Steam to Rain
I know him so well.
I know his favourite food (strawberry cheesecake); the blissed-out expression he wears while eating it, and that he never brings up dessert for fear of sounding unmanly. He has a need to prove himself tough, resilient, resourceful. Someone whose resolve doesn’t soften and melt like the cheesecake he craves.
I know his most-treasured childhood memory: climbing a fig tree with his imaginary friend Jeremy, and feeling totally at peace with the world. Sitting on a high bough, he saw the outstretched branches cut the greenery below into diamonds, and decided that fear couldn’t touch him. He was out of its reach.
But you never escape fear – not in a lasting way. Fears change or deepen as you grow older. I’ve learnt his truest fears: the ones you only whisper of in the early hours, or the kind that are so immense you never frame them in words at all. I know he says he’s afraid of spiders when really he fears dark spaces; being a bastard, being a drunk, becoming his father.
He knows me; knows that I tell people I’m afraid of clowns but really I’m afraid of giving my whole heart to someone, holding nothing back. Because what if I show the person I love most in the world all of me, every scar and flaw, and I am not enough?
I think that’s all most of us really want: to be enough.
Sometimes he pulls stunts for attention. He’ll tease relentlessly, but never taunt. He weaves insecurities into jokes at his own expense, or gets buzzed on Jack Daniel’s to deal with a social event. When he’s drunk he becomes loud and obnoxious, but I think that’s the point. He’s afraid of not being noticed – while I’m scared of being seen and then discarded. Becoming outdated and unwanted and boring.
In some ways, we are opposites. I chase HDs at university like the wind pursues fallen leaves. Yet every time I achieve a goal the lightness in my chest is swiftly replaced by a familiar weight. The small satisfaction I feel dissipates the instant I become conscious of it. My victories are barely tasted, let alone savoured.
He sleeps through uni classes, or skips them. He never tried at school, because to try and fail anyway would be crushing. He couldn’t take that risk. Without trying, failure was guaranteed – but it was also a safety net. I wish he’d cut the cords of that net and dare to make an attempt. He’s smarter than he believes; I know that, too.
I know the way the sunlight ignites his hair, turning its cedar brown into gold. I recognise the hard half-smile he wears when he’s puzzling out a way to change the topic of conversation, and that his shoulders sag if his family is mentioned. There are countless subtleties of speech, numberless expressions the same face can wear, that intertwine to form someone’s identity. He sounds most flippant when he couldn’t be more serious; his eyes become green coals when he’s frustrated, and his whole face bursts into a grin when I startle him. He sees truth as a shape-shifter, always changing forms. There are times when he is so angry about his past he wants to pretend he doesn’t have one. Guilt is something he brews and swallows.
I tell him again and again that he’s a good person. He can make his own path. When he doesn’t believe me I keep telling him, in silence. And when I am unhappy, he pushes his problems aside to deal with mine. If I am hurt, he tries to carry me into a space like his childhood fig tree, so I will feel safe, above anything and anyone that might try to keep me down.
He holds me when I am lonely. Offers to drive when I’m tired. Takes my bag without me asking him to, so I can walk unhindered. He gives me his sunglasses to wear; laughs when I tell him to throw his arms out to catch the wind, and feel it stream and soak through him.
He races me to the end of the street – running in zigzags to block me, and then slapping the lamppost at the corner when he arrives first. I give him a shove for cheating, and he pokes his tongue out at me.
When he asks about my day, he’s asking about how I felt rather than what happened. He wants to understand the invisible events; unravel my thoughts; make the unseen moments seen. I love him for that.
I know him so, so well.
Only I don’t, anymore. People are like water, changing from steam to rain. He saw a particular version of me, at a certain point in time, more clearly than anyone. But if I’m not that girl anymore, then who is he?
I don’t try as hard with my studies, anymore. It’s not that I became less ambitious exactly, but I changed my ambitions. I told myself to remember human connection means more than anything else.
He knew a girl who was a mess of insecurities. Who feared comparisons. I’ve realised that in any comparison to another girl, I will come up lacking… because I do lack the qualities in their given quantities that make the other person who she is – just as she lacks the specific combination of attributes that reside in me. Differences are not a bad thing, but searching for your own deficiencies is. So I’ve tried to stop searching. You can’t outclimb fear, but you can confront it. And you can find comfort by borrowing another’s perspective.
I think that’s what we did for each other. I helped him feel capable; he showed me I was of worth. We did know each other, once; really knew the other person. He could guess my thoughts and I, his. But time, choices, and experiences provoke change. Maybe he got tired of strawberry cheesecake. Or maybe he decided to claim it as his favourite thing, damn what other people think.
He might still stick out his tongue, or he might have decided he’s beyond such childish displays. Maybe that kind of teasing was just for me.
I don’t know in what ways he’s changed, because the thread connecting us unwound. We used to talk everyday, all through the day – but it’s been almost two years, now.
I wonder if parts of me remain unchanged and whether his essence stayed the same. I wonder what his tastes, loves, fears, and ambitions are. And I wonder if he still feels he knows me.