He flirted with you at work. You were 16 and he was 23. He would hold his hands behind his back to mimic how you walked away from the server board in the kitchen. Because you were uncomfortable in your own body. Your ass felt too big, the way you walked too bouncy. Sitting at the bar at work eating before the doors opened, he sat down beside you and pushed his hand up your thigh not saying anything. He followed you out to the parking lot up the hill where staff parked. He asked if he could drive your Volkswagen. He had never been in one before. You felt like you might throw up if you said yes. But you did anyway.
You drove around together a few times after work, riding in the dark along old dirt roads outside of town. The lights from the dashboard illuminating both your faces. He invited you over to his parents’ house where he was staying temporarily but you couldn’t go inside. He told you he hated it. He was used to being on his own, but he had to figure some things out right now. He walked you to your car parked on the street out front after talking to each other for hours. And he kissed you. You didn’t know what to do with your hands, if you should close your eyes.
Walking around the block at his parents’ house, hiding because a bug spray truck came by blasting fumes for mosquitoes. Sitting in the driveway on the back of a truck bed. He leaned in to kiss you and reached his hands up under your shirt. The first time his fingers grazed the outside of your underwear. You felt light, like floating. You noticed his shorts, how he was hard against his leg. You had never seen that before.
The drives you would take together. Making out and listening to music. How you danced in the street in his parent’s neighborhood. Kissing and swinging in the backyard. Always together at night, always in secret. He didn’t want you telling people at work or friends that you knew him. He gave you a piece of art the size of a bookmark that he had made. He was moving soon. He wrote on the back, to my friend - July 2003 my mom's birthday.
He left for grad school in the summer. The first time he called you and left a message, Hey it’s J—. My number is 9xx-xxx-xxxx. You missed it because you were out eating with your parents. You didn’t like the cell phone and kept forgetting to take it with you. How he called randomly, every few weeks. Always leaving you excited and confused. He told you about school and about his work. You were so nervous on the phone, shaking from the excitement. But you never had anything interesting to say. You were still in high school, still a kid living in a sad small town. He told you about how he used to love watching you walk away at the restaurant. The white skirt you wore was see through. The thong underneath drove him crazy.
You took Polaroids when you were 17, posing in a mini skirt. Sitting on the counter at a laundromat eating a banana, your legs angled in a way to show off your underwear. Standing in front of a window in your friend’s apartment, topless, turning to look back at the camera with a smile. Mailing them to him as a gift. You knew he probably had other girls. But were they young with perfect tits like you? Getting into the bathtub when he would call, the sounds the water made as your naked body gently moved around. Innocent.
He came home that Christmas and showed up at the restaurant. Sat down beside you but acted like he was talking to old coworkers. Got invited to a party that everyone was going to. He said he wouldn’t be able to come. Telling you the way you feel about me is the way I feel about someone else. Then showing up to the party and kissing you on Christmas Day. He said, damn girl you trying to kill me? How it took less than a week for him to call you again. But he kept playing, telling you that you were too young. That he has someone else. But you still heard from him every few weeks. He still wanted you, he said. But it was time and space. It was age.
Six months later you would be together. He came home and called you to meet up at a park. Sitting on a swing while he stood over you with his hands in his pockets, he asked you if you were still a virgin. He wasn’t mad but he said he wanted to be your first. He would take you camping in Virginia your first weekend of college and you would finally have sex with him in a tent in the woods. He made you banana and peanut butter sandwiches and sat at the picnic table playing his guitar. It was cool in the mornings, nothing like where you were from. And he wore a long sleeve thermal shirt over his t-shirt and shorts.
The first year — “Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy” playing as you drove down sunny streets in Chapel Hill in his green ford explorer. Shows at the Cat's Cradle. Eighteen and seeing Arcade Fire on their first tour. Parties where you were the only one under 21. How he didn’t want you telling people how old you were. Just say in college. Keep it simple. But one of his roommates didn’t like you. She knew you were young.
The smell of his art studio. Like plaster and paint and a sweet fruit mixed together. The room had no windows, like a white cinderblock cage. The giant desktop computer in the lab all the grad students used. You standing in the background waiting while he checks his emails. He didn’t have a computer at home. The Fedora hat you bought him that he lost and wasn’t really sorry about.
Telling you, don’t eat fast food. Don’t eat meat. You are going to leave me one day for a younger guy. The band he had, “Tennis”. How he sang “I only called you to hear myself talking to you”.
The first trip to NYC. Hand jobs in a taxicab. Doing lines of coke in a bathroom at a bar you were too young to get into. Having sex, you on top, when your friend walked in on you both. You went to the MOMA but felt overwhelmed after six floors of art. The sound of the high school bands practicing for the Thanksgiving Day parade at 3 am. Right outside the window of the apartment you were both in. How small the kitchen was, how groceries could be delivered to you.
He wrote you a letter and sent it in the mail saying, one day we can say the things we both know each other feel. Then shortly after he said I love you in person and for some reason it took you months to say it back. You wanted to but each time the moment seemed right your voice was gone. Coming down weekends from college to stay with him in his house in Carrboro that he shared with two other grad students. The perfectly rectangular window in the living room with no shades covering it, the green lawn and shady trees. They didn’t have a TV and they all acted like this was a statement. The one piece of art you remember, a photograph of a stack of towels pinned directly above the toilet in the shared bathroom.
His bed was on the floor and he had no comforter. There were nights when you would wake to him rubbing up against you, your naked body moving with his, both of you half asleep and not speaking. Getting up in the morning wondering if that was a dream. The first few months those weekend visits would involve so much sex you would come back to school sore, moving stiffly while your friends all made fun of you. But you always faked it with him. And you started to think other girls lied about sex too.
He made you dinners and you listened to “Iron and Wine” while he cooked. He liked to go to Weaver Street Market with the dog, get coffee and hang out on the lawn with the crowds. But you felt shy and uncomfortable. You had never seen a grocery store like this one, where milk was served in glass bottles that you had to bring back. Where food was from the farm in town and people were around outside playing music and making spontaneous art. He took you to art shows, sometimes he was in them and sometimes he wasn’t. But he always wanted you to have an opinion, to share your thoughts. But all you thought about was how could some of these things be called art? Pencil drawings on torn off pieces of paper. For sale for fifty dollars?
His thesis show that spring before he graduated. His parents came up and it felt awkward. Everyone knew you were the young girl he hung out with. The one who was in high school. But his mother was cold when she gave you a distracted side hug. They bought him an Apple laptop - the solid white MacBook. But he still didn’t have a cell phone.
Living with him the summer after sophomore year. His duplex in Durham. When you came to stay — bags packed in the trunk of your bug — you walked in to see he had flowers on the counter and Hey Ash written in bright colored magnetic letters on the old white fridge. The overgrown backyard that you never went into. Standing on the side porch steps, watching his dog do his business. The perfectly sunny kitchen with the Formica round countertop. The walls painted white over so many years the paint was peeling off in thick layers. Taking a nap on a sunny afternoon and the buzzer for the dryer going off. He got up confused and turned off the bathroom light. How you laughed about it for days. The time he reached up to turn off the overhead light on the spinning ceiling fan and as the light went out the globe crashed around you.
Going to Baltimore for a week-long art festival. You helped sell the merch for his art collective. But it was hot, and you hated it. The city was dirty, and it scared you to see so many people living on the street. You had to sleep on the floor in a room full of other artists because everyone was broke, and no one could get a hotel. All people he called friends but many you had never met before. He bought you a handmade wallet, it was a vintage green pattern with a few buttons sewn on it. Everyone went to dinner at a place that claimed to be a favorite of John Waters, it had a giant mural of constellations on the wall and you tried mussels for the first time.
Back in Durham you got a job serving ice cream at a Ben and Jerry’s next door to the Whole Foods. He made fun of the job but loved that you came home smelling like cake batter every night. You didn’t have friends and you spent a lot of time alone. He said, you watch too much TV, you don’t try to meet people. He took you to shows, CD release parties, Art exhibits and museums but you always felt like an imposter. You weren’t an artist; you weren’t in a band. You were just the cool guy's girlfriend.
He moved into a house with a guy who wasn’t an artist in Raleigh your junior and senior years. He liked baseball and was getting an MBA. He wore a top hat unironically. And you both laughed at him behind his back. Did he really need the top hot and the pipe to get laid? Did he think he was an intellectual?
Having an awkward conversation in the bedroom, his bedroom, the thin wall not much distance from the top hat roommate. Sitting on the chair in the corner of the room and him asking you if you ever got off during sex. You worried the roommate might hear you both speaking. You were a bad liar so you told him maybe you just couldn’t, maybe something was wrong with your body. But sometimes his mouth worked, just not always.
The Christmas party they had, 2007. It was an ugly sweater party which you had never heard of before. The first-place prize was a VHS tape of Oprah. His band played from one of the rooms in the house. They used it as a workspace/studio/band room. It had brown paneled walls, the kind with random round black circles that from a distance looked like roaches. There was a new bass player, his name was Kyle and you couldn’t stop looking at him. Did he have to be so cute, so young and tall and lean? Shows with the band at The Cave, being uncomfortable around all the older people. Sitting at the merch table to help sell the album they recorded a few years before. The stickers he drew of two tennis rackets stuck together.
Going to the beach for Spring Break senior year. It was cold and you didn’t like the town. It was lonesome and boring and nothing like the beaches you grew up around in Florida. He asked you to marry him after dinner in the hotel room. You were laying on your side, uncomfortable after the food. He said he was going to ask on the beach, but he was scared he would drop the ring. You didn’t wear it much; told him you weren’t crazy about jewelry and you didn’t want to lose it. He got mad that it took you a week to tell anyone about the engagement.
The time his roommate brought a girl home at two a.m., woke you up fucking her in the room next door. Her moans so loud and overdone. You imagined him naked but his top hat still on while he took her from behind. You had an early flight to NYC again. Your 21st birthday. The bedroom door opened, and a naked woman stood in silhouette. She was lost, she said. You had him get up and check the house, you were scared. The next morning, early showers and packing. There was a blood trail from the bedroom to the backdoor and out onto the brick stairs leading to the grass. She had cut her foot wandering around the house in the dark, but no one explained what it was cut on. The city didn’t feel the same the second time. The first step on the subway, trying to get to your hotel. A homeless guy was shouting about all the years he had been arrested, taking off one piece of clothing for each year he was locked up. You had a headache and just wanted to get to the room. But it was a disappointment, the window looked out to a brick wall and the bathroom was shared with everyone else on the floor.
Your best friend bought a bottle of Dom Perignon and made you a dinner of gnocchi that she learned in culinary school the week before. You took polaroid’s of drinking and eating at her apartment. The one you still have; he’s bent over with you on his back. You’re laughing but looking away. And he is looking at the floor.
Getting tattoos together. He drew both. One on his arm, an outline of the state you were both from. And yours on your wrist, the state with the state flower. Now you forever have his artwork on you. With you.
Moving in finally after graduation but feeling like you were totally lost. Working at NC State for a Christmas tree genetics department. Watering, planting, and killing Christmas trees all summer long. The professor went somewhere in South Asia and brought you back an evil eye charm. It rests on your bookshelf today. Listening to the Bob Dylan song “I’ll Keep It with Mine”, the only thing that would calm the constant anxiety. How the sky looked too big, how it hurt to see the clouds. You would drive around with the visor down every day, just to hide the sky. You felt you might float away into it the way a balloon does when you let it go.
Feeling pressure from your parents to pick a dress, a place. Order invitations. Who will be the bridesmaids? But did you even want a wedding? Thinking of walking in front of all those people made your hands start to sweat.
Moving to a small town closer to his community college job but somehow it was your fault. Because you were the one who was always scared of the city. But the apartment was too new, too white and you both didn’t seem to fit in it right. Getting let go from NC State and being unemployed. It was 2008 and no one was hiring. Drinking all the time but trying to hide it.
Going to the college reunion in the fall and sleeping with an old professor in the back seat of your car. He told you were a great writer, he wanted to help you with your career, he said. He put his hand on your knee when he drove you to the store for cigarettes. Because you had too many white wines at the gala. The dress was an ugly yellow and black mini. The sex was drunk and clumsy. And he said he didn’t want to get you pregnant. The professor had a wife and kid already.
You came home the next morning hungover and on your period. He was waiting in the living room with the apartment perfectly clean. He said he missed you and you ran into the bathroom. You said you didn’t feel good through the door. He wanted to help, and you wanted to throw up. You said, you don’t want to marry me. And it felt like a line someone else said.
How he wrote fuck you in jelly on an orange peel one morning after you made breakfast. How he never laughed at any of your jokes but always laughed at his own. When you left, he cried, lying in bed calling you names as you packed your bag at 6 am. He was a nasty crier and it was the first time he had cried in almost ten years.
He emailed you to say he had your camera charger and how he had to take a one-time prescription for anxiety, that you represent a bad time in his life. You drove up to get the rest of your things on New Year’s. He wanted to get a few drinks and you did, but you ended up crying. He wanted to know who was texting you, why are you checking your phone so much, is it a guy? He said you would get married in a year, be pregnant with babies and living back at home. He wanted to sleep together one more time, but you said no. He said this would be the last time you would see each other. And he was right.
But it wouldn’t be the last time you spoke, the last time he would reach out to you. Or you would reach out to him, desperate for his approval but never understanding why. And those times he would email or message, it would feel like he was standing right in the room. Even 13 years later – when he said he went to “Kill Devil Hills”, the last time I was there was with you. Him messaging you while vacationing with his wife and kid. You are driving to daycare to pick up your own two boys. States away, decades away.