: Joy Soldier
TW: this essay mentions eating disorders, alcohol, and adderall
Someone is staring at me.
Or are they?
Maybe I just feel exposed because I’m alone. Or because I’m in heels, a head taller than everyone else at this party. Around me, the partygoers match the effortlessly cool gallery. I count ten pairs of sneakers. It’s my first event since I moved back to Spain, I didn’t know what to wear.
The back of my neck burns. Curiosity whirls me around. Bingo.
I lock eyes with a man across the room. He’s handsome, tall, with dark brown hair and stubble I can see from here.
I stare back. His eyes bore into mine. For one second. Two. On the third, I break the staring contest and look behind me. There’s no one there. He leans over to his friend to say something. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he’s talking about me.
It’s my turn at the bar. I get a water and turn back to look for him. If he’s still staring, I’ll go say something.
He’s not. His back is turned, deep in a conversation. The moment is over. It was nothing. I’m embarrassed I had even thought he might be looking at me.
There was a time when I commanded a room. I know it. Five years ago, I was thirty pounds lighter and I was beautiful. People stopped me on the street to tell me so. I was shameless and bold, the combination of being blonde, young, drunk, and addicted to amphetamines. I used to walk down the street and lap up the attention. If I didn't get stared at enough, I’d take another trip around the block. I was starving myself and the only thing that filled me were men’s hungry eyes.
But now, long gone are the days of Adderall, alcohol too. Now, the most addictive substance I ingest is coffee.
For the most part, I don’t miss the person I used to be. I couldn’t have worked on Wall Street, or run marathons, or started writing if I hadn’t gotten help. My life got infinitely better once I started eating again and stopped drinking.
I only miss being thin at events like this. When I see the ghost of who I used to be, I imagine how the more confident and younger version of me would have worked the room. She’d have met someone interesting, written a story for the night worth retelling. She wouldn’t have stood here alone.
I stop myself there. Romanticizing that girl is dangerous.
I was sick. I ruined friendships, put myself in danger, got involved with bad people. I’ve been working like hell to rebuild my life. Therapy, 12-step programs, the whole gamut. That’s why I moved to Spain, the last step of the healing process. To go to the place I ruined myself and do it differently. Rewrite the story.
I’ve been careful to keep myself away from places that might endanger the progress I’ve made. I’m sober now. I go to bed early. Everything is under control. For the most part.
It’s in moments like these that I am reminded. No matter how much I change, there is a hunger I cannot shake.
The Monday after, I get a message on Instagram.
“I thought it was you.”
It’s a name I don’t recognize, but the account has 150,000 followers. I follow him.
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” I type back.
Maybe it’s some sort of growth hack, a clickbait DM to get more followers. Looking closer, I see it’s the guy from the party. I have no idea how he found me.
“Wait. I have so many questions,” I say.
He responds with a voice note.
“So this is a crazy story,” he starts.
He explains that before the opening, he looked at the gallery’s Instagram account and recognized my name among their followers. He didn’t know from where so he went to Facebook and saw that we were already friends.
I’m on my computer so I log into Facebook. I type in his name and there he is.
“Yeah so it’s just crazy. Because then I’m at the party telling my friend about this American girl I’m friends with on Facebook that I don’t remember meeting and I look up and you’re right there. You’re staring at me.”
I can’t figure out when he and I became Facebook friends. I scroll down his profile and don’t recognize anything, until I do. I go to our messages and there they are. Five years ago. January 2017. My first night in Barcelona as a study abroad student.
I remember him now, a far distant memory. A dark club. He had spotted me across the room. We chatted a bit. We made out by the big bright screen.
My memory is fuzzy. I was really drunk. Him grabbing my arm as I was leaving with my friends. Me rattling off my WhatsApp number that I didn’t know well. Him finding me on Facebook. I had blown him off when he tried to hang out again.
I go back to his Instagram profile. He’s famous in Barcelona now, a public figure, like he always wanted to be. It’s cool that he made his dream come true. I wonder what I would have said my dream was back then. I send him a voice note.
“Oh my god. This is wild. I’m reading our messages right now. I’m pretty sure we made out in a club. It was my first night in Barcelona.”
It’d be fun to see him again. At least for the story. We could tell people about how our eyes met across the room, something about how we were always meant to come back together. I know I don’t know him at all, but I can’t help imagining a happy ending.
“Want to get together and catch up? This is too funny,” I type.
He says yes, we should. I ask him when and where. He reads it but doesn’t respond. I know because I check every day. I almost message him again, but I use all my self-control not to. Don’t be desperate.
It’s weird how much being snubbed bothers me. I didn’t know this guy existed a day ago and now, getting an ending to this story is all I think about.
What I don’t let myself say out loud is that when I was a student here, stuff like this happened all the time. I met people at parties, on airplanes, at cafes. I always had a good story. I was interesting. People were interested in me.
That is what brought me back to Spain. The hunger for magic.
“Can you believe that?! He didn’t even respond. How could he not respond,” I cry.
“His loss,” she says. “Don’t force it. If it’s meant to happen, it will.”
My friend and I sip our lattes at our mid-week coffee date, rehashing our weekends. She’s the third person I’ve told about this guy. I need to stop talking about him.
We move onto our next most important topic, whether or not I should go to the Halloween party this Saturday. She'll be out of town, but she’s urging me to go. Keep my social streak alive. I decide to. I’m twenty-five, goddammit, I shouldn’t be so afraid of my life.
On Saturday, I change my outfit three times. I’m supposed to be at dinner already, but I’m in a vintage store buying an expensive corset. The woman at the store pulls it tightly around my ribs. It’s a bit suffocating, but it pulls my body into a shape I haven’t seen in years.
When I get to the party, I watch the VIP section fill with handsome guys and gorgeous women. I try not to feel hurt when the photographer doesn’t take my picture. I remind myself that’s not what I’m here for.
I go to the bathroom every thirty minutes, pulling the corset tighter and tighter on each trip.
The night flies. I haven’t been out in months but I’m not that tired, probably because I get a coffee each time my friends get a drink. We go to the bar upstairs to get water. I ask my friend about the girl he was dancing with.
And then I see him. The guy from the party. Behind my friend’s head, on the other side of the bar. He’s deep in a conversation. I position myself so he’ll see me, but he doesn’t. I do everything I can to not stare at him.
My friend is still talking to me and I realize I’ve been tuning him out. When I look back for the guy, he’s gone. Fuck.
My friend says he’s going to wait in line for the bathroom. My other friends say they’ll join him. They look at me, expectantly. I can’t say that I want to go downstairs and find the guy. But I can’t lose him. My friends leave for the line. I say I’ll meet them, that I think I left something downstairs.
I’m almost all the way down the stairs when my moral compass kicks in. I used to be this girl. I was the girl who ditched her friends to find a guy. I am not that girl anymore.
“Sorry,” I say to the people coming down behind me me as I turn around. I make my way back up the stairs towards the bathroom. I need to stop trying to control fate.
I pull out my phone to tell my friends that I’m coming back. Looking down, I nearly run straight into someone walking out of the doorway. I shove my phone into my purse and look up to apologize.
“Hi,” he says. His face is amused, but not surprised.
“Oh, hi!” I respond.
For a moment, I think that’s all it’s going to be. I can’t form words. We stare at each other.
“Well, this is crazy isn’t it,” I finally say. We step out of the way of the bathroom door. My friends see us talking. They know exactly who he is. They disappear downstairs.
I can feel myself trying to win him over. I want him to like me so badly. I hate myself for it, but there’s an urgency to the way I ask him questions, the way I laugh too hard at his jokes. He definitely has gotten better looking since we first met.
I can’t take my eyes off him, I’m searching for something in his face. As if he could transport me back to the girl I was when I met him, if I could save her myself.
People keep coming up to him to introduce themselves, to say hi. After the fifth interruption, he leads us over to sit in a booth in the closed restaurant, hidden from view.
“We can’t sit here, it’s closed,” I protest.
He shrugs and sits anyway. The manager comes over. We’re about to be busted, I start to pack up my purse.
“If you were sitting with any other person, I’d have to kick you out.”
The manager winks at him and gives him two drink tickets.
“You all good? You need anything?”
He shakes his head no and says thank you. I get the sense this happens to him a lot.
When the party starts to wind down, we step outside. Walking towards my apartment, our bodies lean towards each other. For the last ten minutes of our walk, I debate whether to invite him in. Is it more or less likely that I’ll see him again if he comes over? I fiddle with my keys.
“Do you want to come up?” I ask.
“Do you want me to?” he asks.
“Yes, I do.”
“I’d like that very much,” he says and we walk in.
We sit on the couch and I make us tea. We talk for a while, until almost six am. His eyes are drooping and I know I should go to bed. He says he’s going to go home and he stands up to leave.
He leaves without asking for my phone number and I know he’s not going to reach out to me again. Sometimes magic is only for a night.
I crawl into bed, ignoring the pit in my stomach. I got what I said I was hungry for, a story. I close my eyes, forcing the alternate ending out of my head. I got the story, yes, but not the one I would have written.
I don’t see him again, though I look.
Running into him was like seeing a ghost. Except I’m the one who is both haunting and haunted. To be recognized was to have my deepest prayer answered. I’m desperate to know what he saw. Did you recognize her, the girl I used to be? How much of her is left?
I said I was going to Spain to face my past, but I avoided any place where my past could find me. I stayed clear of friends and places that might have known the person I used to be. I don’t know what terrified me more, being recognized or having changed so much that I’m unrecognizable.
There is still a part of me that longs to be the beautiful girl who turned heads when she walked down the street. Who believes if I had just tried a bit harder, eaten a bit less, done it better, I could have made it that way.
This is the flaw with reinvention. We reinvent ourselves by abandoning the old selves. But I refused to evict her from my bones.
I check my messages, wondering if he’s going to reach out. He doesn’t. I see him only on social media. Eventually I mute him so I won’t see his posts. His lack of interest bothers me more than it should.
He’s just a guy. He’s good-looking, yes, powerful, famous. But it’s more than that, I know. He has the one thing I can’t give myself.
I know I’m trying to cheat. I want the shortcut. It’s easier to seek approval from others than to accept myself. This person who met me then and met me now, tell me I chose correctly. Tell me I buried the right person.
I want to reach back into the past and find us both. He became the person he always wanted to be. I’m not there yet, but I’m trying. God, I am trying.
Try as we might to bury our old selves, we can’t always get rid of the ghosts.
a note from sarah:
I tried a new format by jumping straight into the essay. Let me know if you prefer it like this— straight to the essay or if you want a soft lead-in with the quick hits.
As always, I’m so grateful for your readership. This one was intense to write. Please treat it with care.
Love you lots,
p.s. there’s now 500+ people reading this. welcome new readers. thank you everyone who has shared it.