This month's reader submission comes from an anonymous writer. It's a beautifully crafted short story about experiencing first love... over the internet. Enjoy!
I first met Sarah when I was sprawled across my bed past midnight on a Wednesday. When we were finished talking, I had not even realized that a good two hours had come and gone. I guess it had been awhile since I’d had good conversation with someone. With every message she sent, I could physically feel my face light up like the phone screen it was immersed in.
who would’ve thought the best place to meet girls would be a frank ocean fan forum, I said to her.
She sent a goodnight and a smile emoji, and I tried to imagine what her face looked like. Light, dark, freckled, defined, chubby, whatever her formula was, I knew I was into it. I slept better than I had in a long time that night.
After that, I would take Sarah with me wherever I went. She was my little pocket girlfriend. I would take her to school where we sat underneath the bleachers and had a smoke together. I was never alone when doing errands, or when my mom could not be found, which became a normal occurrence. I noticed a change in my behavior also. I started to dress nicer, which made no sense because she would never see what I was wearing. I woke up earlier and went to bed later, to get as much time out of the day as possible to spend with her. For the first few weeks, we would talk about things like Frank Ocean, or our favorite movies. I learned that she lived in a small town in New Jersey.
jersey? yeah i dont think this is gonna work out… I joked.
nj gets a bad rep! at least we don’t have to pump our own gas.
i guess ohio isn’t much better, I said.
I learned that her favorite movie was Roman Holiday, she wanted to go to NYU to study photography, and she was the third oldest of five siblings. When we became comfortable enough with each other, we each sent one picture of ourselves. I stared at my screen, trying to picture how her mouth moved when she spoke about something she was passionate about, or how her eyebrows expressed themselves when she was shocked, happy, or angry. How her mocha eyes lightened when struck by sunlight, and how her caramel skin would feel against mine. I felt myself falling hard for this girl who existed in this otherworldly dimension that we both slowly melted into.
But life outside of Sarah continued, although I tried my best to pretend it did not. I came home from school some days to see my mom either nowhere to be found, stumbling around the house reeking of alcohol, or the worst - cooking dinner in the kitchen, wearing her synthetic smile with her red lips cemented together, pretending to be normal. I was seventeen. I should have been getting ready to leave the house in just a year, but it didn’t seem like a possibility with my mom like this.
Everything changed the day I told Sarah about my mom. I was sitting in a two person booth at a diner, sipping on a double espresso. My fingers trembled and I found it hard to breathe as I typed everything about my life that I had never told anyone. How after my dad left us my mom went off the rails, how he still supports us financially even though has a whole new set of wife and kids to worry about, how I still avoid answering his calls even though I know he’s the only reason that my mom and I are stable. To be honest, I don’t even remember what she said back to me. It was not important. What was important was that I was talking, and someone was listening. This was the most vulnerable I had ever been. I felt like an egg cracked open giving my entire life story to this person who I didn’t even know, but I knew so well.
I looked outside at the flamingo pink glow from the SADIE’S DINER sign flickering on and off, as if trying to cheer up the gloomy black sky by lending it some of its artificial light.
After you share your demons with someone else, there is no going back. I had never really had any real friends. In real life, there’s all these barricades of human connection. But with Sarah, it was different. We probably weren’t ever going to meet or anything, so we just decided to dive all the way in. We never called each other or video chatted. All of our interactions were strictly messaging. Maybe it was because we knew we wouldn’t meet, or maybe talking on the phone made it seem too real, I don’t know. But the more we talked, the closer we became. We talked all day and night. If one of us didn’t respond within three minutes, the other would become worried. Sometimes I couldn’t even remember if I had said a word out loud to another person all day. But it didn’t matter because I had never connected this much with another human being. And it never got boring. Because as much as I knew about her, she was still a mystery. I knew that she ran away for three days when she was seven, that her dad was never proud of her, and that she sometimes hated her friends. But I didn’t even know what her voice sounded like.
I guess what I found exciting and mysterious, she found frightening. I was smoking behind a pharmacy on a cold November night when we got into our first disagreement.
i think maybe we should talk a little less, she said.
I panicked a bit when I read it. what do you mean? thought this was going great.
it is! A pause. it is. it’s just… i don’t even know you! i don’t even know your last name. and i’m always so lost in my phone, i feel like the days are going by, and i’m missing it.
Me too, I thought. But that’s what I wanted. but i love losing track of days with you.
i do too, it just doesn’t feel real. it feels like we’re on other planets.
are you outside?
go outside. A pause.
k, i am now.
what is it?
do you see the moon?
r u high?
do you see the moon?
And we ended the talk there that night. I stared at the moon for a little while longer, imagining Sarah doing the same from her suburban home in New Jersey. And although we may have been from two different worlds, the moon gazed down on the both of us like maybe we were closer together than it seemed.
But ever since that conversation, I started to make a list in my head of things that I could never do with Sarah. Forget sex or anything, we could never even go on a date. I would never feel her arms around me, and there were times when I ached for it more than I could bear.
Soon, almost a year had passed with Sarah. As my senior year was coming to a close, I could barely remember how the seasons had changed. It all seemed unreal, like a weird dream. I guess it was unreal, but I didn’t care. Sarah had gotten into NYU, and she convinced me to take classes at a community college while I stayed home with my mom. We still talked every day. With Sarah, the honeymoon phase never ended. I was addicted.
And then everything changed. I was sitting on my bed one summer night, smiling to myself, as I was reading a story that Sarah sent about how her new dog chewed up her sister’s bra when I decided to go downstairs and have a snack, phone in my hand. I flickered the lights in the kitchen on, and saw my mom lying on the floor. I groaned. “Can you please not pass out in the middle of the kitchen floor next time?” I mumbled to no one. I lifted her arms up, ready to drag her out, but they were heavy and unsettlingly cold. I gasped, and dropped them on the floor, where they fell, limp. Her oversized blue sweatshirt was damp with puke. My heart stopped.
“Mom?” I whispered, releasing the grip on my phone, and letting it belly flop onto the floor. “Mom please… Mom?” I choked, letting out a sob. Her eyes were glass balls. “MOM!” I wailed, ear splittingly now. “Wake up please, please, please mom wake up, I need you here, please.” I buried my face into her, my hot tears and snot mixing with her still fresh vomit.
Ever since Dad left, I had been looking for ways to stop time. I had my share of drugs and alcohol, but Sarah was the most effective. Hours and days and weeks and months passed by with her. But I couldn’t defy time. Here, staring into my mother’s ghostlike face, I noticed a map of wrinkles that I had never seen before. It seemed that the clock kept ticking for the rest of the world, even when I pretended it didn’t.
And time stopped here too, clinging on tight to whatever life was left in my mom on the cold tiles of the kitchen floor.
I was convinced she was dead. I remember what happened after that in flashes. Not everything remains in my memory, but I can still smell, feel, and touch the moments that do, and I do not go a day without reliving them. The EMTs pulling me away from her, and me fighting with all of my strength to cling on, as if that would save her. The nauseatingly white walls of the hospital room. Needles sticking out of her arm like she was a voodoo doll. They said she had so many drugs in her system that it was a miracle she was still alive. If she had died, I wouldn’t have even known what the last conversation I had with her was.
Everything after that night happened too quickly. I moved in with my dad and his family, who were nicer than expected even though it would take me years to warm up to them. My mom was sent to rehab. I couldn’t see her for months, but it was not very different from how we had lived before. I realized that in a way, I was as far gone as she was. I was so obsessed with the idea of a person who I had never even met that I ignored the living, breathing people already in my life.
I decided that I would apply to real colleges after taking a gap year to collect myself. I needed that year to start living again. I realized that I had not been present in my life, and I started to notice little rays of sunlight that I was so used to ignoring. The crunching of fall leaves, how rain strikes the windows of a dark room, the eyes of a dog, the way it feels to bike down a hill, to be smacked by an ocean wave, to see a person’s eyes light up, to hear a child laugh, to tell a parent how the day went.
Since everything went down, I had only looked at my phone to text my dad. Looking back, it bothers me how easily I just stopped messaging Sarah. Six months later, I had forgotten about her. She seemed fake, like a character that only existed in this messed up dream world I created for myself. But she wasn’t fake. She was out there, a living, breathing composition of flesh and bone who knew things about me that no one else did. How was it so easy to drop her out of my life? If forgetting about people and moving on was this simple in real life, would anyone ever stay together?
I guess I felt like I owed her something. One particularly beautiful day when the trees had turned red and orange, but the sun was still out, I took my phone to the park near my dad’s house and sat on one of the benches near a river. I wrote what I knew I had to write to set myself free.
sarah- i know i ignored you for six months, and didn’t let you know that i was at least okay. i don’t even know what i would do if you did that to me. i am truly sorry. you are the only person i have always been honest with, so i’m not going to stop that now. everything has changed so much. my mom almost died. i ignored her cries for help, and then it was almost too late. i hope you’re doing well in the big apple, i know you are. don’t worry about me, i’m living with my dad, and i’m planning on college in a year. i think we both know that we can’t talk anymore… how messed up is that? that you can just delete someone so important in your life? anyway, i wanted to thank you for being there for me when no one else was. i hope you know how much you mean to me.
I pressed send. In a sudden rush of impulsiveness, I threw my phone into the river, and watched the soft waves swallow what was my entire world. I smiled slightly to myself, and waved to the old man who walked by.
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