By Annabelle Oberst

I was afraid of moths as a child.

They hovered around our porch at night, circling the outside light in an endless cycle. I hated that about them. Not the circling, but how close they were to my door. To my house. To something that was just mine. Mom used to laugh at how much I hated bugs, but the thing was, I didn’t hate them outdoors. When my brother John and I used to go camping at Jordan Lake twice a year with Dad, I would pick Daddy Long Legs out of the tent and hold bugs in my bare hands. But, when they were in my house, I would scream and throw a shoe (or whatever was handy) and smash them to bits. It was scarier when they were on the inside, crawling into something that was mine. That’s why, when we got home late after John’s football practice and the sun had already set, I would run inside and slam the door as quickly as I possibly could in fear of them following. 

My dad’s girlfriend at the time would always ask why I was afraid of them. “There’s no reason to be scared,” she would tell me. “They’re just night-time butterflies.” I think of that often: the idea that butterflies and moths are almost the same. Not quite, though. Moths are a ghastly version, a butterfly seemingly drained of life that orbits a porch light endlessly, thinking it’s the sun. Like the light will somehow breathe life back into the moth. It never does. But still, they stay out there waiting. 

So today, when Addy tells me that she and Catherine, my ex-girlfriend, are getting matching tattoos—a butterfly for her and a moth for Catherine—it starts to make sense. It’s a good tattoo idea; I tell her as much. What I don’t share is the laugh that bubbles up my throat as I think about it 

I was a moth.
Catherine was the porch light. 

We met freshman year of high school in drama class. Catherine had transferred in two weeks late, and looking back, she’s the only person from that class I distinctly remember seeing for the first time. Her almost black hair was in two braids and purple square glasses sat on her freckled nose. We became friends instantly, spending our afternoons curled up in the lobby of our high school talking so fast our other friends couldn’t keep up. It was natural to fall for her. She was warm and comforting; falling for her was familiar and safe like secrets shared between best friends at sleepovers and listening to the same love song on repeat. It was easy, and I was terrified. And while it was the first time I liked a girl, that wasn’t the scary part. It was terrifying because it was her. So, I hid those feelings in a lock box for the better part of two years until the beginning of August—when she cracked it open and just friends became too little to describe what we were. 

That summer was the sweetest, sharing plums picked from trees and kissing with sticky lips. We’d walk hand in hand through the greenways near my house. She talks with her hands, so one of mine that was always intertwined with hers would move rapidly with every fact she told me about ecology or whatever she most recently learned in her chem class. I never cared about science, but she did, so I listened with rapt attention. She had a way of doing that, of calling your eyes to her. She did it with acting too. She could command every member of the audience’s attention to her with a single word. Off stage her beauty was more unassuming, one you notice every day for a year before suddenly, without your knowledge or consent, it shifts and she’s the most beautiful person you’ve ever met. Suddenly, she was the sun, and you couldn’t look away. 

Autumn followed and it was a hazy fall where we danced in the kitchen on Halloween and watched the leaves fall alongside us. We would spend our days floating in the swimming hole by her house, our outstretched arms barely touching. The gentle touch sent sparks down my body, and I felt things I didn’t have a name for yet. Love. The name would soon come to me in sheer bewilderment, watching her scream at the sky in the middle of December. It would sit, sickeningly sweet on the tip of my tongue until March, when she would take it and cut it out. The end was abrupt, quick, and cutting. It was sudden in the way it always is, even though I knew it was coming and should have expected it. I didn’t. I didn’t expect her cruelty, the way I was left with blood in my mouth and a knot in my stomach. 

It’s exhausting to tell this story and rehash it when I’m not entirely sure what really happened. I’ve decoded every moment and investigated every claim, but I never really figured it out. Here are the facts: We were best friends for three years. Dated for eight months. Then, the same as it started, we returned to being strangers: sharing a drama class and never quite locking eyes. And here, a nature preserve, fifteen minutes from my house is where it all went to shit. 

I’m eighteen and it’s a Monday in the second week of March. It had rained that morning, a faint layer of dew piling on the grass outside my house but had stopped before noon. After a cycle of pacing, sitting, standing, and then pacing again, I silently drove to the park where I had agreed to meet her. The music might be on—it usually is when I drive—but when I pluck the memory from the recesses of my mind, all I can hear is the sound of my breathing and the anxious rap of my knuckles against the steering wheel. I got there early, pulling into the parking lot ten minutes before we were supposed to meet. I wait in the car, flicking on and off the radio while religiously clenching and unclenching my fists. I think about turning around. I think about what I am going to say. I think a lot of things. But before I can give in to my flight instinct, her car pulls in and I forget every word I had rehearsed in my head. Once again, I am helpless against the pull of her lamplight. 

There are ten or so cars in the parking lot, but when I step out and am greeted with a chill breeze and a tense nod, I feel like we are the only ones here. The distance between us is physical but I can feel it down to my bones. The surrounding trees are not covered in scattered sunlight like they normally are, where the sun streams in through branches and leaves and makes patterns on the pavement. Instead, semi-dried rain fills the lot. The sun isn’t out at all. It is just us, standing in a hazy gray. 

“Hi,” she says, and I respond with a hollow echo of her greeting. 

It’s awkward because we both know it’s coming, but I hadn’t let myself believe in its finality until I saw her eyes dart around my face before settling guiltily on the floor. 

Before us is a wooden staircase that is overgrown with weeds and leads to a pavilion with benches underneath. As we walk up the steps, we don’t hold hands. I am reminded of our first date, back in August, where I spent the entire time working up the courage to grab her hand. Back then (coincidently, also at some park), the air between was tense with anticipation, not impending doom. It was bright and new, and when it rained, we danced in it. Now, the air is gray and cold, and I already feel soaked even though it hasn’t started raining yet. 

She leads me to a bench. It’s wooden and small, but I scoot to the edge leaving enough space so that our knees don’t touch. It’s the kind of careful I haven’t been since last year when we were just friends and the mere idea of knocking knees seemed like too much. Like we would touch, and she would know the secret I had been keeping my entire life. We sit in silence—the sound of our uncomfortable breathing is almost overwhelming—for a while until she breaks it, “I think we should break up.” 

“Okay,” I say because there is not much else. Then, “Why?”
“I don’t know,” she responds, “I just don’t feel like I used to.”
“What changed?” I ask.

“I think—I don’t know. I think I woke up and it was different.” My hand aches for hers when she says this, to reach across the threshold and pull her close to me. But I don’t dare cross the line she drew between us. Usually, when she holds my hand, she plays with my fingertips—a nervous tick I pick up as a habit while we’re dating. I’m not sure she picks up anything from me. 

“When?” I ask, shuffling to sit on top of my hands so I don’t do something stupid and try to grab hers. 

“I’m not sure.” She plays with her shirt the way she always does when she’s thinking, “Maybe a month ago, I don’t know.” A month ago? A month ago it was Valentine’s Day, and she brought me homemade chocolates. I pitched a tent in the living room and put on a starlight projector so that we could camp and stargaze even when it was storming outside. We spent the whole night sneaking kisses between scenes of Community. 

“But I love you,” I plead as some last resort because what does it matter now? There’s no more waiting for the right time, no more swallowing it down. 

The confession slips out of my mouth unprompted and when she doesn’t say it back, when it doesn’t change anything, I know that this is it. The realization is bitter to taste. Because I love her and she doesn’t love me back, and even though I can’t pinpoint the moment that changed, this conversation is still a funeral for a relationship I hadn’t realized died. But it is; it’s dead and rotting and she is burying me. 

I know it’s over when she guiltily murmurs “I don’t feel anything when I look at you” into the casket. The words stay on my headstone for a long while after that. 

At her words, I grip the seat below me and clench my fist into the wood. I should get splinters from how hard I’m gripping it, feel a stinging prick or something, but I don’t. I don’t feel anything, really. 

At some point, Catherine starts crying. It doesn’t feel fair. I’m dying and she’s crying, and she is the root of it. I want to scream and fight and run and cry. But when she looks at me, wide hazel eyes and tears dotting her eyelids, I tell her it’s okay. I comfort her while she breaks my heart. Eventually, her crying peters out and we return to the silence from before. The only sounds are that of our breathing and the subtle trill of wind I can hear through the trees. The wind is comforting; our breathing is not. It’s now that I do the only thing for myself in this entire conversation, maybe in the entirety of our relationship. I stand up and walk away. 

After a few paces, I turn around to ask, “Are we done?” 

I’m not sure what I’m asking this for. I’m not even sure what I’m asking about. This conversation? The breakup? Our eight-month relationship or our four-year friendship? I don’t know; all I know is that I need to know her answer. Because it’s in the finality of her nod that I have the strength to walk away, get in my car, and drive home. I wonder why I haven’t cried yet. I find out soon enough when I stop at the red light on Kildaire and sob. As I drive, rain starts pouring, and I wonder if the sky is crying for me too. 

I was drawn to her in the same way a moth is drawn to lamplight, where I was searching for the sun but found her instead. She was a porch light that was warm, so inviting that I could close my eyes and believe it was the sun. I didn’t understand then the cruelness of convincing yourself you are standing in sunlight, when all it ever was, was an artificial fluorescent that gives you a headache to look at now. I thought she was everything; I reverently worshipped her like the ancient Egyptians would worship Ra. Eventually, I would learn the horror of worshipping deities that do not exist and if they do, don’t give a shit about you. 

She was careless with me. In the months that followed, I felt like she had cut off my wings and pinned them to her wall for observation. You want to be a doctor, don’t you? I thought during the trial when she poked and prodded, searching for some sort of reaction, Always the scientist, always the experimenter. And like a scientist, she grew bored and moved on to other subjects. She left me there, sitting in a jar waiting for the sun. 

Of course, when you find her glowing in the dark, you think her porch light is the sun. You’ve never been in love; you don’t know any better. You honestly don’t know the difference between “love” and “in love,” or the difference between her and the idea of her you conjured up in your head. You spend the next few months contemplating those differences and always come up blank. You hold on to any semblance of affection, even as the bad days start to outnumber the good ones. Because, at your core, you are a moth drawn to the faint glow of lamplight because you’ve never felt the sun or a flame or anything that was real. Artificial lights are not sustainable for love to last; they burn (you soon realize it does not always feel good to burn), and they won’t keep you warm. Maybe for a bit, but not through winter. And when you have it on too long, the light goes out. It won’t ever stay. She was that: a false god that I believed in and gave my everything to. But it was nothing, made of nothing. Yet still, I worshipped it. 

My fear of moths didn’t matter in the end. I became what I was terrified of anyway. I lost myself in love in a way I swore I never would. I never would have admitted it back then because half of a breakup is looking for someone to blame. It’s easier to blame someone else than be ashamed of your role in it. She might have had the bloody hands at doing us in, but I did this to myself. I convinced myself she was the sun. I was a moth, and she was a porch light, but I was the one who forced myself into darkness and believed she could save me. 

After we ended, I searched for a light in something else. Someone else, that first semester of college when I wrongly thought I was ready to date again. I searched for my wings, for something that was mine. But I wasn’t anything, really. 

I made new wings, literally once, in the middle of May with cellophane, wire hangers, and an iron in Mara’s garage. It was some part of my misguided attempt to win the breakup, where I pretended to be happy and okay, and like seeing her that one day after exams didn’t wreck me and almost make me pass out on the drive home. It was a contest, where the winner was decided by how many times you posted on Instagram, saw your friends, and were caught looking carefree. I thought healing was something you had to prove to the world, and it was not until I had mostly healed that I realized it wasn’t. My actual wings, the ones built from a half- year-long cycle of the five stages of grief, came when I woke up and it was September, and I hadn’t thought of her once. 

I cannot pinpoint the moment I fell out of love like I could for that day back in December when I knew for certain the ache in my body every time she touched me or looked at me, or even spoke to me, was a product of love. What it also was, which I would not realize until much later, was a symptom of an illness I would catch and keep for a long while. I would be sick long past March, and it would linger into summer and August and then the beginning of my freshman year of college. For me, falling out of love is a slow fade that creeps in like autumn does, and suddenly, the pain in your chest is a dull ache you have to look for to find. And once the comedown is over, you can see the relationship for how dead it was and find a way to crawl out of your grave. 

Somedays, it’s not that simple. Even three years later. I’ll feel great with no thoughts of her, and then, the feeling sneaks in and I obsess over every detail of that relationship until I’ve dug up the grave and found that nothing’s changed, that nothing will because it’s dead and rotting and has been for years. Some days I wake up and wonder if I’ve learned anything, if I’m still what I’m afraid of. If I’ll forever be that moth she tattooed on her back, immortalized on her skin like some sort of trophy. And then, I think about it some more and realize she probably just likes moths and hasn’t thought of me once. Or she has, and the memories for her are sickeningly sweet and fond and that of first love and awkward teen relationships. And the thing is I can rehash it in my head all I want, but I’ll never come up with the answer. I don’t know what happened. I don’t think I ever will. I’ve learned that healing is being okay with that. Most days, I am. And when I do slip up (which I always will because I’m a chronic overthinker and my brain never shuts up), I remind myself that I am alive and I am healing and that I am no longer a moth and she is no longer a porch light. 

Annabelle Oberst (she/they) is a junior at UNC Chapel Hill. They love to write, play music, and go to concerts.