Alone Together

October 1, 2017 Massachusetts, USA

As the author reflects on a past relationship, she realizes that navigating her playground in preschool is a lot like navigating love. 

Illustration by Alena DeNardo

When I think of love, I often think of my preschool playground at recess time. We’d step outside the school building, yell “RUN!” and get chased by all the boys and Maria Sassane, who loved the chase more than anyone. The swings were my safe haven—I, the highest swinger in pre-k, would tower above the chaos and wonder why all the girls didn’t want to swing, as if they liked being chased. And then I would wonder if others thought I spent my days swinging because I was scared of boys chasing me—or worse, that I was scared that boys wouldn’t chase me. Sometimes, I imagined myself catapulting off my swing, somersaulting through the air, and landing right in the midst of the chase. In my mind, the boys would stare, mouths open, and then scramble to chase me all at once. I never actually meant to execute my plan, but one day, my legs swung forward, then back, and my hands let go. I soared from my swing, but didn’t stick my perfect landing; instead, I crashed into a pile of woodchips. Now love—the  biggest difference between love and preschool playgrounds is that jumping thoughtlessly into love hurts even more.


“May I?” I asked, inching my fry toward his ketchup. He pushed it forward, then pulled it abruptly back.   

“It’s spicy,” he said, assuming I wouldn’t like it. He was right; I didn’t eat spicy foods, but I dipped the fries in anyways. It was a brief but victorious moment: to an outsider, we might have seemed like a normal couple in the dining hall, dipping ketchup from the same container. He must have disliked the moment for that very reason. He looked down at his plate.

“I want to keep this casual,” he mumbled, almost unintelligibly. Immediately, a new wave of red crept up my neck, just as my spice-induced, peppery complexion had begun to calm.

“Me too,” I replied numbly, spinning. This was all part of the plan; he was graduating! I knew this…but I had never classified what we had as ‘casual.’ ‘Casual’ was for pickup basketball games and one-night stands…not for us. “I want to be friends too though, okay?”

“Of course.”

I smiled in response, but as we left the dining hall, I was collapsing inside. I retreated to my room, contemplating what he meant to me. For months, I had avoided the issue. I had ended a long relationship before meeting him and was tired of wallowing in my thoughts. I craved something effortless, so I jumped into love thoughtlessly—and crashed into a pile of woodchips.

Just like that, I was the kid who fell off a swing again. And instead of sensibly tending to my splinters, I just sat and cried. First, I cried out everything about him that had once made me happy: his supportive friends, his beautiful paintings, and his carefree personality. I also cried out my favorite memories. Once, I stopped by his room while he was playing “Here Comes the Sun” on guitar. He smiled when I came in, but kept playing, and it was so easy to crawl onto his bed and hum along. I loved how he never brought up classes, the future, or any other stressful topic typical at our too-ambitious school. Instead, we talked about art, travel, and cooking. He was practical but fun; he was an Economics major technically, but had a real passion for finding and creating beauty. I indulged myself in imagining our future. We’d be separate during the day, then together at night, enjoying everything beautiful that only happens when work is over: galleries, gardens, and all the finest coffee places.

His presence was comforting; he brought me an ease I had felt only once before on a plane ride. That day, the television screens on the backs of everyone’s seats malfunctioned, so we were forced to occupy ourselves for eight hours without the entertainment we’d been expecting. When dinner was served, everyone was awfully excited for something to do—even if it was just eating airplane food. I was alone in my own world, but the flight was better because the other passengers were there too, eating alone together with me. I felt that way with him—alone together. But eventually that magical moment dissipated into mumblings about malfunctioning screens, and inevitably, my tears for our good moments were overwhelmed by tears for the bad.

Once, he interrupted our kissing by making me speak Spanish to him.

“Repeat. Aprender español es mi primera prioridad,” he said quickly. [“Learning Spanish is my first priority.”]

“I can’t,” I replied, embarrassed by the discrepancy between our Spanish-speaking skills.

“You asked me to help, so just try it. Aprender. español. es. mi. primera. prioridad,” he repeated slowly.

I stumbled through the words as he laughed off my attempts. He tried to kiss me again, but I stopped him this time.

“Teach me more.”  Since I would be traveling to Spain in a month, I figured any language experience was good experience—even with a teacher who made me feel foolish.

“We can speak in Spanish all the time, if you want,” he offered. “No hace la diferencia para mí. It makes no difference to me.”

I assumed he meant it made no difference since he was fluent in both. I later realized, however, that speaking only in Spanish would’ve limited our conversations to my 2% Duolingo Spanish “fluency”. Yet that made no difference to him.

As I left for semester break, I became numb to my sadness and began to think that my untended splinters had become part of me. I was home for the first half of break and studying abroad in Salamanca, Spain for the second half. Part of me still hoped he would take at least our friendship seriously. I waited so hard, expecting him to reach out. But instead, I only received the occasional irrelevant Snapchat. I began to feel silly and unworthy of him. Here I was, taking out a loan to fly to a country to learn a new language for just three weeks. My always-anxious mom had been so frantically worried about the trip—if I hadn’t already paid the deposit, I probably wouldn’t even have gone.

On the way to the airport, I realized how much my trip seemed like a stupid quarter-life crisis. My poor mom drove me, her knuckles white from gripping the steering wheel too tightly. She sighed heavily, breaking the stillness of our night ride. “You shouldn’t listen to me,” she said in a voice catching on itself. “I beg you not to do things like this, but it’s because I’ve been scared my whole life. Don’t you end up like me, okay? I’m so proud of how you make your life yours.” Suddenly, I didn’t feel like the silly little girl in the woodchips anymore. I felt like Maria Sassane, finally chasing what I wanted.   

In Salamanca, a street art stand caught my eye every day on my way to classes.  Unfortunately, the artist Molano was never there. His paintings weren’t good—objectively awful actually. The canvases were hastily thrown together, with the staples splintering at odd angles. But much to my new friends’ bewilderment, I loved those paintings. I wanted one, but I could never catch Molano until one day, my friend Brittany pointed him out like she had spotted a leprechaun. I ran to him, so excited that I wasn’t even embarrassed speaking to him in my broken Spanish. I communicated successfully that I wanted his cheapest painting. I didn’t care that he could tell I was a foreigner and that he’d probably hiked up the price. I bought one for 30.

But I soon realized that part of the reason I loved the painting was because I knew he would love it too, which frustrated me so much that I didn’t want it anymore. When Brittany heard I was planning to give it to my sister, she urged me, “No, you give her anything else, but that painting’s yours.”

The painting was mine, and what mattered was that I loved it. But it made me think of him and the paintings on the wall of his room. I had always admired the beauty in his life and had wanted to relish that beauty with him. But instead, I had become just another peripheral decoration—there to admire when convenient, but never meant to impact his life in any significant way.

I told him it was over when I returned to school. When he wanted to talk about it over coffee, I told him not to bother. But it wasn’t easy. I unfollowed him on all social media to avoid constantly checking whether he saw my posts. I would get up and move when he sat too close to me in our tiny dining hall or school library. But I would still irrationally look forward to the next time I would see him around campus.

To help pay off my loan from the trip, I worked as ‘seat sitter’ for commencement; my job was to sit in the very front and make sure that no photo-crazy parents crossed a rope barrier. This meant I had an unobstructed view of the graduates, and they of me. So when he went up to receive his diploma, he saw me smiling politely at him. He smiled back, with a wider smile than I thought possible of his typically-subdued face.

If I ever do get the chance to sit down with him over coffee, I’ll tell him that my life isn’t a beautiful painting on his wall but instead a charming piece of street art—splintered in some places, but nevertheless—my very own. I think that most couples today started out chasing each other and ended up running through life hand-in-hand, compromising by adjusting their speed, their steps, and ultimately, their whole lives. Maybe some of them jumped thoughtlessly from their swings, like I did, and made it work. Maybe someday I’ll find someone to swing alone together with me, sometimes in sync and sometimes apart. But until then, I think preschool me had it right—I’ll keep swinging, since swinging is what I like best.

I would like to thank my editors and supporters: Eddie, Madeline, Zoe, Eve, Rebecca, Rosalie, Anna, Emily, Yihao, and Lily. I would also like to thank my illustrator, Alena. Much love to you all!

Krista Goebel loves to try some of everything—at Froyo shops, she can’t help but stuff every flavor into a resulting cup of conflicting tarts and sweets. She enjoys spending her free time babysitting and practicing the harp, and in her other (less free?) time, she studies Psychology and English. She grew up just outside of Philadelphia, PA, but she now goes to school in Amherst, MA. She hopes to spend a lifetime finding more and more new places to call home.

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