Nonfiction Finalist Ellen Goodlett

Jul 18, 2016 by

Nonfiction Finalist Ellen Goodlett

Stealing the Story Back


“Are you sure you don’t need more time to think about this?” asked my friend while I studied the tattoo she’d drawn. She was worried I might regret this. Understandable.

But after ten years of waiting, I finally knew what I needed to do. “I’m sure,” I replied.

Ten years earlier, I was a nerdy, never-been-kissed 15-year-old discovering my first online roleplaying game. The concept was simple: you made up characters, you wrote stories about them, and elsewhere in the world, other people wrote stories about their characters too. Sometimes those stories overlapped.

This was before online dating apps, back when the only accounts you heard of people meeting online were horror stories. True, it was easy to hide my identity online. But it was also easier to open up―to write the character I wanted to be in real life. An outgoing, spunky girl who always had the right comeback. I started flirting with another character, played by a boy named John. It helped me gain confidence, but I never expected it to affect my real life.

Then, early one Christmas morning, I turned on the game to discover that John had given my character a present―the kind you had to pay real money for. It was a small gesture, yet it said so much. 3,500 miles away in England, a boy my age had spent actual hard-earned cash just to make me, a girl he had never physically met, smile.

I didn’t have the money to return the favor. Instead I wrote him a story about my character crafting a pair of magic lockets that lit up whenever one of us thought about the other. That evening, he wrote a story in response. One about kissing the girl he loved. At home in my suburban Pittsburgh bedroom, while Mom yelled at me to come down for Christmas dinner, I put my hands to my lips and imagined, for a second, that his story was real.

Four years and countless love emails later, John and I finally met in person. On the banks of the Thames one chilly London evening, full moon overhead, both of us shivery from nerves as much as from the cold, that story did become real.

By then, I was convinced that this wasn’t just any story. This was It. The One True Love Story I’d dreamt of ever since my discovery of epic fantasy romances at age twelve. Never mind the distance or our inability to legally live or work in one another’s countries. Those were just the Seemingly Insurmountable Obstacles the heroic couple must face, hand-in-hand, before reaching their Happily Ever After.

We spent the next three years scrounging every penny for transcontinental flights. We managed to see each other four times a year, for a couple weeks at a time. The rest of our lives felt like wasted months, days we had to slog through to reach those shining visits when we were both completely alive.

I met his friends and family; he met mine. One of our friends from the game visited us in John’s hometown, where she met and eventually married John’s childhood buddy. Every trip, every step brought us closer to our goal: a real life together, no commuting necessary.

In December of my senior year of college, John proposed―though not before double-checking at least ten times beforehand that I would say yes. I found his insecurity adorable.

But once the ring was on my finger and the congratulations started pouring in, John began to act strange. Every time I brought up the future, he’d change the subject. The more wedding plans I made, the more he talked about new jobs he was applying to in the UK. The more I talked about our future in New York (where we’d agreed to move for a couple years before returning to England), the deeper he dug himself into the present. Pretty soon every conversation felt like a chore. Did you file the extra paperwork for the visa, dear? I hated myself for nagging him. I’d rather have been playing online Scrabble together or watching a movie over the webcam. But transcontinental moves wouldn’t plan themselves.

I believed in the power of the story we’d written. A couple more months of suffering and then we’d be married, in the same country, able to relax at last and enjoy the rest of our lives together. I didn’t yet realize that I was the only one still writing this story. He was just reading along.

Two months before our wedding, John confessed he was having doubts. I flew there to talk to him in person. He told me he loved me and could never break up with me, but the timing wasn’t right. He hadn’t saved up enough money. Maybe in six months. Maybe in a year.

I understood that moving halfway around the world was terrifying, especially when it involved quitting your job and financially relying on your romantic partner. All the self-help guidebooks will tell you that’s a terrible idea. Then again, the guidebooks also tell you that long-distance dating, loving someone you’ve never met, and teen romances are terrible ideas. You can’t go by the book. You have to write your own.

We were so close to making our story work. Our dreams seemed compatible. He wanted to live abroad for a bit and then go home. I wanted to settle down in England. I saw our whole bright future in my mind―far clearer than the present, which I plodded through like a trial to overcome.

What good would it do to wait another year, I asked him? What would change this year that hadn’t changed in the last seven years that we’d been trying to make this happen?

Our wedding had been a deadline. After that day, the waiting was supposed to end. Real life was supposed to start. Instead, John volunteered us for another twelve months of uncertainty. I told him I had to know then, not a year in the future. Did he want to be with me or not?

He wanted to, he said. But he couldn’t. It was too hard.

We stayed in touch. After seven years of constant daily communication via every social media, cellular and online venue out there, John was more than a lover or a friend to me. He was a habit. All through the long months of mutual hard drinking that followed our breakup, we messaged daily. And a year later, when John started dating a new girl, I let him complain to me about all the ways she wasn’t me.

I wanted to be his confidante, the one he could always rely on. And, deep down, I didn’t believe our story was over. Love stories like ours didn’t have bad endings. If I kept being his best friend, someday he’d realize what he threw away. Someday he would appear on my doorstep, begging for forgiveness and saying he’d loved me all along. Someday he’d fight for us.

It almost happened. Three years after our breakup, I was in England for a friend’s wedding. He dumped his girlfriend before taking the train to London to see me. We met on that same riverbank, and he told me that he’d always loved me, that no one else compared, that she was nothing next to me. Everything I wanted to hear.

I recited my lines too―I’d never stopped loving him, I hadn’t dated anyone since our breakup, nobody else could compete. All true. But something had changed in the past three years. Now, standing in front of the man who had ripped my heart from my chest, I found myself wondering why nobody else compared. What made us special now?

I knew why we first fell in love. We could talk until the middle of the night about our goofy daydreams, jokes nobody else understood. We knew from halfway around the world when one of us was upset just by how many periods we’d type at the end of a text.

Nowadays all we talked about were fights with his girlfriend or the awful dating scene in New York. Nowadays, when I asked him about his dreams, he said he hated thinking and tried not to anymore. But it was his mind I loved, so where did that leave me?

We only had one day together. We held hands and talked about visiting each other again in a few months. Both of us tried desperately to pretend the passion we’d felt years ago still burned. We kissed goodbye in the train station, and he swore it would not be the last time we saw each other.

Two weeks later, he announced he was getting back with his ex-girlfriend. And I, for the first time in the 10 years we’d known each other, told him I needed space. I cut off contact, deleted him from my online accounts. It hurt, but not as much this time. Scars are thick-skinned.

Weeks later, early one sweltering August afternoon in Brooklyn, I held my shirt up in front of the mirror at my friend’s tattoo parlor. The stencil glistened on my skin, ready to be colored in: an image of the locket my character once gave John’s, melting into smoke.

“It’s perfect,” I said.

It might seem strange to want a symbol from a relationship permanently inked onto your body only after that relationship has permanently ended. But as I felt the first bite of the needle against my ribcage, I focused on what this tattoo meant to me. Back when John and I were dating, we read a novel in which the main character breaks into her former lover’s house to steal back her heart (literally, as it had been sequestered, still-beating, in a closet).

This tattoo was me stealing it back. It was me writing the ending to our story.

This wasn’t my One True Love Story. It was a love story, and it was true. But most of us have more than one story to tell. I’ll always have this one on my shelf to reread someday when I’m ready.

Now it’s time to write a new one.


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Ellen Goodlett is a globetrotting young adult novelist whose short stories have appeared in Athena’s Daughters: Volume II, 27: A Comic Anthology, Girls’ Night Out: The Way Love Goes, and various online publications.

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