On the morning of July 4, I walked from mid-Crown Heights to south Park Slope—about an hour’s haul—to Strings’ abode. I still felt so electric, so renewed, and wanted to appreciate the brownstoned neighborhoods and beautiful weather and surging optimism, thus the distance was no matter. I was disgustingly sweaty upon my arrival, so we set all my clothes aside to dry for 30 minutes. After our extended hello, we mused about where to eat brunch, dressed ourselves, and walked hand in hand toward Talde, our chosen destination. Just before we stepped inside, an old woman jumped in the way, cutting us off in the doorway. She positioned herself beneath the frame: “Are you two a couple?” she asked us, cackling each word. She stared at us through a pair of broken aviators; one was punched out to give them a pirate’s eye-patch effect. She was hunched over and looked worn down. We could hardly process what was happening; why was this old, haggard woman inquiring about our relationship status? Strings responded first: “Uhhhhhh, yeah?” I smiled at the fact that he said yes. The woman continued as she waved her hands: “I could tell. You’re perfect for each other. The way he’s looking at you, and the way you were opening the door for him. Your smile. You guys deserve each other.” We still didn’t know how to react, so we thanked her very awkwardly while pushing our way past. I caught one quick glimpse of her exposed pupil before the door closed behind us. “What the hell was that?” Strings asked. I shook my head. I didn’t want to think twice about it, about her.
Brunch was normal. Totally normal. Decent food, good conversation, neither here nor there. We walked the two blocks back to Strings’ home as the skies fell down—reminiscent of our first night together—only this time I came prepared with an umbrella. Back home, Strings made coffee, and I made him a playlist with some recent favorites, an annoying thing I like to do. He sat down on the other end of the couch, and I scooted myself to sit beside him. He quickly stood up, went back into the kitchen, then returned and sat on the other side of the couch, from where I had just moved. I thought that was weird—we had just hooked up two hours before, had professed our affection and probable long-term interest in one another just two days before, but now he seemed to be avoiding direct contact with me. I scooted over again, put my hand on his knee as we spoke for a few minutes more. He returned no physical contact, then he got up again to put the coffee away. He didn’t return to the couch after that. I took the cue, packed my things, and hoped he was just processing something independent of us. We walked out together, both headed to the G train—me to Bed Stuy, he a few stops further to Greenpoint. He sat in the seat beside me on a mostly-vacant subway car, which was a relief. We made small talk, reached my stop, and quickly kissed goodbye. I was very confused as to where his head was, so I texted him a test: “Good to see you again :)” His average response time had been a few minutes, but three hours later, I got my reply: “You too!” I didn’t want to think twice about it, but I did. And a third time. And so forth.
I went to cousin Jenny’s (@approximately) for fireworks that night—her Prospect Heights street has its own highly illegal display, with explosives going off just a hundred feet overhead—and I sat very quietly on the side of the roof as she and her boyfriend, her roommates and their boyfriends, and everyone else paired off to watch the show. I hadn’t heard from Strings the rest of the day, nor had I contacted him. I hated feeling so sorry for myself over someone I had only known a month, over a stupid, fleeting romance. Hadn’t I known better than to put so many eggs in one basket, and so soon? God, I had told my family members about him. If he was bailing now, then that was a huge waste of an opportunity, a chance to welcome my parents into my life, to say “Here is someone who is a good reflection of my decisions, someone you will respect, someone I trust—at least enough to tell you about him.” I was mostly mad about that. Strings felt like such an obvious “Fuck Yes”, and we had both articulated to one another that we felt a special kind of attraction, a promising one. I re-read all of our texts and walked through all of our interactions; had I said something weird at brunch? How could his feelings have changed so drastically in 36 hours, after we breezed through the terribly awkward details of him and Buckminster hooking up? I handled that so well, I thought. And so had he. He even texted me excitedly the next morning, on my birthday, and got drinks with me that afternoon, disrupting his schedule to arrange the date. I stepped through everything…it didn’t add up. Did I get what I asked for, when I told him it wouldn’t be good to keep overlapping me and Buckminster? Was he still seeing Buckminster, who was now in the city for a summer internship? Was I being crazy, thinking all of this? Maybe everything was actually fine, and I’d see him the next week and things would seem promising again. I decided to hold off texting him the following day, to see if he might reach out. He didn’t; every day for a month, he had. And now it stopped.
Come 9 the following night, I couldn’t stand it anymore: I texted him, to say hello, to pretend like everything was normal, just in case it was, in fact, normal. But seeing as I was certain it wasn’t normal, I wanted to know sooner than later, so really the text was to spare myself the agony, to give Strings the chance to cut any strings, to take the blow all the sooner, so I could recover sooner, so I could forget him sooner. “Hi hi. How was your dia?” An hour later: “Very nice! Went to the pier to lay out. Got ice cream. Just finished dinner with friends. You?” OK…he gave me a detailed response and asked me the same question…so far so good. “Whoa! Fruitful!” I sent a couple texts with the highlights of my day—I got blinds for my room, installed said blinds, super exciting—and he replied with a “Nice!” Then, nothing. Here was my opportunity, to get what I came for: “Free for dinner this week?” That would give him a chance to tell me no. Twenty minutes later, my confirmation: “I’ve been on both sides of this before, and I know it sucks to be led on, so I have to be honest. I think you’re really cute and smart and nice, but I’m not really feeling a romantic vibe here. Wish I felt differently, because you’re awesome, and a catch, just don’t think it’s right for me. I really do hope we can be friends.” I let it sink in for a few minutes, mostly to craft a response that didn’t show too much vulnerability, but just enough of it anyway: “I’m definitely bummed. A lot actually. But I’ll be fine, and I’m sure I’ll see you around.” Him: “Sorry it ended this way. Definitely see you around!” (I haven’t seen him since, by the by.) I felt embarrassed, and pissed off, and ashamed, and disappointed. I allowed myself a few minutes of self-pity, then readied for bed, to sleep it off. While brushing my teeth, I noticed it…a familiar feeling on my skin. On my right leg this time. The itching. It was back. No. No no no. NO. I stripped the bed, checked for bugs, tears taking residence in my eyes. I found nothing, but the itching prevailed. I took a sleeping pill, crawled into my bed, and euthanized the remaining hour of the day.
I quickly learned about “phantom bed bug itching”, which “survivors” of the pests often experience. I was a candidate: You don’t trust that you’re in the clear, because you’ve spent so many fearful nights not believing that the coast is clear, that the pesky things have gone for good, that they won’t come back, that your sleep is safe, that your home is clean, that your mind can rest. I was also in that window of time where I had just unpacked my belongings (some of them, anyway) for the first time since boxing them up two months prior, and wasn’t yet sure if I had brought any bugs along with me. I had to hope not, but I knew it would be a month before I could assume I was in the clear. It didn’t help that my body was itching all over in the same way as when I had bed bugs (only without actual bite marks), especially after the stress of the Strings release. I stripped my bed for the next few nights, paranoid, anxious, not believing I deserved or should expect the peace of mind that comes with a fresh start, not trusting myself to have taken proper measures. Funny enough, I felt this exact way about another part of my life, about the conditioning that dating had done in the past year and a half. Each “relationship”—Buckminster, Romeo, Cold Hands, Strings—had some fickle thing about it, whether on my end or his. I was trying very hard to not be the fickle one anymore; I was attracted to Srings’ intentional nature—the way Buckminster had shown it too—only Strings changed his mind, and I felt an embarrassing recoil from his rejection, for showing my vulnerability to him. I felt Pavlovian now, after four somewhat promising men had come and gone. The conditioning I was receiving—at risk of making myself sound like a victim, which I am not—was that I was not worthy of an honest, open, trustworthy, not-fickle partner, and that I shouldn’t trust that anyone with those characteristics would ever come along. Or, if he did, that it’d be a fluke, or that I’d fuck it up and run for the hills. As I mulled over this one night, I looked over to my mantle and saw Heather staring back. My arms and legs suddenly itched. “My problems started when you showed up,” I said, half-crazy.
I packed Heather in my bag that day, and asked my colleague Maura (@liljupe) to help in ridding of the figurine. We took a quick break from work and walked to Madison Square Park, just a block from the office. I knew I needed to pass her along unceremoniously to someone else. Maura asked why I couldn’t just throw her out or turn her into firewood. “Because then this bad energy might be stuck with me forever,” I said. “We have to watch someone else take her away, and hopefully they’ll fare better.” I was projecting a lot of agony on this wooden doll now, especially once I decided that I had seen the real-life version of Heather at brunch with Strings: the crazy old woman with the pirate-patch aviators who stopped us in the doorway. She was waving her hands furiously as she told us how perfect we were together, which I now decided was her putting some sort of breakup spell over the two of us. I only half believed it, because it was quite illogical, but it was peculiar to me that everything pesky started happening once Heather came into my life: It was just as I met and kept dating Romeo (kicking off the seven stifled, guilt-laden months), and my departure from my secure Prospect Heights abode (leading to nine months of moving, roving, gypsying). And now, with her sitting on the mantle in my new bedroom, I couldn’t risk feeling sorry for myself. I needed it all to stop—including the itches, the uncertainty. I needed to project it onto something, and I thought it was entirely rational to project it onto her. So, Maura and I walked to the park that afternoon, placed her on a bench, and crouched behind some bushes 30 feet away. A few tourists came up and pointed, taking her photo. Then, a park tenant strolled by, gripped her in his garbage clippers, and walked her to a trash bin. “Don’t toss her,” I pleaded quietly. “Keep her. Keep her.” He held Heather over the bin, studied her closely, then looked every direction, and pocketed the doll. I sent him positive wishes, but didn’t want to think twice. I already felt lighter.
Just as Maura and I got back to the office, my phone buzzed with a text message…from Buckminster. I thought that was so peculiar, to finally hear from him just as I rid of Heather. I wasn’t sure what he knew about Strings and me, much less if they were still seeing each other, which I half-suspected because of their continued interactions on fucking Instagram. But now I was free of caring, and of sulking. His text—”Hey, I’m in the city now for the summer. Let’s catch up as planned?”—was received with poise, with gratitude, because of course I still cared about him, and always will, so to have him back in my life in the smallest way meant something big. It felt like a chance to forget what terrible coincidence had occurred, to spend an hour of time focused on him and me, on our 2.0 as friends. Plus, he wouldn’t have reached out if he knew there was any emotional fragility; he doesn’t have a malicious bone in his body. We made plans for lunch the following week, and I made a mental list of things I wanted to accomplish at our reunion (Thanks, Birchbox, for turning me into a performance metrics person.): 1) I wanted to make no mention of Strings, because this lunch was about Buckminster and me only. 2) I wanted to remind him through our interactions and conversation that I had been a good choice for him, that I wasn’t an ass hole for ending things, and that our compatibility wasn’t a lie. I wanted to feel a hint of electricity again, if only because two people with even a small history should be able to appreciate that. And 3) I wanted to leave lunch feeling that, in some small way at least, we could each count the other as a friend, as someone to trust. I think ultimately, it was closure that I wanted, but in a turn-the-page, new-leaf kind of way. It seemed that maybe, if Buckminster could leave lunch thinking “Adam isn’t half bad; I’m glad to have dated him,” then maybe I could project hope and confidence that someone as smart and handsome and sweet and intentional and trusting and compatible might one day roll the dice on me, just like he had. … Oh, and that same night—after ridding of Heather—the phantom itching stopped for good.