In December 2019 I flew to Cancún. I rode a bus three hours northwest to a small port town, then  boarded a ferry to Isla Holbox. I sat on the upper deck and took off my cardigan, the air warm enough to let my arms feel the sun for the first time in months. As we approached the island, I saw two brown pelicans perched on a wooden platform near the marina. They stood close together, but acted like the other didn’t exist. One had its beak pointed down at the water and its head tucked into its body. The other stood straight with its neck long. It watched the horizon.

For the first few days in Holbox I didn’t leave my hotel room. I had a cold and spent a lot of time in  bed with my eyes shut. When I finally had the strength to eat, I found a restaurant that was empty except for a sunburned young family pecking at each other in German. My plastic chair wobbled on the cracked cement. The little boy’s blonde hair was cut so close to the scalp I could see through it. His mom had been wearing sunglasses all day, and her eyes were hollow white circles. I ate spicy octopus ceviche and drank a bottle of Sol—the wrong flavors for a virus. 

I hadn’t planned my month-long trip to coincide with C’s birthday on purpose, but it happened to fall during winter break from graduate school. Happy birthday, dude. After C died in 2014, I celebrated every one of his birthdays just as we always did, with a giant steak and a lot of red wine. But I couldn’t this year. I had lost my taste for continuing to do everything the same as we used to. 


The day he died, I was told that his health had declined. A friend said, He has not been taking care of himself since y’all broke up. But even though C and I hadn’t seen each other in months, I was not surprised by this news. For quite some time before that, I had been trying to parse out why, exactly, he had been declining. He had a mysterious GI ailment. He walked with a limp. He would get so winded after climbing the three flights of stairs to our apartment that he had to sit down afterwards. He was only forty-one but had aged dramatically. While we waited for official word on the cause of death, some kind of heart condition seemed right. But I couldn’t shake the confusion surrounding the state of his body when he was alive. He had always managed to convince me that everything was normal. 


I’m going to the office, he said.

Wait, what? I said. Now?

I know, it sucks. I wish I could stay here with you.

It’s Sunday night. Why do you have to go to the office?

I have something I have to finish tonight. And I need my laptop.

You can use mine. 

No, thank you, though. There are these documents I need from work. I have to get a head start on it, you know. I thought I told you before. Didn’t I tell you earlier?


I thought I did. It doesn’t matter, I don’t want to ruin your day. I just have to go.

I still don’t understand. When will you be back?

Soon, baby. Just as soon as I can. I love you so much.


C and I were friends for years before we were more. I was often single and going on first dates that went nowhere. He gave me advice about men all the time. When I’d report on the latest disappointment, he would respond, Who are these men and what is wrong with them, Killer D?

Killer D was his nickname for me. When anyone asked him to explain where it came from, he would say, It’s because she’s killer, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. 

When C was healthy, he was known for pushing limits in every way: playing music, eating, learning things, making things, having fun. He was bright-eyed and lanky, comfortably slouched, and his unabashed humor either made people shriek with laughter or alienated them into silence. 

He held my hands a lot. He had the best hands. Veined and meaty, scarred from cooking accidents. Playing guitar calloused his finger pads. My own seemed to shrink as soon as he cupped them.  

He is the only person I know who bought heavy cream by the quart and finished the carton before it curdled. His coffee was always half cream. I am so grateful that he ate exactly the way he wanted. In the end, that isn’t what killed him.


There’s not much to do in Holbox besides watch the sunset. The island is part of the Yum Balan Nature Reserve. Before I arrived, I envisioned hiking through jungles wearing a straw hat, listening to birdsong with waves crashing in the distance while I pushed stray vines off my path. And when I was not on these adventure hikes, I imagined lying on a beach, eating or writing or watching the ocean. I did not want to make a lot of decisions.

I hadn’t realized the nature reserve comprised most of the twenty-six miles of island, and its state-protected mangroves were closed to the public. Police boats patrolled the shore to make sure no one entered. Wild flamingos roosted there—Holbox was famous for them. A restaurant server told me about ancient cemetery ruins deep inside. The day I visited the park’s small tourist recreation area, swarms of relentless mosquitos attacked my limbs. 

This was my last of four years in school and I was ready to be finished. On the other side of graduation, life changes loomed. I wanted to leave the Midwest, though I wasn’t sure where to go. I had writing projects to finish. I needed to find a job. This trip felt like the last moment of peace for a while.

Nearly every day I took walks on the beach, edging past clusters of hotels along the shore. As I wandered farther away from town, the chalky sand became quite fine, mixing with seawater into an oceanic mud, squishing through my toes as I hiked in the surf. Bouncy birds trundled alongside me. 

After a week of staying close to my hotel, I hiked to Mosquito Point, a strand on the far eastern side of town. It was accessible only by wading through knee-high water atop a sandbar for about a mile.. The end of the beach was marked by a plain yellow rope indicating the beginning of the nature reserve. Flocks of birds waddled their days away on this deserted stretch of land.

On my way there, five pelicans played together just offshore. The size of their wingspan impressed me. They were having so much fun, and there was something magnetic about them. I waded deeper into the water to feel close to them. One by one they flew up into the sky, circling for fish. After spotting prey, each sped beak first down into the ocean with a splash, resurfacing either with a catch in the gullet or nothing at all. I don’t know how long I stood there.


During our friendship, C lived in Washington, DC. We both grew up in the area, but I had lived in Brooklyn for years. One weekend, I was home visiting family, and we met up and stayed out too late. We went back to his steel-clad condo building, into the bamboo floored one-bedroom with a wall of windows and starry city view. We sang along to a song about jumping in beds, resting heavy heads, and touching hands. Our weary-boned bodies danced closer and closer, and finally we kissed. Everything else began.

Almost right away C said, I don’t want to date you, I want to marry you. He moved into my apartment in New York after we had been together less than a year. 

At the same time, I had been contemplating a career change. Though I wanted to be a writer, I wasn’t writing. I was in the publishing industry but worked in an administrative role that required no creativity. No one cared that I wanted to write, and I didn’t have time to contemplate it much further than that. But in making these large leaps of faith for our relationship, change was in the air. 

I went to cosmetology school and became a hairstylist. The schedule was well suited for a writing life. I worked four days a week and always had mornings free. I never took the job home with me. In the back of my mind, I thought it might be flexible, too, when we had children.


He made dinner for us every night. It was never modest. Hazy plates piled high with sizzling meat and braised vegetables, aiolis and reductions, homemade ice cream and complicated cakes he made on the fly.

He loved making pizza the most. He had worked at a pizza shop in high school, and that experience never left him. He was specific about crust methodology. When he made pies at home, he would assemble dough the night before to let it rise. The real key was heat, though. He always said, Get the oven as hot as you can and cook the pizza flat on the bottom. If you did it right, it wouldn’t burn.

After he moved in, a new restaurant up the street from us had been declared the best pizza in New York. C and I went one Saturday night at seven and found seats at the bar. What C liked best, besides the perfect crust and buffalo mozzarella, was this secret chili oil. That night, we learned they kept it behind the bar for those who knew to ask. At the end of dinner, C said, Do you want to get one to go? I said yes. And we brought home another pizza and ate it an hour later.

We woke up the next morning and he asked, Do you want pizza for brunch? And I did! And we went back and ate more. 


Four years into our relationship, I was considering moving away from the city. I told C it was becoming too expensive. Too confining. Too loud, too dirty. So far away from nature. With subways and no car, it took all day just to shop for groceries. I was exhausted. I also thought I might have more success as a hairstylist somewhere smaller, with less competition. 

But it was more than New York. Things weren’t going well between us. C was distant. He had stopped responding in serious ways when I tried to talk about getting married and having children. 

I sought out couples counseling for us, and after initial resistance, he agreed to go. Several months in, while we worked through a big argument I no longer remember, our therapist said he thought I was looking for a reason to leave the relationship. I said that wasn’t true. But he was right. C and I weren’t connecting, and I wasn’t sure we ever would again. I couldn’t explain why. My instincts were telling me to go, even if I couldn’t acknowledge them directly. I kept blaming my malaise and anger on the city. New York’s faults were easy to pinpoint and saying out loud to him, I want to leave you, was not. 

That August, I took a trip to Portland, Oregon to visit my good friend J, partially to judge whether I could move there, with or without C. We were at a barbecue place near J’s home. Between bites of an iceberg wedge salad, we reminisced about her trip a few months earlier to our apartment in Brooklyn. She remarked how different C seemed since she had last seen him, a few years prior. I instinctively understood the questions behind the statement. Once fastidious about his appearance, C seemed to care less and less about how other people saw him. He continued to wear his curated rock T-shirt collection and pants that hung off his hips just so. In general, he was tidy. He was always the first to do laundry and dishes. He never smelled bad, even with no sleep or shower, despite every hangover and subway mishap. 

But he was also sliding into a body that looked different. He had scabbed mosquito bites on his face and hands that never healed. His slouch had progressed to a stoop, and he was in constant need of a haircut. He refused to go to the doctor about his ankle, which was always swollen, or for the violent stomach problems that weren’t going away. It was like he was expanding downwards and outwards. Like he was taking up more physical space, but also more psychic space.

J said, Remember when we were sitting around catching up, having a conversation, and he wouldn’t speak to us, he would only play Big Star songs on his guitar? Even after we asked him not to.

Yeah, things have been strange, I said. The ribs arrived and I looked at all the barbecue sauces. It seemed like there were too many options. 

I said, Can we talk about what feels off? Can I, like, make a list with you?

I continued: C fell asleep in the middle of doing things all the time—while playing guitar, watching TV, during conversations. And something was up with money. That month our landlord, who lived downstairs, knocked on our door to say that rent hadn’t been paid. I had handed C a check for my portion weeks before, and I thought that was the end of it. By her choice of words, I was under the impression that was not the first time it was late. My phone was cut off because he hadn’t paid the bill. It happened three times. His excuses didn’t make sense. I told him if it happened again, I was getting my own account. 

It happened again. We were at Penn Station, waiting for our train to take us to a friend’s wedding upstate. I was a bridesmaid, and I saw a missed call from the bride. I tried to call her back, and I reached a recorded message telling me that my phone had been disconnected. 

He cried. I said, It’s okay. It’s okay. Don’t cry. I’m going to get my own account! Don’t cry. I rubbed his arm. Like he was a baby I needed to soothe.

I had been trying to get him to make a joint budget for some time. He refused, saying his ex-wife was so controlling about money that he was wary of letting me into his finances. We had been essentially roommates for four years—splitting bills and taking turns buying groceries. I was trying to plan for a future life and family that would include large joint purchases, and he would not join me.

Then there was the vomiting. It first happened just before he was scheduled to play a show on the tenth anniversary of September 11th. The show flier used an image of the twin towers. He threw up for three days and said he was fine. He wasn’t. I thought he had a virus and was going to become dehydrated. Finally I convinced him to go to Beth Israel hospital in the East Village. The nurses gave him a saline IV and anti-nausea pills. He complained of pain, but the doctor declared it was likely the flu and sent him home.

After that, every few weeks or months, he spent days vomiting intermittently. He told me it was an issue he had been battling since childhood. I encouraged him to go to the doctor. He refused. 

The list J and I were assembling was getting long. A year earlier, C and I had rented a vacation beach house with friends in Maine over Labor Day weekend. He drove up with everyone that Saturday and I followed Sunday morning. When I arrived, friends reported that the night before, he was keeping everyone entertained by making cocktails and lobster jokes. But halfway through dinner, he disappeared into the bedroom and started to throw up. When I got to the house, he was still in bed. He insisted on taking Imodium. I found it at a local drugstore and brought the box to the room with some water. An hour later he wanted more. He had taken all twelve pills. I was afraid to confront him. Afraid of what I didn’t know. I called Poison Control. They said twelve was much more than the recommended amount, but he would be okay if he took no more. I went to our room and said I had nothing for him, and he roared. I told him I’d bring water and food. He wouldn’t look at me. 

After that, he often hid out from me for long periods of time. He locked himself in the bathroom and took hour-long baths. He sat in a plastic chair on the sidewalk outside our building in the evenings, reading for hours. He fell asleep out there sometimes.

He lost three jobs over the course of a year. He finally started working at a bank, and it stuck. He got paid every Tuesday at midnight. After the money was deposited into his account, he would leave the apartment and go to a local ATM and withdraw cash. Sometimes this errand took hours. At the time, it seemed like the most normal thing in the world, to go out in the middle of the night to get money every week. He often brought back pints of Ben & Jerry’s. Sometimes, though, there was a small shift in the universe, and I felt a push to question him further. He always had an explanation; he went on a walk or sat on a bench in the park. He liked being in the grass at night. I remembered telling him to watch out for the meth teens that hung out along the fenced periphery. He laughed and said there was no such thing as a meth teen. But there were—teenagers who roamed McCarren Park at night, after the softball games were over. We joked about the meth teens all the time. We joked so much about them.

One night, we were scheduled to have dinner with friends, but he was sick so I went on alone. Soon after leaving the apartment, I realized I forgot my wallet. So I went back home and saw a car service vehicle parked in front of the building and a man at our front door. I saw C pay for something, like food delivery. But I knew it was drugs. Every nerve ending tingled with rage. I went upstairs and confronted C, and he said it was weed for his friend who had a kid and couldn’t buy it himself. I told him that wasn’t cool. He brushed me off.

J said, What do you think all this means?

I said, I think he might be taking drugs I don’t know about.

J had balled up her paper napkin into her fist. She put it down next to her plate. She said, Yes. This is what that looks like. It happens in pieces over time.


I remember once when C made pizza in our Brooklyn apartment in the middle of summer for a dinner party. We didn’t have air conditioning in the kitchen. He was all sweat. He tied a handkerchief around his head to keep his face dry, but it didn’t help. He had so much energy. It was like the heat got him high. He leapt around the apartment, making our friends laugh with his concerned brow, googly blue eyes and frenzied gait, shouting out his signature mix of good will and sarcasm. Somehow, he also muddled watermelon for cocktails at the same time. I can picture him bringing out pizza after pizza, angling over the coffee table with flexed biceps, serving our home full of joyful friends. This is the C that I want to remember.


In the dream, we were in the place where he died. He looked the same, but his body moved like a balloon that was in the process of deflation, making that whoopee-cushion noise that balloons make when air is forced out. He himself was deflating; his bottom half got skinnier as he wiggled and flew around the room, the release of air propelling him. As he jetted from one place to the next, he pointed to the ground, to the cleared area on the ground. He tried to get my attention by making funny faces and exaggerating his gestures. He succeeded. He was the center of this dream. I had nowhere else to look.

When he knew I was responsive to his movements, he lay down on the spot. The convulsions started. His back arched, and his eyes rolled back to the whites. I said, Is this how you died? He nodded.

I knew I had to leave and I asked, Are you okay? He nodded more and smiled. He didn’t speak. 

I thanked cartoon C and drifted off somewhere else. 


My own birthday falls a few days after C’s, and in Holbox, I spent it poolside at a boutique hotel. A lawyer from LA lay on the nautical lounge chair near mine with a Skinny Margarita. She had just undergone in vitro fertilization for the second time. She explained she knew it hadn’t taken, so she wasn’t worried about the cocktail. She also mentioned her coke dealer in a joke and I laughed to calm both her unease and my own. Then she said she didn’t do that anymore, and I nodded, relieved. 


C and I walked down St. Mark’s on a sunny spring day. A bunch of wigs hung under the awning of a stall. I decided on a blonde mop. It was cheap and made C laugh.

Patti Smith had recently published her memoir Just Kids. We were both wild about it. Smith described these romantic scenes of her and Robert Mapplethorpe drinking egg creams at Gem Spa in the East Village. I was surprised to see Gem Spa in the book. I had passed it many times and always assumed it was just a regular bodega, not unusual in any way. And when we stepped inside, I realized I thought it was nothing special because that’s what it was. A newsstand. Just a cashier and the normal array of dust-covered Vienna Sausage tins, plastic bottles of Wesson oil, and C. Howard’s violet chews by the register. We asked for egg creams, and the cashier made them. This was the moment I learned there are no eggs in an egg cream. Just cold milk stored in a freezer. Their water taps were broken, so he poured seltzer out of a plastic bottle and squeezed chocolate syrup from a condiment bottle full of bulk-purchased U-Bet. 

The drinks came in waxy cups with plastic straws tucked into the lid. We sipped while walking to Tompkins Square Park, passing a line of volunteers scooping rice and beans from tinfoil pans to folks on the edge of the lawn. Pot smoke hung in the air. The soil felt heavy with decades of outdoor urination. None of the benches looked clean. C said, Do you want lunch? I said yes, and we walked to Odessa for oily potato pierogies with sour cream.  

I went to the bathroom and made a bun for the blonde wig, pulling as tight as I could, shifting until it felt like it fit. Nothing about this $10 bob was real, but putting on a costume for no reason made me euphoric, like I was getting away with something. I walked out into the dining room and hung back a moment, watching him eat. His face was pale and damp. He twirled one of his curls with his finger, and his Adam’s apple jiggled. He saw me and smiled. 

We took a cab downtown to the IKEA ferry and rode it across the East River. I had to hold onto my wig to keep it from flying off. At IKEA, we bought things for the apartment. Dishtowels, curtains, a duvet. We took a car service home, and while we listened to dispatches over the two-way radio, I rested my head on his shoulder and we held hands. 

As soon as we got home, he picked up an electric guitar and started playing while I took a shower. He made another great dinner. We were into Breaking Bad and watched too many episodes. We drank a couple bottles of zin. Later, he got out his acoustic guitar and we played a game where I named Big Star songs and he played and sang them to me. When we went to bed, I told him I never wanted that feeling to end.


I stayed in Holbox through Christmas and the New Year. One night, I took a walk down a dark beach road east of town. The moon lit the way. Palm trees and strings of bare lightbulbs swayed in the balmy wind. Large hotels were set back from the seafront, their twinkling lobbies just points on the horizon. 

Staying in one of those beautiful hotels is the kind of vacation I fantasized about taking with C and our family. I engaged in this kind of magical thinking while it was completely outside of our reality. I busied myself trying to force our life into the shape of something we weren’t  and I didn’t listen when he tried to be truthful with me, even if only through his actions. Hearing him would have meant admitting to myself that some imagined future was not as possible as I wanted it to be. It also would have meant acknowledging a concrete darkness lurking beneath his words. It was so much easier to pretend.


In October after I visited J in Portland, I went to Manhattan for an appointment with a woman who was going to laser the hair off my legs. I was early and I went to Starbucks. I opened my computer, and on the desktop there was a file named Out_logFile.txt. I didn’t know what it was. 

I double clicked and I immediately did know what it was. It was a text file that contained every keystroke I had made over the past year. A program had been running in the background of my operating system, recording it all. A program C had clearly installed.

I didn’t know what to do, so I went to my laser hair removal appointment. It was in a low-rent office building in an empty corner of midtown. It had one of those marble lobbies that feels abandoned. I had never met this woman before. I told her the story, and she was angry at C on my behalf.

I had never experienced anything as physically painful as that laser hair removal. It was all I could feel. She used a device that seared off a dime-sized section of downy hair. She went over every piece of both legs until they were bare. 

I took the subway back to our apartment. When he came home from work, I confronted him with the evidence. When he finally admitted guilt, he said he was worried I didn’t love him anymore and wanted to know if I was cheating on him. I wasn’t. I broke up with him that night. Six weeks later, I moved out of the apartment. Six weeks after that, I left New York. I moved to Seattle to start over. That’s where I was when he died, eight months after we broke up.


About three weeks after C died, C’s friend G took me to the storage unit where C had been living. He had moved there following the end of our relationship. The EMTs broke the door lock when they entered. But we got a screwdriver and let ourselves in. A dozen broken chairs were stacked into towers that reached almost all the way up to the industrial lofted ceiling. Our old bookshelves, which he insisted on keeping when I moved out of the apartment, were used as room dividers. One bass guitar hung on the wall. The rest of his guitars were missing.

The room was filled with piles of laundry and dishes. I saw two of his favorite cookbooks on a card table. A pile of full garbage bags in the corner. There was a clearing in the middle of the floor. G motioned to it and said, Well, I think this was where he died. It was the size of a body. 

The place did not have a kitchen. There was a bathroom down the hall and a shower somewhere in the building I never saw. He had a hot plate where it appeared he cooked sometimes. He did not do his dishes before he died. His bottle green eyeglasses were on the desk, folded neatly. 


One of the few tourist excursions in Holbox is a boat trip called the Three Island Tour. A guide and driver shuttle visitors through the surrounding area in a cruiser playing festive music. My interest in the tour was primarily to visit Bird Island, an ornithological feeding and mating spot. As it is part of the nature reserve, humans are not allowed on Bird Island. Entrepreneurial residents built a boat dock just offshore, replete with a palapa tower for tourists to observe the flocks, including gulls, ducks, and cranes. They fly in for the special kind of seagrass growing in the shallow water, murky with small crustaceans and emerald algae. The famous flamingos gather there, too, and I hadn’t yet been able to see them in person.


One night, before our breakup but during the period when C was sleeping on the couch, I woke up around 2 a.m. and went to check on him. He wasn’t there. I had a feeling he might have fallen asleep reading on the chair outside the building. I went downstairs, and he was talking with a friend who was straddling a bike and rocking back and forth on it with his feet on the ground. They were smoking cigarettes. I had the impression they’d been there a while. I was angry that he was acting like a teenager. Like always, he made me forget about it soon after. 

A year later, this friend was the last person to see him alive. He didn’t attend the memorial service.


One day in late fall of our third year together, we went to get pho. It was a soup kind of day. The weather was starting to turn, but we wanted to have fun downtown. C needed to find a new wallet on Canal Street and I craved cannoli.

I chose a restaurant on Mott Street near Hester, close to Little Italy. We walked in, to the scent of boiled broth and still air. It was empty. The man led us to a spot in the back and we looked at the menu. It was an easy choice for me: brisket and rib eye. C always went for the meat with gristle. Tendon. I ordered small, he ordered large.

I love you, he said. You’re my favorite person in the whole world.

This kind of day was when we were at our best. Responsible only to ourselves.

We talked about the trip to Italy we were supposed to take that year. We added up our vacation days and negotiated cities we wanted to visit. The food we would eat. We weighed renting a car and visiting wineries. The light in Rome. Ricotta.

He said he had to go to the bathroom and got up from the table. He crossed the room, went in and closed the door. I started to look up the price of flights to Italy on my phone.

Too quickly, he came right back to our seat.

Forgot my wallet, he said smiling. He grabbed it and went back to the bathroom.

I thought, Does he need his wallet in the bathroom? I remembered a few days earlier when his pupils were so small they almost disappeared, and a few weeks before that when G came to our place and drank a six-pack of beer in ten minutes. Those images forced my brain sideways. I believe part of me wanted to put them together and make sense of it all right then.

But my psyche simply refused. Maybe it was naiveté, but maybe it was an act of self-preservation. If I ignored the uncomfortable reality, I could keep the hope alive that we would stay together. The strength of my feelings for him and our collective willpower would be enough to propel us toward stability. So I turned to my phone and searched for flights.

When he returned, I told him stories from driving around Italy in my twenties. I described the chaos of navigating Piazza Vittorio in the middle of Rome, which stood in strange contrast to the orderly, fast Italian highways in the countryside. I told him the story about the time when a service station attendant smoked a cigarette while pumping gasoline into my car, right underneath the vietato fumare signs. 

The pho came and we ate it. He stopped responding as quickly to my questions. He could only take a few bites. He had lost his enthusiasm..


There were no flamingos the day I went to Bird Island. Groups of other birds stood around the beach and in the shallow water, splashing and eating. 

The tour guide spoke only Spanish. I couldn’t understand him, but it didn’t really matter. I mostly wanted to observe. A woman whose sister lived in Winona, Minnesota offered to convey key points to me. When he slowed down to emphasize a specific bird, she translated: These pelicans live until they’re around thirty years old. They would live even longer, but they can’t. They dive into the water very fast to catch fish and hit the surface at high speed on impact. Over time their eyes break down, and they blind themselves.

 I understood the impulse.


After we left the storage unit that night, three weeks after C’s death, I drove around Red Hook with G. I pushed him into telling me more about what happened after our breakup, before C died. I kept asking and asking and finally he said, Yes. I admit it, OK? We did heroin together. I showed him. I’m a drug addict. I’m also a fucking father. 

Just like that.

I said, How long has this been going on?

He said, Oh, a long time. I think he was trying to make me feel like the breakup hadn’t driven him to it. 

The next day J and I went back to C’s place to dig through his stuff. She had flown out from Portland to help me with the memorial service that weekend. 

C’s family had said I should take what I wanted. So as J and I sorted things in daylight, I started to notice what I couldn’t the night before. The smell of food dried on pots and takeout wrappers from the pile of trash in the corner. The swarms of fruit flies. The bed roll.

We found five different toiletry kits, each with a toothbrush and toothpaste, razors, floss. I sat at the desk he had set up much like the one in our old apartment. His soldering equipment for reconfiguring his guitar pedals and noise machines was placed right next to his laptop. 

I opened drawers. Every one felt like it held a surprise. I found an envelope full of small folded wax papers that looked like they were for candy but they were not for candy.

I went to the bathroom and came back. J held C’s favorite Post-Its in her hand: blue lined stickies with WTF? written across the top. She was calmly peeling them off, one after another, and placing them on the wall. She had put up about a dozen when I said, Maybe we should go eat? And we could not get out of there fast enough.


C and I left Pho Bang and made our way down Mott Street. I stopped for cannoli at my favorite spot. He didn’t want one. He asked if I really needed it, and I said Yes, why do you care? I took a bite and realized the place had gone downhill since I was last there. The filling was too sweet and the shell soggy. It had been sitting in the bakery for some time.

We made it to Canal and walked toward the street vendors. He pointed out his friend’s old apartment, as he always did. His friend who had let him stay there years earlier when he had nowhere else to go. The same friend who would show up on our doorstep at 2 a.m. not long after this day.

He asked, Would you ever want to move to Manhattan?

I said, Yes, of course. For a moment, I pictured us in an East Village co-op, in a place where we would have a doorman and impractical furniture, like a pink linen sofa with feather cushions. We would go to all the restaurants and shows. We would be regulars at art galleries and drink expensive wine and be annoying yet still ourselves. This internal image I had been holding onto for so long was still alive: C, me, co-op, stroller. 


After our breakup, I received a voicemail from Beth Israel hospital. It was for C, and I assumed it was about an unpaid bill. They still had my phone number from when we went there together for the vomiting. I didn’t want to relay the message to C directly, because I didn’t want to get sucked back into the chaos. But I was worried. J offered to get in touch with a mutual friend to check in on him.

I returned the call a few weeks after he died. I told the person who answered I had received the message months earlier, and C had since passed away. She said she was sorry. I said, Can you tell me why he was in the hospital? And she paused just a second too long and said, Detox. I don’t think she was supposed to tell me that, but I’m so grateful she told me that. I asked for what and she said I can’t tell you and I said okay.


Imodium is known as poor man’s methadone.


The building where C had lived was in an industrial part of Brooklyn close to the East River. Flatbush Avenue ran through it. J and I walked along that street, which was almost a highway with three lanes in each direction, though it was Saturday and few cars were out. There were newly constructed traffic islands that were also a kind of green space in the middle of the road. We sat on a bench there.

We talked about C and we talked about death. We talked about the drugs, about the circumstances that would lead him to live in this place. We kept talking. It felt like whatever we said on that median did not matter. We had entered a kind of purgatory. I told her everything I knew. All of the times the drugs had been obvious and I ignored my instincts. And then I remembered a story I had almost forgotten. 

It was a time when C and I were in a weird place. I was beginning not to trust him. Rent was due that day. I needed an envelope for the checks. I never remembered where the envelopes were. I knew C kept some in a drawer, but I didn’t remember which one.

C loved drawers and hiding places. He had a small wooden set that he kept on top of the wardrobe. I thought the envelopes might be in there.

I went into the room and grabbed the step stool we kept under his desk. I opened a few drawers and did not see envelopes. I opened the last drawer, and I saw a needle. It was bloody and I knew exactly what it was. But then I didn’t. I didn’t trust what I had seen. I thought it was a fake needle. He had these ballpoint pens that looked like needles and I thought it might be one of those. I looked at it more closely. I did not pick it up. I knew it wasn’t. I thought it was his friend’s. He was holding it for a friend, G. Maybe it was his. Maybe G was using again. I closed the drawer. I stepped down the step stool. And I walked away.

A day later, I checked the drawer again. It was empty. I thought I had dreamed it. I was crazy. It was over.

A month later, I saw the needle ballpoint pen. It was fat enough to hold onto for writing, and I could see the tube of ink running through the middle. It was nothing like the needle in the drawer.


Manhattan. I knew what that word meant for C. Someplace more sophisticated than our life in Brooklyn. That pink linen sofa and everything else. 

But he did not have the means to live that way. Everyday expenses were getting harder for him to cover. He often wanted to take cabs or go out to eat, or even just buy groceries, but had no way to pay. I offered what I could, more than was sensible. But it always felt mixed up. I hoped we could move one day to a nicer place. But at the same time, I didn’t know how that would ever happen. One day,  I said so.

He paused. He turned. His voice got louder.

He said, Why are you always so negative? 

I said, I’m just trying to be realistic.

I just wanted to know if you would ever live in Manhattan, he said. It’s just a question.

I was silent. We kept walking. I looked at the counterfeit purses. He fingered a few watches. He didn’t find a wallet. I pointed at a wig and smiled. The reference barely registered with him. He walked slowly, and then he had to find somewhere to sit because he wasn’t feeling well. I asked if he wanted to go home, and he did. He said he felt so bad he didn’t want to take a subway, he needed to take a cab. When we made it to our apartment, I paid and tipped the driver too much. We went upstairs and he immediately laid down on the bed and shut the door. It was 5 p.m. and I didn’t know what to do with myself.


It’s a lie, the blind pelican thing. The tour guide was wrong. When they dive bomb for fish, air sacs below their jaws expand as soon as they hit the water. They know how to protect themselves. The story was an old wives’ tale.


Many of the tourists in Holbox were attractive honeymooners and couples with young children. They wore elegant linen clothes: chic beach cover ups, button-down shirts, and wide-legged pants. To fit in, I bought a white tunic made of hand-woven cotton and a leaf-green muumuu. I felt more at ease.

But I still stood out. I met a couple from New York one night while watching a football game at a bar. They lived close to where C and I had, just over the Pulaski Bridge in Long Island City. 

They asked polite questions, and I told them that I was there alone, working. No, I didn’t have a partner. I think the idea of a single woman traveling alone to write held enough of a romantic allure to keep them from asking more about my personal life. Or maybe they were just gracious.

They switched to inquiring about my work. I was eager to talk about it; my first major piece, a shared byline, was published while I was in Holbox. I felt like I was a real writer. That was new. 

When C died, I was trying to write but hadn’t gotten far on my own. Right away, I set a deadline for finishing a novel in six months. I didn’t make the deadline, but I kept writing. I attended several community fiction workshops and met other writers. I wrote short stories that a few people read. I decided school might help, and it did.


So many of the quiet moments C and I spent together were filled with tenderness. He told me he loved me in a way nobody else had. He was insistent and wouldn’t let me forget it. He let me in on what I thought were his largest vulnerabilities. He wanted to hear my own. 

J said that when C first told her he wanted to be with me, she heard true love in his voice. Her imitation of his declaration at that moment killed me. She repeats it to this day. It feels like proof of something to me, though I’m not sure exactly what. 


Picture two walking, talking, living avatars of C and me. Our psyches morphing in some alternate physical realm, taking the shape of human bodies. 

Then imagine them having too much to drink late one Saturday night in Washington DC, flopping around a condo with floor-to-ceiling windows and bamboo floors the color of sand. They plonk down onto the scratchy couch. He puts on the song about resting heavy heads and touching hands and jumping in star beds.

He starts the conversation. Hey pal, he says. I think it could work, let’s get these two together. But I want her to act in a certain way, you know? Ignore the hard parts—the lying, disappearing, paranoia, bad behavior, confusion—so that C can keep serving his addiction. If he does, he is guaranteed to be alone forever. He’ll never have to open himself up enough to experience rejection ever again. But for all of that to work, she has to react to his conduct in a very specific way. You know what I mean, right?

My avatar sits there for a minute and says, Fine. She’ll do it. She will ignore and deflect and excuse C’s behavior. She can pretend her life is different than it is and stay very small. She won’t take herself seriously and, in turn, be taken seriously, even if that means she never succeeds. Being a writer is too much for her to handle. Having children is too much for her to handle. That all would leave her open to a kind of rejection she can’t endure ever again, just like C. So when she gets caught up in all of his secrets and bullshit and death and destruction, she’ll never have the space to live her own life with its unpredictability and chaos, which inevitably leads to pain and disappointment. Alongside real love, beauty, and satisfaction, of course, but that’s something I’m willing to sacrifice on her behalf.

They shake hands. She says, This is the song I always imagined playing at her wedding. He stands up and bows, holding out his palm in a grand gesture. She takes it. And his other hand moves to the edge of her hip while they dance. And she lets him pull her in closer. And we fell in love.


Our relationship, his death, and everything that followed led me to Holbox. I couldn’t stop him from dying. I’ll never have the answers to all my questions. Grief illuminated a path to ambition I did not have when he was alive. 

We never had a family, my life is rich, and C is dead. I have to live with all of it.


My final night in Holbox, I met up with a group of German men I had befriended a few days earlier. Like the Americans, I could sense their curiosity about why I was alone. However, I surmised they thought a woman traveling by herself was just strange, not romantic. They kept trying to figure out why I didn’t have a partner. I had used my verbal arsenal: Just haven’t met the right one yet! I love traveling solo! I limited my time with them over the three days we overlapped so they wouldn’t ask more questions. 

But the companionship called for one last dinner. We settled on the place with the best ceviche. At the end of the night, I sat at a bar with one of them for a nightcap and he asked, Did you ever want to get married? He was a nice person and he was just trying to connect with me. And I felt my insides cave.

I tried to explain, and it took some time for him to get it. I said pulmonary embolism, clot, happens on airplanes. I said, he had hit his head a few weeks before, and then he lay down for a really long time, and that’s likely what caused it. The blood clot. And he nodded, but I still sensed he hadn’t understood. 

Then I said the word alone, without any explanations or euphemisms. I didn’t know he was using drugs. That was all I needed to say.

The next morning, I was scheduled for an early ferry to start my journey home. I woke up before sunrise to make my way to Mosquito Point one last time to seek out the flamingos. As I walked through the surf, I was overcome with this feeling of gratitude for my life. The impossibility hit me, that I was standing on this beach in the moonlight, bare feet in soft sand covered in lapping, warm seawater, in search of wild birds. It was January 2020, six years and twelve days since I left New York City. 

I made it to the sandbar when a dog barked at me from shore and wagged his tail. He trotted out through twenty feet of shallow water towards me. He got onto the berm and walked by my side as the ocean began to rise. It was high tide. 

I saw a crane. He saw the crane. He barked and splashed through the water and it flew away. I realized when we got to the yellow rope, he would do the same thing. Only that was the boundary of the nature reserve, and when he crossed over, he would upset its delicate equilibrium. He would run after the birds and make them all fly away and he’d almost certainly catch one. So I walked him back to shore. I commanded him to sit, and he did. 

I tried to return to the sandbar, and of course he followed me. I thought the water would be too deep for him at some point, but he paddled and barely kept up. I tried shooing him away, but he wouldn’t leave my side. At a certain point, I understood I wasn’t going to see the flamingos.

I led him back to the beach and up to the main road. The sun had risen. He loped along next to me as we made our way toward town. It wasn’t long before he saw a stray cat. He barked and ran after her. The cat yelped and shot down the alleyway. He flew right behind her, speeding along until I couldn’t see them anymore.

Emily Shetler is a 2023 Oregon Literary Fellow in creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Capital Times, and is forthcoming in the The Hopkins Review.  She teaches English composition at the Washington Corrections Center for Women.