Thank you for making space for me. Getting in my car at the very last minute because life feels a bit too hectic is nothing new for me. Staying with strangers is scarcely strange. Entering into a town you do not know and somehow feeling known, that is something I am less familiar with. I don’t really know you, but you are familiar. Possibly serendipitous. Most likely ordained. Anyway, thank you.
-A letter from Lubbock
He sat on the end of the bed and tugged his hoodie over each arm, right, left, then languidly over his bowed head. I rose to my knees from my curled-up position amongst the sheets and kissed his back before he could pull the fabric farther. He let his head drop and sighed serenely. “Thank you,” he breathed. It had become a wordless conversation between us that took place most mornings, only this one would be the last. He put on one sock at a time, each shoe, his beanie, the gold chain that invariably adorned his neck and would fall lopsided on the pillow beside my head when he forgot to remove it. He gathered his things, kissed me, kissed me again, then looked around at the messy space, aimlessly. “I feel like I’m forgetting something,” he said to himself as if he was alone, puzzled as to how he got there. I looked at the memorized profile while he searched, every one of his things cradled in his arms, wondering if he would ever find it. We ended up back in bed. This was common for us, sharing skin when we had nothing left to offer.
“What was your first impression of me?” I twisted my body from under the wrinkled white sheets, enmeshing myself into his side as I waited for a response.
“Well,” he looked up at the ceiling as if his answer was hiding there, “first, I thought you were beautiful. Then, I thought, hmm…she has a story too. And then you slowly unraveled it.”
And we slowly unraveled too, just as my story demands.
Lubbock is at the center of South Plains, Texas, nearly a straight shot west from Dallas. The summers are long and blistering, and the winters are short, but just as severe. I drove there in March, my back seat full of coats and books I might read. Seven hours gets lonely after the third hour, but I refused to make a phone call. I could have been punishing myself. Road trips were more familiar to me than a lot of things. From five years old on, and more times that I could call to mind, I’d been in the backseat of a car eating spiced peanuts, listening to the same three albums on loop and watching the road roll under us. The twenty-four-hour drive from Texas to Michigan (to see my maternal side of the family) was split into two full days, a stale hotel room in Memphis marking our halfway point. I’d will myself to not pee, not get out of the car if I didn’t need to, so that I could stay stationary in some trance-like state until we’d reached what we set out to find. By forcing myself into lethargy, I was dodging the ramifications of presence. Of time. The awareness of how far we still had to go (which, as a child, was always too large and unknown to make peace with).
He opened the door and hugged me. He told me I’d be sleeping in his bed, him on the couch, and we would drive to the grocery store in his truck to get ingredients for whatever I decided to cook. I offered food as compensation. In the wine aisle, I was reading stories off the back of the bottles ornately. I’m always looking for story. Sometimes I’m not sure anyone else pays attention to it. Older men and teenagers were passing me with rigid unamused expressions on their faces. He had already meandered between aisles three and four, and I was left there. Reading. He eventually recognized I wasn't with him, or came back to gather me, and we agreed on a bottle of cabernet sauvignon. The tasting notes included hints of tobacco leaf and cedar. A silky finish. Once his large truck had settled into the sooty driveway, I walked inside to start making pomodoro sauce. He boiled rigatone next to me as I crushed the wet tomatoes in my palms like I’ve been doing beside my mother for years. After finishing the bottle, we were familiar. Comfortable. He said, “Let’s play darts in the garage,” and we both proved to be pretty terrible at it, hitting the pasty white wall more than the board. “Eyes closed!” he yelled in a final attempt before we would move on to something else, then struck the bullseye instantaneously. We wouldn’t stop telling that story for a long time. My high pitched laughter reached a new decibel and his roommate cracked the door violently to berate us in a tired voice. I tried to ride his skateboard to the park across the street and he caught me as I was cascading off (the fall wasn't hard to foresee). We chain smoked cigarettes at the base of a yellow slide until we ran out. On the two couches catty corner to each other in the living room, we fell asleep talking. That night was perfect, I thought. My lips were still wine stained when I woke up.
His friend Sophia was at the house in the morning. She was young. That was the first thing I observed. She was sitting in the living room chair, one of those old rocking ones, wide and doughy. Around four years younger than me, which, in your twenties, feels like a decade. We’re all young, but we are especially young now.
She was funny and airy, her presence a light thing to lift. It was hard for me to talk to her, not because she wasn’t interesting, but because most commentary was taking place between her and him, and all of it was inside jokes. Quotes from videos I’d never seen. Musical terms I didn’t understand. He was taking photos of her and they were everywhere. That pushed me all the way back to Dallas. Outside of our shared space that didn’t feel shared at all. When I write about it, I think, what on Earth was I doing there? Even the memory is out of place. Strange to recall. Lubbock grew dry and empty to me, a dissolved version of what I expected.
“Did you say one time that you don’t like watching TV?” he asked as he put the TV on.
I’ve had this conversation with everyone I’ve ever met. I’m tired of this conversation.
“I just don’t watch it very often. I would rather talk to people. And I feel like, when I’m with someone, I want presence. TV is distracting.”
“Can we watch a Disney movie?” Sophia asked.
“Hmm,” he said while thumbing the remote, “What is your love language?”
We’d talked about this before, too.
“Interesting. I find it fascinating how that can mean something different to everyone.”
“How so?” I asked.
“Quality time is my love language too. But to me, that means having someone around. I don’t really need to be interacting with them.”
Sophia was already there, waiting, everywhere we went. Aging me. Obscuring me. And I couldn’t even be mad at her, they were tethered. I was merely adjacent.
In the emptied chill of his bedroom, I wadded up the last of my high waisted jeans and blazers into my suede bag and wrote him a letter. Setting it on the desk underneath his pin-pegged wall of notes and sketches, I hoped it would move him, ossify a connection.
My great flaw as a writer is believing words can mend what has been ruptured, when they can only describe the blood. Or lie about its severity.
These nights feel made up sometimes. Smudges. Their spectral truth is scarcely a film.
I can recall every evening that started and ended similarly, but no words can be made out. Soundtracks. Cigarettes. Touch we dare not define. Every evening we were in the same apartment repeating the same series of delicate iniquities.
In the weakly lit kitchen, I sat on the counter and waited for a vape to be placed in my hand, drinking whatever was made for me, always a little crossed and pensive. And then he would pass the threshold of the kitchen, spotting me on the cold granite, and squeeze the tender muscle above my knee, snarling, “What did you just say, mister?” I squealed hilariously and wriggled from his grip while everyone else was cuddling on the couch, watching music videos. He made fun of my dancing, my enthusiasm. I laughed that off too, I thought it was charming. Then I would feel him wrap his arms around me from behind and say, “Oof, I’ve missed you, A.”
Like a mood ring, temperature, even time, could change his coloring. But it was this duality that thrilled me, the strangest dichotomy I’d ever known. I’ve still never met a person who was as tender and harsh. Who was as opposed to being fully either.
By the end of the night, I knew I could find him slouched on the cement of the balcony. I melted down beside him to ask what he was thinking about. I should have known he would talk about the box again. He always talked about the box. This dreamed up depository where he would put pictures of all of us in our polaroid youth. Letters. Records spinning up familiar voices. Paper proof that we’d lived this bohemian life together. And he told me about it again, each time fresh like the first. “Forever,” we would say to each other, and he’d surely have the word written on one of those boxed pieces of paper.
“I want to be able to give that to my kids one day,” he whispered.
“This is family.”
“This is home.”
“I know…when do you go back to Lubbock?”
“I wish you could stay longer.”
The verdure of Catoosa, Oklahoma in October was prolific. Bright trees for miles, baldcypress and black walnuts. But the wedding day itself was reticent, withholding something from each of us. We didn’t get the sun we expected. It wasn't supposed to rain but it did, wetting the grass and misting the chairs we had set up behind the house for the ceremony. It had been almost three weeks since my last period and I was too scared to take a pregnancy test. The groom, my best friend at the time, was the only one who knew. I was in the room with him most of the day, putting his watch on, his gold necklace, steaming his jacket. When I changed and walked downstairs, I saw that our friend Mina was also in a suit, something neither of us had spoken about or planned (even though we drove those four hours together). I took us both in, dark peg leg pants, soft white fabric covering our torsos and squeezing our dainty little necks.
The rain did ultimately clear with enough time for us to set the long rectangular tables with black plates and candles, and the ceremony to conclude. They wanted each of their closest friends to say something about their love. To bless them with our memories. I remember crying hard for the first time in weeks, sputtering my tribute in tight little gasps. I’ve never been a coherent cryer.
When I sat back down in the front row. I felt a wave of nausea. A grip and then a release. I went to the bathroom to find a dot of pink blood on my white lace thong. Thank god.
The night was promptly swallowed in opaque, humid darkness from the rain and I was already drunk off some sweet liquor I found in the kitchen, softening the whetted edges of my feeling. Throughout the trip, I was suffering that tiny stab of loneliness that I hate myself for. When all the male attention is dispersed, and there is none to spare for me. I would never admit it, never dare to look so grossly (and stereotypically) girlish. I could grow out of it, I think. The night before, at a steak restaurant, my chair felt like it was miles from everyone else’s, a quiet hush between each of their conversations and my listening ears. When I looked over to catch a glimpse of him, he was halfway out of his seat into Mina’s, conjoined like one sweatshirt clad body. Whispering secrets, so many secrets, things I couldn't possibly laugh as ardently at as she could. I murmured some regrets to the salad before placing a leaf in my mouth. It is important to note (or maybe it isn’t) that most of them are a bit younger than me. But I felt ages older, a hoary pull to fit myself somewhere in the middle of this tightly wound assemblage of artists. With their vapes and their Polaroid cameras and their cool disregard for the generations preceding them, I wanted to bathe myself in them and wear their approval like a sticky residue.
When we returned, we were all watching New Girl, sprawled across couches and futons, slipping closer to each other while it rang in the background. Mina and I were on either side of him, his arms under each of our heads, our legs all tangled like seaweed. After minutes of drowsy embraces and half-sleep conversations, he rolled entirely over, giving her both arms and leaving me to the cold corner of the couch we were draped across. I got up unnoticed, taking barefoot steps up the stairs. I drunkenly tossed and turned into a torpid state until the morning light burned my eyes open.
“I need to tell you something.” Mina said to me. We were in a pretentious (but beautiful) coffee shop, where plants hang ethereally from the ceiling and baristas wait to condemn your requests for any variation of sweetener.
“Me and…well you know, we made out last night.”
I simulated surprise.
“I just don't know what it will do to our friendship,” she wrung her hands apprehensively, reaching for her coffee again and again. Against my will, I felt incredible compassion for her.
“We just don’t want to ruin our friendship.”
She said it then I said it.
This magical word we would recite like a chant, praying it would hold us together despite the fact that it too has limits, ledges for us to dangle ourselves over.
I assured her they would navigate it, figure it all out just fine, even though I didn’t imagine it would progress the way it did. No one could have.
At every gathering and every trip he made to visit after, they were more wrapped around each other than the last. An attachment that denied their intentions. Everyone in the group pretended as if it wasn't happening while they caressed and giggled and fastened themselves to each other like one entity. And as things intensified then dwindled, the way secrets do, the way things we don't understand unfold in the quiet, we all came to our own conclusions apart from them, retelling stories that never belonged to us, until things eventually evaporated and we ran out of stories to tell.
After over a year of what you could maybe call friendship, our precarious half-existence, we made plans for just the two of us. Finally. He had lived in Dallas, now, for awhile, but my attempts at an interaction were evaded. “I’d really like to hang out with you,” he texted after I returned from a week in Tulum. I held little expectation at this point, it was fading from me, but I said yes anyway, a slave to my hopefullness.
We went to the grocery store, and I made us dinner. I let him read some of my writing for the first time and he paused now and again to think things he did not tell me, and I did not ask about (but would ponder later on).
“Can we do this next week?” he said while twirling the last forkful of mushroom and fettuccine around the near empty white bowl on the counter.
So the next week we got a pizza and smoked a cigarette on the roof and got so high we fell asleep on my bed. We were laying there, his left arm heavy on my waist, nose nuzzled into my shoulder, and at some point in the middle of the night we both rustled and shifted to some semblance of awareness. His lips grazed my neck then pressed into it more and more, until kisses were fully formed. I looked over at him slowly. A question. An inquiry I didn’t want to have to answer, and apparently neither did he, because we kissed anyway, wordlessly. He let muffled moans slip through our affixed faces, then abruptly reached up to hold my chin with a shaking hand, and just…looked at me. With his deeply set eyes, lashes casting a shadow over his glance, he looked at me. So I said, “Are you ok with this?” and he said exactly what I didn’t want to hear.
“It just feels a lot like what happened with Mina. And I don’t want to ruin our friendship.”
I felt like a placeholder, but I wanted him just then, at that moment, so I was careful to make no sudden moves. I was silent. I held the place, our limbs tangled like seaweed, thinking about matching suits and deliciously blurred lines and friendship.
“Being friends with benefits is something that I’ve wanted,” He said while rearranging his body around mine. “Me too,” I said, holding a fistful of soft tee-shirt, looking back at that shadowy stare until we fell asleep intertwined. I dreamt about it all being endearing instead of capricious.
This began our pattern. A late evening. Hands pinned behind my back. Perpetually high. My place was closer to work for him, so he stayed the night. “I miss you,” texted an hour after he left, my bed still warm. A canceled evening plan here and there. An illusion.
San Antonio, Texas
The same car. Another road trip. Somewhere around seventy degrees outside my windows. I was alone this time, but he was trailing close behind on I-35, probably making a playlist for us to have sex to.
The company I was working for at the time opened a San Antonio location and I was visiting for a few days to train the manager.
“Could I come with you?” he asked. “We could stay in the bnb together and I’ll take photos while you're working.”
“I love that idea,” I told him, because it would mean I got him for more than a night.
“But I’ll take my own car. I need the space and some alone time.”
The small things I looked forward to were always the threads he pulled loose, irreverently. As if they didn’t make up the whole of us. A tapestry of microscopic intimacies that he would either grant or deny me.
“Ok.” I said in as upbeat of a tone as I could strangle from myself.
The driveway was all rocks, a small backhouse sitting at the end, aged. It was dark by the time we both pulled in, and there was only one light over the door. A white bed in the corner across from the kitchen. A row of windows. A claw foot tub in the bathroom.
“This is why I chose the place,” I said, pointing.
“I can’t wait to spend most of the time in that bath with you.” He said in his soft voice, then kissed me, and I kissed him back tremendously. A dense embrace. Our touch suspended us above our terminology. “Friends with benefits,” but we were actually nameless. We were us.
When I was at work the next day, he got our wine, the one we drank in Lubbock, little candles, and charcuterie items. We got high and went to the store in search of bubble bath, giggling our way aimlessly through each aisle. He slapped my butt hard when we walked in and I ran, laughing, from him. Eventually an employee spotted us in the home goods department and yelled, “Are you guys the ones looking for bubble bath?!”
We were hilarious. Unquietable.
I wish I had written down all the jokes we made at night, but I probably wouldn't think they were funny now.
He lit the candles, poured the wine, then started the playlist I knew he’d been working on. There was music for every place we had sex. He was organizing our moments. After the bottle of bubble bath was emptied into the balmy water, I slid in after him, floating between his legs.
“I’m so turned on right now,” he said into my ear while he moved my hair from its clip.
When we got out and I rolled onto the bed, he said, “Wait,” and pulled out his Polaroid camera, capturing me with one hand up, covering my face, the towel just barely obscuring my naked back. I had long, red nails then, and the snake tattoo crawling up my wrist was partially washed out.
The last thing I saw before falling asleep was our mess, all of it, out on the floor. The counters.
The only thing he forgot was flowers.
I would return, months later, to the exact spot with a friend. We drove together in my car. Bought candles and wine and bubble bath. I got flowers, too, and spilled them into the old porcelain sink. She took a Polaroid of it before we left. They looked naked like me in the paleness of the photo. In a place they didn’t belong.
In every exchange outside of our mercurial cocoon, I lied. I wasn’t being honest about how much I cared. How much I hated myself for caring. In the dark we were ours; it was the only place we existed. Until I could craft a story there wasn’t one.
“I don’t want you to think I’m just coming over for sex, I want to see you,” he said. “I love you,” he said.
Even though we were friends with benefits. Even though that’s what friends with benefits are.
“I know,” I said. “I love you too,” I said.
“Promise?” he asked.
“Pinky.” I vowed.
And then our fingers locked, forging an agreement we’d already broken.
“My stomach hurts,” he said, even though his stomach was always hurting. Between the weed and nicotine, lack of any real diet, and blistering anxiety, I don’t know how he ever felt fine. I don’t think he did.
“Have you eaten yet?” I asked.
“I have a frozen pizza, I’ll make it for you.”
I used up a lot of our time feeding him.
“Thank you sweet girl.” He said it like a prayer, knowing he could never repay the favor.
I was wearing a blue and white striped button down that barely reached the middle of my thigh, with nothing underneath. After I placed the pizza on the oven rack and set a timer he was pressing his full lips into mine. A thank you. His intimacy was surprising to me, even though it was frequent. With how moody he was most of the time, I could never tell if he would want to devour me or be alone. Before I really realized what was happening, he was inside me, turning me around to face the counter and biting my shoulder blade. He reached out, squeezing my dainty little neck, and I said, “Harder.” The fact that I didn't know it was coming made it savory. I had difficulty with the concept of consent within a relationship because when I trusted someone, I didn’t want to be asked for intimacy, I wanted to be told. For him, it was easier that way too. We were both turned on by hunger. Taking without sanction. So he took from me there, and on the couch, until the timer went off and I handed him a plate, watching as he ate his pizza in my bed. Well, my pizza, technically.
My floor creaking proverbially under his midnight steps became our ritual. I saw him at the ends and the beginnings of his days, blocks of time that bookmarked our realities.
“I’m close,” he would say when his car turned from Main to Elm so I could retrieve him from the parking garage, or into my throbbing ear, holding our hands above my head like a sacrifice.
The torrents of intensity easily caused me to forget that we didn’t form a whole life, only a broken series of moments lived together. And I learned—through the discrepancies in the narratives we told ourselves—that there is a difference.
It’s pitiable to admit, but I don’t remember a lot of conversations shared. We were high most of the time, having sex, or I was trying to soothe his anxieties, worried he’d be too worn to work. To love me. He would let me buy his meals or pet his head, then swat my solace away like cigarette smoke.
But the crackling instance I first felt rage toward him, well, that conversation I do distinctly recall.
“Hey mister! You look cute.” he said as I stepped into the passenger side of his car.
The bar he drove us to didn’t open for another fifteen minutes (which naturally distressed him), so we shared a cigarette on the bench outside.
“What are you thinking about?” I asked.
“I’ve been so stressed with this move, everything that goes into it. I am supposed to be looking at apartments tomorrow, but I just don't want to. I did talk to Blake, though, the other day about it. She was saying that I could move in with her to save money, and I think that is going to be my best option.”
My teeth clenched and every level of empathy and adoration drained from my body and dripped onto the pavement.
Blake is Sophia. Blake is Mina. Blake is the shadow of every friend who always surpassed me, always loomed a little louder, a little nearer. Friend. He was regularly with her before he was with me, my apartment being the last stop on his agenda, and that was if he didn’t fall asleep at her place first, leaving me waiting on the edge of my bed like a stupid girl who knew better.
“She’s basically my sister,” he reassuringly cooed when talking about her. But of course, that was so delightfully us. We were best friends with whoever we wanted to be. You could find us in a pile of drunken hugs and hand holding, one blur of dopamine and tenuous boundaries.
It all felt comforting until it didn't.
It was this friendship, the way we all imbricated, that held us intimately to each other, and tore us raggedly apart.
For the remainder of the night, I had no smiles or reassuring chirps to add to conversation. We finished the night at a diner, two porcelain plates of hash browns and fried eggs across from each other, more noise coming from our forks than our mouths.
“Have you started your period yet, by the way?” he looked up from his half-eaten pancake to inquire.
“No.” I wasn't going to tell him that (because it would certainly be his fault if I was), but of course he would ask me as I was elegantly gliding toward fury.
He widened his eyes and sighed with his whole body. So much sighing all the time.
“I’m just late. Besides, whatever ends up being the case, I have it handled.” I snapped before he could rub his temples rigidly or say anything else.
I ended up paying the check. He didn't feel up to driving anymore, so I drove us back in his car to essentially drop myself off at my own apartment. “I can’t come up, I really am so tired and need to go home.” he said, and I merely nodded and stiffly unbuckled my seatbelt. “Wait,” He leaned in to kiss me and my lips barely moved. Nothing in me could arouse itself. No desire, no longing, not even basic need.
He rested his head on my shoulder and I felt a tear soak through my thinly knit sweater.
Reaching up to put my hand on his face was all I could muster, leaving us just sitting there like that for lingering minutes. Broken pieces attempting to assemble, just jagged edges embracing in the front seat of his car.
November eventually came and I stopped eating breakfast. My appetite abandoned me, and my stomach clung to itself.
I dreaded breaks of time when I wasn't needed at work. Silence. A subterrane in which to recognize myself. Space made me feel more fragile. Gradually I saw less of him and Blake saw more, until we all knew what was becoming of it. He stayed fewer nights and gave me fewer words, but never actually told me what was happening.
On one of the last nights I saw him, I kissed his fingers. I kissed his chin. His tension dissolved under my touch, and nothing felt better than when we had removed all physical space that separated us. We bridged the gaps between our minds with our bodies, and that was the only time I didn’t feel like he was leaving me. That was the only time he was fully mine. To clarify, I don’t mean leaving me for someone else (though that would come later), but in the emotional sense. He kept his head where I couldn’t reach it, and every day I believe he thought a little less of me. He left me in all the refined ways I could feel but never see. Hairline fractures. And just like us, whatever we were, invisible to the naked eye. Impossible to notice or name. When I eventually ended it, I was simply saying what he wouldn’t. I was always saying what he wouldn’t.
Four months after moving to New York, I returned to Dallas for a bridal shower. It was hotter than it should have been, a Texas fall. Many people asked me the same thing: “Does it feel like home?”
“What do you mean?” I questioned.
“Being back, here.”
I shared my friend’s queen mattress with her again, the one that had been passed between bodies over the past few years, and I flanked the cusp of lucid dreaming and violent restlessness each night. Do you think beds preserve memories? Can they haunt you like every other sheet-cloaked apparition? Each night. Every night, recollections of him were the prelude to my first dips into shallow sleep. His body behind mine when I rolled onto my side in the first slivers of morning, kissing my neck and softly thrusting us awake. Or laying on top of me, underneath me, inside of me, turned away from me, indefinitely unaware of and outside of me.
I heard a song in a coffee shop that I had only heard one time before, two years ago, with him. I saw someone who knew me that I’d never met. I drove swiftly past buildings that I recognized but had never entered.
Does it feel like home?
“No,” I said, “it just feels familiar.”