I and Love and You
Whit Bolado and Gina Warren
Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind is my favorite movie. If you were going to summarize it, it’s about breaking up. The main characters, Clementine and Joel, erase their memories of one another with the help of Laccuna Inc., a company that offers a memory targeting and deleting service. The majority of the movie takes place in Joel’s head as his imagination desperately tries to hide memories of Clementine from the erasers when he realizes that some of them are worth keeping.
The first words that Gina said to me, looking back on it, came in the form of an interjection. I was having a conversation with someone else, in the “Smoking Hut,” in between the freshman dorms at the college we went to. There was this guy, Sam, who sold drugs. Acid. Well, he tried to. He was an alcoholic, the kind of guy that would hold it together until five, and then start drinking. He would not stop, and by nine, he’d be sitting on the steps, offering every passerby a chance at a hit of acid, on the grounds that they take it then and there. And one night, I was that passerby.
So, there I am, a couple hours in to my first experience with acid, and I’m chain-smoking cigarettes like they’re going out of style. And I’m in the Smoking Hut, and the people I came up with took off to hula-hoop and learn the banjo. So I was there, smoking, talking to everyone willing to listen, and I was describing what it was like being on acid, and Gina is there, eavesdropping, and she jumps in with the words “Oh, you mean the third bardo?”
She caught me, right from the beginning. I’d say it was the acid talking, but even days and weeks and months later, it was her, raw and full. That night, her hair was tucked up under a hat, this punkish looking thing that hid her curls and exposed the bright green gage she had in her ear. She leapt from bench to bench and around the support beam of the gondola I sat under, with this energy that I would never match, talking eloquently about the perils and benefits of a good long trip.
I hadn’t been dating Gina very long when the fall semester ended. I had gone home for the holidays, and she stayed as part of a holiday work crew for extra cash. I spent time with the family, but decided, after many nights of email exchanges and drunken late-night conversations, to visit her for a while—the drive from my mother’s house back to the school was about three and half-hours, and my mom, I think, was as ready to be rid of me as I was to get out.
There was hardly anyone there besides her. It was a small college, and nobody had family anywhere near by—a destination school, you could say. We’d go on long walks, stay up late talking about philosophies that we were naively excited about, and show each other our favorite music. I had brought my computer, and among other films I had was “Eternal Sunshine.”
I had watched Eternal Sunshine several times before I showed it to Gina. I was glad she liked it; I was glad that she identified with how Clementine couldn’t commit to particular definitions, and that she agreed that the idea of forgetting was horrifying. I’ve only watched it once since we broke up.
* * *
Whit and I used to break into buildings on campus and have sex in them. Greenhouses, the bike shop, basement storage rooms, laundry rooms, the library, dorms we didn’t live in, study rooms. We used to steal alcohol from people's rooms during parties that overtook entire buildings, chips and sodas from vending machines, and snuck packs of cigarettes, cans of rolling tobacco, candy bars, and processed cookies in our sleeves and jacket pockets outside the electric door of Ingles Supermarket. After, we’d sit in the parking lot on the hood of his truck, swapping Troblerone wedges for rolled cigarettes and gummy bears.
We'd talk about politics and how, one day, we'd start our own version of the Weather Underground. He'd call me “Darlin'” and we'd go skinny dipping in the Swannanoa River, water cool and clear, our ears tipped for families and dogs hiking the trails that paralleled our favorite spots.
One night in North Carolina, when he was still living in the freshman dorms, we heard from friends that the thunderstorm had knocked down the barley into a muddy labyrinth of stalks. I had some acid kicking around in my jewelry box—I liked to have various drugs on hand, “just in case”— so we took two each, ran into the night, and crossed the street to the pastures. The night was warm, and the run to the barley field was downhill the whole way.
When we got there, the thunder snapped like something breaking, lighting cracked across his features and illuminated his face in cool blue light.
Flash. Whit’s figure ten feet ahead of me in the bent barley. Flash. Trees glistening white with rain. Flash. Torrents of water running down my arms, washing me clean. Flash. Whit’s face so close, shining wet. Flash. I grab him around the middle and tackle him to the loamy soil. Mud streaks our clothes and faces. We roll in it; mud in our hair and under our fingernails, filling our pockets and shoes.
Lying on my back, mouth open to the sky, I said to Whit, “You have to taste the rain.” He was on his stomach, mouth against my collar bone.
“You have to taste it,” I repeated. “It’s incredible.”
“I know,” Whit said, drinking water from a pool under my neck. I tried to cup my skin taunt like a bowl for him to sip from. I laughed.
“This feels right,” Whit said.
“I feel full,” I told him.
For a long time, I wanted to stay that way forever, caught in love and abandon, but it’s hard to plateau in a place like that without self-destructing. There are some things you can’t know until you’ve been hallowed out and scraped clean of them.
* * *
What were the good parts? Well, there was the time when we broke in to the vending machine; we noticed a thin crack where the metal casing lifted on the top of the machine. There was a piece of rebar in the corner by the doorway, and I lifted Gina into the air so that she could pry at the opening with the metal shaft, until we decided we had opened it enough to snake a coat hanger down behind the glass. We became excellent fishermen in this regard, only instead of trout or crappie, we snagged organic vegan cookies and peanut packets. It took them two weeks of refilling the machine for them to figure out about the hole. Her smile was one of satisfaction in the lamplight of her dorm room, an armful of treats splayed out before her crossed legs.
There was the time that she showed me how to properly enjoy an oyster on her fathers’ back porch. We had made an afternoon of it, driving out to the ocean for a fresh catch. Holding the heavy net away from her side, the briny scent of them catching in the wind, she casually heaved the forty shells into the trunk of the car. I stuck my hand out of the window to feel the cool breeze, and leaned in to the movement of her car as she wound her way around the hills of pasture and farmland. That night, she demonstrated how to pry them open with the shucking knife, and poured wine or lemon juice onto the cold meat before slurping them down, head held back, a hand under her chin to catch the runoff that glistened in the light of the Tiki-torches.
There was the time that we stayed inside in my $275 apartment and she sat in the other room while I wrote a story for a class. Looking back on it, there are few memories that I have of her during the day-time. When I think of her, it’s an image of her face, in profile, lit from something behind me. An about-face followed by a cajoling statement, a pirouette with a timely political comment. This is how I think of her, now.
* * *
Why did we break up? Well, one of the things we bonded over back then was this band called Modest Mouse, and in this one song, there’s a line. In it, the lead singer says a number, followed by “is a long time inside a car.” Just over and over, increasing the number until it seems astronomical. By the time he ends this, he gets up to “eleven hundred miles is a long time inside a car.” When we left that college, which wasn’t enough for either of us, she moved across the country. It’s a little over twice that number, to travel from Georgia to California.
Sometimes, I see Gina and I as characters in films and books. Sometimes, I see her as Delilah, and myself as Sampson, even though that’s selfish. And sometimes, I see us as the crazy couple who try to rob the diner in “Pulp Fiction.” I saw a lot of her in Clementine, and a lot of myself in Joel; she was impulsive, and I loved that about her.
* * *
Whit and I used to climb. We climbed buildings and trees, through abandoned buildings, all over the campus where we met. The art and theater building had one section where you could grab the overhang and heave yourself onto the grainy slat shingles using the rain gutter and a support beam.
The first time we did it, Whit and I stayed there for hours, drinking PBR and hard apple cider I hauled up in a ripped blue backpack.
“What do you think the alcohol content of your cider is?” Whit asked, legs dangling over three stories of nothing.
“I don’t know. Tim said it’d be like wine in two weeks, and it’s been two and a half.” I accepted the Nalgene from him and took a deep gulp. I spiced it with cinnamon and cloves which sunk, sedimentary, to the bottom. The sugar I spooned in at the end didn’t hide the sharp alcohol tang. Cicadas thundered around us. Occasionally, we’d hear a public safety golf cart whizz past. After consuming a twelve pack of beer and the Nalgene of cider, we chased each other across the roof’s dips and curves, howling and singing. Occasionally a public safety golf cart stopped, and while the flashlight beam illuminated the corridor below us, we’d lay on our stomachs and hold our mouths with our hands to keep from laughing.
Another favorite spot was the HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) building. We climbed onto the sharp triangular peak of the roof to watch the sun rise over the farm on particularly sweet mornings together. You had to walk along the top crux of the building with seventy feet of thin air between you and the parking lot on either side. The final lip of the roof, the best spot to watch the sunrise from, faced East. One morning, after a night when we sobered up slowly to the sound of snowy winds bending the dogwood and beech tree boughs, Whit and I went onto the icy roof. We hadn’t slept because the temptation of sledding down hills on cafeteria trays and shower mats was too much for our young blood to resist.
New snow covered the water frozen to the shingled surface. It was the most beautiful sunrise. Mist bled from the forest beyond the Arboretum field where I worked growing turnips and summer squash during gentler seasons. Cows were grazing in the distance. Sun rose orange and amber, electric against the cold night. The mist began to recede and part, wallowing in shallow depressions, pooling there, near the double dug garden beds and the recycling center.
Whit and I held hands and smoked cigarettes until I finally fell asleep with my head on his lap, my body arched across the roof’s peak. We never thought of falling, never thought of the seventy plus feet to the asphalt below. Instead, we thought about the other’s warm body. We thought about the baby pigs nestled under heat lamps in one of the farm buildings in the distance, about the cows grazing solemn and frosty among the brittle blades of grass.
When it was time to leave, when sunlight bleached the fog and lost it’s bright orange pre-dawn glitter, Whit woke me slowly. He pressed his fingers to my shoulders and kissed my temples, my cheeks.
“Darlin’, darlin’, you fell asleep. It’s cold. Are you ready to go to bed?”
I stirred, blinking at the light. “How long was I out?”
“About half an hour.”
We walked back across the sharp slant of the icy roof, holding hands. Shoes stuck with snow, we wandered into the dorm room before retreating into the quiet warmth of his bed.
* * *
We talked a lot about dreams. We both thought they were fascinating; she told me about dreams where she had sex with a skeleton, and I told her about my attempts to control my dreams like my father. Neither of us are religious or even vaguely spiritual, but somewhere in there, after I had stopped sleeping, I started to think of my dreams as something more serious than they were.
When I was a kid, I had an extensive journal of my dreams. They were complicated, sometimes taking five or six pages and diagrams to explain, sometimes taking place episodically over the course of a week. But I had always just written them down, and wondered about their meaning.
For a long time, I had trouble sleeping. I’d go a few nights a week without any rest, but when I managed to sleep a couple hours, it came with the most incredible dreams. Once, I woke up next to Gina convinced that I had communicated with her somehow in my sleep. I was sure that we had a connection that transcended human reality, that we had burst through to this other world, and that if I could really hammer down on controlling my dreams that I would be able to talk to her even if she was far away.
There are people who study dreams, and experiment with them. Oneirologists. Nothing works 100 percent of the time, but they come up with some pretty reliable statistics. Interrupting the REM cycle in specific moments increases the chance of lucid dreaming, for instance, where you get the chance to be aware of and interact with your dream. Picking one object to focus on before sleep each night also increases your chance to lucid dream. You can have a dream-initiated lucid dream, or a D.I.L.D., or you can have a wake-initiated lucid dream, a W.I.L.D. Not by choice, I would have W.I.L.D.s rather than D.I.L.D.s.
I had, it seemed, found an image of the Great Wall of China that worked pretty well. In my dreams, it floated in the air, thousands of feet above the ground, and if I flew up to this construct, I could move around in my dream world. I had tried to create a map of the locations of my dreams, and I could use this floating Great Wall to travel from location to location, like a highway of sorts. I was sure of it.
Most of the time, my dreams had concrete imagery; people that behaved like people, landscapes that remained intact. Something about object permanence. But sometimes they were abstract in the most vivid ways. More like vague shapes and indescribable hues of color. When I stumbled into Gina, it was this way. I found her, in my dream, as an immaterial being, a consciousness without specific shape, but undeniably Gina. I knew.
* * *
One night while I was laying in bed beside Whit, I got the sudden sense that he was going to hit me. It wasn’t like a premonition: I could feel the bed contorting as he flexed his muscles and pulled back his fists.
My entire body clamped into the fetal position. It wasn’t that I was sure he was going to punch my sides and kidneys and face, it was that I felt him punching my sides and kidneys and face. I closed my eyes, but I could see it. I whimpered.
“Darlin’,” Whit whispered. He put a hand on my shoulder and I cringed. “Darlin’, are you okay?”
I wasn’t. The episode continued. It was absolutely clear; I could feel him hitting me even though the only contact he made was a palm softly resting on my shoulder.
Eventually, I came back to reality. My breathing normalized, pulse slowed, and we wrapped ourselves in quilts and went outside. I drank water and chain-smoked cigarettes.
“I don’t know what happened,” I told him after I explained what I experienced. “I just have no idea why this would happen.”
Whit paused. We were on the front porch of my dorm building, rocking on a wood bench swing. The night was cold and clear, and we were the only ones out. Everything was moonlit and quiet. I remember the triangle pattern of the quilt and the stars like eyes.
“I think I know,” Whit said.
* * *
Once, in the cool of the Appalachian Fall, we found a well in the woods. We called it a well, referred to it as such, but it was actually the remnants of a grain storage silo. But there was water at the bottom, underneath the moldering wooden beams. If you climbed down the rickety ladder to step onto the platform, the inky liquid would lap up between the cracks as the timbers sagged and bounced. We did not know how deep it went.
We decided, after discovering it, that we were going to go back, at night. We lay a blanket on the driest portion of the wood, and set candles where they wouldn’t fall in. Lit by these tiny flames, the well somehow seemed almost bright; images of a woman with an empty womb, another with her eyes crossed out with X-es, in orange and pink and green, painted on the stone walls were clearly outlined above and around us.
I could see the goosebumps on Gina’s body from the damp air as we made love. She had brought her pipe, and we smoked even as we gyrated, careful not to move too quickly, both to maintain control of the bowl and to limit the amount of water that came sloshing up from beneath us and soaked our discarded clothing. Behind her, I held the knot of the blindfold she wore, and breathed smoke into her mouth as we kissed.
Later, I told her that the experience was cool, but creepy. I had said that the blindfold was a good idea, because it made the whole thing even creepier. She asked me, confused, “What blindfold?”
* * *
It was a common joke around campus: who hadn’t caught Whit and Gina having sex? We were pretty shameless, but most of the time people laughed it off. Gabe actually apologized when he entered the dorm bathroom to find Gina propped on the sink, her legs wrapped around my waist. Nicole would swear, tell us to lock the door, and storm off in a huff.
We were in college, we had roommates. We needed to get creative if we were going to fulfill our sexual needs. There was one room, on the second floor, an empty single-occupant room that had been vacated when the student dropped out. It was the perfect room, because it didn’t belong to anyone, and it was unlocked.
The rough carpet scraped at our knees as Gina egged me to go harder. She’d bite my lip, almost hard enough to draw blood, enough for it to swell and ripen, and I would lift her off the ground so that she straddled me. She’d scratch at my back and chest and moan, and I would growl and leave teeth marks on her neck.
When we heard a knock at the door, we giggled a little, I think. We put on the minimum required clothing before opening the door to find the RA and another girl standing in the hallway. She looked at me, dreaded and sweaty and shirtless, covered in claw marks, and asked us what was going on. She looked at Gina, whose shirt may have been ripped a little, and asked if Gina was OK.
The next day, The RA, Gina, and I each had to meet with the dean to explain the situation. In the end, I agreed to try to get students to volunteer to deep clean the whole dorm to avoid probation. Gina was told to be careful.
* * *
She agreed to meet me at the smoking hut by the bridge. I waited, listening to the students that had just ended class or work blow off steam before the campus cafeteria opened for dinner. I was chain-smoking.
When I saw her coming, I was both excited and ashamed. How do you apologize for something you don’t remember? I didn’t know, then.
“I made these for you,” I said, handing her a pack of Marlbros that I had filled with cigarettes I had rolled. “I know it’s just some cigarettes, but I wanted to give you something. . .”
She didn’t speak, but instead handed me a folded piece of paper, and bade me to read it. She had written that she couldn’t be with someone who was like that, who did those things.
I told her that I understood, even though I didn’t. I was taking as much as 120 milligrams of Adderall in the course of 24 hours, at that point, and I would sometimes be up for days straight, making myself lie down for an hour, listening to my heart beat as if it were trying to escape from my ribs. I would force myself to breathe slowly, hands at my sides, remaining still, trying not to think about anything. When the hour was up, I’d stand and take another pill, choking it down with cold coffee.
I was aware that I was experiencing hallucinations. I’d see Gina walking down a hallway when I knew she was in the room I had just left. I’d see animals in doorways. Reality was tenuous at best.
She asked me if I had any questions.
“What. . . What did I do?”
“You don’t remember?”
* * *
It was usual for me to fall asleep before him. Sometimes, I’d go into his dorm room without him and fall asleep in his bed; that way, around five or six a.m. or whenever he crawled in for a few restless hours, we could lay next to each other.
One night, I woke up when the door opened. The florescent hallway lights illuminated Whit’s silhouette and sent his shadow across the floor. I don’t know what time it was.
Whit closed the door, got undressed, and slipped under the covers. I was bleary-eyed and half asleep as he kissed my neck. I rolled over, draped an arm around him, and closed my eyes.
“Not right now,” I murmured. “I’m tired.” I pressed my face into his chest, then turned my back to him.
Whit grabbed my hips and continued to kiss my neck—harder, with urgency.
I whined a sleepy, “Un-uh.”
Whit pushed his groin into me; I opened my eyes. The room was dim and chaotic: a coffee table with rolling tobacco, books, and used ash trays; prayer flags and finger paintings on the walls; dirty laundry and crumpled papers on the floor. I breathed into the darkness and told Whit to stop.
He rubbed himself against me. I squirmed to the edge of the bed until I’d pushed my entire body against the cool wall. It was a quiet night; warm enough to keep the window open.
Eventually, I pressed my hands against the wall, pushed him back, and turned around. I braced my knees against his chest.
“Can we have sex?” Whit asked.
His eyes were totally vacant. It didn’t seem to register with him that I’d been saying no—nothing seemed to register.
“If you don’t want to, it makes no difference to me,” he continued. “I can just go into the bathroom and masturbate.”
I whispered that I didn’t want to, and Whit left. As soon as he got dressed, I ran.
* * *
In Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy wrote that “Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man's mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.”
I’ll never be able to have the same kind of relationship with another person. I searched, for a while, for ways to fill the void that I was left with only to realize that what Gina and I had was unique and dysfunctional and impossible to replicate. It felt like an almost magical connection, a sense that I had found someone so profoundly perfect for me. A soulmate.
If I could go back and explain the greater meaning of the McCarthy quote to a younger version of myself, I don’t think the younger me would listen. I think the fact that life goes on would fly over the head of the younger me. I think the younger me would be put into a depressive spell for a bit at the notion that everything passes in time, and I wonder what he would do after that.
So I wouldn’t try to explain anything like that to him. I’d tell him to figure out how to relax. I’d tell him to take up running again, and to quit avoiding the truth of things, to allow for self-examination without the shame that he felt so strongly. I’d tell him to get his ducks in a row before he tries anything risky, but I bet he’d ignore that one.
I’d tell him to remember that the world doesn’t rest on his shoulders any more than it does any other person. I’d tell him to slow down and enjoy the process. He would definitely laugh at that.
I’d ask him if all the intensity was worth it, and he’d tell me yes, probably without hesitation. I’d ask him if he wanted stability, and he’d say yes again without pause. And then maybe he would pause.
He wouldn’t be wrong. I wouldn’t, either. It’s hard to explain to someone that life gets better. It’s harder to explain it to yourself.
* * *
At the first real job I got after Whit and I broke up, “Down the Mountain” by Robinella used to play over the speakers. I find one line particularly striking: Who would take the repercussions when the bottle is to blame?
I spent a long time being angry with Whit. I spent a long time wanting to get back with him, and feeling like maybe it could work out between us. If I was less afraid of forgetting—if Laccuna Inc’s memory targeting and deleting service was something I could bear—then it would’ve been possible to stay with Whit, and it would’ve also been possible to leave him painlessly.
Instead, our breakup was mutual and wrenching. Neither of us was ready for a relationship like ours: it was stunning and reckless and encompassing and terrible and beautiful. It was accidentally occasionally perfect and often tender.
Who will take the repercussions when the bottle is to blame?
There are some things you cannot apologize for, because there are no words that will ever mean enough.
* * *
When I picked her up from the Hartsfield Jackson Airport, she leapt in to my arms. It’s cliché, but it was that kind of love that we had, where she jumps in to your arms and you hold her tight, the smell of her flooding you with memories and the weight of her feeling right in your arms.
She had come to Georgia for a week because my mother was going out of town. We went to a creek with a friend of mine, drank beers on the side of the river until we were drunk enough to splash into the mercury-ridden water, making our way out to rocks that stuck out, then, in the draught. We went to house parties where, as a couple, we held a vengeful and firm hold of the beer pong table.
I wanted to show her Stone Mountain, the tiny rock of a mountain that Atlanta lays claim to. That I had grown up climbing on. We went just before sunset so that we could watch it from the top.
We found a good spot to sit, away from the eyes of people above us, smoking cigarettes and watching the sky go from blue to orange to red in the way that cities with the right amount of pollution do that makes for beautiful sunsets. During summer, there’s a nightly fireworks and laser show at the base of the mountain, against the faces of the Southern generals, where they play patriotic country songs and animate it with the etched outlines of cowboys and corvettes. Without meaning to, we had found a way to watch the display from the top, fireworks literally exploding thirty or forty feet away from us.
I would looked over at her, in the dark, as she’d be smoking a cigarette. I’d watch as the reds and greens and blues caught the smoke she’d exhale.
There were times when things worked out just right. When things were perfect.
* * *
While we lay on the concrete greenhouse floor of the college, the vent above us exhaled hot air. We were surrounded by dirt clods and ceramic pots we accidentally tipped over earlier, wrapped in the warm womb of a tropical oasis. The aloe and succulents and my own breathy heartbeat felt calm.
“I don't like the way most people think about love,” I said, Whit's head resting on my naked stomach. The snow stopped a couple hours before, leaving everything draped in heavy white. The sky, clear and massive, looked wet in how it shined. Inside the greenhouse, surrounded by rainforest plants with curling pistons like butterfly tongues, the temperature was balmy.
“What's your problem with it?”
I rolled Whit's dreadlocks in my hands, fanned them over my abdomen. “When someone says, 'I love you,' other people seem to take it as more than what it means in just that instant. I think 'I love you' should only apply to exactly when you say it, in that moment, with no extension into the future. It's the difference between saying, 'I love you now, right now, with all I can feel,' and 'I love you, and there's a lot I want from you, and there's a lot I want you to do and be for me.' No love lasts forever, and if you assume that's the case, you're making loving something it isn't, and lying to yourself and the other person.”
Whit and I weren’t dating back then, not yet at least, and in looking back, I’m startled by my bravery. I was too brash to be afraid. It might have had something to do with the fact that I’d never been in love before.
“I don't love that way,” Whit said. I didn’t know that I would fall in love with him, but I knew I might. I knew the closeness I felt to him was startling. I knew he was kindred.
“Once I let someone into my heart,” Whit continued, “they stay there.”