Swear on This Life

by Renee Carlino

1. He Found Me

In class we say That’s too on the nose when someone has written a story or a scene where exactly what you think should happen does happen. Or when the events are too perfect or precise. But in real life we have a hard time recognizing serendipitous moments because we’re not making the story up as we go along. It’s not a lie—it’s really happening to us, and we have no idea how it will end. Some of us will look back on our lives and recall events that were a bit too perfect, but until you know the whole story, it’s impossible to see the universe at work, or even admit that there is something bigger than us, making sure everything that should happen does happen. If you can surrender to the idea that there might be a plan, instead of reducing every magical moment to a coincidence, then love will find you. He found me.

“WOW, THE SEAGULLS are going crazy. I think there’s a tsunami headed this way,” I said, staring out the window of my second-story apartment as I watched the marine layer thicken over La Jolla Cove. The fog was moving fast toward my building as the storm clouds swirled in the distance.

Trevor laughed. “Such a San Diegan, overreacting to the weather.” He was sitting on the floor with his back against the overpriced leather couch that my aunts Cyndi and Sharon had bought for me when I first moved in.

“Do you think we need sandbags?”

“No, you’re being crazy,” he said.

“Crazy or cautious?”

“More like neurotic. It’s drizzling. California is still technically in a drought.”

I noticed that Trevor had put down the short story I had written so he could continue playing Angry Birds on his phone.

“Trevor . . .” I warned.

“Emiline . . .” he teased back without looking up.

I plopped onto his lap and threw my arms around his neck. “I really want you to read it.”

“I did. I read it fast.”

“What’s it about, then?”

“It’s about a girl who discovers an ancient formula for cold fusion.”

“So you got the gist. But did you actually like it?”

“Emi . . .” He paused. His eyes darted around the room. When he focused on me again, I saw pity in his face. “I liked it a lot,” he said.

“But . . . ?”

“I think you should write what you know. You’re a good writer, but this”—he held up the paper—“seems a little silly.”

“Silly? Why?” I could feel anger boiling over inside of me. Trevor was honest—it was one of the reasons I liked him—but sometimes he was blunt to the point of belittling.

“For one, it’s unrealistic.”

“It’s science fiction,” I shot back.

“It needs more character development.” He shrugged as if his statement were obvious.

“Trevor, please don’t start spewing that Writing 101 crap at me. I get enough of that in the program. I want to practice what I preach. I’m constantly telling the undergrads to forget the rules and write intuitively. Now I’m asking you for realistic feedback, from a reader’s point of view, not an instructor’s.”

“I’m trying to. I thought that’s what I was doing. You know how hard it is for me to critique your work. You can’t handle it. I didn’t connect with the characters, so I wasn’t interested in reading the rest of the story. So there. I’m just being honest.”

“There’s a nice way to be honest,” I muttered.

“I still finished the story, and now I’m trying to help you, but you’re not being receptive to it. Just tell me what you want me to say.”

I crossed my arms over my chest. “Are you serious right now?”

“Yes.” He got up abruptly and I toppled over onto the floor.

“You’re not a reader. I shouldn’t have asked you to read it. Are we actually fighting over this?”

“We’re always fighting over this,” he said. “And I resent you for saying that I’m not a reader, as if I’m some kind of illiterate Neanderthal.”

I had been dating Trevor since our senior year at Berkeley, so I knew exactly where this insecurity was coming from. Seven years—that’s a long time in anyone’s book. When we met, he was a superstar quarterback destined for the NFL, and I was a bookworm trying to be a wordsmith. He was Tom Brady handsome, and for so long I wondered why he was into me at all. Yet for some reason, in the beginning, it just felt right. We got along beautifully, and our relationship went on like a fairy tale—until he injured his throwing arm in the last game of the season. His professional football career was over before it even began.

He graduated unglamorously and then took an assistant offensive coaching job at San Diego State so he could be closer to me while I worked on my MFA at UC San Diego. It was a major show of dedication, but I couldn’t help but feel like a little light had gone off inside of him. He was there in San Diego with me, but sometimes I felt like he wanted to be somewhere else.

The dynamics of any long-term relationship tend to shift in subtle ways, but for us, the change was more abrupt: the moment he got injured, I wasn’t the nerdy bookworm infatuated with the star quarterback anymore. And while that never bothered me, it definitely bothered him. Even after he followed me to San Diego, we continued to live separately, and neither one of us pressed the issue, even after I finished my MFA. I told myself I was waiting for him to make the move, to own the decision, but honestly I didn’t know if I wanted to move in with him either.

So I kept living with my roommate, Cara, a fellow graduate from the UCSD writing program. She was saving money and teaching a couple of writing courses while she worked on her first novel, and I was trying to do the same. Her longtime boyfriend, Henry, was a surgical resident in New York, and she planned to move at the end of the school year to be with him. I knew I had to figure something out by then, but arguments like this made me think Trevor and I still weren’t ready to take the next step.

“I’m going for a run,” I said to Trevor as I hurried toward my bedroom to get dressed.

“What? One minute you’re worried about a tsunami and the next you want to go for a run? What the hell?” He followed behind me. “Emi, you’re going to have to deal with your shit at some point.”

“My shit? What about your shit?” I said flatly as I sat on the floor, tying my shoes. I wasn’t even looking at him. I got up and tried to move past him to leave the room. I might have been carrying around some baggage, but so was Trevor.