Sweet Like Cinnamon
You sit in the dark, grungy cafe, wondering what the time is. The walls are covered with a sticky scum, yellowed by the haze and stench of a decade’s worth of cigarette smokers. You’ve got some sort of Italian soda; perhaps apple spice flavoring, or cinnamon. It’s hard to tell the color of the drink, the lighting is dim and muddled by all the smoke filling the air. Two exes and several friends flutter around you, making small talk and contributing to the clouds swirling the room. Your exes keep glancing over at you, trying to win your attention. You sit to yourself, wondering what will become of this evening. Nothing seems to be happening as quickly as you want, time ticks along slowly as you blow bubbles through the straw of the curious drink you ordered. Click, clack, click, clack. You tap your nails against the worn wooden table to the beat of the ticking clock on the wall, which is just out of eyes reach. Just as you debate leaving—fed up with listening to your abandoned companions and friends drone on like robots—you spot two people enter the cafe. Sweeter than the bitter syrup seeping through your teeth and taste buds.
One is a familiar face, a friend you’ve known for a couple months, one you respect. She’s got a short pixi-blonde haircut, wide eyes, pale skin, and twiggy-inspired black eyeliner coating her lids. Her large golden earrings jingle as she scoots out a chair at the table. Conversation picks up. Your eyes lift and acknowledge the girl briefly, then shift toward her companion. You’ve seen this person before. The other night, in the very same cafe. You make eye contact, and it holds like glue. Neither gaze is dropped. The strange ambient rock playing in the cafe slows to a stop, voices are tuned out. This person pulls out a chair across from you, and smiles.
The night rolls on, picking up the pace. The two of you have brightly lit conversations; the friendly body moves closer and a game of oversized coffee shop chess commences, along with conversation. Your friends are no longer of concern to you. The exes snivel from across the room, complaining about your withdrawn attention. This person captivates every inch of your beating body, and you think they feel the same. You still have no idea what time it is, but the clock’s tick is now a distant voice in your ears. The eerie streetlights and neon signs outside begin to emit a faint glow across the table. You don’t want this night to end; wishing it would outlast the lingering sweet syrup taste on your lips. After many hours pass, the two of you depart. Happily knowing this is not the last time you will see or speak to each other. In your dreams that evening, you are as light as the smoke clouds swirling through the air. Drawn towards your companion with each breath they take; an overpowering affection left lingering in their lungs.
If it were possible for your future self to come back in time and tell you that this stranger from the cafe would cause you the most grief that you have ever experienced in your life, would you still find yourself infatuated? If you were told of how many nights would be spent in tears, licking the salt from the corners of your mouth as you grip and tear at the bed sheets. Screaming at the top of your lungs; hopeless, helpless, and emotionally distraught. Would you still want to pursue this person? What if the future self also told you that this same human being, would also bring you the most delight, joy, and prosperity? That they would put immeasurable amounts of smiles on your face, and make you laugh louder and harder than you thought possible? If you knew both these things, what path would you choose? Unfortunately, these events cannot be anticipated. We dive into our relationships unknowingly and hopeful. Not certain of the aftermath, but curious and eager for discovery. This is just how I began my relationship with the cafe stranger. Caught in a wave of anticipation, longing to know what happened next.
The following morning after we met, Alec, my stranger, drove his black Oldsmobile into my cracked and overgrown driveway. I peered at him through the dark curtains hovering by the windows, my stomach drum-rolling. Nauseated, nervousness, and excitement. I took a moment to canvas his face. His long lashes nearly touched his eyebrows, highlighting his sunken brown eyes. He brushed his hand through his long straight brown hair as he texted me telling he had arrived.
We were going to a professional photography studio to take his senior high school photos. While we were in the cafe the previous night, he discovered my interest in the arts and photography, and asked if I would tag along to observe and help. I inhaled deeply as I swung the screen door of my house open and maneuvered my way down the cement steps to meet him. His eyes lifted from his phone, and were adhered to my figure as I neared his car. He stepped out of his vehicle to greet me with open arms, my head resting on his chest as the buttons on his flannel left circular marks on my face. He smelled like a mixture of the current day’s cologne, with a hint of the previous night’s cigarette swirls. Intoxicated with excitement, I seated myself in the car as he closed the door behind me.
We pulled into the photo studio’s lot, and I met his mother and sisters for the first time. His mother bounded over to me and gave me a hug, introducing herself as Molly. Jane, his fifteen year old sister was next, followed by Maggie, who was thirteen. Even though his sisters were younger than me, I was intimidated. They seemed so outgoing and loud, two characteristics I was not accustomed to. They all wore new designer clothes. I looked down in disgust at my now dirty-white zebra boots I had owned for over two years. I felt slightly awkward and uneasy. I had just met this boy the previous evening and there I was meeting his family and partaking in family events.
In the studio, the photographer fiddled with his lights and props as we all stood around him. In that moment, I felt like one of the box shaped props the photographer was positioning for Alec to perch upon. Square, geometric, cold, and out of place next to the fluidly moving, warm, and energetic bodies. The photographer turned and looked at me, bouncing my conscious back into place. “Did you say something?” I asked him. “Oh, I was just wondering if you two are a couple! You know, just in case you want some photos together” he said, alarming me. His mother and sisters eyes bore holes into my face, expecting an answer. I wobbled on my feet and glanced, embarrassed and flushing, at Alec. He smiled knowingly and told the photographer: “Yeah, she’s my girlfriend.”
Just like that, I was whisked away on an unexpected path towards an unpredictable future. Before that moment in the photo studio, I had no idea how he felt about me, let alone that I was his girlfriend. Waves of shock and relief coursed throughout my body, tingling at the tips of my fingers. Suddenly I was alive and animated, no longer a cold bulky box placed lifelessly in the room. After this day, we spent nearly every moment in each others presence. Building and expanding our relationship. We spent endless hours in front of the xbox playing through video games together. Went to movies, and to art galleries. Went out to fancy sushi dinners, followed by star wars marathons. Even though I had been in many relationships prior to him, this was a connection I hadn’t experienced with anyone else. I trusted his words, supported his thoughts. I was whole-hearted and genuinely happy.
As time passes in relationships, you begin to learn more about your significant other’s attributes and characteristics. Some may be deal-breakers, some might strengthen your desire and love. Looking back to my relationship with Alec during this time, there are things he said and did that should have crossed a line. I remember specifically a moment where we were at the mall together shopping for his sister’s christmas gift. He was looking at expensive jewelry for her, and I stood next to him pointing out things she might appreciate. He dangled two shimmery silver necklaces on his index finger, smirking at me through his slanted eyes. “One for her, and one for you.” he hissed. I watched as he slipped them into his coat pocket, my eyes widened and chills were sent crawling through my skin. I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing. We left the store and he pulled out one of the necklaces, handing it to me. “Merry Chirstmas!” he exclaimed proudly over the jingling music playing on the radio.
His shoplifting crimes should have outraged me. I know it once would have, but for some reason everything he did in my eyes was acceptable. I wanted to win his appreciation so desperately, that I would put up with his negativity. There were many other occasions where a slight doubt of his integrity flashed through my mind, but was instantaneously shrouded by my want and need for him in my life.
The one time I did confront him about his negativity, turned out to be a moment I never wanted to repeat. We sat in a japanese restaurant one Friday after classes. I had been looking forward to seeing him all day, and I carefully planned out what I would wear and spent way too long perfecting my hair. These are things he expected of me, not something he ever acknowledged or commented on. He spent our conversation time making snide remarks about the slightly-overweight couple seated next to us, and mimicked the Asian waitresses’ voice behind her back. As I rummaged in my purse for my wallet to pay for both of our meals, he stared at me in disgust. “Why do you always use that same bag? It’s getting old and worn out. You should get a new one.” he scorned. I sat in disbelief for several moments before answering, finally fed up with his rudeness. “I like this bag, and if you don’t like it you can pay for your own meal.” I responded, angrily. I could see the clouds of anger developing in his eyes, as he stood up from the seat he was in. “You can just find your own way home, then.” he stormed.
Alec left the restaurant and waited for me in his car. He drove me home in silence, as if a plastic clear barrier had been placed through the middle of the vehicle. I should have said something, or defended myself. His behavior towards others and myself was un-excusable. One might think the moment in the restaurant was a one time occurrence, but this is how it was daily. He was a short fuse ready to explode, propelling his frustrations towards anyone in sight. I should have left him, but some part of me couldn’t let go, and I couldn’t see myself without his presence in my life. I was scared of being left by him, and this moment in the restaurant was the closest I had gotten to the possibility of being left. I never wanted this to happen again. So in turn, I distracted myself with the good and genuine things about him, and it carried me through our relationship as the time passed on.
Over this time, I began to loose myself and the morals I once stood for without even realizing it was happening. I no longer could visualize what I believed to be right and wrong, it had shifted to what he perceived as being right and wrong. I thought that if I became more accepting of the way he thought and acted, maybe he would appreciate me more. Before I knew it I was making snide remarks about innocent people on the streets, just like he would. I was shoplifting, just as he did. I laughed at dark humorous moments, like people tripping and falling in public. All of his characteristics were growing onto me. Who was I turning into? Why had I let myself change almost entirely for this person? These questions still remain unanswered in my mind.
It was a violently rainy spring evening, and almost a year had passed since the night I had met him. I was driving myself and my closest friend at the time, Emily, to Alec’s best friend’s apartment. Drops of cold hard rain spattered as they hit my windshield. The wipers were turned up to full speed yet I still couldn’t make out the shapes in front of me. Negative thoughts flashed though my mind like lightning as sharp pains slashed my stomach. I knew in that moment, something wasn’t right. I attempted to concentrate on what Emily was saying, but nothing could drone out the paranoid ticks and thunder looming in my brain. In the previous weeks, Alec had grown distant and occupied. Suddenly he had no time for me, always busy. His phone went unanswered when I called, nothing but hollow dial tones and blank texts. I tried to reason with it and make it seem like I was being unrealistically paranoid or worried. My gut said otherwise.
When Emily and I walked into his friend’s apartment, there were several other unrecognizable faces in the room. Thumping beats from the bass-diluted music amped up my hopes as I laid eyes on Alec talking on the phone out on the screened porch. As I entered his space he dropped his call abruptly, and turned to me. I was expecting an explanation for his distance, all the unanswered calls, but all I got was a “Hey.” and a brief weak hug before he went back inside and joined the others. I followed, like a lost and abandoned pet trying to win back the attention of the owner. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my relationship with Alec had weakened me. He had become the pillar holding my life alive and happening. I wanted to believe that this person would hang onto and cherish my trust, that I could stand exposed before him and remain safe and protected. Refusing to believe what I knew was happening, I shuffled inside where I caught sight of his phone. Deliberately looking for reassurance, any spark of hope to convince me otherwise, I scanned through his messages. I knew this was a low point for me, scavenging through his personal conversations. Interfering. I felt somehow inclined and permitted to do so, however. Something wasn’t right.
After reading through the messages the storm shifted to my brain and the rain tumbled down my cheeks. There was another girl he had been spending his time with. They were obviously close, based on the messages that read: “I really enjoyed our night last night.” with a winky-face following. I dragged Alec outside. Yelling, screaming, demanding an answer. He seemed careless, as if he didn’t need to explain himself. My words and tears bounced off of his shrugging shoulders, landing on the dirty muddled pavement. Seconds later, the new girl drove into the parking lot and parked her car right next to mine. I watched his face as his eyes lit up after noticing her, just as they had once done for me. Why didn’t I see this coming? I threw myself in my car and sped off into the rain. I couldn’t see through the rainy windshield; my eyes couldn’t blink it away fast enough.
For many nights after this, I was a wreck. I felt so alone and lost without his guidance, his voice, his touch, his smile. I felt betrayed. I refused to speak with him after that night, even though I wanted to. Not only did I miss him, but I found myself longing to be around his sisters, his family. Every reminiscent memory I had of him was romanticized; I envisioned our relationship as being better than it actually was. In that time, I forgot all about how negative he could be.
Since I wasn’t spending all my time with him, I had a lot of empty space in my life that I didn’t know what to do with. One afternoon I found myself ripping frantically at all the posters and photos on the walls in my room. Tearing them apart. Only a dirty white shell wall with tape pieces still hopefully clinging on remained. Things needed to change. My mindset needed to change. I painted the walls, redecorated, spent more time with my family and friends, read books, played games. Slowly I began to understand and realize how much he had sucked out of me. I contorted myself into an entirely new person, heavily influenced by what he liked and enjoyed. Where had I gone in that relationship? Why had I let myself change? After the initial pain of the breakup had passed, I was able to step back and realistically assess the relationship. I still missed him, but I was more aware of the damage and negativity he had brought to my life.
Almost five months had passed since that rainy spring night at the apartment. The leaves outside my room’s window hinted that summer was ending. Their rich green color was beginning to fade to a light yellow. I watched from my bed one morning as gusts of wind carried them across the yard, swirling like tornados. My phone rang, jolting me back into existence. I picked it up without checking who it was. “Hey, you.” he said, in his low gravelly honeyed voice. My back stiffened straight, inhaling deeply as frightened frigid chills ran throughout my body. I hadn’t anticipated ever hearing him speak again. He made small talk for a few minutes, then there was silence. I could feel the weight of the impending question through the phone line. I could perfectly envision his expression: his forehead was wrinkled in three creases, his eyes narrowed, and his stone mouth unmoving.
Then there it was. “Would you mind coming out with me for some lunch? I would really like to see you.” he spouts. At first I smile victoriously. Maybe he realized his unruly behavior and wanted to apologize, or maybe he realized that the other girl wasn’t as great as he thought. Then I wonder if maybe going to lunch was a bad idea. Maybe I wasn’t ready to have him back in my life, or maybe it would be just like how it was before. My mind wouldn’t stop considering every angle of the situation. Here I was again, back in the giddy, excited, and nervous moment just like how I began at the cafe. Curious and anxious for what comes next.
One might ask if it’s better to have loved and lost, then never to have loved at all. Separation from another human being you have spent a significant amount of your life with is agonizing, difficult, and tender for some time after. Once past this stage, once the healing begins, you begin to analyze the time spent with this person. You begin learning from the experience, and applying your knowledge to future relationships. With every relationship, you gain information and insight about yourself that you may have not known otherwise. If you live your life in a mode of self-protection—afraid of the pain and grief of being hurt by someone—you deny yourself one of the most precious experiences: to love and to be loved. You exchange one kind of pain for another. The pain of love-and-loss, for the pain of loneliness. So there you are again, back in the smoke clouded cafe with your intoxicating stranger sitting directly across from you. This person is questioning you, asking you if they could see you again. You take a sip of your sweet cinnamon italian soda, nibbling at the tip of your straw. Contemplating. Which path will you choose?