I leave two strands of hair everywhere I go. These wispy, iridescent threads are the breadcrumbs to my misdeeds; scattered across the pillowcase, accumulating in the shower drain, clinging to the alma mater t-shirt I left balled and wrinkled in the corner. I imagine you collecting them like a DNA detective, building a case for my absence. I bet the shirt still smells like me, too.
I call you from the airport to say I’m leaving town. You ask, “to where?” and I hold my breath, drowning in the silence. “When will you be back?” you probe. Nine, ten, eleven, I count, holding the air until the veins in my neck throb.
A sharp exhale, a desperate inhale, followed by more silence.
Remember the time you asked where the photo tucked precariously in my passport was taken? The answer was Bukchon Hanok village in Seoul, but I told you to guess. You said Bangkok; wrong. You tried Taiwan; wrong, again. We played this game until the magic of the mystery location evaporated and, frustrated, you spat, “Putain! Je laisse tomber. You wouldn’t tell me even if I was right.”
The truth is, I’ve thought about taking you with me. I imagined us lost in Bogotá arguing over left turns, laughing as we wander in circles. I pictured us getting drunk on the banks of the Arno, stealing sips of Chianti straight from the bottle. Once, I imagined you sun-drenched and drinking coffee on my fire escape, a dog-eared copy of A Moveable Feast at your nose. These fantasies are too unattainable to share, and if I did, no doubt you’d drive yourself mad creating them for me.
“Je t’aime mon petit ouiseau. Do you know that?”
I wonder if you ever noticed that my socks never match. I wonder because I tried so hard for you not to see; surreptitiously removing them in the darkness and slipping them on again before sunrise, worried they might reveal more of my inconsistencies. I’m sure you’d say it’s these inconsistencies that make you love me, but I think they’re rather like the loose threads on the tattered sweater you refuse to discard. I tried to tell you what we both knew; that it will unravel eventually no matter how much you love it.
“I want to hear you say it.”
I board the plane right as your desperation mounts. I can feel the tightness in your chest, the animal instinct to grasp what is slipping through your fingers; your longing for something distant and unnameable. I’m well acquainted with this feeling.
“Ma belle, tell me you love me.”
The plane engines begin to whir, stifling the sound of your heavy breathing. In a few hours, I’ll be on another continent, in a different time zone, leaving breadcrumbs for another person to find.
The sudden break in your voice unnerves me, and for a moment, I consider it. I love you. I say it in my head once, twice, three times until it creeps into my throat, the rumblings of truth trapped behind gritted teeth.
A double beep, then silence.
Was it you, I, or fate who ended the call? I’ll never know. I stare at your name on the screen for another minute, swallowing the unspoken sentiment, and then slip the phone and myself silently into airplane mode.
I’m awoken hours later by a man’s voice. “Ladies and gentleman,” he says, “welcome to JFK International Airport. The time is 11:01 am and the temperature is 63 degrees.”
I stand shakily, collecting the remnants of an eight hour flight; peanuts and pretzel crumbs, tangled headphones, a half-read book. I pull a few strands of fallen hair from my jacket and let them float softly to the ground.
As the sleepy passengers ahead of me stagger and stall, I turn on my phone and await the onslaught of messages I missed while in transit. There are exactly two.
One from you: “Je t’aime. I’ll be here when you return, little bird.”
And one from him: “I’m at baggage claim, my love. Welcome home.”