I-O-U

Cameron, my boyfriend of six months, sits across from me in the cheap Canton Chinese restaurant we always eat at. The white-walled empty space fills with light through the windows and wood tables are vacantly spread out throughout. We look at each other blankly. The only sounds that come out our mouths are loud chews and slurps of stir-fry noodles hitting our lips with a long, hungry uncomfortableness.

We are both desperately waiting for someone to say something—anything. Suddenly, Cameron blurts out “I love you”.

I almost choke on a mushroom I’m chewing on. Thankfully my mouth is full, so I can respond by voicing out vowels instead: “I-O-U”.

These three words become a placeholder for our progressively empty conversations. Every day creates a wider opening of unsaid words between us, the whole opening deeper and deeper as we stare at each other, never knowing exactly what to say. If I smiled, the lanky outline of Cameron’s face would crease with a confused grin: “what?” he’d amusingly request, not sure whether to mimic my own expression or distrust it.

The beginning of our relationship consists of full, happy, stupid idealism. We spend time walking around school, hand in hand, consumed in discussion revolving around our shared quirks: debating over which constituted the best vegetarian cuisine (I favored truffle linguine over his grilled pepper tacos, but we both at least deem Sriracha sauce a necessity), amateurish clumsiness, and our tendency to question and criticize everything. 

“I’m ridiculous”, he repeats, the self-deprecating remark a habitual aside he tries to dismiss as a joke, with the hopes of getting me laugh. Like amateur pseudo-philosophers basking in existentialism, we feed off of each other’s perpetual pessimism.

At one point, he texts me: “If life is meaningless, why are we doing any of this?”

I also wonder.

-

I enjoy the relationship’s slow development, its easygoing nature, and the beginning hesitancy towards the honeymoon phase. Finally, Cameron kisses me amid high school nervousness and crowds all gathered around the outdoor jail-celled classroom portables. The brush of his lips to mine barely touch.

-

Like this, I write over his tongue. The motion starts becoming more familiar. I learned that spelling out vowels with the tip of my tongue is a good kissing tip, and I teach it to him. I get excited with the hope that there might exist this mutual exchange of tongues.

Yet no matter how hard I try, I realize our language is different. Communication proves to become progressively more and more futile with each passing day. We live inside ghosted versions of a partnership, the film of intimate interaction revealed only through virtual letters on our phone screens. While I lay in bed, exhausted from high school’s endless demands, Cameron texts me. My pencil rolls down from my bed sheets. I stop what I’m doing when I read the message:

11:00 pm: How do I stop acting like such a jerk?

He always smiles and makes jokes around me, but whenever he’s around my friends, his family, or practically any other adult figure, he turns into a rude, immature boy, always on guard and extremely suspicious of anyone who asks him something even as simple as “how are you?”

I wonder if it is a defense mechanism, his way of protecting himself and me at the same time. He isn’t used to having someone reciprocate mutual positive feelings towards him and I think he’s skeptical, perhaps even self-conscious. He considers the situation as fragile and ideal as a dream. Maybe he thinks that if I discover his true personality, I’ll leave him just as easily, at any given moment.

11:05 pm: Figure out what makes you feel like a shitty person and try to work on it a step at a time”, I try to advise him, not sure how to come up with any other, more intelligible answer.

--

My psychologist tells me that I naturally attract the most “troubled” people, as if I’m gifted with some mysterious quality that automatically draws them in. Ironically, I feel as if I myself am just as misunderstood by others. This time, Cameron is the individual questioning me the with  inexplicable, making me wonder if I always need a reason for why I act the way I do. It is as if my personality equates to some sort of sickness that I must always defend and rationalize.

I am depressed and anxious, a high school student keeping all of my emotions bottled up inside of me. I get sad when it rains and want to stay inside all day. I become withdrawn and floating in my own head, dissociated from whatever else is going on in my present surroundings.

 Cameron waves his hand in front of me. “Are you there?”

--

“There’s nothing wrong with you”, he constantly insists. While he persists in trying to idealize me, hold onto the image of what he thinks of me, I progressively become more fearful of his insecurity. He always brings up the idea of marriage. I laugh, dismiss it, sometimes hide my panic with a beaming facial gesture, or completely remove myself from conversation altogether.

“You know I love you, right?” He asks. I nod. I don’t know how else to respond to such a phrase of commitment, a strong affection I’m not sure I feel.

The pressure to take in his back-handed compliments grows, and all romanticized conceptions of myself resist the appreciation and understanding of who I am, so miserably human.

So I try to become that way, more “human”. I spend time figuring out what it is that’s holding me back—it’s him. I decide to initiate the mature life decision. I decide to break up with him.

I pull him over to the side of the hallway at school on day. I end it.

“I’m sorry, I just can’t do this anymore-” I say.

His eyes look down at me, a cheerless disappointment staring at me, straight in the face, until he moves his gaze to the floor so he concentrates on something else. His eyes are teary and looks as if he is about to cry.

“Friends?” I ask.

He nods, holding his wet breath. “Sure.” He makes his last effort to get the word out of him before his voice cracks.

--

We still talk regularly throughout our first semester of college. Yet, he also persists in telling me that we should get back together, and comes up with an extravagant, unattainable plan.

Our first summer back home begins a cycle of loneliness and boredom, both of us without jobs and learning to live at home after a couple of good months in our own shut-off, sheltered college world. We spend dreary weekends at his friend’s house, and Cameron casually puts his arm around me, like nothing. He glances at the group; high and smiling. He stays quiet the whole time. At last, he whispers something in my ear, amidst the group of friends, a disappointment when he shallowly breathes let’s get out of here.

 --

I attempt to become human again. I give in to the modern hook-up culture’s mantra:

Just have sex, even if it’s emotionless.

--

In Cam’s beaten-up silver sedan, we end up harshly bumping into gravelly turbulence. My trembled, wide-eyed gaze mirrors the tumult, intent on the corner of beaten-up car seat leather. Cameron fixes his hands steadily on the steering wheel. He continues towards a woody pathway, his headlights the only source illuminating obscured midnight.

We reach Matheson Hammock’s “No Parking” sign. He pulls the lever, positions himself and in the flash of acceleration, grabs my breasts, eagerly attempting to pluck the green cotton of my shirt off me. I close my eyes, attempting to process the suddenness, the desperation. My expression appears too similar to pleasure, so he moves his head towards my exposed stomach, licking my ribs.

Like always, we don’t speak a word, only communicating through small breaths heaving into heavier ones. When I finally accustom myself to the feel of warm saliva on my goose-bumped body, I become motionless, consumed.

How do you express “I’m anxious” in a state of shock?

I begin to hyperventilate.

“Hey, it’s ok, it’s ok, don’t worry, just breathe.”

 All my bottled-up emotions are struggling to leave me; I have kept them inside of myself for too long and now they are desperate to get out. They take revenge on my body, make me sick.

--

There’s nothing to be scared about, I keep telling myself.

We try again, another night. I want it this time. I’m desperate for thrill, for something to do, for anything.

We park near Deering Estate this time, a grassy area surrounding a deep, bottomless lake. The shade and tinted windows makes me feel protected, with the illusion of privacy. After the break-up, I feel less emotionally attached and a lot freer sneaking around in a suffocated vehicle, in the middle of my perceived nowhere.

I begin to unzip his Bermuda shorts slowly, then pull down his boxers. I take in his stomach, playfully with my teeth, then more gently with the length below his waist.

The I, O, U rules of oral sex:

 Keep the mouth in an “O” shape for as long as you can, I note to myself.

I: Implode. Hold your breath. It will sound like you are uttering “mmm” with the sharp intake of air you are trying to gain during the process. That’s a good thing. It’ll sound like you’re into it. Let him do the opposite, feel him explode in your mouth.

 U: Under your tongue, keep him there. Suck the rest of him up.

 He tastes sour, like bitter melon swarming in my mouth, and while I try to hide my wince, a piercing light breaks through the window.

 I stop everything, wide-eyed, motionless.

“I’m sorry, I can’t keep doing this.”

“Hey, hey, relax…. the light’s only coming from the outdoor street lamps. They automatically turn on, trust me.”

I’m numb from shock, until the moment hits me—I finally realize that I keep giving, I’m always giving. I try my best to become the person I can never be. I am drained from all the emotional energy that I force out of myself. I attempt to continue a departed conversation and relationship, and yet, I still end up blaming myself for all the taking I think I do.

But I don’t need to apologize anymore. Even If I had, in reality, only felt our six-month bond a friendship more than anything else. Is it really that tasteless? Do I have to feel guilty, for feeling like I’ve grabbed everything and took it away from Cam? Am I truly that responsible for not reciprocating the same love, that no matter how hard I tried, I could not and still will never feel the same way that he does for me?

“I love you”, he tells me, waiting for a response, to confirm that everything is still alright with me, a couple of moments after recovering from the traumatic incident.

I hug him, and with dejected silence streaming down my face, I only barely mutter the I,O,U vowels of rejection: “I…kn-o-w yo-u do”.

- Clayre Benzadon

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Clayre Benzadon is a recent graduate of Brandeis University with a B.A in Psychology and Creative Writing and is currently Broadsided Press’s Instagram editor. She has been published by Rat’s Ass Review, The Acentos Review, Merrimack Review, Triadae Magazine and forthcoming in other literary magazines. She also has written for Linkedin’s student platform. Additionally she has had the opportunity of attending The Ashbery Home School, a week-long writing workshop/conference in Miami.