I met him at a poetry reading. He didn’t strike me as someone particularly interesting. I forgot about him until weeks later, when he tagged me in a series of photographs he had taken. I didn’t recognize myself in them, but I wanted to. It took me a month to respond to his dozen DMs. I asked if he would take more photographs of me. Not in a “draw me like one of your French girls” sort of way. I just wanted more evidence that I exist. He said he’d be happy to book a session with me, and then he asked me out on a coffee date. And then a week later, instead of sending a price list for the booking, he asked me to join him on a walk. I stood him up three times but on the fourth time, I called. That’s how we started.
Every night, we’d get on the phone and trade meaningless details about our days. He often met with some guy who hated women and ran anti-abortion rallies around the city. He did it to have adult conversations about why this man was wrong and why he, as a feminist, was basically the Messiah. He told me he was doing his part.
Don’t you think you’d make better use of your time by like, volunteering maybe, for a women’s shelter? Maybe you could offer free photographs? Help them make a LinkedIn or something.
Listen, maybe I won’t get through to him. But at least he’ll know that someone cares even to challenge him. He said.
Online, I was falling in love with his Facebook posts. They were filled with Hot Takes and progressive commentary on the state of the world. They were about minorities, marginalized people, black women being the most vulnerable people in society. He wrote about communication being key for healthy relationships, about the importance of having those hard conversations, about fear as a mind-killer, about honing your authentic self. Protect black women at all costs, he had written. I understand that I’m white but I’m a working-class refugee, he’d commented as a rebuttal. On our first date, I caught him staring at me from across the bar. He winked. When he came back, he told me he wanted love like in the movies. Cameron Crowe and Noah Baumbach were two of his favourites.
Have you watched Vanilla Sky? He had asked.
Outside at the intersection, I was admiring how tall he was. He stretched both of our arms like that scene in Titanic, where Rose is pretending to be Jesus on a cross, except that in our version, we were both gods. It was snowing. I could feel his bulge pressing against my ass, even through both our winter coats. It was the most romantic thing I had ever experienced in my entire life.
The first time we had sex was on Christmas day. I spent my holiday house-sitting for a rich family on vacation. He was visiting his parents and masturbating in his childhood bed. I remember I was doing the dishes, while also pretending to moan, thinking about how sex is more than the actual act, the penetration. We did it a couple more times over the phone before our first official date. I felt really bad about it so I told him we should take it slow. Perhaps not fuck tonight, even if we’re both extremely drunk.
I said, I have no self-control after too many tequila shots, promise me.
We had sex on our first date anyways.
He fell asleep and I sat on his bathroom floor judging myself for it. I didn’t feel pressured or anything like that. I mean there was consent and all that. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that this person would never take me seriously. That he’d always look at me like the girl he’d fucked on the phone, and then IRL immediately after. The sex wasn’t even an in-the-heat-of-the-moment kind of thing. He was naked in bed. I was putting on my pajamas, folding my clothes in my overnight bag.
He said, You’re actually getting dressed? I thought you said you sleep naked.
I also said we shouldn’t have sex tonight.
He laughed. We can still appreciate each other, though.
He didn’t use a condom. I didn’t care because I had an IUD, but I had never had sex with someone who doesn’t use a condom without first establishing the seriousness of who we are to each other. I asked.
He said, We’re just being kind.
He was getting close. He pulled my face into his and said, Are you on the pill?
No, I said. Giggling: Are you?
He came inside of me by accident and then asked my opinion on abortion.
I’m a socialist, he clarified. Then he told me about his crazy ex-girlfriend.
I met his friends on New Year’s Eve. They were actors and models and filmmakers, though none of them had tangible credit. I was a poet, yes, but they registered me as my paying gig. Which was that of a waitress. The energy in the room was big and tight and intimate. Like an orgy could break out at any moment. These were people who didn’t measure their success based on actual success but, instead, on long philosophical debates about morality. It felt freeing. It felt overwhelming. They were thirty-something-year-olds who saw the world entirely through the comfort of this apartment. The walls were red. There was a karaoke station, a bean-bag chair, several guitars hanging from a wall. After the kiss, I ran outside to puke.
We hung out a few times after that. He’d ask questions like, Did your parents ever beat you, and what’s the worst thing you’ve experienced as a black woman. His roommate was also black so he had a personal relationship with blackness. I told him about that moment you’re alone in a room with someone and they suddenly realize that you’re Black. I told him about the horror on their faces, about the second-guessing, about the fear.
He said, Okay, that’s not that bad. The kids in my schools had it way worse.
I gave him more stories. More moments. More of my days. But then I got frustrated and cried.
He’d say, I see that you’re still holding on to the past. You can’t heal unless you learn to let go.
Most nights, we’d sit with his friends unpacking a Hollywood movie. Them with their philosophy degrees, me with my double major in English and Literature. I suggested that poets and philosophers use language differently and he told me that I was wrong, language is a matter of facts.
He said, poets are people who are too scared to face them. In many ways, poets live inside of their delusions. Or, what you call a “metaphor.”
The afternoon he took my photograph, there was a snowstorm. Neither of us drove and neither of us could afford a taxi so instead, we walked in the slush and by the time we got to the studio, it was locked.
You don’t have keys?
It’s a public gallery. It’s usually open. I bring all my clients here.
I thought you had a studio.
He launched his arms like an eagle, this entire city is my studio. Come on, I know another place.
Maybe we should reschedule? I don’t know. I thought you had a studio. I don’t do well in the cold.
Jesus, baby, how long have you been in Canada!
He kissed me on the forehead and then took me to the TIFF LightBox where we were both members. He watched independent and art films looking for the thesis. I watched foreign films for the experience. I was drawn to the grandeur of cinéma vérité.
We shot in the lounge. I didn’t like the audience. I always considered photography to be this intimate practice, not intimate the way sex is, but intimate like crying out for the one you love. In the dark. Like the volta in a poem.
The week before he dumped me, he asked me to list three things I hated about myself and three things I needed to change. We drank the same amount but because he was six foot and I was five foot, only I was drunk. It was like this every night. He had olive eyes, a receding hairline, hair growing out of his ears and from his chin down. He was just my type. A mix between I-don’t-shower and beer-belly-is-the-new-man-bun. He broke mirrors and hung them around his bedroom and called it an installation. And in the morning, from his window, we could hear the Caribbean place across the street blasting Bob Marley. He sang all the lyrics. Once, after sex, he tasted his own cum, said, delicious. Another time, he told me that I should wear my bonnet to bed. He wanted to make love to me in my natural state. He said, I want to have you in the morning when you’re most honest.
Of the three things I admitted to hating about myself, I told him I wanted to be loved so bad I could die for it.
Exactly. He said, you think the world hates you. But it’s all in your head. The world is so beautiful, I wish you could see that.
He reached over the table, travelled the length of my forearm. I can’t be the one to make you happy, you know that right?
I didn’t remember asking. But still, I said, You’re right, I’m sorry.
That’s when the breakup happened. We were at the Red Room in Kensington Market. I was drunk, he had ordered me several rounds of shots and had taken none himself. He told me that the kind of work I had to do on myself was beyond his years. It’s the way you see the world. He said, I’ve already reached the point of self-actualization and I don’t think it would be fair to subject myself to your journey. I don’t mean to be crass, I’m just trying to protect my energy. We just see the world differently. You’re dark, you live in a state of perpetual fear, you cry too easily. The more you apologize, the more I think you want me to absolve you of your problems. From the guilt you feel for putting all of your pain onto me.
I interrupted him then. You’re breaking up with me? I said.
I didn’t even know we were a thing.
He waved the waitress over.
Like I thought that was just sex. Like all we do is have sex and watch movies with your friends! Like, you made me watch Green Book on Valentine’s Day. How was I to know you cared about me?
I didn’t make you do anything you didn’t want to. See, this is exactly what I mean. You catastrophize everything. I don’t consent to this conversation.
You made me watch fucking Green Book!
Look, don’t get abrasive. This wasn’t an easy decision for me. But like, if it looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck then it’s a duck.
I sent four long text messages. He replied twenty-five hours later explaining that he couldn’t give me closure, that my healing wasn’t his responsibility, that it would be a betrayal to his person to hear what I had to say, to listen to the ways in which he hurt me.
He said, you don’t get to claim I hurt you just because you’re sad.
I said, Okay, you’re right, I’m sorry.
He told me I broke his trust by overtexting him without his consent.
I said, I understand, I’m sorry.
We agreed that we could still be friends.
The following month, he began telling me about his Tinder dates and the women he’d go home with after an event. He was the photographer and they were the clients, the women from fetlife.com. He had a generous list of conquests and I would store them accordingly: the girl who lay there like a starfish, the girl who wouldn’t leave his apartment after the fact, the girl who cried about her ex. I felt humiliated hearing these stories. I recognized myself in each of them. They were separate parts of me, which I understood was probably easier than being with one person who is all of these things at once: numb, lonely and in pain. He said, I’d really like to fuck a girl with a hijab next.
I sent him a text: So is that what you want? You want me to lay there and play dead? We can do that, if that’s what you want.
He read my text immediately but replied the next morning: Every time you break my boundaries, you lose my trust. Friends don’t fuck friends.
You’re right. I’m sorry. I got confused. Can we talk about it over lunch?
Over a plate of calamari, he told me about his latest, the singer-songwriter. They were friends but he couldn’t resist, he just had to have her. She sounded and looked boring. Mediocre, regular even. And that’s what made her so special. That’s what made her at once beautiful and talented. There was nothing to see. So you could be in the audience, comfortable, and non-complicit. There was no show. There was no magic. She was just a person, open and alive.
He told me that he came on her ass.
I thought you said you didn’t sleep with friends?
No, yeah, no, it’s different. You were my girlfriend.
So weird hearing you say that. I’ve always wanted to be someone’s girlfriend. Like with the title. I just always thought it came with a proposal, you know?
He didn’t respond so I persisted: It’s just weird to have been something for someone and not know it, you know?
I get that. He said, It’s like those guys you dated. They probably don’t know you think they abused you.
Yeah. I said.
It wasn’t like how it was with you, you know?
Why are you telling me this?
We’re friends. Friends tell each other intimate things.
It went on like this for a year. And then it was over. It happened like all deaths do—abruptly, in the middle of an ordinary Tuesday. For months I still returned to the photographs. I’m not sure why. I guess I wanted to see what he saw. He had captured something in me that I thought I had lost. I looked grounded, confident. I looked like someone who didn’t need anyone. And for an hour or two, it was enough. I’d fall asleep picturing the singer-songwriter’s ass. How he probably slapped it several times, leaving his mark in a way he couldn’t do on my skin. How, on her, he would actually appear, a flushed red, and how he probably caressed that spot on her body, over and over again, until there was no more evidence that he’d been there.
Téa Mutonji is a Congolese-Canadian author and poet. Her first book, Shut Up You’re Pretty, was shortlisted for the Atwood Gibson Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and won the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and the Trillium Book Award.