’m selfish, but not that selfish. Besides, he will make his own marks on me, and it will be hard enough just holding him accountable for those.
How do I know this is coming? Because of all the boys I never fucked, you are the one I most need to ruin. I can’t let you live in my head as perfection; I have to know your flaws and let it end there. I have to feel your indentations or you will crawl inside my brain and linger, punishing me with the threat of intimacy I’ll never know. The worst thing you could do is fail to disappoint me—does that make sense to you yet? I’m asking you a favor. Can you see it? I need to rid myself of you, and that requires a certain degree of destruction. If I do nothing, you will be the thorn that pricks constantly at my thoughts.
I can see there are flaws in my plans; namely, that something near my stomach festers upwards to my chest when I think of you belonging to someone who isn’t me. The woman you would love, if not me, would be everything I coveted about myself. She would be intelligent, cultured, worldly, sophisticated; a person of ideas. For you, book-smart is not enough, and street-smart is valuable but almost nothing you can entertain for long. The woman you would love if not for me is witty and sparkling, clever and cynical. She’s extroverted and graceful and neither kind nor unkind; she cuts to the core of each person she’s with. She’s terrifying, and terrorizing, and the sort of person far easier to hate than understand.
If my boyfriend weren’t with me, his choice would be about beauty and passion and chemistry, which are easy to recreate. I do not envy my replacement. She could be dumb as rocks and have traveled less than five feet outside her house and still manage to make him happy. I don’t want to surrender him to her, but neither do I have any wish to be her. The woman you might love if not for me is so powerfully destructive to my psyche I think it physically impossible to set you free.
Is this a love letter? No, it’s an apology. I am sorry for the person I will very soon become, which is coincidentally a person I have always been. I lack something; possibly morals. Possibly it’s my awareness that you and I won’t last, or some intangible suspicion that what I can see from where I’m standing is being illuminated by something yet to come. Did you know some of the stars are dead by the time we register their existence? The galaxies we can see are millions of light years away. There’s something disturbing about that; about the way we feast celestially on death we can neither identify nor understand.
Do you understand? That’s how it feels to look at you. Like a part of me I think is there is somehow gone already. Like love itself is gone, but I won’t know it existed to begin with until I cross the line.
So I’m going to cross it, probably soon, probably immediately. Because I think I’ve always known it will be more satisfying to light myself on fire than to slowly burn to death.
STARGAZING IS NECROPHILIA is currently in progress. For more details, see my about section.