My Favorite Pepper Mill, and You

          You looked like a kid, so you thought it was okay to act like one. You said you drove well, but you turned my knuckles white. You were twenty-nine and didn’t own one tie. You would literally spit with anger at talk of veganism. You spoke as if you knew everything, and I didn’t realize for months that you were making it all up. You couldn’t bear to listen to your music below full volume. You couldn’t cut a piece of bread without leaving behind its weight in crumbs. You bought books but never read them. You hid well how angry you really were.        
          I was still in college when we met waiting tables. You told me you had graduated six years ago, but, in truth, you never had. I took acting classes because I liked having a script before I spoke. You took restaurant jobs so you could fail and not care. I was not closed-off, but scared. You were not uncaring, just unpredictable.
          We started to sneak to the basement and kiss at work. We would joke about how young we looked together, but only I was young. We spent most of our time with sheets tangled at the bottom of the bed. We spent hours walking the sidewalks of New York. We were always waiting for coffee while eating croissants. We were always holding hands until they were slick with sweat. We met your sister at a bar in Astoria. We took the subway to Rockaway Beach and lost our feet in the sand. We went to a party in Prospect Heights and one of your friends called me by your ex-girlfriend’s name. We went out to eat everywhere, but you always ordered and I always paid.
          I tried to tell you about things, but I didn’t know how. You feigned listening, but were just thinking of what to say next. I tried to guess your phone’s password whenever you were in the shower. You were careful not to touch me too intimately in pictures. You told the same stories because you knew they wouldn’t make you feel anything. I told you I loved you on my birthday with a mouth slippery from Manhattans. You told me I put too much pepper on everything. I told you that you didn’t put enough. You could cook anything, and never stopped reminding me.  I tried to fry an egg once, and forgot to flip it.
          One night I couldn’t let it go when you lied to me about where you’d been. You had nothing to say so you threw my wineglass at the wall. You apologized, but implied that I had provoked you. I picked glass out of my feet for a week. I thought I’d never forgive you for how the glass shattered and wine rained onto the floor, but a month later I had.
          You started to come over every night after work. I got wrapped up in the feeling of home. You cooked me lamb tagines and hanger steak and eggs Benedict. We put up a tree for Christmas and drank champagne on New Year’s. We watched the sunset by the Hudson and walked through the Cloisters in the snow. You bought me things I loved and things you thought I’d love—silky Wolford stockings, a stainless steel pepper mill with a big red bow on it, and an expensive first edition of Portnoy’s Complaint, which I told you once I didn’t like. I went to the grocery store and left with only those funny little French cheeses you loved and the baguettes you ate in a day. We spent hours lying on the couch and watching melodramas, our legs wrapped around one another. My head was always on your chest and you were always tucking hair behind my ear. We said over and over that we were in love. Was that because we did or didn’t believe it?
          As time went on, I stopped letting you win. You had stopped treating us like a game and somehow I still felt like I’d lost. Then there was the night that I slept somewhere else.
          You didn’t believe where I had been. I couldn’t entertain your delusions. Your voice raised and filled my studio apartment, and I tried to leave until you had calmed down. You threw me across the room and the back of my head hit the wall. You squeezed my wrists, your fingers overlapping your thumbs. When you let go I thought I’d be bruised, but I just had one small scratch under my palm. I waited for your other face to melt away. You told me you were sorry as I closed the door. 
          I stayed on my couch for three weeks. I kept watching romantic movies with flimsy plots and they kept making me cry. I kept calling the diner to deliver cheese fries and turning on the TV so it sounded like I wasn’t alone. I kept emptying pill bottles and waking with a foggy head. I went to a gallery opening in Chelsea and cried in front of the experimental art. It was just dull yellow brushstrokes. I went out and couldn’t remember my cab rides home. I went to Central Park, but only saw couples. I went to dinner at a trendy Mexican place and threw up in the bathroom. 
          I slipped up once. You brought me back my keys, and we kissed until tears dribbled onto our lips. It didn’t feel good—only hollow movements that we’d memorized, but were scraped clean of our love. You told me repeatedly you weren’t seeing anyone else. After you left, I blocked your number and deleted your e-mails. I tried to move on. I learned to cook simple things and never saw a tagine again. I took a teaching job I thought I’d hate, but was warmed by it each morning. I thought I’d swear off men, but then I met the rest of them.
          One day I ran into you on the street and your eyes became glossy. I walked away from you and I wasn’t sad. I threw out the pepper mill when I got home and sat in my kitchen for a while. And I wanted it to help, but it wasn’t all that comforting to learn that it hadn’t been love, not at all, not even a shade of it.

Kyle Lucia Wu is a writer living in New York City. She is an MFA student for fiction at The New School.