A Letter To The Southern Boy Who Doesn’t Smile In Pictures

To the Southern boy who doesn’t smile in pictures,

I am sitting here staring at a passage by Rumi, unmotivated to write a paper about Persian mysticism if it means I need to write a single word about love. So I’ll just write you this letter.

“Your task is not to seek for love,” he wrote, “but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”

It has been a little over a year since you left New York without saying goodbye to me, and I am scared. I am scared because in two months, you will return. I am scared to see how the year has changed you. The year is worn on the face like an unwanted mask. I know that it has changed me. I spent two years trying to find and break those barriers in you. This is probably when we should cue the Dido album, preparing to face our mutual regrets. I refuse to cry.

You are the type of guy the girls used to pinch during recess. I wish I knew you then, when you had those huge glasses and played with He-Man figurines. Your mother let a nine year old wear a bow tie. We used to talk about what this would have been like, had we known each other. We ignored the age difference in this fantasy. We decided that we would go to Wafflehouse after school and order anything but waffles, everything but waffles. Then, we would ride our bikes in the rain, feeling like we were living on the edge.

But in reality, you took so much from me. What can I say? I was so eager to give.

I guess I should fill you in on what happened to me this year.

I witnessed my grandmother go through so many rounds of chemotherapy, she lost all feeling in her fingers. It’s called neuropathy. She lost her hair and was unable to feel burning sensations when she cooked for herself.

A friend of mine died in a skiing accident one day before my twenty-first birthday. I try to block this from memory.

I went to Maui. I wanted to stay in Maui. I returned home from Maui.

I spent my birthday at Pastis watching the World Cup and drinking mimosas. Then I went to the Museum of Modern Art. You know I love Jackson Pollock.

I questioned my own questioning of faith. As an abstract, the notion of god is really appealing. But still, I see nothing. What can I say, you prepared me to question doubt.

I saw a photograph—I forget by whom, someone famous—of a Buddhist monk immolating himself to protest the Vietnam War. I couldn’t sleep for a week.

I re-read the Odyssey. My favorite part is when Odysseus lies to Polyphemus, the cyclops, and tells him that his name is Nobody. When he blinds Polyphemus, he shouts out in pain. When the other cyclopses ask him what is wrong, he says that Nobody has blinded him.


I am no longer jealous, but I am no longer hopeful.

I’ve been seeing people, but the truth is, if you had asked me to save myself for you, I probably would have.

I learned that the most heartbreaking question to ask is: who is he? (Surely nobody.) You were in Georgia; I was in New York. You never felt so far away than in that moment. I never felt so tired in my life. Then you answered, and I drank gin for three days straight.

You went to Europe with him for three weeks.

I woke up this morning and realized that I no longer remember the way you smell.

What happened? (Nobody. No longer.) I was so eager to give. I wanted to stay in Maui. Cue the Dido album. I re-read and re-read the Odyssey. Lost all feeling in her fingers. Who is he? I probably would have remembered the way you smelled. But you were in Georgia and I drank gin for three days straight. I couldn’t sleep for a week. I try to block this from my memory.

It’s so easy to think of how it should have happened. You should have seen Paris for the first time with me by your side. You should have kissed me that afternoon in May when our arms touched, briefly. You should have called me on my birthday, my twenty-first, a milestone. (You were just busy, I told myself. I understood.) And I know whenever I speak like this, it bothers you. I know that you think I get on a high horse, as if I know what you should have done, but I never claim to know. I don’t know now. I didn’t then.

I never knew anything other than the fact that I wanted to break down the barriers you had set up. You told me that you are afraid that you will hurt me, or I will hurt you. You say things like “this reminded me of us.” You cried when I told you that I didn’t realize it was a romance then, before it should have been. I don’t want to accept defeat, but I’ve noticed something telling lately. I no longer let people borrow my books. It seems like I’m learning to build my own barriers. I can’t fall asleep unless I’m alone in bed. So I leave afterwards. I don’t sleep over. Always, now.

What becomes of us now? I’m scared for you to return because I don’t want to find out. It is no longer my task to seek. You move back to New York in two months, but you no longer smile in pictures. Have you built a new barrier since I’ve seen you last? Who is that man I see in the pictures?


Joseph Cassara is a writing student at Columbia University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Eclectica Magazine, The Eye, Quarto, PANK Magazine, and Electric Literature’s The Outlet. He live ...read more


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