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Only The Cab Driver Thinks You're My Boyfriend
Lies about love we only tell the people we'll never see again.
BY LARISSA PHAM
Sitting in the back of a cab speeding down I-40 W I’m giving the driver directions to a house I’ve never seen. “Say that again?” he asks me.
“Uh, take exit 279B,” I say, reading off my phone. I’ve spent all day in transit: riding the train from Brooklyn to Queens, then the bus to LaGuardia, where I sat on the linoleum floor of terminal C for five and a half hours, patiently waiting for my flight to be redirected. I guess you could say this is the longest I’ve traveled for a booty call.
“So, who are you here to visit?” the cabbie asks me.
I tug at my earlobe. “My fr… my boyfriend,” I say, the phrase coming out too easily. I feel like a fraud.
“Oh, that’s nice,” the cabdriver says. “He a student here?”
“Sort of,” I say. As we drive I sketch a quick portrait of you, us by extension—how we went to school together, how we’ve known each other for a few years now. The things you’re doing in this city. Every detail feels so familiar, proprietary. It almost doesn’t sound like a lie. It’s fine, right? He’s the only one who thinks you’re my boyfriend.
But if we’re being honest, this isn’t the first time I’ve told this lie before. You weren’t the first and you won’t be the last, if that makes it any better. It’s a fib I’m used to telling, one I like to tell, even, a lie I hold between my teeth until the moment seems right to let it slip. When the stakes aren’t high. When it doesn’t matter who knows, because they’ll disappear just like all evidence of us is supposed to.
When I show up at your house, you kiss me. We fall into bed; we fall into bed four times, the light in your room growing golden and then dissipating, the cicadas beginning to buzz.
I can’t remember the last time I was in a real relationship, one that defined itself as such.
For the past four years, I’ve drifted in and out of fleeting entanglements: sex that came with a shared bed and a kiss on the forehead, but never a traditional relationship’s stamp of respectability. It was always the kind of casual thing that’s a constant iteration of the what-are-we talk, the semantics game, the let’s-not-hold-hands-okay? Dancing around you love me, you love me not.
And it’s just so easy, when you’re not around, pretending I know what you might be. I wonder if it matters. When I’m in San Francisco buying an air plant for one iteration of you and the woman behind the counter asks who it’s for. “My boyfriend,” I say shyly and she laughs, unaware of all the stories I’m not telling.
When I’m in Portland trying to find the perfect book of poems for another boy from another unnamed thing, asking at the desk for recommendations. “I’m looking for a gift for my boyfriend, do you have anything else like this?” When I’m anywhere without consequence, where I and we are only relevant for a split second.
For a weekend, in your apartment, we make a tiny life together. We cook soup on the stove, I slice carrots, tomatoes, half an onion that makes me cry. You pour blackberry soda over ice, make salad, thaw frozen avocados. You ask me if our soup’s too spicy and hold out the spoon, expectant: when I lean over to taste it, I’m startled at the tenderness of your gesture. This is us, but it isn’t us. We’re playing house. We’re not together.
At a coffee shop, the barista asks me if we’re together. You’ve already left, so I savor the lie, playing it light; I’m not going to give him a five-minute history.
And it’s so simple, so delicious to say. That label, the reduction, the simplification, the only thing I’ve wanted since it’s the thing I’ve never really had. Constructing for the span of a stretch of small talk a reality that doesn’t exist. Because even if you don’t think so, when I’m standing at an airport waiting for my flight to be changed and chatting with an attendant at the gate I can say, swelling with guilty pride, “Oh, I’m flying to see my boyfriend.” Because I can, for a few moments, feel part of a relationship, that thing we never really had or will have.
Of course, this isn’t about the lie. It never really was. It’s about liking you more than I should. It’s about liking you at all. It’s about outgrowing traditional relationships or maybe never really fitting them to begin with, never knowing what narrative to follow only what felt good and right and not scary. It’s about existing so unsteadily in the space between two bodies moving together, the gap between you and me and our emotions.
And only the cabdriver thinks you’re my boyfriend. And the woman, standing in that air-conditioned art gallery, who tried to get me to move 600 miles from home to a city I only visited because you were in it, and the barista, and the bookstore clerk. But we’re not the lie I’ve let slip so many times before. Maybe we’ll never really date, maybe we’ll never be together, maybe we’ll stop talking, maybe we’ll get married after we fall in love, maybe I’ll leave you, eventually, or you me: we always know that there are no words for things like us.
Follow Larissa on Twitter: @lrsphm