Swear on This Life
1. He Found Me
In class we say That’s too on the nose when someone has written a story or a scene where exactly what you think should happen does happen. Or when the events are too perfect or precise. But in real life we have a hard time recognizing serendipitous moments because we’re not making the story up as we go along. It’s not a lie—it’s really happening to us, and we have no idea how it will end. Some of us will look back on our lives and recall events that were a bit too perfect, but until you know the whole story, it’s impossible to see the universe at work, or even admit that there is something bigger than us, making sure everything that should happen does happen. If you can surrender to the idea that there might be a plan, instead of reducing every magical moment to a coincidence, then love will find you. He found me.
“WOW, THE SEAGULLS are going crazy. I think there’s a tsunami headed this way,” I said, staring out the window of
my second-story apartment as I watched the marine layer thicken over La Jolla Cove. The fog was moving fast toward my building as the storm clouds swirled in the distance.
Trevor laughed. “Such a San Diegan, overreacting to the weather.” He was sitting on the floor with his back against the overpriced leather couch that my aunts Cyndi and Sharon had bought for me when I first moved in.
“Do you think we need sandbags?”
“No, you’re being crazy,” he said.
“Crazy or cautious?”
“More like neurotic. It’s drizzling. California is still technically in a drought.”
I noticed that Trevor had put down the short story I had written so he could continue playing Angry Birds on his phone.
“Trevor . . .” I warned.
“Emiline . . .” he teased back without looking up.
I plopped onto his lap and threw my arms around his neck. “I really want you to read it.”
“I did. I read it fast.”
“What’s it about, then?”
“It’s about a girl who discovers an ancient formula for cold fusion.”
“So you got the gist. But did you actually like it?”
“Emi . . .” He paused. His eyes darted around the room. When he focused on me again, I saw pity in his face. “I liked it a lot,” he said.
“But . . . ?”
“I think you should write what you know. You’re a good writer, but this”—he held up the paper—“seems a little silly.”
“Silly? Why?” I could feel anger boiling over inside of me. Trevor was honest—it was one of the reasons I liked him—but sometimes he was blunt to the point of belittling.
“For one, it’s unrealistic.”
“It’s science fiction,” I shot back.
“It needs more character development.” He shrugged as if his statement were obvious.
“Trevor, please don’t start spewing that Writing 101 crap at me. I get enough of that in the program. I want to practice what I preach. I’m constantly telling the undergrads to forget the rules and write intuitively. Now I’m asking you for realistic feedback, from a reader’s point of view, not an instructor’s.”
“I’m trying to. I thought that’s what I was doing. You know how hard it is for me to critique your work. You can’t handle it. I didn’t connect with the characters, so I wasn’t interested in reading the rest of the story. So there. I’m just being honest.”
“There’s a nice way to be honest,” I muttered.
“I still finished the story, and now I’m trying to help you, but you’re not being receptive to it. Just tell me what you want me to say.”
I crossed my arms over my chest. “Are you serious right now?”
“Yes.” He got up abruptly and I toppled over onto the floor.
“You’re not a reader. I shouldn’t have asked you to read it. Are we actually fighting over this?”
“We’re always fighting over this,” he said. “And I resent you for saying that I’m not a reader, as if I’m some kind of illiterate Neanderthal.”
I had been dating Trevor since our senior year at Berkeley, so I knew exactly where this insecurity was coming from. Seven years—that’s a long time in anyone’s book. When we met, he was a superstar quarterback destined for the NFL, and I was a bookworm trying to be a wordsmith. He was Tom Brady handsome, and for so long I wondered why he was into me at all. Yet for some reason, in the beginning, it just felt right. We got along beautifully, and our relationship went on like a fairy tale—until he injured his throwing arm in the last game of the season. His professional football career was over before it even began.
He graduated unglamorously and then took an assistant offensive coaching job at San Diego State so he could be closer to me while I worked on my MFA at UC San Diego. It was a major show of dedication, but I couldn’t help but feel like a little light had gone off inside of him. He was there in San Diego with me, but sometimes I felt like he wanted to be somewhere else.
The dynamics of any long-term relationship tend to shift in subtle ways, but for us, the change was more abrupt: the moment he got injured, I wasn’t the nerdy bookworm infatuated with the star quarterback anymore. And while that never bothered me, it definitely bothered him. Even after he followed me to San Diego, we continued to live separately, and neither one of us pressed the issue, even after I finished my MFA. I told myself I was waiting for him to make the move, to own the decision, but honestly I didn’t know if I wanted to move in with him either.
So I kept living with my roommate, Cara, a fellow graduate from the UCSD writing program. She was saving money and teaching a couple of writing courses while she
worked on her first novel, and I was trying to do the same. Her longtime boyfriend, Henry, was a surgical resident in New York, and she planned to move at the end of the school year to be with him. I knew I had to figure something out by then, but arguments like this made me think Trevor and I still weren’t ready to take the next step.
“I’m going for a run,” I said to Trevor as I hurried toward my bedroom to get dressed.
“What? One minute you’re worried about a tsunami and the next you want to go for a run? What the hell?” He followed behind me. “Emi, you’re going to have to deal with your shit at some point.”
“My shit? What about your shit?” I said flatly as I sat on the floor, tying my shoes. I wasn’t even looking at him. I got up and tried to move past him to leave the room. I might have been carrying around some baggage, but so was Trevor.
“You have to stop running every time I want to have a bigger conversation with you.”
“Later,” I said.
“No, now,” he said firmly.
I shimmied between his body and my bedroom door and headed toward the kitchen. I busied myself filling up a water bottle.
“We’ve been together since we were twenty, Emi.”
“Jesus, I just asked you to read a fucking story.”
“It’s not about the story.”
“What is it about, then?” I asked sharply.
He looked frustrated and defeated, which was rare for him. I felt a twinge of guilt and softened.
“Trevor, I don’t know if you can tell, but I’m having
a hard time with my writing right now. I don’t want to be an adjunct creative writing professor forever. Do you get that?”
“You’re already a writer, Emi.” He seemed sincere, but it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear.
“All of the other adjuncts have been published in some right, except for me.”
“Cara’s been published?”
“Twice,” I said under my breath.
He hesitated before continuing. “You want to know what I think? It’s not a lack of talent, Emi. I just don’t think you’re writing what you know. Why don’t you try writing about yourself? Explore everything you went through when you were a kid?”
I felt myself getting mad again. He knew my childhood was off-limits. “I don’t want to talk about it, and besides, you’re totally missing the point.”
Pulling my hoodie up over my hair, I pushed the door open and jogged down the stairs toward the walkway as the rain pelted my face. I heard Trevor slam the door and jog down the steps behind me. I stopped on the sidewalk, turned, and looked up at him. “What are you doing?”
“I’m going home,” he said.
“We still need to talk.”
I nodded. “Later.” He turned on his heel and walked away. I stood for a moment before turning in the opposite direction . . . and then I was running.
I was convinced that the years of therapy my aunt Cyndi and her partner, Sharon, had paid for guaranteed my past would always be just that. Still, I knew in the back of my
mind that I hadn’t quite dealt with what happened on that long dirt road in Ohio, all those years before I came to live with Cyndi and Sharon. I was guarded and withdrawn, hiding in my relationship with Trevor, in my job as an adjunct professor, in my writing. I knew all of this, but I wasn’t sure how to get out of the rut.
After a few miles, I found myself jogging through the parking lot at UCSD, getting thoroughly soaked by massive raindrops.
“Emi!” I heard Cara call from behind me. “Wait up!”
I turned and tightened the strings on my hoodie. “Hurry, I’m getting drenched!”
Cara’s straight blonde hair clung to her cheeks, making her look even thinner than she was, as she jogged toward me. She was the opposite of me—tall, lanky, with light hair and light eyes. I had frizzy, dark hair that flew everywhere, all the time.
We took cover beneath the overhang of the building that housed the creative writing department. “Jeez, Emi, your hair.” Cara tried unsuccessfully to pat it down as we walked into the building and shook the water off our clothes. Before I could retort, we caught sight of Professor James as he was locking up his office.
“Professor!” Cara called.
He fit every possible stereotype of a college professor. He was plump, had a thick beard, and always dressed in herringbone or argyle. It was easy to imagine a pipe dangling from the side of his mouth as he talked.
“Do you have those notes on my story for me?” Cara asked.
“As a matter of fact, I do.” He shuffled through his
distressed leather briefcase and handed Cara a stack of papers. “I’ve written them in the margins.”
Cara craved constructive criticism, but I never found the professor’s notes all that helpful, even when I was in the program. After I graduated, I stopped letting him read my work.
As she scanned his marginalia, Professor James looked me over. “What are you working on, Emiline?”
“Just doing scene exercises.” I looked away, avoiding his stare.
“I didn’t mean with your students. I meant with your personal projects.”
I thought idly that the only personal project I wanted to work on was plucking my eyebrows and shaving my legs. “Oh, just some short stories.”
“If you ever want some feedback, feel free to drop your work off in my office.”
I shifted uncomfortably. “Thanks, I’ll consider it.”
I glanced at Cara’s story and noticed, in bold red writing, at the top of the page, the note BRILLIANT!!
Professor James nodded good-bye and walked away. I turned to Cara. “Two exclamation points? He’s never said anything that nice about my work.”
Cara frowned. “You know what I think about that, Emi.”
“Oh man, here we go.”
“I know you don’t like to hear it, but it’s true. Maybe you’re writing about the wrong stuff.”
First Trevor, now Cara? “I’m really good at baking—does that mean I should be a baker?”
“You know that’s not what I mean,” she said.
“I know.” I looked down at my thrashed Nikes. “I’m just
tired of missing the mark on these short stories. Trevor basically panned my last one.” I looked up and nodded toward the end of the hall. “Come on, let’s walk.”
We headed toward the staff room to check our mailboxes in silence.
“Maybe you could work on a memoir? Even if you don’t finish it, you might figure out what you want to explore in your short fiction. Something that’s more personal to you?”
“No, thanks,” I said, hoping that my tone conveyed how much I wanted her to drop it. She seemed to have gotten the hint and abruptly changed the subject.
“So, have you heard of this new writer that everyone’s talking about? J. Colby?”
I shuffled through papers from my staff mailbox, tossing the junk mail in the trash. “No, who’s that?”
“Columbia grad. He’s around our age. I can’t believe he’s already published. Everyone’s raving about his novel.”
“Good for him,” I said bitterly.
“Well, I’m going to read it, see what it’s all about,” she said as she jammed a sheaf of mail into her tote bag. “It’s called All the Roads Between. Don’t you love that title?”
“It’s all right, I guess. Kind of reminds me of The Bridges of Madison County or something.” I turned to her. “Okay, well, I’m done here. I’m gonna head home. You coming with?”
“I’ll see you back there—just have to run a few errands. But, hey, you know what we should do since it’s so rainy out? We should stay in, get takeout, watch trash TV, and drink until we pass out. That’ll cheer you up, right?”
“I guess. Yeah . . . that sounds good. Great, actually. Let’s do it.” Never mind that I’d told Trevor I’d watch football
with him and talk. What I needed was a night in with my best friend. “I’ll pick up the wine, you get the Chinese?”
“Deal. See you at home.”
THE SUN WAS going down behind the storm clouds as I sat on the window ledge and watched the waves crash against the rocks of the cove. I thought about the story I could write. I knew I had more than pages’ worth of material. I had books’ worth. I just didn’t know if I could ever put the words to paper.
Cara came barreling through the door with a Barnes and Noble bag.
“They have Chinese food at Barnes and Noble now?” I joked.
“Our date is off! I went and got that book we were talking about, read twenty pages in the store, and could not put it down. I have to know what happens. Emiline, I’m in love with this author. I’m going to find him and make him marry me.”
“How will Henry feel about that?” I teased.
She threw the bag on the counter and poured herself a glass of wine as I watched her from the window ledge. “He’ll understand,” she said, giggling.
“So you’re bailing on me to read in your room?”
“You know how I am when I get into a book. I can’t be stopped.”
I understood exactly how she felt—I was the same way. “Fine, you’re off the hook. But you owe me.”
“Maybe Trevor can swing by with Chinese?”
I laughed. “You’re ditching me but you want my boyfriend to bring us food?”
She leaned over the couch and smiled. “Are you mad?”
“No, I’m kidding. Go, read, enjoy!”
An hour later, when Trevor showed up with Chinese, Cara came out, got a plate, and darted back into her room.
“What’s her deal?” he asked.
“She’s really into her new book.”
“Well, I guess it gives us time to talk.” We sat down side by side at the breakfast bar, opening cartons silently, waiting for someone to go first.
After a few bites, I put my chopsticks down. “You want to talk? Fine? Why don’t you ever tell me you love me?”
“I’ve told you I love you before,” he said, astonished. “And this isn’t what I wanted to talk about.”
“Well, I do. You have said it but you don’t say it often. Don’t you feel like you can say it to me?”
“You never say it to me either.”
Fair point. “I don’t think we even know what it means,” I said through a mouthful of sesame chicken.
“Whatever it is you’re going through has nothing to do with me,” he said. Trevor had this way of shifting responsibility away from himself in every argument. It drove me crazy.
“People are in relationships so they can share things with each other.”
“This, coming from you? Emi, after seven years, I still barely know you. I only know what you share with me, which doesn’t include anything from your past.”
I could feel myself getting defensive. “Since we’re playing the blame game, you haven’t made much of an effort to get to know me, or to commit to me in any real way.”
Trevor’s face fell, and I could tell I’d struck a nerve.
“Are you serious? You keep saying you don’t know where you’ll end up a year from now. What does that even mean? How do you think that makes me feel?”
“Then why are you here?” I asked, simply. I didn’t want to sound callous, but I could tell that I’d gone too far. That I was cutting him too deep.
“I moved down here for you, Emi. I built my life around our relationship.” He got up from his stool. “We’re not kids anymore. I can’t deal with your fickle shit and listen to you say I won’t make a commitment to you. You’re the one who won’t commit to me.”
I felt all kinds of retorts bubbling inside of me. The only job offer you got was at San Diego State. You didn’t move here for me. I’m just the girl you’re passing time with. We both know it. Why else would you have a hard time saying I love you? Why else can’t I see our future?
I got up and headed toward my room, and Trevor followed right behind me. I turned around to face him and rested my hand on the door for a moment as he waited silently in the doorway. And then I pulled him toward me and kissed him, pressing my body against his. I didn’t want to talk anymore.
THE NEXT MORNING, as I drank coffee at the breakfast bar, Cara came skipping by. “What’s eating you?” she asked. I didn’t know how she could tell these things just by looking at the back of my head, but she could intuit moods like no one else. She poured herself a mug of coffee and leaned against the counter, facing me, waiting for my response.
“Trevor eating you?” She smirked.
“Not in a good way, pervert.” I rolled my eyes.
“Are you guys fighting again? Sounds like you made up last night.”
“We’re always fighting. Even when we’re making up.”
She straightened, as if something had just occurred to her, and then rushed off. “I’ll be right back. Don’t go anywhere.”
When she came back into the kitchen, she set a book down in front of me. I glanced at the jacket. All the Roads Between. “You’re finished already?” I asked.
“Stayed up all night. I loved it. You said I owed you one for bailing on you last night, and this is my repayment. I think you could use the escape.”
“Oh yeah?” I ran my hand over the cover. It was a faint image of two kids holding hands on a road. There was something familiar about the scene, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
“Maybe you can escape your own slightly flawed love story for a bit and get lost in something more satisfying—even if it is fiction.”
I sighed and picked it up. Maybe she was right. I grabbed my mug of coffee with my other hand and headed toward my bedroom. “Thanks, Care Bear,” I called back.
Once inside, I plopped down on my bed and cracked open the book to the first page. From the moment I read the second line in the first paragraph, my heart rate tripled. Instantly, I was sweating. By the end of the first page, I was almost hysterical.