“I don’t want him in this house,” my mother said. It was within that month-long period after Thanksgiving and before Christmas, and she was talking about my boyfriend at the time. My first, and really only, intimate relationship.
His name was Foster, and he was charming and curious with an inventive mind. He loved me fiercely and I loved him back. But my parents had staged an intervention. They knew this was not a sustainable relationship. They knew that something which started in chaos—in my case, my responding to Foster’s suicide note in time—could only end in chaos.
They couldn’t have imagined what actually happened: how the thing ended without ending, how the chaos never comes to a complete halt after a relationship ends. It just finds new ways to destroy you.
I was reminded of this while watching Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, which almost no one saw when it came out in 2019.
The Souvenir is a film that doesn’t do a lot of hand-holding. Just as it seems to abandon its characters at crucial moments, so, too, does it leave a gasping, confused audience in the dark too often for comfort. This isn’t a design flaw: It’s intentional, and it works. The Souvenir is not a love story. It’s not supposed to be. It’s a story about the love we think we deserve, if any.
The plot in short: Privileged film student Julie falls in with a captivating mess of a man named Anthony. He’s vague about what he does for work, who he’s dating, and how he lives in general, but she’s not interested in asking questions. At least, not at first.
Anthony isn’t much older than Julie, but he seems so. His confidence and to-the-manor-born persona make him feel like a much older man in contrast to Julie’s naive, fascinated ingenue. She’s fascinated by him and unable to poke holes in his barely-there logic on the subjects of monogamy, love, and work. At one point, during a fancy dinner, Julie asks Anthony about his sexual past. He quickly turns the question around: why do you want me to tell you things that will upset you? By living life like it’s everyone else’s fault, Anthony escapes any kind of responsibility, even in love. He is a dead end of a character, a dead end of a person.
This is the main thing that makes him untrustworthy. Not his way of turning every boorish thing he does into the other person’s fault. Not his insistence on dining only at the ritziest establishments with a bottle of champagne always chilling between himself and the other person. It’s the sense that anyone watching gets the instant they first see Anthony charmingly drooped over, shot from behind, listening to and flirting with a woman, a lit cigarette trailing smoke. One understands that this fragile man must use the strength of others to prop him up in everything he does, all the while making those others feel increasingly weak. People who are addicted to drugs, who are suicidal, who are in some way not tied to life are always looking for new ways to die. Getting into a relationship is one of the best there is.
It is draining to be with someone who can’t think about anything outside of their own self-hatred. I know this because I am this kind of person, and I have also (exclusively) dated this kind of person. We tend to find each other across a crowded room, or in some cases, across a crowded ER.
When I met my ex, I was suicidal. By the time we started dating, he was suicidal. I’d just gotten on Lexapro and had started to function somewhat normally again, which meant I no longer woke up each morning wanting to claw the skin off my face. We met in January of 2015 and started dating in June of the same year, after he texted me a suicide note about a week after we had sex for the first time. I was at work and saw that the texts had been sent twenty minutes ago. Twenty minutes is a long time: I assumed he was already dead. I felt all the sanity I’d been able to restore in the past few months drain out of my body. I embraced panic once more, that life-or-death feeling that all suicidal people know well. That moment when the only important thing is keeping someone else alive, even for just a few weeks longer, because you know how much can change in just a few weeks.
I left Jamaica Plain where I worked and headed to the part of town where he lived: Somerville, a short train ride away but a town conceptually much younger and more chaotic. After flagging down some firefighters and trying to text or call everyone else who knew him, his phone finally picked up, and he was on the other end. The battery had died right after he sent me those texts. On the way home, where he’d fully intended to kill himself, he’d passed by some friends sitting on their stoop. They talked, and in the hours between sending the text and seeing me arrive at the place with half of Boston’s finest, he had somehow forgotten about his wish to die. Or if not forgotten, started to think of it as not such a big deal. When he saw me, a stranger, losing my mind, it seemed to dawn on him that had he gone through with it, other people would have been affected. His pain would have ended, and everyone else’s would have just begun.
I told myself I should have noticed it earlier: That carelessness. That sense of, “how can other people care about me when I know I’m trash?” That idea that other people will always see the same monster you see when you look in the mirror.
I did notice it, I simply chose to overlook it. In the moment, I had a single-minded purpose: to keep this person alive at all costs. We rode to the hospital together, holding hands through the tiny corridor that separates the back of the ambulance from the front. I heard the EMT ask him a series of questions:
“Have you ever thought about hurting yourself before?”
“Have you thought about hurting others?”
When you love a violent person, you don’t assume you can fix them or even change them. You assume that you can somehow absorb the violence. That your body is the body that was made for that violence, for the purpose of neutralizing it. That you should hear the words and deal with the lies and misdeeds because you can. Because you’re stronger than he is. Because you are someone to be depended on, someone who does not need to depend in turn.
In this way, you become the other person’s caretaker. It’s easy to fall into the habit. You see it in The Souvenir, when Anthony asks to borrow his first ten pounds from Julie. She, unphased, gives it to him. She has no idea that her simple desire to provide Anthony with what he needs will cause a steady avalanche of requests—later demands, financial and emotional—that will bury her. That’s what makes The Souvenir so deeply brilliant–it’s not a movie about traditional domestic violence or verbal abuse. It’s a movie about two people with matching minds who love each other. It’s a movie about a woman conditioned into being a mother to her partner. It’s about a man whose self-hatred kills everything it touches, except Julie. About that peculiar feeling you get when you, as the caretaker-lover, have paid for the final meal, lent the last twenty bucks, given all you can give to someone before it finally dawns on you that you’re being used, and that the person who is using you still loves you. They just don’t know how to love you without also using you. You are a towel wrung dry, but they can’t help wringing it.
Foster and I had different relationships to money, to put it mildly. I grew up solidly in the middle class, during a time when that still-existent middle class was thriving. He grew up in rural Maine, poor all his life. His mother is an alcoholic. His father does his best to cope with that fact, and with Foster himself. The family has always managed to escape homelessness, but barely. They rely largely on the kindness of strangers to see them through. It was this aspect of Foster—his resolute Blanche DuBois-ness, his male damsel-in-distress quality-—that drew me to him first. When you meet people like that, your heart aches because you know just how similar you are. You think, “there but for the grace of God.” But the difference between you is vast and ominous: you are someone who cannot ask for help. He is someone who can do nothing else.
Foster was brought up by well-meaning yet neglectful parents totally stymied by their son’s attitude, his violence, his insistence on self-destruction. At the age of four, he threatened to jump out a window to make his parents stop fighting. At the age of eight, he was taken out of the public school system for writing out a violent fantasy about bombing the classroom as the answer to an assignment calling for students to write a diary. He says that his eight-year-old self was simply mocking the assignment—the whole point of a diary is to have it stay private—by creating a cartoonishly violent outcome. Whatever the intention, the result was permanent: He would be homeschooled by his father after that point, then to enter the (dying) family profession of selling art prints. He never went to college, which lent his way of speaking—the argumentativeness, the knee-jerk reactions, the false equivalencies—the flavor of a college freshman trying to wrap his head around the universe while high for the first time.
This was frustrating. It was also intoxicating. As a person who largely hates everyone they come into contact with, it was wonderful to find someone I could actually love, especially at a moment when I’d just about given up on that possibility. I didn’t realize that the thing Foster had was the thing I found most precious in the whole world: a sense of curiosity that kept him asking questions, kept him interested in learning, kept us talking forever, even long after we broke up, because it felt so good and easy, like a conversation that never really needs to end. On one hand, it was the least lonely experience of love I’ve ever had. In other ways, it was the loneliest. It still is.
We stayed together for about a year. I moved to L.A., hoping he wouldn’t follow me. When it seemed like he was going to, I had to do the thing I feared and call it off. I was terrified of doing this. I imagined him killing himself, knowing it would kill me. I imagined him heading to my parent’s house and gunning us all down on Christmas Eve. I saw him enacting the kind of bloody revenge he always enjoyed in movies and in real life. He often talked about admiring spree shooters. I saw him finding a way to finally acknowledge and address his hatred of women by killing me, even though I was not one. My transness served many functions in the relationship: It was a way for him to avoid feeling shame around dating. It allowed him to cash in on shock points by describing me loudly as his boyfriend in both safe and unsafe spaces, waiting for the usual double-take reaction. When we were good, he acknowledged my transness. When he was upset with me, he would tell me I was acting “like a woman.”
I didn’t stand up for myself because I felt like I needed him in my life. Also, and perhaps more importantly, I haven’t the slightest idea of how to stand up for myself. I’m someone who’s always felt embarrassed about correcting people who misgender me or even insult me. In the immortal words of insult comic Buddy Young Jr. in the film Mr. Saturday Night, I’m the kind of person who “someone could shit in your hat and you’d say, thank you, it fits much better now!” This is a consequence, I think, of living your life trying to both obsessively please and obsessively apologize to the people in your world. You know you’re an abomination, and you know they’re normal. There’s no way to “fit in” without becoming a walking apology for a series of bad behaviors you’ve never actually committed.
Before meeting Foster, I hadn’t had firsthand experience with people who deal with their pain in an outwardly self-destructive fashion. What struck me initially about him was the combination of gentility and rudeness that combined to make almost any criticism of him impossible. If I rebuked him about expecting me to pay for things or being rude to my parents, he would be so remorseful and upset that immediately I would find myself apologizing to him. His fragility was like nothing I’d seen: as crass as he could be, I never stopped seeing him as someone mere moments away from suicide. The slightest criticism could tip the scale, and I knew how critical I could be, along with the rest of my family. At the end of our relationship, when I brought Foster home for Thanksgiving for the second year in a row, my father shocked me by taking me aside and saying: “you can do so much better.” I didn’t realize we were still supposed to think about people we were dating as extensions of our class identity. Of course that wasn’t all he meant—he was concerned for my safety. But the way he said it smacked of “Washington Square,” when Dr. Sloper tells his unattractive daughter Catherine that her handsome suitor is only with her for the money, and she basically says, “so what?”
I remembered the moment from earlier on in that trip, when we watched the idiotic thriller The Girl on the Train and Foster couldn’t stop hysterically laughing until my parents yelled at him for finding violence against women funny. Upstairs in the bedroom he was ashamed and looked at me with a hangdog expression. “Do you want me to sleep on the couch?” he asked.
In The Souvenir, Julie and Anthony are members of the same class. They speak the same language, expect the same nice life, are entitled to money in much the same way. Julie’s upper-class, monied parents like Anthony at first, because he’s charming and smart and has the “right” opinions and can talk about adult things. It’s what makes it all the more shocking when Anthony, an at least put-together if not exactly promising person, dies at the end.
But in a movie, when characters break up or die or in some way fall out of the picture, they simply walk offscreen never to be heard from again. This was, in part, what made Anthony’s death so shocking. He goes out late one night and simply doesn’t come back. We hear about the death secondhand, but we never see a body or a funeral. What we see is Julie getting on with it, as she has to. We see her changing into an artist. We see how, already, Anthony’s brief candle of a life has started to be metabolized by her: He exists only as a story now, a story she, the artist, the survivor, the not-junkie, gets to tell.
Part of me hates that I’m writing about this, because it feels like such an invasion of privacy. Foster told me things about his life that I read as excuses. He told me about his abusive ex-girlfriend who hit him and called him stupid. He told me about the sex he’d had that he’d regretted. He was honest about feeling disposable and worthless. He supported me and made fun of my achievements almost in the same breath. After we broke up in 2016, we continued to speak as friends for years, until one of his classic bouts of vitriol, aimed this time not just at me but my entire family, made me stop and seriously look at the situation I’d created. I wasn’t making “art” about Foster because it didn’t feel like my art to make. I didn’t want to write about him. I didn’t have a good way to explain how someone could be so sweet, curious, and kind and bitter, small, and vindictive at the same time. I thought it was my fault a lot of the time– that I shouldn’t have tried to stay friends, that I should have let him go off and be bitter and turn me into the villain he clearly wanted me to be in his mind. He told me all the time that I should have blocked him. That if I really wanted him to get over me, I should have cut off all communication. I could only think to apologize, in these moments, for being weak, for needing him as a friend, for having a huge problem letting go of someone I’d once loved, no matter how necessary it might have been.
The crucial difference here is that Foster did not die, and that our story can’t finish up neatly like in a movie. The complexity of loving someone who’s equally awful and wonderful is hard enough to explain to yourself, let alone an entire audience. Watching The Souvenir might have been the thing to change my mind about the whole thing. It’s a film that’s so clearly not about catharsis or healing. It’s a coming-of-age story that’s fully centered on Julie. It is about her, not him. It’s about her becoming an artist, learning to stand up for herself, and figuring out how to reckon with her privilege. A reductive view of it would be to say that Anthony represents privilege in all its viral toxicity. But he doesn’t come off as a symbol, he comes off as a person. That’s the thing about trying to categorize a person after you’ve really gotten to know them. It doesn’t work. Once you love someone, it’s too late to sum them up.
Being in a relationship for the first time gave me permission to be awful. Before meeting Foster, I’d always longed for that permission. There’s a special kind of sovereignty that people in relationships have that I’d always wanted. It’s those people, holding hands and walking slowly in the middle of the sidewalk, oblivious to everything around them, who seem the most dumb and the least lost of everyone.
I found out that you can be extraordinarily lonely inside of a relationship, too. A few months after we got together, I told him that we were probably going to have to put my childhood dog down, an eventuality I’d been dreading pretty much since getting the dog sixteen years earlier. He held me and slow danced with me in the middle of a silent room. He assured me that he would stay alive for me, and I was confused when I failed to find any comfort in that statement. In my room, we slow danced for a while to no music as the reality of it set in. I can’t be your one reason to live, I thought. Still, I danced along. I’m still dancing.