By Jordan Gallant
Your anxiety looks a lot like don’t leave me. Or maybe it’s your fear of being left that is your anxiety. Maybe it is how your family is liquid, how it spills over the sides on the way to the stovetop. You are most afraid when it feels like the leaving is inevitable. Lately that feels like all the time.
When you feel this way you hold everyone tighter. Your response is to constrict with your love and care, to give them all the reasons that you are the solution to their pain. You forget about yourself in this process, but maybe it’s because you only see yourself painted through their gaze.
The pills do not help you when you have a panic attack over the words “Leave me alone” or “Do you want to break up.”
You go to therapy with your sister just once. It is after your aunt died. Her therapist asks how you both are feeling. You haven’t cried since you found out. She hasn’t either. You are both worried about your mother. She tries so hard to do so much for everyone but herself, you say. She will collapse, you think.
This will end her.
You are struck by how much you are like her. On the most basic level, you both do not know how to care for yourselves.
Your sister only calls you when she is at her most alone. She is usually empty or crying. She has told you what she has said in therapy about you, how deeply she feels that physical distance of 200 plus miles. You know so much of your life could be done better, so many of your relationships, but all you can say is “I’m sorry.” You don’t change anything. You wonder what this means.
“It’s a two-way street,” your boyfriend will tell you whenever you feel this stifling inadequacy. It feels as though your side is always under construction.
You and him are not dating, yet. But every day he picks you up and you go to his apartment and you become wrapped within one another and somehow he convinces you to stay the night, again, and you swaddle yourselves in the same sheets and face one another on the same pillow in the dark room. You feel whole. Maybe that’s why when he prods you answer his questions about what happened, about the four months of your life you spent preparing for funerals, you answer him.
About how when you returned from winter break, a month of watching dumb television shows with your mom on the couch while she mourned the loss of her older sister, your then-boyfriend broke up with you. You will have come to realize that this was a positive thing, but in this moment you feel so safe and warm and comforted you admit your anger. He had stolen your grief.
It wasn’t his fault that his uncle had cancer at the same time as your aunt. It wasn’t his fault that his uncle had died first. You chose to visit him when he was bedridden. You chose to go to the funeral.
You remember distinctly when you arrived at the funeral home with him and his parents. When you entered the main room and saw the box that held his ashes, you cried, filled with this overwhelming sense of loss for someone you never really knew.
When your aunt passed weeks later, you wouldn’t feel much. Sure you cried when you found out, but not at the funeral, not during Christmas like your mom. A year later, you haven’t cried since. For a while you thought maybe it was because it didn’t feel real, but now you know that your grief was wasted on someone else.
“He didn’t even come to her funeral,” you whispered, afraid to disturb your shared cocoon. The truth was but another blanket.
Your first real memory of being a sister is not in the hospital room or when they came home — it is months or years later and you are getting dressed for school in the living room. You grab your shirt from the neatly-folded pile on the couch, knocking down a single sock. Devin runs for the master bedroom, yelling, “Jordan threw her sock at me!” and you are filled with rage at this accusation — running in pursuit to defend your honor.
Car rides after preschool were spent listening to her report of her day. It was filled with a lot of and thens that did not cease, even while Mom hopped out to get gas or bought you slushies at the 7-Eleven. When you got home, she would insist on opening the door, hovering while Mom twisted the keys. More often than not she would take too long and you would open it for her — causing her to cry and demand a do-over. Mom would drag you back out and give her another chance.
One of her favorite snacks was canned carrots. Mom would pour them out onto a plate or her high chair and she would grab them in her grubby hands and stuff them into her face. You hated the thought of them, let alone the smell or the look. You would take cereal boxes and barricade you and your meal away from the gross carrots, breathing exclusively from your mouth.
The only time her idolization of you did not seem annoying was during her ballet obsession. She was probably four and spent her free time twirling on the linoleum of the kitchen floor. Sometimes you would join her and try to spin yourself as many times as possible on the ball of your foot. She was convinced you were a real-life ballerina. When Mom asked if she wanted to take lessons she refused. “Jordan is gonna teach me,” she said.
Your first physical fight was not really a fight. You were preparing to make pasta, standing in front of the stove topped with a pot filled with water. There was a confrontation, yelling, and the slotted spoon flew and hit one of you. You dispersed, half shocked and half amused by the shape of this hurt — a half-wet spoon on the hardwood.
You’ve just finished another rom-com. At the end, Lily James’s character demands that her love interest marry her. “Marry me,” she says, and they kiss for the first time. You and your boyfriend sit well into the credits, living room dark. You turn to him and say, “Marry me.”
He laughs and says you’re just copying the movie; you don’t mean it. But then you kiss him hard and long because you’ve never meant anything more in your life.
This is not the first time you have talked about marriage. You both lay in bed at night, sharing a pillow and breathing the same air, and he tells you he’s going to marry you. He admits once that he wanted to propose at his graduation and you scold him. “Three more years,” you say, “then I’ll have graduated and we will have lived together and we will both have jobs.”
You do not recognize until later that this plan does not guarantee success. Nothing does. You cannot treat your relationship like a math equation if you barely passed Algebra. And yet, you strive for that “right time,” that inevitability. No matter how much those three years stretch out before you like forever. At night in the same bed in the hush of the fan, you want to say it again and again. Marry me. Marry me. Marry me.
“Goodnight,” you say instead.