where did we go

V.G. Tran
12 min readAug 22, 2021

Cliff Harley. 2019. Your name was on billboards, movie posters, and people’s lips at the Academy Awards for Best Actor. It was for your role for Meet Me At The Intersection, which you referred to as Intersection whenever you mentioned it to me.

You took Lilith Townes as your date. She emanated Hollywood glamour — cascading blonde hair, thick eyelashes curled towards the heights of stardom, and a matte red over her perfect, pouty lips.

I didn’t want to go. I could never be someone like Lilith, the spotlight like a second skin on her skinny yet curvaceous body. Her body was a paradox, as was everything in Hollywood.

The next day, everyone thought Lilith was your new girlfriend. Journalists reached out to me. Have you and Cliff Harley separated? How long has it been? What was the cause?

I didn’t respond.

-

We met at a cafe in 2012. You started working there first. Two months later, I started. We were both 23, a few years out of uni. This cafe job was temporary. That was what we told each other. What we told ourselves.

We both had dreams bigger than we could hold so we held them together. You, world-renowned actor. Me, world-renowned writer. At 23, we doubted ourselves but believed we could achieve it together. We talked about moving overseas, making it big, living our best lives. You’d win an Academy Award. I’d write a book as big as Harry Potter. We were two people wading in the incandescent pool of dreams, drunk on possibilities and high on fervour. We could do it. We could.

-

Of course, we knew it would be slow. We were in it for the long haul. It was a marathon, not a sprint. Looking back, it was easy to focus on all the times you auditioned, waiting for Lady Luck’s fortune to rain upon you, and all the hours I spent at a desk, labouring over words, wondering if anyone would ever pay to read my work. There were times where we couldn’t hang out because of your filming schedule — I had a 9–5 and went to sleep early so I could write in the morning before work, you’d come back while I was asleep and I’d head out while you were asleep.

But when I looked back at the good times and forgot about how we turned out, it was easy to descend into sickly-sweet nostalgia and remember those times we were at a park on a sunny afternoon, my head in your lap. We talked about the silliest shit and neither of us could stop laughing, our tummies hurting from the joy, our hands wiping away tears from the corners of our eyes.

I read how the more we revisit our memories, the more we tamper with them, adding in new things and putting things back where they don’t belong. Sometimes, I wondered if what I remembered was a fantasy of my own concoction, if maybe we were never like that. Because if we were like that once upon a time then how did we end up like this?

-

I’m getting ahead of myself. When we first met, I was drawn to you in a way I couldn’t explain. Something about you made me feel naked. Bare. Except I didn’t mind. No, I wanted you to get closer, see every inch of me, my light, my darkness, everything.

But you were with someone. Mia. A fellow thespian. She seemed like the type. She always stood straight, like an invisible string pulled back her shoulders, and it gave her an air of regality, sophistication. Sometimes, she would come in while we closed, say hi to us, give you a kiss on the lips, sit in the dining area, and talk on the phone with one of her many friends.

You rarely mentioned her to me. It was as if you wanted me to forget you were taken. Like you were holding out for me.

-

In the middle of July, we walked through Carlton Gardens together. You and Mia had broken up a month ago. It was mutual, you said.

I told you about how sometimes, I still struggled with depression. It used to be worse, my depression a pervasive presence, a cloud looming above for a whole year, then two, then three. I started crying, the tears streaming down my cheeks. You were about to take my hand when it started to rain, slow droplets at first but then sheets pouring onto us. You took my hand anyway and we ran towards a tall English Oak. Its size provided cover for us.

Our faces were wet and rain drops had caught onto your long eyelashes. You tightened your grip on my hand. You thanked me for opening up to you before tucking my hair behind my right ear. And then you leaned in towards me, your eyes closed.

Our first kiss was underneath the canopy of that tree and it was fucking bliss.

-

“What was the real reason you and Mia broke up?” I asked, my head on your chest. We were lying on your bed. You played with my hair, curling the strands around your fingers.

“Mia broke up with me because she said she might be gay.”

“And you?”

“I couldn’t stop thinking about you.”

-

A memory: Us on the beach in Positano, on the Amalfi Coast, in Italy. You wanted to go there, said you’d seen pictures and you could imagine us relaxing on the sand, under the Mediterranean sun. So we did. It wasn’t as peaceful as you imagined because all the other tourists were there, just like us, chattering away and stopping to take pictures. We paid to use the lounge chairs but we spent most of the time in the water anyway, in awe of the climbing cliffs and houses perched upon them. We kissed and laughed and floated on the water, our worries dissolving into the Tyrrhenian Sea. Afterwards, the salt dried on our skin and on our hair as we sat on the lounge chair. You read a play. I read a book. We stayed there until the bottom of the sun touched the horizon. For dinner, we had pizza and aperol spritz in a restaurant tucked away in one of the lanes. On the way back to our accommodation, we talked. What was it about? But then, what did it matter? It didn’t matter what we talked about. I only remembered feeling close to you, like we were of one mind, and how natural it was to be with you, all the time.

-

In its resting state, your face was all angles, gaunt and stern. Your eyes emanated an intensity that translated well to the silver screen and made you the go-to actor for emotionally complex characters.

You weren’t afraid of your emotions. You took all of them in stride and dealt with them with an astonishing maturity. When I asked how you learnt to sit with your emotions, you told me you had always been emotional. Too sensitive for a boy. Too soft-hearted. But your mum was into spirituality and showed you healthy ways of dealing with your emotions, instead of letting them fester until it became this ugly, sticky mess inside of you.

The guys I had dated in the past ran away from their emotions, tucking it into the deepest corners of their heart until they gathered dust.

You were different. I loved the vulnerable part of you, back then.

-

When you asked if I wanted to move to London with you, I said yes. No hesitation. What else was there for me to consider? I’d be with you.

We had outgrown Melbourne, the familiarity of the city like a jumper from childhood that no longer fit. There was more action brewing in the Big Smoke, more acting opportunities there, more countries we could visit nearby — Italy, Portugal, Netherlands.

A week after we arrived in London, we went to a pub in Dalston and somehow ended up talking with a group of people like us — poets, writers, actors, artists, musicians. You talked to them as though your friendship spanned years instead of minutes. You knew how to mould yourself to others and be what they wanted. That was why people adored you.

Thomas, a musician in the group, told us he had a free room at his place in Hackney. We’d be living with four others, including him. And that was how we found a place to live. Your charisma pulled everything you wanted into your orbit.

-

When I got my first book advance, I messaged you before I finished processing the news. You called me back an hour later, still in costume, your hair slicked back. I kept on saying I couldn’t believe it and you said you knew I could do it, I deserved it, I was fucking amazing.

Later that night, I had dinner scheduled with Billie in Soho. I showed up first and sat across from an empty chair. When she was 15 minutes late, I messaged her — it wasn’t like her to be like this. And then you showed up, sliding onto the seat, and apologised for your lateness. You had told Billie to make a reservation on your behalf so you could surprise me.

We couldn’t stop grinning at each other because that was the sort of thing I found romantic and you found thrilling. We were two people in the midst of youth, the freshness of our experiences providing an exhilaration we wouldn’t find later on.

-

To the public, your fame shot out of nowhere, your burning star a new discovery. But you were always there; they just weren’t looking in your direction. To me, you were the only star.

-

Where did we go wrong?

-

Was it because I stayed in London while you went around the globe for your work? The night before you left for your first filming in another country, we spent hours in bed. You kissed my body from my neck to my thighs and everything in between. I had to turn my head into the pillow to keep quiet.

Your absence was like a second presence during that first time you were gone. Oh God, I missed you so much everyday. I couldn’t wait for your messages. I counted the days until you came back. But the more often you went away, the more my longing for your return lessened. Some days, I forgot we hadn’t talked.

-

Was it because you were always too exhausted to talk to me? Most of the time when I called while you were working overseas, you either passed out mid-call or we’d only speak for fifteen minutes because you had something else to do. There were days when I didn’t want to talk to you because I knew we’d talk about nothing that mattered to either of us. And sometimes, you talked like you were stuck between yourself and your character, sounding like a mediocre combination of the two.

-

Was it because the more films you starred in and the more I wrote, the more we led separate lives with no overlap?

-

Meet Me At The Intersection is about an actor who murders his wife and their two year old child. He is about to commit suicide when his agent walks in. The agent tells the actor to snap out of it and goes to hide the bodies. His wife’s sister-in-law, a reporter, shows up and starts asking about her whereabouts. For the rest of the film, the actor grapples with the guilt of his actions in secret. In the end, he ends up breaking down and confessing to the reporter.

The final scene of the movie is a shot of the actor on his knees with his arms wrapped around the reporter’s legs. The guttural wails from the actor fill the scene as the credits roll, the thin, white cursive writing adding to the gravity.

When I watched that final scene years after it came out, I couldn’t move; I was transfixed. The pain coming from you was too raw, too potent. It came from a primal part of you. I understood why you won the award for Best Actor in 2019.

-

You were making cinematic history — it wasn’t just entertainment, it was art of the purest kind, channeled straight from your heart. But your heart had been poisoned by those people around you. Power-hungry assholes who stopped at nothing. Leeches who wanted to see you excavate yourself for the camera. Seasoned, well-respected film veterans with a sexual assault conviction or two in their open closet.

You wanted to be outstanding in their eyes so you moulded yourself into their twisted visions. All your energy was directed towards work so you neglected your role of good boyfriend, your role as the real Cliff Harley. Instead, you became this shell of a man whose dedication to his work knew no bounds.

-

Even though you showed off your Beverly Hills house in Architectural Digest, you were rarely there. I had moved in six months prior to be closer to you but I saw your neighbour more than I saw you.

We had shared a room in Hackney for three years, both of our belongings crowding around us, but that cosy space felt more like home than your house ever did. You used to hang paintings done by your friends, stick B-Horror movie posters onto the wall, and play vinyls on a turntable you got from a garage sale. At your house, you had a shiny, blue, reflective Jeff Koons sculpture in your backyard. If we were the way we used to be, I would have made fun of you, asked what you were thinking, because this wasn’t you but I didn’t because maybe I didn’t know you anymore if we couldn’t laugh about it together.

-

Five days after the 2019 Academy Awards, we had lunch at your place. We got takeout because you didn’t feel like being recognised on the street. We ate in silence. It was a silence that made me aware of my every move. Things used to feel easy between us. I didn’t know what this was.

“I don’t think we’re right for each other anymore,” I said.

You didn’t even look at me. You looked at your phone while you ate your pizza slice. The only way I knew my words had any effect was because you stopped scrolling.

“Okay,” you said.

Okay. I never knew the piercing ice-cold pain two syllables could conjure.

I grabbed my stuff while you went out to the backyard to get high on a bench near the Jeff Koons statue. Before I left, I watched you out there. Your back was facing me. Your arms were spread out, elbows resting on the armrest, but your head was bent towards your right hand. You were crying. I didn’t see it. I didn’t hear it. I just knew.

But I still left. When I was in the Uber, I cried. I couldn’t stop. The driver asked what was wrong. When I offered no response aside from my sniffling, he told me I was a beautiful woman and didn’t deserve a guy like you. He didn’t even know who you were.

-

I couldn’t stand to see your face for days, weeks, months. I moved back home to Melbourne, feeling like a stranger in my parents’ house. The last time I’d been there was with you where we laughed at the names I gave my old plush toys.

I didn’t know if you tried to call me because I changed my number but you didn’t message me.

When you came on TV, I switched it off. On a poster in the street — I turned my face away. On my phone on social media — I exited the app. I avoided your films for years but you were so good at your job that I heard about them anyway.

When I finally made myself look at a picture of your beautiful face without looking away, my heart yearned for the way we used to be.

-

Sometimes I wondered: if we both had mundane jobs — 9–5, pushing papers — would we still be together? Would we still be dreaming of our futures, holding onto hope, together? If you didn’t become one of Hollywood’s most sought after actors and if my published books were hidden in plain sight at bookstores, would things have ended like this?

-

Do you remember the giddiness we felt when we boarded the Piccadilly line from Heathrow and went on the Tube for the first time? You took a picture of me standing against the doors with my eyes closed, my nose scrunched, my front teeth peeking out between my lips. It was your lock screen picture for months.

-

Do you remember how you would park your second-hand sedan somewhere around Melbourne and we’d sit and talk in it for hours? And then when you dropped me off outside my place, we’d kiss goodbye except we’d kiss for half an hour because our lips felt sublime against each other’s?

-

Do you remember when you said you’d never felt like this way about anyone before? You said you were lucky to have me in your life. You said you didn’t need anyone else.

-

If I had to choose one memory of us, I would choose this one: us in bed in Hackney on a Sunday morning, three months after we moved. It was before I lost you to the world. A few days prior, you got the role of Victor in The Tangibles, which later won an award for Best Drama Series. I was working on my first draft for The Curse of the Blessing, which later sold more than a million copies.

The dappled morning sunlight shone onto your face. Half of your left eye was in its path and the light revealed the warm hazel undertones in your iris. Your unguarded, soft face lulled me. You had your right hand underneath your right cheek. I had my left hand underneath my left cheek. We had our legs intertwined. We didn’t speak but we didn’t need words.

To have you there with me, your body next to mine, your undivided attention on me — it completed me.

But was that a real memory?

Or had it become a creation of my imagination?

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