“Isaac, it’s me. I wish I could talk to you. I’m sorry, I’m sorry about everything. I wish I could just talk to someone. It’s all falling apart here. I can’t believe what’s happening. It’s strange. Such a little thing…”
Nicole’s voice cuts out as her face disintegrates into the static. This is the message that brings Isaac Clarke to the USG Ishimura. Isaac is silently hoping that he can find Nicole on board and fix whatever went wrong with the (relation)ship.
The rogue transmission that pulled me into a perilous orbit wasn’t a video log; it was a letter. Low-tech. Such a little thing.
The first word of the return address was enough to make me dizzy: “Natalie.” Natalie. I had last seen her face through the window of a slammed car door and, even though it was twisted by the pain of our separation, I needed to memorize its features before she drove away.
Natalie and I had been in one of those obnoxiously cute relationships, a made-for-montage romance. We dyed our hair the same color on a whim. We played guitar and sang silly love songs. And on summer nights, we
would spread out my blanket on the soccer field at Brigham Young University and watch movies on her laptop until the sprinklers came on.
A year and a half later, I gathered the courage to tell her that I could feel myself falling away from the Church that she loved. The sudden distance that arose between us was quickly deemed insurmountable. It was over. I withdrew from BYU at the next semester break and went home to New Jersey.
Her letter—postmarked four months after our breakup—was much like Nicole’s video log: a cautious invitation to reconnect weighed down by a profound and unspecified expression of regret. But it was enough to pull me in.
“Don’t worry, we’re almost there. You’ll be able to look her up once we’re on board. Sounds like you two have a lot of catching up to do.”
Kendra’s reassurances are trite, hurried. She has a job to do and Isaac’s love life warrants a comment but nothing more.
“And so this is your big reunion?”
His breath smelled like the four Bloody Marys he had downed over the course of the flight but he was genuinely (if drunkenly) invested in my story.
After reading the letter, Natalie and I had talked things over on the phone. We had convinced ourselves that we might be able to work it out. I could abide by the behavioral guidelines of Mormonism and suspend my disbelief. Maybe, I thought at the time, I could even believe again. I scheduled a visit to Utah, my triumphant return.
We landed and Mr. Bloody Mary wished me good luck. Natalie was waiting for me.
“Run, Isaac! Get the hell out of there!”
Horror is what happens when the unreal suddenly becomes real, when the unspeakable gets spoken, when the unforeseeable invades the present. For Isaac Clarke, horror describes the moment when grotesque creatures
clamber out of the air ducts and decimate his small repair team.
For me, horror was the moment when Natalie said it was over. Again.
According to romantic comedy logic, I had done everything right: We had broken up over what we mistakenly thought was an irreconcilable difference but really, if I just came back and deplaned dramatically enough, we could make it work. Sheer force of will would surely dissolve that pesky difference.
But if this was a comedy, it was a comedy as black as the night over Provo canyon. That’s where we went after my flight so that we could make out (as chastely as we Mormons could). We kissed as passionately as ever but something was askew. We talked for hours but we could both trace the outlines of things left unsaid. We cuddled but we couldn’t manage to get close enough.
It took less than forty-eight hours for the attempt to fail, for us to realize that some burned bridges could not be rebuilt. I slammed the car door (again). I memorized Natalie’s face for the last time (again).
I used to laugh at the way in which hapless horror protagonists unwittingly end up in the same predicament, sequel after sequel. I don’t laugh at that anymore. I know how it happens.
“Moment of truth, Isaac! Who am I? Am I your friend? Your lover? The one shred, one light, one bright, shining star you clung to in this Universe? Or am I your guilt? Crushing the life out of you because you can’t get over the fact that I’m dead? That you feel responsible? Who. Am. I?! Why do you keep fighting me? Why can’t you let go?”
“Because you were my everything. And if I let you go, I’ve got nothing left.”
Like Isaac, I saw her everywhere. Reality was a thing that had happened in my past and my present was now a waking dream filled with memories of her. I deleted every photo, erased every e-mail, eradicated every proof of her existence. But memory is superhuman; it persists all the more stubbornly when you cut off its oxygen.
I was creating reminders of Natalie as fast as I was deleting them. I wrote songs—dozens of them—all about her. They fell into three genres: missing her, hating her and imagining a new life with someone just like her. Songwriting was the strange alchemy whereby I converted my sinking sense of absence and loss into tiny sonic presences, little signs of life amid the rubble.
But what would happen if I moved on, if I could move on? What would I write about? Who would I sing to? I didn’t want Natalie back anymore; that wasn’t the point of this maudlin display. I held on because I didn’t know who I was apart from my wounds.
“Step four: acceptance. Now you’re ready to finish this.”
But if the Universe can explode out of nothingness, if forms of life can persist without heat, without water, without soil, without sun, I could exist too. Ex nihilo.
“A lot happened that we never wanted… Isaac, touch me.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Isaac, please, make us whole.”
It happened every time I got in my car and looked over at the empty passenger seat, every time I heard a love song, every time my phone rang, every time an e-mail arrived in my inbox. Warm tendrils would crawl into my brain and they knew exactly where to go. Wrapping themselves around my longing, my need, my addiction, they would tug. Gently.
“Come back and feel our sorrow,” they whispered.
I knew what would happen if I let them take me back. If I refused to dress my wounds, I could stave off the inevitable staleness of my songwriting. I could dwell in the brutality of that moment of separation forever, layering millions of lyrical clichés over millions of minor chord progressions, rehearsing my loss ad nauseam. Feeling awful was better than feeling nothing at all. It was better than coping with the inexorable emptiness of moving on. I knew I couldn’t go back. I couldn’t make us whole.
“This is gonna hurt, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Step inside.”
With Natalie still haunting me, I underwent a major surgery. My heart, apparently, was just as broken literally as it was figuratively.
Before my surgery, I was showing up for an hour of church services each Sunday to keep my devout Dad happy but, afterward, I stopped altogether. The phrase “life is too short” had taken on a new meaning in light of recent events and I decided to retire from keeping up appearances.
As soon as I could move around again, I sent in my official resignation from the Mormon Church. Dad, who was also the local leader of my congregation, had to process it.
“You realize this decision has eternal consequences,” he gravely intoned, my resignation letter in his hands as we sat on the side of my bed.
I took that moment to reflect on the year’s many happy returns: I had lost the person I loved over religious differences not once, but twice. There was the surgery, obviously. And now my father had told me, however euphemistically, that I was going to hell.
I told him that I meant what I had written. The conversation was over.
“Fuck you and fuck your Marker!”
Fuck them. Fuck Joseph Smith for starting it all. Fuck everyone who believed him, myself included. Fuck everyone who knew, but never divulged, the secrets, the histories, the facts that would have made it so obvious to me that I was involved in a sham and fuck their “milk before meat” justification for that blatant deception.
Fuck chastity, benevolence and virtue. Fuck the afterlife. Fuck The
Book of Mormon. Fuck the Prophet and all Twelve Apostles. Fuck them all for lying to me point-blank with Disneyland smiles on their pasty white faces. And fuck “fuck” for losing its performative force with each repeated use because now all I can do is scream.
“This is not a drill.”
It always comes back to Natalie. She was my Nicole, a nightmare that I never wanted to end. A lot of things have changed since 2008. She went on a mission, I heard, to dutifully convert people to Mormonism. I
changed my gender. Our paths have sharply diverged and we’ll never recover what we lost. And I’ll never be able to paper over the follies that led me here.
When I was Mormon, I believed in a God who could rectify my errors of judgment, a God who could grant me reprieve from my guilt, a God who could magically compensate for my mistakes. I don’t have that luxury
anymore. The most difficult pill to swallow through all this wasn’t losing Natalie; it was accepting that I was capable of fucking up my life all by myself and coming to terms with the fact that there would be no omnipotent safety net to catch me if I fell.
I can still feel the aftershocks, five years later: fears of abandonment, a pervasive pessimism, constant attempts at self-sabotage. My strength— I’ve had to learn—is not a renewable resource. Some moments stay with you forever. And some wounds leave scars.
“In the end, it all comes down to just one little thing. I didn’t want it to end like this. I really wanted to see you again. Just once.”
Natalie is both a distant relic from my past and a dull pain just below the surface of my present. I haven’t spoken with her in five years; I just keep trying to forget.
But maybe I still need her, even after all this. Not as a want, not even as a dream, but just as a reminder that I’m growing through the cracks of my failure.
For Kaitlin Tremblay’s companion piece for this article, read: “Know The Void Before It Destroys You: Starseed Pilgrim and Atheism.”