As the credits played out at the end of Avatar: The Way of Water, my boyfriend Ethan took off his 3D glasses and looked at me. “Are you crying?” he asked.
I nodded and wiped my cheeks.
“Aw,” he said, “You liked the movie, huh?”
“Yes,” I sniffed.
Then a fresh wave of tears ran down my face.
Ethan immediately stood up and came over to me. “Oh baby, I’m so sorry, I understand why you’re crying now.”
He tried to sit in the same theater chair as me, to hold me and soothe me, but instead he accidentally sat on the large Pepsi in my cup holder, knocked it backwards, and got soda all over his butt. He pulled me to my feet, away from the mess, and held me in the aisle.
I hugged him and giggled a little—both at the situation and because I loved him so much.
In a matter of like ten seconds, he had already comforted me immensely, for two reasons. The first, because he didn’t let the awkwardness of soda-soaked pants distract him from his mission. And the second, because he knew that I was crying over my brother Zach, the heartbreaking scene in the movie that had triggered my tears.
It’s awful to admit this, but I initially never expected Ethan to play this role in my life. I never thought that my boyfriend would see me crying and automatically assume it was because of Zach.
We met at an interesting time in my life—just one day after the one year anniversary of Zach’s death. Once you get past the one year mark, it’s kind of an awkward and terrible season of life to be in. It’s like you have an expiration date on how long you can be grieving, on how long you can hold the identity of “sad sister of dead brother.” Most people stop asking how I’m doing in regards to that and don’t think to bring him up anymore.
The shock and raw grief is gone, but the ever-present pain of having to live the rest of my life without my sweet little brother constantly bubbles under the surface.
Ethan is very simple and straightforward in his comfort for me: I know you miss your brother. I’m here for you. Let me hold you.
“I love you,” he says, and Addie wonders if this is love, this gentle thing.
—V.E. Schwab, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue
After the movie, later that evening, I accidentally spilled red wine on Zach’s white hoodie, which I wear almost every day.
Ethan immediately looked up how to get red wine stains out of white fabric and went to work. Soaking the stain in white vinegar (“not red vine vinegar?” I weakly joked). Scrubbing laundry detergent into the spot. Rinsing it out in hot water.
The stain was gone.
I clutched the warm, wet sweatshirt in my hands and thanked him and hung it on his desk chair to dry overnight.
The next day, back at my parents’ house, I examined the spot outside in the late afternoon sun, in better lighting. The wine stain truly was gone, but I noticed that the area was a bit frayed now. Threads popped out where Ethan had vigorously scrubbed the sweatshirt.
My heart melted. I sunk into this little patch of white fabric and pinned the moment and the feeling into my memory.
This is what it feels like to be safe and loved.
After he had cleaned my sweatshirt for me, Ethan was a little bit restless. It was getting late, I was cozy in bed, and we had planned to watch something together on his phone until we fell asleep. But he was unable to sit back and relax.
“Why aren’t you getting comfortable?” I asked. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, hunched and cross-legged.
He stood up and paced a bit. “Because you were crying earlier over your brother and then you stained his sweatshirt, and now I’m just in full on protection mode.”
. . . we were home, we had drawn the circle, we were safe for the night.
—Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
It was a place where I knew I was loved.
—Claire Oshetsky, Chouette