This story spans almost two years. It might span longer.
When I tell this story, I start it like this. My first memory of him is from a drinking game. It wasn’t flattering to anyone: the shouting, the wine, the vomit on the floor. I remember most clearly the way he had looked at me as I walked into the room—how he had sat up in surprise, said: “Larissa!” as though he didn’t know what I was doing there. I didn’t know, either.
We had been acquainted with each other for a few months before then, attending the same lab meetings which took place in a disused library, with windows that let in long ribbons of afternoon sun and made me sleepy. I’d draw portraits of our colleagues in my notebook to stay awake and he, three years older than me, would lean back in his seat, saying things that were sharp and smart and made me want to bite my tongue.
A summer passed. He studied abroad and broke up with his girlfriend—I knew none of this; we were not friends. That fall, we ended up walking to the hospital together: him for stitches for a white scar that still splits his left forearm, two years later; me for a routine exam. We flirted on the way up.
I don’t remember what we said in the elevator: only the pressure of his body so close to mine, not touching. Pronounced healthy, I wrote to him: Hope the arm is better. Let’s climb something together sometime. He wrote back: Yes, absolutely.
And we fell into us as one falls into most things: a roof was involved, a window, a bed. Magic Hat brewery, Vonnegut, a stack of photographs sliding to the floor. It became a thing, whatever that means. Sex, and my toothbrush in his bathroom, and text messages in the morning poking fun at the nights before. We didn’t know what to call it. We moved fast, we were at school, he thought I was sweet, we liked each other, it worked.
Once, we had a conversation about it. Sitting on his futon—I was in his t-shirt, my underwear, we were reading, I kissed his ear. We ran through the semantics of sex without dating. We decided, as if one could possibly decide, that we didn’t want love.
When I tell this story, I might end it here. What happened? Oh, I might say. It didn’t work out. I went to the beach one day in early September to go look for seashells and then he licked the salt off my skin. We went to the library and hid in the stacks and I kissed him. And later, months later, we both wrote about these things, when we stopped sleeping together, as though the act of writing might itself be resurrection.
What happened? I gave him those seashells and a potted plant and left playlists of dreampop for him to work to while I dozed, done with my reading for the night. He held me close, even that one time when I got back on campus at 4 a.m. after a concert and crawled into his bed my limbs colder than ice and my knees bruised from a night of crowd-surfing. What happened? One night, in the middle of sex, I found myself with an urge to say “I love you” so powerful it hurt. But that was against the rules we’d set for ourselves; that was outside the parameters of our undefined whatever-it-was.
That winter, he told me: “I don’t want a thing.”
“What does that even mean?”
“A thing, a set thing, I don’t want it. I can’t right now.”
We happened to be sitting as far apart as possible in his small room, and the few paces between us suddenly felt like a gulf I could never come close to crossing. “Okay,” I said. “Then this will be nothing. Not a thing at all.”
I stopped kissing him goodbye as I left in the morning. I tried my hardest not to care for him. It was cold out, and we were scared of feeling.
When I tell this story, sometimes I stop it here. “I miss fucking you” is a loose end. “I miss you” is a loose end. To leave is neat; to stop is narratively satisfying. Time passes. I left the country. It ached. I wrote.
But even when you write an ending into your life, it doesn't always work that way. When I tell this story, I have to tell you everything. How it felt to stand in his room on a day in late July and see the shells I found last September on his bookshelf. Some things don’t change. How it felt to slowly come back to each other, over the course of another year, another change of seasons, I told you this story starts and stops.
It’s August. I’m two years older. So is he. I’m standing in his bedroom in a house I’ve never been to, in a city I am visiting for the first time. I can feel the pressure of us touching-not-touching just as I did that afternoon almost two years ago, standing in a hospital elevator.
I am not here long: a weekend trip, a matter of days, hours. The time is expectant before us like an inhalation. And as he reaches to touch my face, to pull me in, to turn the page of the ongoing story that is us that I will never be able to write about—not yet, not now, when I tell this story I don’t know how to tell it—I glimpse the curled edge of a seashell on his desk. The glimmer of mother-of-pearl I’d found two years ago. The old salt.