You’re in bed with your not-quite-a-friend, not-quite-a-hookup, but more than just a stranger. You’re casually talking when he brings up a dream you had about him where he rejected you, a dream that you told a mutual friend about in confidence. He asks you about it, joking (but is he?) that he didn’t know you cared so much. You panic but hide it, doing your best to brush it off as nothing, saying that you have dreams about people all the time and that they never mean anything. Of course you don’t care. Why would you? You’ve spent the last two and a half years building up your persona as being chill, down, as the girl who sleeps around and laughs it off and can always win at Never Have I Ever, the girl who doesn’t get emotionally attached. He accepts this as an answer and the conversation moves on.
This is the beginning of the end.
You spend more time together, toeing the line between friendly and friendly-flirty and just plain flirty. At least, you think you’re toeing a line. You have no idea what he’s thinking. One weekend you’ll spend hours together and the next you’ll be left on read, staying up late waiting for the little red bubble to pop up, hoping that he thinks of you just like you thought of him. You’re sure that everyone else, him included, knows what’s happening, how you’re pretending to not feel. As time marches on you think that he must know you were trying to save face, that you actually do care. How could he not?
And then everything comes crashing down around you.
This is what you do when he doesn’t like you back: you spiral. You’ve never had someone make it quite so abundantly clear to you before that they don’t care about you, they don’t care about your feelings, they don’t care what they do to you. You feel betrayed but also almost vindicated, like you knew this was going to happen eventually and you were right. Mostly, you don’t feel much of anything.
You start going out more during the week. This has a few benefits: First, you get to pretend that you’re having fun and you’re happy and you’re doing! Just! Fine! Thanks! There’s also the added attraction of the fact that if you’re coming home drunk at one in the morning chances are you’ll be able to fall asleep easier and won’t get caught in the spiral of, he doesn’t care about me, no one cares about me, no one will ever care about me — so on and so forth. You know it’s an unhealthy coping mechanism, but honestly you don’t really know what a healthy coping mechanism even looks like, so you do what you can.
Soon, the hurt turns to anger. You come up with elaborate revenge schemes, including the nuclear option of sleeping with his ex-girlfriend (you have to stick with what you’re good at, don’t you?). You get all your friends on your side and half-jokingly-mostly-seriously form a War Council so that you always have backup whenever you have to see him. He calls you a vessel of chaos and a siren and a succubus and you lean the fuck in, getting messier by the day. You know that you’re doing it for attention, for his attention, for some modicum of evidence that he pays attention to you and notices what you do and cares about or reacts to or somehow has some type of feelings regarding you and what you do, but you stomp that knowledge back down and keep it there. Sometimes you wonder if you’re going too far and pushing him away forever and you have to remind yourself that he isn’t a good person and you should want him to go away forever and you should probably just block him like all your friends keep telling you to do. (You don’t want to push him away though and that’s the problem. You just want him to know how much he hurt you, to acknowledge that he did something wrong and caused you pain, to hurt just like you did. You know that it’s never going to happen, but maybe if you keep trying, it just might.)
Eventually, slowly, slowly, you begin to pull yourself together. You mend the broken connections that fell apart in the aftermath and that you’ve been neglecting since. You find some sort of unsteady, fragile equilibrium. You’re forced to see him and so you find a way to make it work. You stay frosty, because if that’s what it takes to keep the mask from slipping and to keep the battered walls of your stability from crumbling down, then that’s what you’ll do. Sometimes you catch yourself slipping back into the old patterns of hanging out, inside jokes and references, and you have to leave before it gets to be too much.
This is what you do when he doesn’t like you back: you try. You try to acknowledge the bad that you’ve done, the ways that you fucked up. You try to pick up the pieces and rebuild what you spent the first half of the year tearing down. You try to move on.
Scarlet Letters is a student at Cornell University. Between the Sheets runs monthly this semester. Sex on Thursday appears every other Thursday.