She’s Not Me
“She was the other girl the boy I loved loved.”
I knew all about Nicole before I met her, before I even spoke to her. I would spend nights—whole pointless nights—looking through her Facebook and scrolling through her Twitter and googling her name, just to see if anything new might come up. I was obsessed. She was the other girl the boy I loved loved. In those early days I would study the details of Nicole’s life as if there might be a pop quiz later.
Here’s what I knew about Nicole before I met her: I knew she played drums in an otherwise all-male band. I knew she had a twin sister, and I could assume they were fraternal because Nicole was taller, and had a smaller nose, and was curvier in that way guys are into. I knew we had worn the same dress to our senior proms. I paused when I learned that one, my pointer finger hovering over the arrow keys, unable to continue clicking them. What were the chances of that? What was the likelihood that two girls—one in south Florida, the other time zones away in Santa Barbara—would pick out the same yellow evening gown? How many of those yellow dresses were even made? What, exactly, did that yellow dress point to that was similar about the two of us?
I tried to resist seeing that dress as some sort of sign. I failed to resist.
There was something about Nicole and I that was biologically similar. I was sure of this. It was the only explanation that felt right. There was something in our DNA that drew us to that same dress. It was the same something that drew us the same man, and the same something that made us unable to say uncle when that man hurt us, continuously hurt us.
Years earlier, long before I had even heard her name, I had read of a study that found that we dislike people who remind us of ourselves. The study went on to claim that we will dislike people even more if they not only remind us of ourselves but remind us of the parts of ourselves that we would prefer to change.
That study made its way back to the surface of my mind after I started learning about Nicole.
I disliked her so much. But that study was wrong. I disliked her because of the parts of her that did not remind me of myself. I disliked her because of the parts of her that I would have done anything to have as my own.
I can recognize that the most important thing that Nicole and I share is not a yellow prom dress. The most important thing that Nicole and I share is Elliot.
I met Elliot my junior year of college, at a Halloween party that took place three days before Halloween. Snow came early that year, falling down in fat flakes that stuck to the ground and turned Boston’s pavement into a slick white sheet. That was the year I didn’t want to go to any parties but somehow ended up going to more parties than ever before. That night alone, I ended up at three different seemingly identical Allston basements. It was in the third basement where I met Elliot. He was tall and lanky, with cheekbones that looked like they could open a beer bottle. I was dressed up as Annie Hall that year because I already had all the pieces in my closet, and Elliot was dressed up as himself, or, rather, himself with cat ears that some other girl had stuck on him.
He looked like a heartthrob actor who would play the outcast nerd on a TV teen drama.
I learned that he was in town for a long weekend, visiting a mutual friend of ours in Boston. He was older—just by two years, but those two years made his life seem impossibly different from my own, more adult and more important. He was living in New York City, getting his MFA in acting from Columbia and bartending on weekends. I was still using a fake ID and stealing produce from my university’s dining hall. But there was still something about him that seemed young, this little-boy innocence. When he made my drink, he just mixed tequila with Crystal Lite powder into an oversized mug. He used the handle of a knife covered in peanut butter to stir the drink. And what was he doing at a college party?
“Do you live close to here?” he asked. Yes. I did.
We didn’t so much as kiss that night. Instead, we spoke until the sun came up, remarked that the sun was coming up, and kept talking. The only times he touched me that night were when he helped me through my bedroom window onto the fire escape and when he helped me climb back into my bedroom. When I told that to my roommate the next morning she called me a liar, but it was true.
That was the first night I heard of Nicole, though she wasn’t Nicole then. She was “a girl I used to date in undergrad.” He told me they had known each other for a few years, and had dated at varying degrees of legitimacy throughout those few years.
By the time Elliot left, the snow had stopped falling but it remained on the ground, unmelting. It was hard to tell what month it was. I felt unanchored from time. Here was someone who reassured me that I was not just a body, that my stories and ideas were worth listening to, and that I was worth being told stories and ideas.
“Keep in touch,” he said when he left. I tried to think of a clever, sweet response but had nothing. I just bit my bottom lip and nodded.
What followed were months and months of speaking online. The rest of the year, I spent more nights in front of the glow of my computer than I did at any party or in any bar or at any friend’s apartment. I turned down dates with other men. When I would leave my computer for a night, I looked mostly at the small screen of my cell phone.
My entire world had been reduced to a screen.
“You’re going to regret putting so much energy into this,” said my roommate at another party where I spent the whole time looking down at my phone. “Just be here.” But I didn’t want to be there. I wanted to be with Elliot. He was miles, states, away, but felt far more present to me than anyone in the so-called real world. We spoke of our childhoods and artistic aspirations. We suggested books and songs to each other and shared links to YouTube videos and online articles. We discussed our relationships, both past and blossoming. I over-exaggerated the details of relationships that were happening in my own life and withheld how much it hurt me to learn of the relationships in his. He would tell me about running into Nicole and her new boyfriend. “It makes me feel like such a loser whenever I see the two of them together,” he said. One night, over the phone, I asked him if he still loved her. “No,” he said. But he said it too quickly. That was around the time I started looking her up, collecting facts and details that I could do nothing with except hold in my mind and hope they would eventually add up to something. I noticed that when Nicole and her boyfriend broke up, Elliot didn't say anything about the breakup to me, even though he kept talking about her. How odd, I thought, though I wasn’t sure why, exactly, it was odd. I was just certain that it was.
I could have asked a leading question: Is Nicole still dating that guy? Or I could have told him that I didn’t really want to talk about Nicole. Instead, I stayed silent. I told myself that I didn’t want to make any topic—even a topic that was becoming increasingly painful for me—off limits. I also did not want to risk how comfortable he seemed to be with me. The idea of not speaking to Elliot until 4 in the morning was so much more painful than the idea of being honest about how I felt.
What I didn’t know yet is that you don’t get to know someone just by telling him your secrets at 4 in the morning. That can be part of it—that can be part of knowing someone—but it’s not the complete picture. In order to actually know someone, you need to see hw he is with his friends, and how he speaks to his mother, and what they get like in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
To this day, I have no idea what Elliot gets like in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Occasionally, Elliot would come up to Boston for a long weekend. Sometimes he would tell me. Oftentimes he would not. He would just appear inside the restaurant where I worked or outside my apartment, and I would want to crawl inside his chest, create an entire world there until he had to go back to New York. The first time he kissed me, he said, “Do you know how long I’ve been wanting to do that?” I didn’t. I only knew how long and how much I had. That night, we went back out onto the fire escape where we had spent our first night together. It was dark out there, but I still avoided making eye contact. I was sure that my tenderness was visible and I was not yet ready for him to see it.
Despite how often we talked and how intimately, he was still such an enigma to me. Each time I saw him, I was surprised. The him that would visit me was not quite the him that I spoke to online. They were similar but not the same. We spent so much time talking with typed words not spoken ones that I often forgot he was real. When he was in New York, it was so easy to fill in the gaps of his personality with whatever I wanted to fill them in with. I could create my perfect person. I got to decide the tone of his emails or what exactly he was doing when he was not speaking to me. Keeping up with that myth was harder to do when he was standing right in front of me, speaking in the casually cruel voice that I found him to be capable of. In person, I learned that he was someone who would get someone else a glass of water unless he, too, wanted a glass of water. How would something like that have possibly come up online?
I could see that it happened for him, too. One morning he said, “I didn’t know that you don’t really know how to cook. That you only know how to make cereal and eggs.” The tone of his voice and the look in his eyes suggested that, to him, this was very serious.
Every time he would come to Boston, I would look at him while he was sleeping and think, “Are you real?” No, he was not. But I was not either. I did not know that yet. I still thought we brought out the best in each other, not that we presented the best versions of ourselves to each other.
We would spend those weekends in Boston walking around the Common and Harvard Square, holding hands, and I’d think, “Anyone who sees us right now thinks we’re just like any other couple.” And in those moments it was so easy to pretend that we were just like any other couple. But I knew there was something strange at the heart of us, something that would be broken if I asked, “What are we?” or “What are we doing here?” I told myself that it didn’t matter if we were a “real” couple or not because the time that we spent together was real. Our conversations were real. The secrets I knew about him and he ones he knew about me, those were real. I told myself that while other people might have more conventional relationships where they meet one another’s friends and family, I got Elliot and that was better. This was tenderness; maybe not how I had always imagined, but tenderness nevertheless. Still, when we slept together, I was split between feeling this powerful connection and having the impression that I could have been anyone in the world. Anyone at all.
The dog died about a year after we first met. I received a phone call from Elliot around 4 in the morning. When I answered, he was talking very quickly. I think he might have been mid-sentence when I answered. I could not understand what he was saying—there was a dog? And it had died? And Elliot had seen it die? But Elliot didn’t have a dog? I suddenly had a splitting headache. The more details I was given, the less the story made sense. I eventually came to understand that Elliot had seen a dog—a dog that he did not know—hit by a car. He had seen this out his apartment window. He had been looking out his apartment window, looking at the moon, thinking of me, thinking of how we see the same moon, and he had seen this dog get hit by a car. By the time he put on his shoes and his coat and ran down the stairs of his walk-up, the dog had died and the owner was sobbing.
But you couldn’t see the street from Elliot’s apartment window. I knew this. You could only see a brick wall. The whole view was bricks.
After a few minutes, he stopped talking at me and began to talk to me. “It’s 4 in the morning on a Saturday. What are you doing up?”
Waiting for you. “Writing.”
“Did you go out tonight?”
We were both lying and not well. I was lying about my feelings for him, a lie that I was always telling when I was talking to Elliot and, increasingly, when I was not talking to him, as well. I was less clear on what he was lying about. Either he was lying about where he was when he saw the dog die, and he was really outside his apartment or at someone else’s apartment, or there had never even been a dog. I found myself hoping it was the latter. The idea that he would lie about something as unnecessary as where he was was so much more unsettling than the idea that he would make up an entire untrue story. If he made up the dog, I could at least understand it. He wanted attention. He wanted affection. If he just made up a piece of the story, I could not translate his actions into reasons and he would become entirely unknowable to me.
I knew that this would have been a very easy thing to call him out on. I could have simply said, “You saw the dog from your bedroom window? The window that overlooks another building?” But our relationship had always appeared so delicate to me, like a spider’s web. I spent so much time creating it and building upon it, but it would be so easy to break. So I stayed silent and told myself that he was emotional and therefore had misspoken. He had seen the dog get hit out the window at the end of the hallway where his apartment was. He had gotten mixed up. That could happen to anyone. Anyone could get mixed up like that.
“Hold on,” he said suddenly. “That’s the other line. I called someone else before calling you.”
My hand began to shake. I pressed my body against my bedroom wall. He had called someone else before calling me? I wanted to yell at him. I don’t have other people I call at 4 a.m. Why do you need more than one? Why can’t I just be the only person you call? Can’t all that I am giving you be enough for you?
But I didn’t say any of that. Whatever tenuous thing it was that was holding us together, I was not yet ready to break it. I just told him to call me back whenever he could, and bided my time by once again looking Nicole up online. It was her he had called first. I knew it. I clicked through each of her photos, more slowly than usual. She was a kind of pretty I always found myself envious of. She looked like she modeled for her local mall’s J.C. Penney and played a lot of volleyball in high school. I once told that second observation to Elliot. He got a confused look on his face and said, “No. She’s terrible at sports.” He hadn’t understood what I was getting at—that she was pure and fresh and unmistakably beautiful.
I pulled up a picture of each of us in the yellow prom dress, trying to decide who it looked better on.
But the truth is, it was such an ugly dress. It had cheap-looking rhinestones covering the bodice and an empire silhouette cut right in the middle of the chest, too high to ever be flattering. That dress looked terrible on both of us. What were we thinking, choosing something like that?
When I was a freshman in high school, I dated a senior who drove a red sports car. It made me feel as if I were in a movie about someone whose life was more interesting than my own.
Shortly after we started dating, the senior took me in his red sports car and drove me by his ex-girlfriend’s house, a colossal mansion on the beach. “They shot a Nelly video there,” he told me. I was confused. Why had he taken me there to tell me that?
That’s a lie. I wasn’t confused. I wanted to be confused. I knew exactly why he had taken me there. I was his ersatz girlfriend and he had wanted to show me the person he really wanted in the passenger seat.
Months later, after the guy and I broke up, I ran into the ex-girlfriend at a party. She was pretty in a way that made me hate and worship her, that same J.C. Penney-model, high-school-volleyball-player look that Nicole had. It was my first time meeting her, but I felt like I knew her—and not just because the senior had spent so much of our time together talking about her. I felt a kinship with her, something like a blood connection. When I introduced myself to her, I was surprised to hear her say, “I knew who you are.” I was surprised because I didn’t think she’d know, and I was surprised because I had always imagined her as being shyer, softer.
We spent the entire night talking—about him, but also just generally—and at the end of the night we took a photo together on her cell phone and sent it to him. He responded almost instantly. “That’s so fucking weird. Are you guys friends?”
We told him we were, sent him another photo of us making pouting, kissy faces. But we both knew we weren’t really friends, that neither of us had any real interest in being friends. Still, I didn’t dislike her. And I felt no jealousy towards her—only a kind of deep and lingering curiosity.
I reached out to Nicole because I wanted to. Sometimes situations really are just as simple as: You wanted it, so you took it.
There were so many questions I wanted to ask her. I wanted to know if she, too, had started to feel she was making love to a ghost or to a phantom. I wanted to ask: Is it worse for you, too, when he’s there? Do you ever think, I can’t possibly miss him more when he’s in my bed than when he’s miles away?
I wanted to know how she did her liquid liner like that.
I wanted to know if she also had fantasies about him ending their strange dalliance, if she also felt she could never end it and if a part of her so badly wanted it to be over.
I decided to send her an email, no subject. It was a few weeks after the dog died, and he had started to respond to my phone calls and texts less, and I had started to feel untethered from what I had turned into my entire life. It had started to dawn on me that something else had been killed that night, something that had begun over a year ago on that snowy Halloween.
My message was simple. Do you know who I am? It was a genuine question. I really wanted to know.
I felt briefly powerful and then went into the bathroom to throw up. When I returned to my computer, I had three new emails.
The first: Yeah.
The second: he talks about you sometimes
The third: Why did you email me?
I responded only to the third. Because I wanted to.
When we began speaking online, and then on the phone, and then on video chat, she didn’t seem to think it was strange at all. It blossomed in the way love affairs do—slowly and then suddenly. I did not dislike her, just as I did not dislike the Nelly video girl. In fact, it was as if all my tender feelings for Elliot had been transferred to Nicole. I loved the movies he loved because he loved them. Was this any different?
We spoke mostly of Elliot, each of us trying to figure out the exact points where our respective relationships collated. This task became more difficult as time went on. As it turns out, those points were as innumerable as stars. There were so many nights where we had called me but called her first, or had called her but called me first. There were so many times he had said, “You’re the only person I can tell this to” to both of us. We both knew when his father went into the hospital. He’d told us both he was sure he would never really make it as an actor. We both heard the story of how his grandfather had died suddenly, in the middle of lunch. Each time I learned about one of these points, I felt a bit of my affection extinguish. In its place grew contempt and confusion. With each new piece of knowledge, I felt more and more as if he was turning into someone I did not know. A stranger. But he wasn’t a stranger. He was someone I did know, and he was turning into someone I knew and did not particularly like. What a greedy, greedy boy, I would think. Why did you need two of the same thing?
I was also addicted to learning about each piece. I couldn’t get enough. It felt, at least, a little better to have a friend going through the same thing I was. We were related and he was the link. We were charms on the same bracelet, toys from the same maker. We were his favorite dolls.
Another thing that became clear over time were the great efforts that Elliot had made to keep Nicole and I from meeting. The weekend of his one-man show, for example, he told me that the show ended on a Saturday and told her to come to the Sunday show.
“He didn’t want us to meet because he knew we’d have this conversation,” Nicole said one night.
She was right. But what mystified me most was why, after spending so much time trying to keep Nicole and I from each other, he would tell me that he called her first on the night the dog died. The answer came to me one night, in a flash: Because he got lazy. Because we let him get lazy. His carefully compartmentalized worlds had lasted for so long; he no longer needed to be careful in them. But look what happened now. His worlds had collided. His dolls had turned into people.
I liked Nicole, though I didn’t trust her, and I suspect that’s how she felt about me. She was right to not trust me, so I was probably right to not trust her. I would tell her, “I’m done with him,” only to email him with a book suggestion or answer a phone call. She would tell me, “I saw him on campus the other day and I looked right through him,” but did she really?
A few weeks after Nicole and I started speaking, Elliot called me to tell me that he was on a bus to Boston. “I just have to see you,” he said. “It’s been so long since I’ve seen you.” At the beginning of the conversation I told him that I would not see him. By the middle of it, I said that I would see him but that he could not sleep in my apartment. When we hung up, I stripped the dirty white sheets off my bed and put on clean red ones. I told myself I wouldn’t sleep with him, just that I would sleep near him. Then, after I slept with him, I swore it would be the last time. We lay there together in silence for a long time, him stroking my back, my head on his chest.
“I was just thinking about that time we made pancakes in the middle of the night,” he said. “We should do that tonight.”
I was stroking his head in the way he liked. I stopped. “We’ve never done that.”
I suddenly felt very dizzy. “That wasn’t me.” A lump was beginning to form in my throat and I swallowed, hard. He was making our shared histories one, creating a single person where there had previously been two.
There was a long pause. Finally, he spoke. “You’re two different people,” he said. “I know that.”
This occurred to me as an incredibly odd thing to point out.
When Elliot fell asleep that night, I escaped out from under his arm and brought my laptop out into the living space of my apartment. I had one unread message, from Nicole.
is he in boston this weekend? he told me he went home but i don’t believe him.
I felt simultaneously sick and smug. She was my friend and I wanted to comfort her but I also loved knowing that he had lied to her in order to be with me. When I remembered that that equation worked both ways—that he had and would lie to me in order to be with her—I felt sick again.
Yes, I wrote back. He’s in Boston.
I could see her typing.
you should come to new york next weekend
Saying no didn’t feel like an option.
The first time I saw her outside of a computer screen, I thought, “She’s shorter than I imagined,” and then laughed when I remembered that’s often what people say about celebrities. She had become something of a celebrity to me.
I hadn’t told Elliot that I was coming to New York but I did want to see him—not a planned meeting, though. I wanted to run into him when I was with Nicole. I wanted to see the surprise, and then the confusion, on his face.
We had to walk by his apartment building in order to get to hers. My body visibly tensed as it approached his door.
“He’s not there,” she told me.
“What?” I tried to seem casual.
“He went to L.A. for the weekend. He didn’t tell you that?” She cocked her head to one side. We had both gotten into the habit of asking questions like this, questions asked with the same subtext and same condescending tone. You don’t know how he broke his arm when he was seven? You don’t know about the play he’s writing? You don’t know he’s in L.A.? All those questions had other statements behind them. I know him better. I love him more.
My weekend with Nicole was sad and boring. After our first night together, which we spent drinking a bottle of wine each and watching Elliot’s reel, we agreed that we shouldn’t speak about him for the rest of my trip. We were friends, right? Real friends? Then we should start acting that way. He was just the way we met, not the only thing linking us.
But late into my second night in New York, one of us brought him up again. I can’t remember which one. I can remember that it was Nicole who said, “We should ask him for a three-way.” She was joking, I knew that, but I couldn’t bring myself to find it very funny. It sounded like such a mean suggestion. Wouldn’t we just spend the whole time competing for his attention and affection? And, in that case, wasn’t that already what we were doing?
I had originally planned to stay through the long weekend, into Monday night, but I fed Nicole a weak lie about having to study and changed my bus ticket to Sunday afternoon.
As I boarded the bus, I knew the whole thing was over. She and I would never see each other again, and whatever thing Elliot and I shared that had been slowly cracking for the last year was finally completely broken. All of that time, I had been so convinced that he was the wrong one—that he was the only wrong one—that I hadn’t seen how we were all wrong.
We had all gotten more than a little bit high on the drama, more than a little bit carried away. I had spent over a year of my life dedicated to this person because he made me feel special. There are some people who choose you and it makes you feel so special. Only later does it occur to you that maybe what made them choose was some weakness in you. Something muted, something feeble that they could mold.
I curled up in my bus seat and began to sob. Was that what Nicole and I really in common? Not a yellow dress, but a weakness? Were we the ghosts, not him? I pressed my face into the window, counting all the ways her and I were dissimilar, and thinking about how much I really did like her. I wondered if one day we could be friends.
Names have been changed.
More in this series
“I am unmoored, my place not easily defined, my presence not immediately understood.”