Emily, from New York
by Jessie Katz
Emily and I had been broken up for ten days when we chose to still go on vacation together for my 35th birthday. This last breakup, our second, had been gentler than the one before. We had given it a second shot; the old problems—my reticence to be all in, her yearning for an intangible more—still persisted and late one night as we were climbing into bed, an argument about how I hadn’t bought us tickets to a Harry Potter screening became a siren song calling back all the issues we had been avoiding all summer. Agreeing that neither of us could change, we called things off for good - everything but the trip to Cape Cod we had planned, and both still very much wanted to take.
My friends immediately sounded the alarm on our plan, positive that Emily would misconstrue my intentions for us, or that we would end up undoing a smart decision. But as Emily slid into my car to head east she seemed not at all nervous to be going away together, and the more we chatted about everything-but-the-breakup the more I relaxed about it, too. Once we were humming along I-95 Emily absentmindedly reached out and ran her fingers through my hair. The air caught in my lungs and she realized what she was doing. "Is this okay?" she asked, her fingers hovering above me mid-stroke, ready to resume or retreat. "Of course," I said, fighting back butterflies I wasn’t supposed to have anymore.
At that point only my parents and younger relatives knew I had started dating women; after I accepted my aunt’s invitation to come stay at her summer house with “a friend,” I let my cousins inform their mom that it was actually my girlfriend who’d be joining me. Some of this information quickly reached my grandmother via the Jewish family grapevine, of course. “How do you know this Emily going to the Cape with you?” she asked me. “Um, from New York?” I responded lamely, as if the city had formed her out of its ether. This was in a way true; though we had met on Tinder, and Emily was a California girl at heart, we had enjoyed such an immediate easiness with each other that it felt as if she had probably always been one twist (or swipe) of fate away.
We arrived in the muggy pitch black of the Cape in August to a warm greeting from my aunt. The three of us sat in the living room drinking wine and catching up on family business: my grandfather's funeral; my uncle's reconciliation with his death, and mine. Emily nodded along as if I had already shared all this with her; I started to realize that I hadn’t. My aunt excused herself to bed and Emily and I followed suit. At the top of the staircase we looked left and right at the empty guest rooms, and after a few whispers of “what do you think?” and “what do you think?” we fell into the same bed. It felt like a casual decision, an epilogue fling, but it would become much more. It was our breakup honeymoon.
The next day we ate lobster rolls and strolled along the bay. An impending storm over the ocean had cast an eerie, iridescent light over everything. Emily hugged my arm as we walked and said sadly, “This reminds me of ‘San Junipero.’” I remembered that was an episode of Black Mirror she had asked me to watch, and only later would I understand the connection she made between us and that story of time-traveling, queer romance. In a way we were time traveling - we were having a relationship in reverse, with an end comprised of firsts. With nothing at stake, we had nothing to lose. So we took a shower together for the first time. We browsed a sex shop together for the first time. And, for better or worse, we said “I love you” for the first time.
It happened on our third night there, after going out for a proper Cape date to seafood dinner and live music at a beach bar. On the dance floor, New England bros in polo shirts and Sox hats took stock of the lesbian couple from under their curved bills. We left their glances to go play pinball; the light from the machine lit Emily’s face so beautifully that I took a picture and posted it on Instagram. I think it was the first picture I ever posted of her, too.
Back in our room, wine drunk and tinkering with my new Polaroid camera, I said something that caused Emily to start crying for reasons I didn’t understand. “Do you even know what you said?” she demanded. I did not, as had often happened when we were dating, so I just held her as she cried, and as I did I felt a swell of emotion that I knew I should bury as deep as I could. Instead, I did the worst thing I could: I told her, for the very first time, that I loved her. It wasn’t just the first time I told her that; it was the first time I told anyone I was dating that. My first girlfriend, though no longer. She said it back, but barely. I think she knew better.
I woke up the next morning with Emily’s naked back to me, a tattoo of the female symbol etched between her shoulder blades. I remembered waking up to that same image after the first time we ever slept together. It had been four days after Trump was elected and as I gazed upon my sleeping new lover I was amused by how revolutionary, almost defiantly patriotic it felt to be in bed with a woman in the face of the new administration. Emily would later tell me she had worried that our new relationship could never survive it.
On our final day, we made the obligatory pilgrimage to Provincetown, the gay mecca of the East Coast. After careening through narrow streets crowded with queer couples and children wearing “I love my moms” tees, we parked beneath the Pilgrim Monument where I made Emily pose in front of a sign reading “This way, out,” which I found hilarious - maybe because in P-town we were finally able to be so very out. So out that, strolling back to our car after dinner, we stopped outside a bar where we could hear a band inside playing “You Don’t Know Me” and slow danced in the street. When we got back to the house, Emily told me in the dark: “It doesn’t really help to say it, but I want you to know that I do really love you, too.”
And then it was time to go home. As we made our way back to Brooklyn, we struggled to keep intimacy trapped inside the car with us for as long as possible. Things we talked about: Dream jobs we lusted after. Whether or not we could ever date men again. Things we did not talk about: the girl I met before Emily, who had briefly but permanently led me unblinkingly out of the closet. Her weight on us finally felt undetectable, though I wondered if she had seen my Instagram post.
I suggested we stop for New Haven’s famous clam pizza, looking for any excuse to delay our return. As I turned off the car Emily kissed me and we began making out, then furtively having sex, barely taking the time to unbuckle our seatbelts. It was hot; it was a desperate last act.
After dinner, I stopped in the bathroom and sat in the stall anxiously wondering what would become of us in two hours. I pulled out my phone, which I had neglected for most of our trip. There was a text from a girl I had gone out with once while Emily and I were broken up the first time. She wanted to hang out again. Sensing a lifeline, I sent her a flirty text back and immediately felt ashamed.
Back in the car, each mile closer to home brought fewer words spoken between us, and when the city skyline finally appeared we weren’t speaking at all. Emily gripped my hand in hers. It didn’t feel like the past few days we spent holding hands, soft, playful. This time they were frozen in place.
We pulled up outside of Emily’s building. I started crying as Emily watched, dry-eyed. Another first.
“You know I’m here for you,” Emily said, her hand already on the door handle. I nodded. Cardi B’s “Bodack Yellow” came blaring out of a car parked just up the block and we were back in the grips of the city. Summertime in New York always held on for as long as it could.
But Emily was ready to let go, and I swallowed my urge to never let her.
Jessie Katz (she/her) is a podcast executive living and remote working in Brooklyn with her dog-turned-coworker Alvy. Former host of Billboard's Soul Sisters podcast and The Female Gaze podcast, Jessie has also created web series, short films and music videos under her production banner Piano Factory Pictures. Follow her on Instagram @thejkatz.