In the fall of my sophomore year of college, I decided to take a nonfiction writing workshop. I’d been in a fiction one for my entire freshman year and found myself dissatisfied with the genre. Not because of what we’d read, but because of a disconnect I felt while staring at a blank document and trying to conceive of characters from thin air. I didn’t know where to begin. So I thought I’d try writing about my own life as a way to narrow down what I could put on a page.
My professor one day handed out photo copies of pages from Chelsea Hodson’s Tonight I’m Someone Else. At the time, I didn’t keep up with current authors, nor did I know how to. My taste didn’t stray far from Anaïs Nin and Sylvia Plath. I was pretentiously distrustful of writers who were still alive, especially newer ones, or maybe I was just scared and intimidated by them.
I was also not in a great place mentally or emotionally. My relationship, which had been my first serious one, was deteriorating because of my partner’s addiction. It was a slow and crumbling kind of decay that I saw from above myself, like I was watching as someone held a letter over a flame and burned it to ash. It was only a few months before a new sickness would be all anyone was talking about. When I was putting gas in my car in Peekskill after driving around the mountains one evening, a woman at the pump next to me asked if my college was sending students home yet. How bad do you think this plague will be? became the fun topic of conversation amongst friends and strangers.
But this was before that. The essay my professor handed us was titled “The End of Longing,” a sequence of words that immediately felt romantic, intimate. I was relieved that it appeared as a short, quick read, so it wouldn’t be too much work for the week; I was also mesmerized by the format, which we were told was “lyric essay.” The paragraphs were only a few lines each, separated by little diamonds that ran down the pages braiding the pieces into one.
“The End of Longing” struck me with its simultaneous straightforwardness and mysteriousness. The one-liners are sharp and assertive, yet allow room for the reader to wonder: “Suffering feels religious if you do it right,” one reads, and another: “Replacing hesitation with audacity is helpful for nearly everything.” These definitive statements are weaved through tiny, cinematic vignettes: “The day I decided I was more miserable than ever, my boss said, You know what I like about you, Chelsea? Nothing is ever wrong,” or, “You look like you’re suffering, a man I’d just met said, and I said, I’m the human embodiment of the opposite of suffering.”
This staccato style resonated with my life that fall. There were revelations flickering through my head as I was struggling to navigate this collapsing of love, ones I couldn’t muster up the strength to acknowledge. But there were moments and situations around me echoing the sentiment, as if trying to force me to face it. Everything was ridiculously ironic. I began to list the absurdities: wearing an Ian Curtis shirt when finding out my partner relapsed, as if I was subconsciously prepared for the grief; drunk calling rehab facilities to talk to him; getting caught in a funeral procession on my way to get coffee. Symbols danced around me like ghosts of meaning.
To start the discussion about the essay for the next class, my professor asked, “Do you think it’s enough? Do you understand what she’s communicating through these fragments?” We, a class of mostly (if not all) young women, agreed that it was enough. We understood that what she’s communicating is veiled, slightly cryptic, but that made it all the more engaging. My professor seemed surprised at our enthusiasm. He wasn’t so sure himself if he thought the form worked. But we persisted in our defense as if Chelsea was our best friend. I think in a way we felt she was. We admired her and wanted to hear more about her ex boyfriends and her casual epiphanies.
I picked up a copy of Tonight I’m Someone Else. I hadn’t been reading much at the time; my partner and I spent the summer sitting across from each other at coffee shops reading old novels and poetry collections we picked out of used bookstores; we passed paperbacks of Palahniuk and Rimbaud back and forth. There’s a picture in my camera roll from December 9, 2019 of my hand holding the purple book with the outline of a face. My black acrylic nail stabs the space between Chelsea’s name and the sketch of the mouth. My partner was over a hundred miles away in some town in Pennsylvania. He would continue moving around the state, bouncing between different halfway houses. Once I started to get comfortable in Phoenixville, where we were encased by mountains and there was a street where we could see movies and search for records, he relocated to Dover. Before I could even form associations with Dover, he relocated to another town I don’t remember the name of. I couldn’t keep track of where he was living; all of the towns and landscapes blended into one another. They all took around two hours to get to. I’d get off the New Jersey Turnpike, onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and then there were windy roads surrounded by trees with changing leaves. The sunlight gave me a false sense of clarity. I was in a haze.
I wanted to write the way Chelsea did. I envied her self-awareness. I could tell my relationship was ending and I was trying to save it, but I was paralyzed, watching myself drown. “When my heart was broken for the first time, my friend said, Maybe this will be good for your art, and he was right,” she writes in “The End of Longing.” Eventually, I would realize that having your heart broken is not too different from having a revelation. It’s more tangible; it’s not something you can run away from. It forces you to reckon and make art as a way of survival.
When I finished Tonight I’m Someone Else, I shed my prejudice against current authors. I was ready to explore more writers, and I would soon fall in love with the work of Melissa Febos and Carmen Maria Machado. I lent my copy of Chelsea’s book to my partner, telling him that he needed to read it to understand me.
I found out that, weirdly enough, Chelsea was the model on the cover of shoegaze band Nothing’s Dance on the Blacktop, a collection of dark, sweeping songs I’d been immersing myself in. (One time I was with my partner in Philadelphia’s vegan restaurant Tattooed Mom, which has a jukebox with an array of alternative music, and I selected a song by Nothing that instantly shook the place with its intensity and one of the employees had to rush to turn the volume down.) I marveled at this discovery. In the image, Chelsea is wearing a mask and posing as if to make the looker uncomfortable. It is the polar opposite of who she is in her writing—maskless, candid, and endearing. Yet both are kind of haunting and linger with you in an unforgettable way.
I messaged her on Instagram like a fangirl, using all lowercase and mentioning that I was a student. i haven’t had trouble writing since i read your book, I said, i also have been listening to Dance on the Blacktop more because it seems to have taken on a greater meaning for me after this, if that even makes sense lol. She was kind enough to respond. For a moment, I felt closer to her than to my actual partner, who I couldn’t even text.
Keeping track of the passing moments that felt vaguely poetic became a way for me to get closer to admitting things I wasn’t prepared to admit. I wrote down texts from my partner’s mom, I wrote about the taste of liquor, I wrote about getting pulled over for speeding. I was tracing the outline of my pain.
From rehab, he called me during phone hours. I asked him if he read Tonight I’m Someone Else yet. He told me he tried to but he couldn’t get into it; he lent it to someone, a girl, because he thought she would be able to relate to it more. He couldn’t see my face crumble because he was a hundred miles away. I couldn’t express my hurt because phone hours are short and there’s always someone in the line behind him so the calls have to be quick. I wondered if I would ever get the book back. I didn’t. I wanted to know who he lent it to, if she would hold it with her finger between Chelsea’s name and the sketch of the mouth, I wanted to know if she would think that the fragmented form of “The End of Longing” is enough.
Sometimes the poetic moments and the symbols and the meanings and the revelations culminate into something you can’t avoid. Gradually, I was staring at our demise, as if it were a face, like the one on the cover of Chelsea’s book, or the mask on the Nothing album art. We broke up in the weeks that preceded the start of the plague. The world collapsed as we did. I was struck with a wave of both panic and relief. The panic subsided after nights of sobbing and wondering if I would ever be loved again. But the relief remained as I recollected everything that happened between us and pieced it together. Everything I’d been hiding surfaced. I was no longer drowning; I could breathe again. I remembered: “When my heart was broken for the first time, my friend said, Maybe this will be good for your art, and he was right,” and I took it as a rule to live by.
It isn’t until two years after the closing of that relationship that I get a new copy of Tonight I’m Someone Else in the mail. I randomly recall its influence on me as I’m about to graduate school and longing to return to the books that helped me find my voice. I realize, as I’m scrolling through my past orders, that I accidentally ordered it twice, which coincidentally works out since I’m looking to gift my partner a book for Valentine’s Day. I decide that there’s something vaguely poetic in this act of giving every serious partner of mine this book that gave me the power to see meaning whirl around me like fireflies, whether they see it or not. And so Tonight I’m Someone Else is a token of my love.
Danielle Chelosky is a New York-based writer who has words about music and culture in MTV News and The Fader, as well as words about sex and relationships in Hobart Pulp and Flypaper Lit. She currently studies at Sarah Lawrence College.