Late in October, the man came to Oakland, where I’d cleaned my apartment and a crockpot of chili was simmering hot on the counter. He brought cornbread and flowers, and remarked on the dahlias that were already sitting on my desk.
“You can just put these with the flowers from the other guy,” he said with a smirk.
The flowers were from my friend, Deborah, which I wanted to tell him, but also I didn’t.
We went for a walk down the tree-lined sidewalks of Montclair, then headed back for dinner as the air started to cool.
He made a fuss over my cooking, which was not bad, but was not great, and we talked about the weekend—the classes he’d taught and the essay I’d been writing. I told him my back had been hurting and I’d had trouble sleeping. He offered to lead me through a series of stretches, which seemed sort of strange but also made sense.
I stacked the dishes in the sink, shoved the table away, and got down on my hands and knees. He placed his hands on my shoulders, pushed against me, and asked me to push back. We moved from my arms to my back, down my legs, then up through my neck. He pressed hard against my hamstrings and quads before letting them go, and in the end we were kneeling thigh-to-thigh and face-to-face on the carpet.
“Put your arms around me?” he asked, and I did.
He pulled me in close. “I just want to breathe with you,” he said.
So we held and we breathed until we felt like one person with too many limbs. I wrapped my legs around his waist and sat in his lap. We were so close and so quiet that time seemed to freeze.
I didn’t want to break it by kissing, but also, I did.
Later, when he got up to leave, I asked him to stay, but he said that he had to get going.
I will ask this each time that we have to part ways, and each time it will end the same.
This will not be a relationship. It will not be love. I will never take this man home to meet my parents or introduce him to my friends. This will not be the beginning of a story that ends in a white dress and flowers. I know this from the start, that this will not be forever.
But it will not be nothing either.
Two weeks later, he came by again. He put his shoes by the door, I made tea, and we negotiated space on the one piece of furniture in my studio apartment.
The room was lit by an army of tea lights and a single IKEA lamp.
“I look good by candlelight,” he said with a smile. I leaned up against him and he ran two fingers down either side of my spine.
We said nothing for longer than I usually say nothing. I took in a long breath and let out a sigh.
“That was a good one,” he whispered.
I’d never thought I could be self-satisfied about something as basic as breathing, something I can bring to awareness or focus on fixing, but which is also involuntary, is utterly essential. It is simply the way that I make it through life, moment by moment and breath by breath, and more often than not, that escapes my attention.
We re-stacked our bodies until we were each on one side and facing each other, zipped tight like two sides of a sweater.
“You won’t really believe me when I say this,” he started, “but when I see you, I see you as perfect.”
I pulled away from his chest to see more of his face, then laid my head on the pillow beside him.
“Not magazine perfect, but actually real.”
There was an earnestness in his eyes that I wanted to trust almost as much as I wanted to keep myself safe.
He cupped my chin and took a slow scan of my face.
After he left, I still felt him beside me, his breath on my neck, his hands on my hips.
Up to a point, this had felt like my choice. It was my choice to find him, call him, and see him again. It was my choice to say yes when he asked for a date, and it’d be my choice to end it when time ran its course and I was ready to move on.
I’d thought maybe, for once, I’d direct my own future, but somehow something had changed.
Weeks went by and I caught myself caring more than I meant to, more than I told anyone else that I did. The man would come by my office for lunch or I dropped in for a movie on my way home from work.
Somewhere between the narrative that I wanted to believe, the one that I told, and the one that was actually playing out, two people got stuck every time their paths crossed.
He was not especially free with his feelings and often deflected through humor. He showed me only what he wanted, which I saw as a challenge instead of a boundary. I’d lie in his arms or sit down beside him and ask every question I knew in every way I knew how.
When he let down his guard, the words would fall freely, and the emotional connection that I longed for would deepen. His stories put flesh on the figure I took back in my mind, but it was never enough. I always wanted more. So I kept going back. Week after week and month after month. I just could not get enough of the something so different about him.
Over time, I would tell lots of stories about what this was and what it wasn’t. I would suppose and fear that I was just another girl, just a fling, not even a serious prospect. I would pretend it was casual. I would say I didn’t care. Then I would let myself hope that my feelings were shared, that the connection we kept making wasn’t just on one side. I would say he was unavailable or insecure, that I was apprehensive or overly earnest. Which of these statements were true? Which were not?
So many months later, I still do not know.
I shifted from telling the story of a relationship we didn’t have, to denying the fact that something was there.
“It’s nothing,” I told a co-worker, when she asked me what happened to the guy from the beach.
“I mean, I saw him last week, but there’s nothing going on.”
Back in the hot tub, at half past dark, I’m still caught in the newness of knowing this man and sitting beside him in slippery skin. Submerged in warmth and surrounded by night, I don’t realize that we’re on opposite trajectories, that this moment of convergence will not last for long.
I struggle to be silent. I struggle to stay still. Instead I ask questions and tell stories.
“I mean, I’m just a girl that you met on a beach,” I say.
I say it like it’s a statement, but it’s not. It’s a question I’ve been asking since the day we first met. Am I just a girl? Just a thing in a moment?
I want him to say no. I want him to tell me I’m special. I want him to say that I mean something to him.
Instead, he shifts focus.
“We must have had very different experiences of that moment,” he says.
Then he makes his remark about the difference between story and experience, and I stop short.
Story is the language that my heart and soul speak. It is the hum that keeps going when the world falls silent, the rhythm that drives when I want to give up. Story is woven in my work, it’s the substance of self. I can’t even guess how I’d parse it all out, or what will be left if I do.
Of all the ways that I’ll be challenged by this man, this will be the most important, though it will take me a long time to realize it.
I will absorb his music, long for his presence, fall in rhythm with his breathing, and develop a fascination for the photos of trees that we send back and forth. But more importantly, I will begin to really learn what it means to be present. I will realize that it is possible to get so caught up in telling stories and following scripts that you miss the actual experience of existence. There is no “just” to being a girl on a beach or a thing in a moment. That is the substance of life.
Sometimes a story has a clear start and finish, and sometimes it is just a string of experiences, of things in moments that wash from one to the next like the sand in the waves, falling into each other in movements that make up a shore with indefinite end.