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LaLa Land

A week of falling out of love, told backwards

By Suze KayPublished 3 months ago Updated 3 months ago 8 min read
Top Story - March 2024

Steven takes me to see LaLa Land the day after Ellie leaves New Haven. He's seen it already, but that's ok: he'll love it all the more for seeing it again. He promises. In the uber to the theater, he gushes over Ryan Gosling. I stare in numb horror at the conspicuous neon glare of my hospital socks through the straps of my Birkenstocks.

We make a lopsided pair. He’s in a pea coat and raw denim jeans. He strolls into the theater with confidence, swinging a bottle of wine from a spindly arm. I hobble after him, my hair a rat’s nest, my sweater stained.

We watch the movie and he drinks the wine and I, smothered in percocet, start to cry. Sobs tear from my chest, audible in the theater’s gentle-sniffle hush. Steven looks aghast, but there's a schadenfreudic element in the twist of his mouth.

"Oh my god. You need to calm down," he hisses, hunching in his seat, recoiling from the stares of other watchers. "It's about to get worse."

And he's right, because onscreen, the lovers are dreaming. They're meeting each other again in a music hall and their life is spinning out in front of them; their would've-could’ve-should’ve world, and isn’t it just beautiful? They spin across cafes and mountains together. They hold one another. And watching them leave that dream, return to the unstellar arms that hold them in the sweaty bar where they're singing, smiling sadly, walking away from each other and from the dream, and here I am, knowing it's Wrong, oh my god it's Wrong, this dream means it's meant to be, this dream —

By Kalea Jerielle on Unsplash

Ellie takes me for a walk after I’m discharged from the hospital. I haven't pooped in a week, and I’ve been told I only have 24 more hours of leeway before another surgery is necessary. So we go out for a slow wander to get things moving while I chug a Gatorade mixed with laxative powder, trying to rehydrate my bowels. Fentanyl does that, apparently — absorbs any fluid the body has left to give. I feel like a forgotten onion, just a wrinkled husk. Like if anyone touches me too hard my skin will collapse and puff out spores.

The sun is too bright, but I didn’t think to bring my sunglasses. I haven't thought much at all for a week. I squint and pant as we walk up a hill, gesturing vaguely to a bench before us. Ellie grips my elbow and helps me lower myself to its surface.

"Thank you," I whisper to her, suddenly overcome by the tenderness of that action.

"Always," she replies.

"I mean --" I flap my hands, unable to capture the words I'm grasping for. "For more. For coming."

"I know." She rubs my shoulder as I sniffle, overcome with an emotion I can hardly name. She dropped her life in NYC, her thesis undone, her classes unattended, to get me through this. She showed up for me, and the word I’m looking for is ‘love.’

We sit in silence for a while. All around us in the air, something is twinkling. A coldness lands on my hand, dissolving in a little puddle at my heat. It's snow.

The sky is blue, the temperature mild. All the same, a thick flurry of snowflakes collects in Ellie's hair and my eyelashes, resting for the briefest moments on cement and grass before disappearing.

"Is this real?" I ask.

Ellie laughs and nods, tipping out her long tongue to catch a flake mid-drift. It's all real. The good and the bad, all the same.

By Diogo Brandao on Unsplash

My mom calls Ellie the day after my last surgery. I wake up, at least enough to open my eyes.

"How are you feeling?" she asks, clicking off her iPad.

"Better, I think," I say. My mouth feels stuffed with tissue. The wound — I twist my legs, waiting for the familiar pulse of pain. There it is. The wound, I can tell, is actually packed with gauze. "Did it work?"

"Yes. You’ll be discharged tomorrow." She smiles and strokes my hair. My mother is never so affectionate as when I'm ill. She used to say she knew when I was getting sick because I'd get more cuddly. She’d say the germs wanted to share. Now, I think it was she who reached out first, whose instincts guided her to ward off my pain and take it for herself. Because she’s still here to touch me, even when I’m not contagious and I’m unable to squirm into her lap.

She talks me through my aftercare protocol. I'll have a standing appointment in the clinic every morning for the next two weeks. A doctor will pull a yard-long spool of quarter-inch gauze from the incision site on my labia. Then he will refill the cavity with a fresh length in a series of short, sharp tweezer-pokes. Each one will be agonizing. Each one will puncture my opioid veil. But I'll find that out later, and I'll forget my mother has told me this.

I watch my IV drip.

"So that's why I've called Ellie," she continues, shaking my hand a little. I return my focus to her face. "I have a meeting I haven’t canceled yet tomorrow morning. I could stay but..." she trails off. "Well, you're just sleeping. I don't think you need me."

I nod. "You should go," I say, and I mean it. "I'm ok." I can see the worry melting off her.

Her daughter's ok. I'll live, and we'll both be fine. I think if I could feel anything at this moment, I'd feel relieved too.

Beside me, face down, my phone is quiet. Maybe it's dead. I fall asleep again.

By Kristine Wook on Unsplash

I wake up alone and on fire in the recovery room. Oh, my god. I'm broken. It’s breaking me. I whimper, then scream. A nurse waddles in.

"Awake, are ya?" she asks with a jolly grin. I babble something about pain. "I'll get you sorted," she promises. She brandishes a syringe and injects my arm before disappearing again.

There are no windows. There's a clock but I can't read it. And oh my god, there's the pain. I can no longer tell where it is — if it's on my leg or my pussy or my stomach — because all my nerves are screaming. It's wrong wrong wrong and where's my mom? She said she'd be here.

I guess I ask the woman, because she looks annoyed. She's come back, I don't know when. "I told you already. You can't see your mom until you calm down." She pulls out another syringe.

I no longer care where my mom is. I no longer care about the pain. If I really drift with it, I no longer care about breathing.

Alarms scream by my bedside. "God damnit," the woman mutters, pressing buttons angrily.

God is an interesting thought. I wonder if he took my bargain. I guess there wasn't anything better waiting for me, after all.

"Breathe," the woman instructs me. She's been repeating that. It's annoying. "Breathe, or you can't see your mom."

Oh. I do want that. I want to hug my mom again.

I breathe.

By Holly Peddie on Unsplash

The morning before my last surgery, I watch the sun rise over Grove Street Cemetery. The long-term rooms at Yale Health all face the graveyard, a view I found morbid when they first wheeled me in. Now, it’s beautiful. Especially like this, dew glinting in the grass, tall crypts gilded in yellow sheets of dawn.

It feels like I look forever and the sun stays pinned in the same place: caught between the wings of a stone angel. It feels like if I keep looking, time will stay stopped. I’ll stay right here, and I won’t have to face what’s next. But I blink first, and the sun jumps up. I’m almost lucid — I have fifteen minutes before the nurse comes in to refill my IV bag. Between my legs, the pain is mounting. There’s an abscess growing there, festering at the top of my right labial lip.

It started as a razor bump. Glen has never quite insisted on me shaving, but his preferences have been made clear, and I am nothing if not pliant. We’ve been broken up for a year, technically, but it’s his text I’m always waiting for. It’s him who welcomed me back to campus on our first night back from winter break, who touched me over a cut so small I hardly noticed it.

It healed quickly. But the infection had already snuck in, raising a welt, heating my skin, swelling the soft flesh like an overripe pear. They’ve cut into me already, many times. After two misdiagnoses, one failed surgery, three biopsies, and an ultrasound, they’ve finally concluded I have MRSA complicated by cellulitis. In the week they’ve taken to figure this out, the abscess has grown to the size of a golf ball. I’ve been immobilized by the spreading infection, kept placid by alternating doses of fentanyl and ketamine.

Today, they’ll cut me again. They’ll drain me. I stare into the sun and feel all the pain of being alive and alone.

God? I call in my head. If this is what it’s like, I don’t want it. If I don’t get better, don’t make me stay.

My phone buzzes. My heart contracts. It’s just my mom, saying she won’t reach New Haven until the surgery begins. But she’ll be there when I wake up. She promises.

By Tatiana Briday on Unsplash

All through that long week, time does funny things. I know people visit. My brother writes emails to my professors. Steven brings me a book I can’t read. My roommate brings me underwear I can’t wear. I float through it all, tethered to my IV pole, drifting through days and nights like water.

The only constant is the burrowing burn of my labia, and the string of unanswered text messages I whip off to Glen whenever my fingers can connect long enough with my brain to string the words together.

Can u come? Plz?

I sleep. I dream.

In the dream, Glen brings me flowers. He kneels by the bed and lays his head on the scratchy coverlet while I yell at him.

“I needed you here,” I sob. “It hurts so much and I just wanted you here.”

“I know,” he says. “But I’m here now. Please, I’m here and I’ll stay, I promise.”

He holds my hand and doesn’t let go. He’s stroking my hair, he’s there in the recovery room, he’s lifting me into an Uber to take me home, he’s bringing me coffee in bed. We’re going on dates when I’m up for it. We’re doing homework together. We’re kissing on a dance floor. We’re looking for an apartment, we’re fighting over where we want to live, we’re making up and it’s all so tender. We graduate. We move to New York City. It isn’t perfect, because nothing real is, but I’m so in love I could just burst with it, and isn’t that perfect? Isn’t that how life should feel?

A nurse jostles my arm, slipping a blood pressure cuff around my bicep. I shoot out of the dream and back into January. The cuff tightens. My throat, too, as I grope for my phone and look for six months of text messages that don’t exist. Look for anything new from Glen. Nothing. Tears well and drip and drip and drip.

The nurse clicks her tongue. “Oh, honey, does it hurt? This will help.” She hangs a fresh IV bag and turns a dial. It drips and drips and drips.

The phone falls from my fingers. I fall back to the pillow.

But before I lose myself, I feel a ripple of revelation: If I want love like in my dream, then it won’t be with Glen. Because the man I’m missing showed up, and the one I know won’t even text me back.

I let go.


About the Creator

Suze Kay

Pastry chef by day, insomniac writer by night.

Find here: stories that creep up on you, poems to stumble over, and the weird words I hold them in.

Or, let me catch you at

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Comments (22)

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  • Andrea Corwin 3 months ago

    Great story! Sounds horrible but at least it brought you the right frame of mind.❣️

  • Suze, you have such a gift for crafting stories that captivate readers and genuinely take them on a journey of love, suffering, and self-discovery.

  • Cyrus3 months ago

    Congrats on TS!

  • Deji Akomolafe3 months ago

    You had me glued to the end

  • Veronica Wren3 months ago

    Oh my goodness I was so moved by this story it feels as though I lived it along with you. Congratulations on making Top Story, you absolutely deserve it! Sending the biggest hug and heartbroken solidarity for what you went through.

  • sleepy drafts3 months ago

    Yesssss!!! Back to say HUGE congratulations on Top Story!! 👏🏻💓💗

  • LASZLO SLEZAK3 months ago

    Excellent read

  • Anna 3 months ago

    Congrats on Top Story!🥳🥳🥳

  • Test3 months ago

    WOW- Took me a minute to get around to but am currently a snivelling mess. Beautifully told. And pain gave way to a much need revelation. Not sure which part made me cry the most. The hope without him or his careless disregard x

  • Hayley Matto3 months ago

    In tears, absolutely powerful piece Suze. I commend you not just for sharing this vulnerable piece with us, but for growing and coming out the brutal end of something so painful. Simply, wow. This is incredibly written and hits the nail right on the head, in explaining that internal emotional turmoil can hurt us far worse then any physical pain ever could. You should be so proud of getting through this and for getting it up and out of you and shared with the world. Only love and healing to you Suze! 🤍

  • It does get worse before it gets better. The reality has to settle in & be accepted before we can move forward. Incredibly well-told, Suze.

  • Kenny Penn3 months ago

    Suze, I fully expect this story to be entered into this years annual awards. I’m blown away. This story is so moving, so tragically beautiful and well written, and the concept of writing it backwards is nothing short of spectacular. I found myself feeling like crying, angry, nauseous, and so many other emotions I can’t describe. I can’t say enough about this wonderful piece

  • Randy Baker3 months ago

    What an engrossing story. Very well-written, Suze!

  • Jay Kantor3 months ago

    Dear Suze~Q - UnRequitedLove such a Bitch to Sniffle at. Such a lovely rendition re; an affliction we've all encountered; at one time or another. Jay, Jay Kantor, Chatsworth, California 'Senior' Vocal Authorr - Vocal Village Community

  • Lindsay Sfara3 months ago

    My heart is shattered. This is beautiful storytelling and really hit me in ways I didn't expect. Well done, seriously!

  • Test3 months ago

    This is completely engrossing all the way through. It's sad and empowering. I loved your main character, a little rough around the edges but also in love with someone who didn't want her. Wow. Well done

  • John Cox3 months ago

    Suze, this is simply heart wrenching, extraordinary writing. It’s the best story that I have read on Vocal and one of the best I have ever read period.

  • Cathy holmes3 months ago

    This is beautifully written, so filled with honesty, emotion, and finally realization. Well done..

  • sleepy drafts3 months ago

    Suze, I simply do not have words. My whole heart. This is incredible, honest, meticulously told/structured, and heart-wrenching. This is a profound examination of love. Thank you so much for opening up and writing about this. Really, Suze - I wish I could find more words. You've left me speechless with this one. 💗

  • Excellent read. Steven is a nasty piece of work, well rid of. The poor dear… such agony that can’t easily be eased nor healed!

  • Test3 months ago

    Suze your writing skillfully weaves together a poignant and immersive narrative

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