By Susannah Borysthen-Tkacz and Justin Chen

Not Your Ordinary Experience of Desire

True Story, Issue #35

A poignant postmortem of a four-year relationship, told in alternating voices, becomes a catalog of unmet needs and wants … and a path to a hopeful future.

Longing, we say, because desire is full  

of endless distances. 

—Robert Hass


Part 1

Before I can say my whole name, I refer to myself as Zanna. Maybe I abbreviate it for the sake of economy, so that I can protest before someone opens a door for me or lifts me onto a chair. Any offer to help me perform a task receives a fiery Zanna do! I want—no, need—the satisfaction of being in control. 

My mother blames my temper and bullheadedness on chronic ear infections. Creamy pink amoxicillin is a staple of my diet. She claims it is the pain that makes me irritable. I wonder if it ever occurs to her that irritability is my normal state of being. Minor discomforts—a broken crayon, itchy socks—throw me into long, violent tantrums that perplex my mother as I pound her denim thighs. 

I rage—scream, thrash, stomp, hit my head with my fist, hit my head against the floor, bite my forearms. The self-inflicted pressure soothes me, and I reach a state of nirvana. 

As a joke, I like to say that I learned about the illusory nature of love during the 2014 TripleThreat half marathon. Susannah and I had been dating for several months, and I had invited her to attend the race. We were still reserved around each other, so it was a surprise to see her at the finish line waving a sign with shiny block letters filled in with marker. 

But my main memory of that blustery summer morning is of the other spectators, complete strangers, who were cheering for me. Along the jagged coast of Rockport, Massachusetts, clumps of people—their hair at times held vertical by gusts of salty wind—encouraged the racers. As we drew near, polite clapping intensified into sustained applause and beaming faces. Spectators ran across yards and jumped over wooden guardrails into the road to greet us.  

I had never run so fast before or had such an enthusiastic reception. At mile eleven, I was in third place. My heaving breaths and uneven strides rattled my view of the horizon. The more I exerted myself, the more the crowd grew in excitement. Through my fatigue, the cheering took on a softer timbre—instead of exhortation and adoration, something approaching unconditional love. Teenage girls and women, clasping their hands in delight, were cooing at me. Then, another competitor caught up to me—a man like me, in his midtwenties, but pushing a baby in a stroller. He had been behind me the whole time. You’re almost there, yelled a spectator windmilling his arms. I’ll see you at the Olympics, the woman next to him screamed.  

We ran stride for stride for another mile before I faltered on a large hill. The man and the baby pulled away, disappearing around a bend and leaving me alone with the sound of my beating heart. 

My mother orders me an inflatable punching bag from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston catalog. It is shaped like an Egyptian mummy. I hammer at it, but it offers no resistance, no satisfaction. It doesn’t hurt me back; that’s the feeling I am really after. Within a week I wake up to find the mummy crumpled on the floor. My mother fills the bathtub and uses her whole body to submerge it in an attempt to locate the leak. 

• • • 

Dad’s house rules: Wash and dry your hands before handling my CDs. Use both hands to remove my CD from the case. Only touch the edge of the CD. Turn the volume down before playing my CDs so that you don’t blow out my speakers. Don’t put anyone else’s CDs in my CD player. Don’t put my CDs in anyone else’s CD player. 

• • •

I eventually find more discreet ways to exert control over my volatile temper. I start counting stairs. I memorize how to walk up every  staircase in my house and school so that I take the last step with my right foot. When I accidentally end on the left, I feel an anxious tickle in my right foot that I kick into submission with my left foot. I nurture a collection of scabs in hidden places—my scalp, my back, inside my ears.  

I also find gymnastics. Launching, slamming, and squeezing my body past the edge of exhaustion—and being rewarded by my coaches for it—is addictive. A practice is successful only if I wake up aching the next morning. I win every handstand contest that I enter. My fingers can grip the floor a little harder, I can withstand the pain a little longer. I go to practice on days off—to drill skills into muscle memory, to be better than my teammates, and to get out of the house. 

During my childhood, I fell into a routine with my mother. 

Do you love me? I’d ask while climbing into bed. 

Would I cook all your food if I didn’t? she replied, pulling the blanket over me.  

I’m not sure. 

Or do your laundry and take you to the doctor? she said, walking toward my bedroom door.  

I guess not, I’d say before she turned off the light.

Often my discipline doesn’t pay off. If I make more than one minor mistake in a competition, I spend most of the drive home sobbing, squeezing my thighs, and slamming my fist into the car door while my mother quietly looks on. If my father drives me home, I seethe in silence in the passenger seat while he blasts music he knows I hate: Metallica, Janis Joplin, Rush. I never dare to show any flagrant emotions in front of him. 

• • • 

Dad’s house rules: Scoop the fat-free frozen yogurt levelly so it doesn’t get icy. Scoop the nuts out of the container with a spoon so you don’t contaminate the others with your fingers. Don’t peel carrots over the trash can. Keep my bagels away from the sink. Keep my bagels away from the coffeepot. Ask me before you eat my bananas. 

• • •

She can’t keep eating like this if she wants to be a serious gymnast. This is what my father tells my mother when I order chicken fingers, french fries, and cranberry juice at Pizzeria Uno. I am sitting right next to them. I am seven. A few years later my coaches will start rewarding us with chicken fingers when we all perfect a new skill. I will feel so ashamed to have eaten them that I won’t tell my parents I’m not hungry for dinner. I will eat a second dinner and loathe myself. 

• • • 

Oink, oink. This is what my father and mother say when my sister or I ask for second or third helpings of dinner. It is what my father says when my friend Renee, at our house for a sleepover, helps herself to seconds without asking. She leaves the table and cries in the bathroom. 

On our first date, Susannah and I meet for dinner at a sushi restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is a librarian and I am a biologist who wants to be a writer. We had been discussing novels via email and agreed to exchange books—her 1Q84 for my Never Let Me Go 

For our next dates we attend an indoor track meet at Boston University, watch an independent film, and whisper guesses back and forth at a trivia night. A diffident and suspicious dater, I usually befriend women, seeing them two or three times a week before they make the first move out of exasperation or resignation. It takes Susannah two months to get to that point. 

After our relationship ends, I ask Susannah why she kissed me. 

I’m not sure, she says. I guess I enjoyed being around you. And I didn’t want to lose you to someone else. 

In gymnastics, the shapes that your body makes are assessed by a panel of judges in navy-blue suits. Your body is, quite literally, objectified. Every wrist flick, foot lift, hip angle, muscle tension, and knee bend is either perfect or some degree of imperfect, and the only person to blame for a two-tenths-of-a-point deduction is yourself. It is difficult ever to shake that sense of being constantly watched, of your body’s movement through space holding negative value. 

• • •

The gymnast is obligated to: 

Present herself in the proper attire. A deduction for “inappropriate” attire will be applied for any infraction . . . 

Be well groomed in her appearance . . . 

Accept the received score without criticism or comment . . . 

Exhibit self-control and calmness in the case of a fall or injury. 

—USA Gymnastics Women’s Program Rules and Policies

• • • 

I marry Amy Roccio before gymnastics practice one Saturday, in a ceremony arranged weeks in advance. I am eleven, she is twelve. We walk, arms linked, down the aisle (the vault runway), and our teammate Paloma stands at the altar (a springboard) and pronounces us gymnast and gymnast before we execute a secret handshake and exchange rings crafted from athletic tape. I keep my ring in my grip bag for years, where it becomes caked in chalk. When Amy starts high school and gets a boyfriend and finds better things to do than choreograph dance routines for team talent shows, my heart breaks. 

I have never seen my parents hug, kiss, or hold hands. 

Daddy is my best friend, my mother would tell me and my younger sister. 

Suuure, we’d say, and nod skeptically. Once, during dinner, my sister and I asked my father if this was true. 

Say it, say it, we chanted, half-jokingly. 

Mommy is my best friend, he said, laughing with relief and embarrassment when he reached the end of the sentence. Then he turned and patted her on the shoulder. 

• • • 

I, too, have trouble expressing my feelings. I stumble and stutter, often amending thoughts mid-sentence.  

Sometimes I don’t feel any emotion. Like a camera, I unthinkingly record the world as it passes by. Events seem to have happened to someone else. It is only when I begin to write, bringing my memories to life, that events seem real to me.  

• • • 

After college, when I told my parents that I was interested in writing, they were mystified. They had no experience with creative desire or the need for self-expression. 

• • • 

While watching the animated version of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, my mother asked if the movie was based on a true story. 

What do you think? I said. Do you think wizards and elves are real? 

No, she said. But who would have the time to make all those things up?  

In high school, I start to lose the feeling of control that had initially hooked me on gymnastics. I grow inches before my freshman year. Accustomed to being a compact but lithe package of muscle, I have to modify techniques I thought I had perfected. Some skills I will simply never be able to do because, at fifteen, my body is no longer cut out for them. I have already started to mourn my youth. I get my period on September 11, 2001. My mother theorizes that it was induced by the shock of the day’s events, as if it is just a fluke, and not a normal part of life. And yet, I don’t have another period until a year later. I succeed in controlling it. 

• • • 

When I am sixteen, my foot slips during a simple skill halfway through my balance beam routine at state championships. I land, sacrum first, on the sharp edge of the beam. I’ve never been stung by a jellyfish, but I imagine it feeling something like this—electric hot currents shoot through my lower body. Without thinking, I remount the beam, finish my routine, salute the judges, and shuffle off the mat like I’m carrying a dump in my leotard. My parents take me to a Mexican restaurant after the competition. I eat fajitas lying on my side, unable to sit or bend at the waist. During the two-month recovery, I feel the burden of forced inactivity for the first time. Unable to do ab exercises, I track the progress of my softening stomach, showing my mom when a line of skin pokes over my jeans as I sit down. I train myself to engage my core at all times, a habit I’m still letting go of. 

My parents, like many Asian immigrants, express care and affection through academic rigor. During my muggy childhood summers, my father would spend the evenings teaching me mathematics. I’d stand beside him in the living room as he sat at his desk in his underwear, manipulating long lines of fractions and exponents. Unlike school textbooks—which feature a variety of recognizable, everyday scenarios—my father’s questions revolved around his two favorite subjects: compound interest and the physics of biking into the wind. When I cried in frustration at being unable to solve the problems, my mother tried to cheer me up by bringing me into the kitchen and wrapping a piece of string around my head. 

What are you doing? I asked. 

Just checking, she said, to see if all the new things you have learned are making your head bigger. 

• • •

When my parents came to America in their early twenties, they had no friends, connections, or source of income other than my father’s graduate student stipend. To them, academic achievement is the only way to progress through the world. I attend high school near Princeton, New Jersey and—at my parents’ request—take as many Advanced Placement classes as possible. On the weekends, while my friends hang out at greasy diners, I review photosynthesis, the civil rights movement, and the central limit theorem. The only escape from this regimented life is another regimen; I compete for the cross country and track teams, and my parents let me out to run. During the summer, I run seventy miles a week, often at night when cornstalks, clouds, and trees on the horizon are all different shades of black layered on top of each other. I don’t wear any reflective gear, stepping into the grass seconds before a car and its fiery headlights rush past. I want the invisibility or anonymity, to run away from everything I know until I am no longer myself, just a disembodied yearning without a destination. 

As an adult, I still have this desire to roam. Whenever I travel, whether for work or vacation, I soothe myself through constant motion: two miles up a damp, green mountain in Edinburgh, Scotland, until I see the city below me; along a swamp in Louisiana, where the night is punctured by the blaze of gas flares from petroleum refineries; in the sand dunes of Oregon, where I give up and slide downhill while staring at the sky.  

I don’t always find what I am looking for. One night in Pittsburgh, I follow what I believe to be the clattering percussion of a garage band. Winding my way through a neighborhood, I come across two bulldozers crushing blocks of concrete. 

In college, I cry on the phone to my mom—about quitting gymnastics, how my body can’t keep up, but what am I going to do instead? My body has started to soften, under my T-shirts no more chiseled obliques and six-pack abs, just one indistinguishable curve of skin. For the first time, I feel a tickle behind my navel, a nervous, angry energy that I will never be able to purge. 

• • •

Without gymnastics, I lose myself. I find security in sharp angles: a boxy wool coat with pointy, erect lapels; carrot and celery sticks; hip bones and collarbones. I recognize myself in a Neruda poem about artichokes, their prickly tips hiding a soft core. But Neruda could have gone further—inside the soft heart are more pricks, bristles that splinter your tongue and lodge in your throat. An inner war.

• • • 

In photographs from my college graduation, my skin looks like tissue paper stretched over chicken wire, my temples hollow saucers. I spend the summer living with my parents. My only responsibility is to go to nutritionist appointments and check off the boxes on a prescribed meal plan of three-thousand-plus calories a day. I hate my mother for putting food in front of me. I hate my father for so smoothly paving my road to self-destruction. I cry into my food almost every day. Sometimes I pick it up from my plate and squeeze it between my fingers, screaming. I am emotionally drained after every meal, so I lie on the back porch to soak up direct sunlight. I pretend I am six years old, lying in the field of dandelions behind my elementary school, because that is the last time I remember feeling carefree. 

After a few years of dating, Susannah and I fall into a weekly ritual of spending Sunday mornings at our favorite café in Somerville, where she can name almost every musician on the sound system: Belle and Sebastian, Kurt Vile, Wilco, SZA. She tries to teach me to recognize these artists, but I can never keep them straight. Okay, who is this? she asks. 

The voice, distorted by the speakers and muffled by the ambient bustle of the café, is smooth and jazzy but also a little gruff.  

Nina Simone, I say—my go-to answer when I have no better idea. 

You’re joking, right? Susannah says. That’s Lou Reed. She has been curt with me all week. I tell myself that she is upset by all the time I’ve been spending in lab, but maybe the truth is that she has tired of me: our relationship has run its course.  

Have we listened to him before? I ask, but it is too late and she is already disappearing back into the New York Times Sunday crossword. I sip tea and pretend to stare intently at something outside the window. The café is beneath a tai chi studio, and now the practitioners are steadily rapping their staffs on the floor above us. The sound has a liquid resonance—at last, a noise I recognize! It is that of a solitary beating heart. 

Part 2

A year out of college, I am still a wisp of my former self. I sign up for OkCupid because it promises me direction, substance, happiness, meaning, fun, and everything else I’ve lost hold of. In my profile photo, I wear a jade-green T-shirt, its V-neck exposing the ramp of my collarbone. I’m laughing sideways at something outside the frame. The photo is two years old, taken during my anorexia honeymoon period, when my face was still pink and hale, before my organs slowed to a crawl. In my list of interests, I type floating on my back in the ocean. The reality is that my body struggles just to maintain a base temperature. I can’t bear to touch ocean water. The person who shows up to each date is not really me, not anymore, though she will keep trying to inhabit the memory of me. She is a tenuous body, just filling time while her life sits on ice. 

To me, life feels slippery, elusive—always a step ahead of me. I grow up without a television or even a CD player, and I struggle to relate to my classmates. At lunch I sit with the orchestra kids, the cross-country team, and the emo/goth crowd. They welcome me, but I am slow to learn the customs of their subcultures. I always feel like I am laughing at jokes I don’t understand.  

The land of my parents is a mystery to me as well—an absence I can’t define. I am lonely for something without having the ability to describe what I am missing.  

• • • 

Visiting my parents’ hometowns in Taiwan, which I’ve done every four or five years of my life, is like entering a dream. First, the twenty-hour flight and then the long shuffle down the cabin of the airplane with legs that don’t feel quite connected to my body. Out the sliding doors of the airport into a tropical humidity so thick that I imagine leaving a tunnel with the outline of my body in the air behind me. In the city, I’m confronted by smells and sounds that are at once familiar and foreign. There is the déjà vu of relearning a language as I hear it; I know enough to understand basic conversation but can’t quite speak or write. The people look like me—thousands of reflections walking shoulder to shoulder down the sidewalk, forming lines up a mall escalator, feeding birds on a park bench—but when I ask a street vendor for directions his expression tenses, a jolt of confusion before the inevitable realization: he is dealing with an impostor.  

For our first date, Justin and I arrange to meet for sushi and to swap books—my 1Q84 in exchange for his Never Let Me Go. The night before, I had beers with a man who picked me up in a café after watching me finish a crossword puzzle. His avuncular wool cap, uninvited thigh rubs, and smarmy text messages made me want to stop dating altogether. But Justin’s nervous adolescent chattiness is refreshing. I am wearing a stiff army-green button-down over a T-shirt, more armor than date attire. Justin has on a T-shirt from a road race.  

A few months later, holding his hand on one of those effortless early days of summer, I will tell him that one of the reasons I like him is that I can always rest assured he will dress more casually than me.  

A few years later, I will ask him if my clothes make me look like a lesbian. 

• • • 

Six months after our first date, Justin invites me to watch his half marathon in Rockport, Massachusetts, a few miles from where my parents still live in my childhood home. Before the race, he asks me to apply a temporary tattoo to his pectoral. He lies on the grassy median as I press a wet T-shirt against his chest and count to sixty. Runners lacing their shoes and eating bananas glance sideways at us; one woman asks if Justin is okay. I am embarrassed to be seen touching his bare body. After he heads out to run the 13.1 miles along the rocky coast, I make a motivational poster at the family waiting tent, where other runners’ kids and spouses clutch swag bags and hide from the cool summer mist. As Justin turns a corner uphill into the final stretch, I hold this poster, shouting GO! GO! GO! Shouting his name feels too intimate. 

After the race, we stop at Crane Beach, where I spot my parents in the distance on a barefoot afternoon walk. I drop to the sand, pulling Justin with me, and we wait for them to disappear toward the boardwalk before standing up. I’m not ready to be seen tied to another person. Something feels off.  

• • •

Years later, I will try to unspool the course of our relationship and identify the point at which the knot formed, when we became inextricably linked, embedded into each other’s daily routines. I will tell a close friend, while stuck in city traffic, that I don’t know where these years went. First we were strangers dating, and three years later we were sharing groceries and apathetic silence. I can’t account for the years in between. 

There may not be a place where I feel completely myself. Even if I had the choice, I’m not sure that I would choose to be comfortable or content. At my core there’s a roving dissatisfaction and the need to struggle against something. 

The feeling that I am really after is that of racing someone faster than me. I want to run desperately on their back shoulder, close enough to feel the impact of their feet in the grass beneath us, every second resisting the desire to let them break away into the distance.  

• • •

I see the same restive energy in Susannah, who devoted her childhood and early adulthood to gymnastics and now, years after her last competition, is still seeking a new identity. 

She despairs at her body. At twenty-six, her knees and ankles are rickety from years of training. Still recovering from an eating disorder, she is angular and bony. We are not allowed to have a scale in our apartment. She is weighed only during weekly appointments with a nutritionist who never reveals the number, only if it has gone up or down. 

She strains to control her temper. When angry, she bites her forearms and pounds her fists against her thighs until she leaves bruises. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, she wakes up in a panic and cries, What’s wrong with me? During these outbursts I see myself in her. I don’t have the ability to soothe my own less serious complexes, but I can devote my energy to helping soften hers. 

Justin and I establish a Sunday morning coffee routine. We bike or drive to Bloc 11 where we split the New York Times and linger for hours before shopping for the week’s groceries. I look forward to this all week—it is the only time we carve out for ourselves, together, and the domesticity of it feels something like love. 

But I’m romanticizing. This is how these Sundays usually play out, in reality: Justin grumbles his way out the front door and naps in the passenger seat while I clean ice off the windshield; I question whether he even wants to be there with me; he gets defensive, I get hurt; he isn’t hungry, he feels sick every weekend from exhaustion; I compare my three-course breakfast to his tiny muffin and an invisible band tightens around my waist; I squeeze my thighs with my fingernails to dispel my oncoming despair, I bite my bare forearm with all of my teeth; Justin sits up taller in his chair, wide-eyed, tells me I’m being ridiculous; I slump, crestfallen, tell him that I can’t help it, this self-loathing has a mind of its own; he tells me to run around the block; I do, and it calms me down for twenty minutes; he asks if he can read the magazine and I say no, I want to read it first; I hate myself in this moment, my possessiveness, my inability to share, my resemblance to my father; we don’t talk the rest of the morning; we drive to Market Basket, where another wave of panic overtakes me; I scream until my ears ring, I punch the steering wheel, I yell What’s WRONG with me?; we go home and put away the groceries; Justin gets back in bed until it’s time for him to go to lab, leaving me alone for the afternoon; I go to yoga. I have been waiting all day for the teacher to massage my neck as I settle into half pigeon. I am beginning to feel how much I crave a woman’s touch.  

• • •

Justin and I develop a routine. 

Do you love me? I ask as I shut off the bedside lamp. 

Of course, Justin says, I love you

I don’t believe you, I say. 

To help Susannah relax, I massage her back and shoulders. Higher, she says. No lower, lower and to the left, yes . . . right there. And I feel relief transform her—like reaching the end of a tightrope. 

More difficult to solve are her digestive issues. She often has stomach pains and mixes fibers into breakfast smoothies to deal with constipation. Do you feel these knots? she asks, pressing my hands into her intestines. 

As a joke, we reenact a YouTube video of a doctor presenting techniques to treat constipated babies. Susannah lies on her back on the bed while I move her legs in a bicycling motion, grasping a foot in each hand. Then I press her knees up and into her chest—the pressure is supposed to stimulate the bowels. I make pooping noises with my mouth—a long, wet sound or short, percussive bursts timed with each downward push. The treatment isn’t very helpful, but sometimes Susannah lets her head fall back and laughs underneath me. 

• • •

We argue. As a graduate student, I spend most evenings and weekends in the lab, tinkering with experiments. Exhausted, I call Susannah at the last minute to cancel dinner plans. I am always looking to the future. It will be better next week is a constant refrain. I ask her to imagine our lives after I leave academia, when I will finally start the life that I want. But Susannah is living in the present, watching the last few years of her twenties disappear, one solitary night at a time. 

When we do eat dinner together, we often end up bickering. Once, I break a dish by slamming it on the table. After another fight, I hide in the bathtub—the only private place in our studio apartment. 

As my thirtieth birthday approaches, I feel increasingly restless. I need to start my life—whatever that means—and I know that Justin isn’t available to join me. His weekly schedule, sixty to eighty hours of lab research that involves animal caretaking, keeps him tied to Cambridge. I start taking spontaneous weekend road trips on my own. I usually end up making the two-hour drive to Northampton. I find a concert or lecture to justify staying two nights in an Airbnb, and spend the rest of the weekend reading in cafés and wandering through museums. It is not lost on me that Northampton is a haven for the queer community. When I was a kid, my family frequently stopped here en route to Vermont, and I watched women holding hands with a child’s anthropological curiosity. On my last drive to Northampton, shortly after I turn thirty, the light is particularly dramatic, as if the air has been soaked in saffron, and something moves in me. I think I’m gay, I say out loud. It is as if the car is a vacuum—the words don’t reach my ears. My eyes burn. I blink to keep focus on the road and grip the wheel a little harder. I call Justin when I arrive. When he starts making small talk, I cut him off: I don’t think I’m going to call you again this weekend

• • •

I increasingly have nighttime panic attacks, though I don’t identify them as such. The feeling seems more permanent, like life-ending existential dread. In one waking dream, I am traveling in the belly of a slave ship, one body stowed among hundreds; in another, I am certain that I am a brick in a wall, forever mortared in place. I wake up from these dreams folded into myself, every muscle of my body clenched. Justin sighs and turns his back to me as I thrash and pummel my head into the pillow. I just want to be held in a vice grip by human arms, squeezed until I remember how to sob. 

The couples therapist tells us that people tend to express love in one of five languages: gift giving, quality time or attention, words of affirmation, acts of service, and physical touch.  

Because people usually express love in the way they themselves prefer to receive it, partners with different languages may have trouble communicating affection to one another.  

Perhaps there is a sixth language: sacrifice. When Susannah asks if I love her, I point to all the bits of myself I have discarded. To ease her anxiety about exercise, I stop running, or run in secret. I try to eradicate all the small behaviors that set her on edge. She particularly hates the clink of the spoon against my teeth when I am eating, and the slurps I make while sipping hot tea. 

Do you have to turn the pages so loudly? she asks while I am reading. All I can think about is how much faster you are at reading than I am. I begin pausing for thirty seconds at the bottom of each page. While passing the time, I look out the window of our studio apartment. Eventually, I put down the book to stare at the small houses of Somerville and the corrugated skyline they form against the blue-gray horizon.  

I sprain my ankle stepping in a pothole in the Central Square T station, and I’m put in a foam booty for four weeks. Without yoga to palliate my simmering gay angst, I swim laps at the MIT pool every other day, holding a buoy between my thighs so that my ankle won’t flap around. My body feels strong and free for the first time since childhood. Submerged, I imagine that I am back in my mother’s womb—waiting to be reborn. I swim until my fingers prune and the muscles in my hands scream from dragging my whole limp body mass through water. I exhaust myself. But each day, my heart feels stronger. 

• • •

In the beginning of 2018, I fall—no, plunge—into love with A. Acquaintances in graduate school for library science, we now work in different departments of the same library and bashfully exchange book recommendations when our paths cross. I surge with need when A’s gaze burrows into mine. I feel completed in these moments, and immediately barren when they turn to walk away. Our attempt at a casual post-work happy hour turns into a three-beer, four-hour affair. We mostly stare into the candlelight reflected in each other’s eyes. When I identify a Melissa Etheridge song before A does, they lean in, lower their eyes, and suspiciously ask, Are you secretly queer? 

I’m . . . figuring it out. 

Our evening ends with confessions of our mutual long-term crushes on each other. We walk home, slowly, knowing that this is the beginning and the end of something. I shiver from nerves, but burn at my core. We linger where our routes diverge, talk about how we want to touch each other, talk about how we can’t touch each other, don’t touch each other. I kick at a root in the sidewalk. 

Returning home feels like entering a parallel life. I pace the lobby, sit down and try to slow my nervous system, but it is too late. I feel like a glow stick that’s just been cracked. There is no reversal. I take the stairs to our third-floor studio apartment. Justin sits in his usual spot, with his usual bowl of yogurt and his laptop in front of him, watching basketball highlights. I collapse into a beanbag chair, cover my eyes, and tell him everything.  

In my relationship with Susannah, I see a reflection of my parents’ compulsion for sacrifice. The strange thing about immigrants is how much they will give so that their children can enter a world they don’t understand. My family’s struggles became a kind of mythology told to me as a child: How my grandparents toiled on a fish farm in Taiwan, eventually dying of cancer, to send my mother to college. How my mother and father uprooted themselves to start life anew in a town house in North Carolina. How they endured the monotony, disillusionment, and isolation of adult life. Masters of delayed gratification, they pinned all their hope and desires on me.  

And in return I became an American, a stranger to them. I learned sarcasm, irony, nihilism, and disobedience. At my friend’s house I watched The Fresh Prince of Bel-AirThe Matrix, and the Super Bowl. I dated white girls. I fell in love with literature and creative writing. I want to share all this with them—the excitement, the heartbreak, the absurdity—but can’t find the words.  

That’s the funny thing about sacrifice: two people can create a dutiful relationship—planning out weekly schedules on a white dry-erase board, watching Jeopardy! in the evenings, falling asleep with her ropy arm draped over his chest—without either of them realizing that she desires something completely different.  

Part 3

For a week, I can’t eat anything without my stomach cramping. 

And then, I eat everything in sight. Chicken wings. Bagels. Salt and vinegar chips. A spoonful of peanut butter before bed. No amount of food can satisfy the incinerator in my stomach. 

It feels like someone is holding a live wire to my spine. 

It feels like I’ve been holding a Kegel exercise for my whole life, and I’ve finally released it. 

It feels like a chiropractic adjustment—that moment when something in your sacrum shifts and suddenly you feel taller, more graceful. 

It feels like I am a Lego figurine that has just become human. Previously locked into place, I now wander the earth at will. I can feel the wind breathe on my skin. 

I start drinking beer every night. 

I start writing every day. 

I start drinking beer and writing. 

I call old friends. 

I stop being angry at my father. 

The night Susannah tells me that she is gay, she falls through the front door of our apartment, babbling as if she has just returned from another dimension. We both just love each other so much but we’re both already in relationships, she says, and for a few minutes, I can’t figure out if she and I are the first we or the second or neither.  

Susannah is torn: she is in love with another woman, but she doesn’t want to give up the comfort and stability of our relationship.  

Lying next to her in bed that night, I ask, What are the chances that we’ll stay together?  

I don’t know, she says. It’s not something I can put a number on. 

I’m guessing forty percent, I reply. 

• • • 

When did you realize that you were gay? I ask the next morning. 

I’m not sure, Susannah says. She tells me about driving through the Berkshires at night. On the way back from a music festival, she got lost on a small country road and wondered what it would be like to meet a woman and not return home at all. 

That was six months ago, I say. 

In a writing workshop I once attended, a woman gave a reading about her brother and how he came out to their father, a general in the Moroccan army.  

I suppose it is like going bald, the father said after receiving the news. You spend years thinking about it and then suddenly, one day, you’re bald. 

I come out to my friends and family systematically—one at a time, at an appointed date and location, with this being the express purpose of the visit. I am still trying to control the uncontrollable. This is before I realize that coming out is an endless process, not a one-and-done transaction. 

• • • 

My father toasts to my “self-discovery” at the Thanksgiving dinner table. I am mortified. It is the nicest thing he has ever said to me. 

• • •

I get my period for the first time in ten years. The eating disorder that has stalled my life for the last decade practically evaporates. Had the solution really been this simple? A few months earlier, I showed Justin a sore, marble-sized lump in my breast, making him poke at it while we stood in the shower. I wonder now if he sensed something in me shifting. My breasts grow to fill the cups of my previously oversized bras. I feel like one of those gel caps that, when dissolved in water, expands and reveals its true inner foam form: a green dinosaur, a red apple, a blue umbrella. I’m still finding body mass in places that before were air. 

After Susannah’s confession, we live together for another few months.  

We are both heartbroken—me for Susannah and her for A, who has decided to move in with their girlfriend. 

We are also growing into the people we always wanted to be. Going through our closet, I find Susannah’s new outfits, hanging like the exoskeleton of a stranger. I also purchase clothes, something appropriate for an office—white dress shirts with rows of light blue dots, gray slacks hemmed to end at my ankles. After years of working unhappily in a laboratory, I am leaving academia and starting my life as a writer for a nonprofit. You really need to think this over more carefully, my thesis advisor says. You have a PhD from MIT. You could do so much better. My parents seem to ignore the news of my decision. Have you thought about working for a drug company? my father asks. Or going to law school? 

The only person who truly understands is Susannah. 

• • • 

Some days I can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of sharing a bed with my lesbian ex-girlfriend. The year before coming to MIT as a graduate student, I had lived in Washington, DC, with my college girlfriend, who had also ended our relationship after falling in love with a woman. And now with Susannah, the process is repeating itself—my time as a scientist bracketed by two incongruous relationships, our lives a nested set of mismatched desires. 

A moves in with their girlfriend but we continue to email each other every day, several times a day. I buy an overpriced iPad keyboard at the airport so that I can send exhaustive daily summaries during my weeklong vacation. We text each other through Instagram chat so that A’s girlfriend doesn’t catch on. The tiny red Instagram message alert gives me a surge of dopamine that makes my ears pound. I wait for it to stop being fun. 

• • • 

I reconnect with B, my only lesbian friend from high school. We start drinking beer on B’s back porch every night after work. We go to Pride together. We commiserate about the wasteland that is Tinder.  

• • •

Seeing A at work is still fun. They tell me that they can sense where I am in the building. We fantasize about covert meetings in the stairwell. Eventually, we kiss. We know how it will happen before it even begins. We meet at a designated corner. We walk until we reach a bar. We agree to have just one drink. We have two. A tells me (again) that this can’t happen. We hold hands on the walk home. We kiss against the wall of an auto body shop. I joke that I feel like we’re in a ’90s R & B music video. A tells me that they are glad that they got it out of their system. 

A has melted something that was long frozen inside of me. My underwear is soaked through to my pants. Justin is already asleep when I tiptoe inside. I masturbate facedown on the bathroom tiles because it is the only private place in our studio apartment. 

• • •

I start dating B because she feels safe, because I need to distract myself from A. We book a trip to Iceland. But I start to find her e-cigarette revolting. I feel smothered. My fragile, freshly molted heart can’t hold the weight of her anxiety and depression. I break up with her on our first night in Iceland because it is unavoidable. She starts smoking real cigarettes the next day.  

I go on a few dates each with C, D, and E. I date F for two infatuated weeks. She looks like A. She ghosts me. I learn that women can also be douchebags. 

Susannah moves out in June of 2018, three months before the lease ends. I am haunted by the memories contained within the apartment—the smell of Susannah’s detergent, the box of old notes and cards that I find in the cabinet, her old silverware and bowls. I cannot wait to leave. But in other ways, the apartment is an unexpected comfort. It is the last remnant of my previous life, and the familiarity makes me feel like I’m still in control. Maybe it wouldn’t be that bad to stay. Sometimes there is even the giddy feeling of a child left home alone. In the evenings I cook slightly different variations of stir fry on the stove and stay up all night reading books by an open window, the heat of the lamp mixing with the cool night air.  

I spend my summer interning for STAT, a sister company of the Boston Globe. Each morning, I bike over a bridge connecting Cambridge to downtown Boston. Away from the familiar residential neighborhoods, I drift through acres of skyscrapers—corridors of reinforced concrete and dark glass that reflects the sky. As a general reporter, I interview scientists, doctors, and patients. I publish stories about researchers installing bioengineered lungs into pigs, robots tracking opioid use by sampling sewage wastewater, and an education program training monks in neuroscience. An editor says that I have written one of the best descriptions he has ever read of performing lab work. For the first time, I consider myself a writer.  

• • •

In mid-August, I rent a U-Haul with some friends and spend the weekend moving my furniture into storage. The apartment hollows out and falls into disarray. At night, I curl up in a sleeping bag on top of a yoga mat on the floor. I am surrounded by piles of trash, boxes crammed full of clothes and silverware, and ceramic bowls half-filled with water that I’ve been using to wipe down the floor. I open the French windows, which take up an entire wall of the apartment, to feel the breeze and hear the rustling of the trees outside. It is comforting how they always come in pairs, first the burst of air and then the skittering of leaves, almost indistinguishable from the sound of rain.  

• • •

Susannah and I used to laugh when I garbled my words. I had particular trouble pronouncing woman and women. Alone, I realize my mistake. I have been trying to emphasize the difference in the second syllables instead of the first.  

On a bright Saturday morning, lying down in the nearly empty apartment, I practice aloud: WUH-man, WIH-men, WUH-man

I meet G. She teaches yoga at the studio down the street from my house. We’re introduced by a mutual friend on a Friday. Our first date is on Saturday. We meet outside of a busy wine bar. She is tall, five feet eleven, a former professional hockey player. She enunciates her words with intention and furrows her brow skeptically when I speak. I am intimidated. When I finally make her laugh, I glimpse the twelve-year-old inside of her, and I relax. She tells me her wine has notes of Barbie feet. She is right. Our conversation is easy, aimless. We stay for five hours. Under the glare of a streetlight, she asks if I would like to kiss her. Our first three kisses are in public, under bright lights. I feel exposed. I feel like myself. 

G works four jobs but seems to have infinite time for me: a good morning text at 6:00 a.m., a video of her lip-syncing in the car on the way to work, a mirror shot of her trying on shirts in Target. It all feels too intimate. I am not used to being this closely tied to a person, but G desensitizes me. Is this what dating someone feels like? I feel like I’ve been adopted into a secret subculture. 

Before helping me move into my new apartment, my father insists that we visit the Submarine Force Museum in Groton, Connecticut. The object of his desire, the USS Nautilus, is a decommissioned nuclear submarine bolted to a small dock. My father directs me to take pictures of him and my mother standing before the ship’s long black torso. Between poses, he explains that, when he was a child in Taiwan, he had been captivated by a radio program describing how the Nautilus had become the first vessel to travel under the ice sheet of the North Pole.  

We clamber down a set of metal stairs into the submarine to view the navigation room, mess hall, and living quarters. There are life-sized figures of men sleeping in cramped bunks and listening to sonar through headphones. When we reach the torpedo launch tubes, my mother, who has only ever dated my father, pulls me aside. The key to relationships, she says, is to find someone who loves you more than you love them.  

• • • 

My parents help me move into a subdivided house I am renting with three strangers from Craigslist. While my father and I unload boxes, my mother sweeps the floor, folds my clothes into a bureau, and dusts the windowsills. I am appreciative but ill-tempered and grow tired of answering questions about health insurance and carbon monoxide detectors.  

In the late afternoon, before we have finished unpacking, I usher my parents out of the house and back to their hotel. 

You should relax and have dinner at a nice restaurant, I suggest. 

But the whole point of this trip was to help you move, my mother protests.  

The next morning, feeling contrite, I call my parents. 

Did you finish unpacking? my mother asks. 

Yes, the room is all set up. You and Dad should come over. I describe the bookshelf I have spent an hour organizing.  

Why would we want to see that? she says. 

It has been exactly one year since I stumbled home gay to Justin. I have worked at letting him back in as a new kind of irreplaceable person in my life. He has worked at developing his own musical tastes, and he invites me to a Japanese Breakfast concert. In the idle time between the opening act and the show, we sit in lounge chairs in the back of the venue. I watch people check their coats and reach their hands into a fishbowl of free Dum Dums. Justin breaks the silence. He asks me what the hardest part of coming out was. I pause. Everything that came before, I say, laughing as a coping mechanism, but if I had to choose, sacrificing the stability that we had. It was like pulling everything out from underneath myself. A pressure builds in my sinuses when I say this. I realize that I’ve been free-falling for the past twelve months. Each relationship has been a temporary foothold, one that could crumble at any moment. It may be years before I land on solid ground. Before I have someone to plan a vacation with, share groceries with, turn off the bedside light for each night. 

I look over at Justin during Michelle Zauner’s nasal rock ballad, and I smile. He looks like a dad in his sensible spring coat, a just-purchased Japanese Breakfast sweatshirt draped over his crossed arms, tapping his foot out of time. As we sleepily part ways after the concert, we make plans to meet on Saturday morning to workshop our essay, this essay. I will tell him, over and over again, that I don’t feel good about what I’ve written, that this essay is still writing itself. He will commiserate. I know, he will say. That’s the hardest part—you can never be sure when you’re done. 

It is New Year’s Day, 2019. At 10:00 a.m. it is approaching sixty degrees, and there are no cars on the road. G and I ride our bikes through Somerville, to Cambridge, to Charlestown, to the Seaport, to South Boston, to Dorchester, and back through downtown. It is so warm by the time we reach South Boston that we pull over to shed our jackets and gloves. A few people are kitesurfing off Castle Island, and reggae thumps from the hatch of a parked car, so that I forget where I am for a moment. We ride on, circumnavigating Fort Independence and hugging the shoreline of Pleasure Bay. At every decision point, G asks me if I want to keep going. I am surprised when I say yes. I am thirsty and we are biking into unfamiliar neighborhoods, but my legs long for more. A billow of wind from the harbor strikes my eardrums and pushes me toward parked cars. I relax my shoulders and lean against the air. I find my center. For a moment, I even loosen my grip. 

After I leave our old apartment, Susannah and I barely talk for several weeks. I want to be friends, but she needs space to become someone new. The last time we had dinner together was in May, a month after she came out. Having returned from a trip to Georgia with her family, she was pink and glowing. She seemed not to have gotten larger, exactly, but firmer, more robust, while I had shrunk. Without an appetite for the past weeks, I had felt myself dissipating, the stony weight of my head supported by a body of air. Inside the sushi restaurant, we claimed our usual table by the window. I laughed while Susannah studied the menu.  

What? she asked. 

You still scrunch up your lips when you’re not sure what to order, I said. 

Well, she said, I’m still the same person. 

• • • 

I’m still unsure of who I am. Breaking up with Susannah while leaving academia has upended my life. Despite all the heartache and gloominess of the past, I am already nostalgic for it. I wonder if I’ll ever be as close to another person as I was with Susannah. I also worry I’ll never recapture the energy and conviction I had as a graduate student—the sense of urgency and importance I felt before burning out. It is difficult to move forward while mythologizing the past. 

I briefly find a sense of certainty while competing in a 5K that my friend has organized. It is a small race—an out-and-back along a beach in South Boston. By the second mile I am in first place by a comfortable margin.  

Away from the straining claustrophobia of the race pack, I run for minutes without thought or purpose, staring at the stretch of land before me. Then slowly, while tracking the arc of concrete and sand against the glinting water, I feel the illusion of perpetual motion pushing me into the future. Not just the strength in my legs coiling and uncoiling with each stride or the air rushing through my lungs and into my blood, not just the feeling that I could keep moving this way forever, but a broader endurance. A belief that no pain would be too great, that no matter how my body ached or my mind longed for something unobtainable, I would continue to pick up speed.  

I know this feeling will end. I can already see the finish line in the distance: a ribbon at chest height with one person on each side, a woman with a stopwatch and a man with a bullhorn. Together, they frame a pane of the horizon—the bright air between them is rushing up as if I have jumped off a building toward it. Soon the race and the illusion will be over. But for now, there is still time. 

About the Author

Susannah Borysthen-Tkacz

Susannah Borysthen-Tkacz is a public librarian based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her work has previously appeared in New Limestone Review.

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Justin Chen

Justin Chen lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, and works in nonprofit communications. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Modern Love column, STAT, Essay Daily, and Entropy.

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One thought on “Not Your Ordinary Experience of Desire

  1. I enjoyed your story and stories. I was reminded of my younger days and how much more stable it is to be 70 and yet feel young and alive. Susannah I could feel how abusive and torturous fitting yourself into gymnastics was. Justin, I hope you find connection to yourself. Thank you both.

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