Settling

by

08/11/2019

Neighborhood: Long Island, Queens, The Catskills

I broke up with my first boyfriend one month, two weeks, and four days after I found out he was fucking his neighbor. I never told him that I’d overheard them. 

He never wanted to fight; he didn’t want us to be the couple who fought. It was important to him that we maintain a good reputation. He’d take me ice skating so we could take nice photos, the kinds that people who love each other take. I hated ice skating, but I’d pose for him anyway. Later, I’d edit all the photos on a nondescript app from China, methodically blurring out his blackheads and enlarging my chest until we looked perfect. 

I met Gabe in 2014 a month before he fucked his neighbor. I was standing in a crowded backyard with the rest of the ninth grade as we took shots from someone’s dad’s liquor stash to celebrate the end of the school year. Gabe was drunk before sunset and his personality was mainly comprised of him casually mentioning his six-pack abs, but he was a boy and was taller than me. He asked me to “get some air” with him, so I went.

I studied him as he stood beside me. I wasn’t particularly attracted to him. He had an acne problem, and his lips were wide and flat in the way that a toad’s would be if toads had lips. But he played floor hockey and he told me that he liked my eyeliner. Actually, he said my eyeliner was hot. I’d never been called hot before.

I wondered if I liked him. His spelling was atrocious, his breath always smelled of pizza, and we didn’t share many interests — honestly, I didn’t know what his interests were. But I wasn’t much of a catch either, and he liked me. He called me pretty, and put his arm around me in public. I was fat and annoying and bit my nails. He settled for me, so I settled for him. Relationships are about sacrifice.

I didn’t tell Gabe that I’d overheard him. Telling him would have meant that we would break up, and I didn’t want to break up. I’d never been called hot before, especially by someone with a six-pack. I swallowed the humiliation. Relationships are about sacrifice.

Four days after we met, Gabe said he had to ask me a question. We went to the only place in town that sold something resembling good ice cream. He had a milkshake and I had nothing, insisting I had “just eaten” and “no, really, I’m fine.” I waited for him to insist on buying me something and to tell me that I was so skinny that I needed to eat, but he didn’t. When he asked me to be his girlfriend, he put his enormous hands on the small of my back and held me. I felt an unfamiliar tugging in my chest and thought it might be love.

I left for summer camp in the Catskills the next week, just like I did every year. There was a strict ban on electronics, but I was greeted each morning at breakfast with a letter from my parents. I waited for one from Gabe, but he didn’t send any. I told myself he was busy; I told my bunkmates he missed me.

Gabe was back home, working as a lifeguard at a day camp in the Rockaways. When we’d first spoken, he’d told me he was worried about making friends there. I knew someone else working there — Hannah, from my geometry class. I didn’t know her last name at the time. I’d introduced them. Her house was just around the corner from his.

My fifteenth birthday was on the twenty-third, and his was twenty-three days later. I took this as a sign — of what, I’m not entirely sure. I wanted to make some sort of grand gesture for his birthday, something to show how much I loved him. I decided I’d steal my counselor’s phone and call him. I plotted for a week. My bunkmates waited with excited anticipation.

July 16th came, and I was ready. After dinner, we returned to the bunk for evening clean-up. I folded the same sweater for minutes on end while keeping a close eye on the counselor. Finally, she went to the bathroom, abandoning the phone on her bed. I shoved it into my back pocket and bolted.

I dashed through the woods, mud from the previous day’s thunderstorm slipping into my flip-flops. Finally, the phone buzzed. I had a signal. Digging out the wrinkled Post-It Note that I’d written his number on, I dialed.

He didn’t pick up. A robot informed me that his voicemail box had not been set up yet.

Maybe he was still at work? No, it was almost 8:00 pm. I figured he didn’t know I’d be calling. So I dialed again. He didn’t answer. Shit.

I was running out of time. I’d try one more time, and then if that didn’t work, I’d text him, maybe. It’d be better than nothing.

I dialed again. It rang. It rang again. And then clicked. Yes.

“Gabey!” I exhaled. “It’s me, it’s Abby—”

There was noise coming from his end, but it was muffled, staticky.

“Gabey, I can’t hear you—”

It was clearer now. He was sitting on his phone, I think. He was in some sort of position that had allowed him to accidentally answer a phone call. He was talking to somebody, maybe? I couldn’t tell. Someone else was there. .

Then I heard her.

She was moaning. She was moaning, and then he was, too, he was saying, “God, Hannah, you’re so fucking hot,” and then she was saying his name, and I was listening to him fuck her from two hundred miles away. My toes curled into the mud and I held a hand over my mouth so I wouldn’t scream and clutched the phone to my ear like it was the last thing I had left and I waited for them to finish, and I waited for them to finish, and I waited for them to finish because he had never, not once, done to me what he was doing to her. He had never fucked me because I had never let him, no matter how much he begged or pushed or threatened. So of course he was fucking her. She had given him what I wouldn’t. I waited for them to finish.

It took a few minutes. He grunted, then sighed, then grunted again. I hung up and walked silently back to the bunkhouse. I wondered if he loved her. I wondered if he loved me.

I never told Gabe that I’d heard him.  I didn’t want us to fight. I was afraid of him. He’d once told me that a friend of his — I think his name was Jeremy — had sent around an ex-girlfriend’s nude photos after they’d broken up. “You’re lucky I love you so much,” Gabe had told me. “I would never do that to you.” I remembered Jeremy telling his girlfriend that he’d loved her too.

I arrived at the bunkhouse. The counselor had been looking for her phone. I threw it back. Sorry, I said. It was a prank.

My bunkmates clustered around my bed, eager to hear how my scheme had fared.

It went well, I told them. He misses me.

One month, two weeks, and four days later, I called him. I’d been home from camp for three days, but we hadn’t spoken in two. I wasn’t sure why. We hadn’t been fighting. We hadn’t fought before. Until now, I guess.

I had never told Gabe that I’d overheard him fucking his neighbor. Telling him meant that we would break up, and I didn’t want to break up — I wanted to have a boyfriend. So I swallowed the information, hoping it would somehow dissolve in the acid in the lining of my stomach. But it never dissolved. Instead it slowly bubbled its way back up through my esophagus, grungy and distorted, manifested as “I think we should see other people” and “this is really for the best.” 

When I finally puked out the lines I’d been practicing, he seemed unfazed. “Okay.”

“Don’t you want to know why?” I’d prepared a whole speech.

“I mean, sure, I guess.”

My mood dampened. I’d wanted him to fight for me. “You don’t treat me well,” I declared, loosely regathering some of the confidence I’d spent a month, two weeks, and four days finding. “You’re a bad boyfriend, and you’re not nice to me.”

“Okay.”

Huh. “Okay.”

I hung up.

***

Abby Hofstetter is a student at NYU and the Opinion Editor at Washington Square News. She  is working on a memoir.

 

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