Eight Summers Ago
WE GET BACK to our downtown hotel room at two thirty in the morning, a little bit hammered. Usually, we don’t drink so much, but this whole trip has been a celebration.
We are celebrating the fact that Alex has graduated from college, and that soon he’ll be leaving to get his MFA in creative writing from Indiana University.
I tell myself it’s not that far away. In fact, we’ll be living closer to each other than we have been since I dropped out.
But the truth is, even with all the traveling I’ve been doing, I’m itching to get out of my parents’ house in Linfield. I’ve started looking for apartments in other cities, flexible jobs bartending and serving where I can work myself to exhaustion, then take weeks off to travel.
Spending time with my parents has been great, but everything else about being home makes me feel claustrophobic, like the suburbs are a net pulling tighter and tighter around me as I struggle against it.
I run into my old teachers, and when they ask what I’m doing, their mouths twist judgmentally at the answer. I see classmates who used to bully me, and some that were friendly enough, and I hide. I work at an upscale bar forty minutes south, in Cincinnati, and when Jason Stanley, my first kiss, came in with his orthodontist-perfected smile and the kind of clothes full-time white-collar jobs require, I dove into the bathroom. Told my boss I had vomited.
For weeks after that, she kept asking how I was doing in a voice that made it perfectly clear she thought I was pregnant.
I was not pregnant. Julian and I are always careful about that. Or at least I am. Julian, in general, is not careful by nature. He is a person who says yes to the world, almost regardless of what it asks. When he visits me at work, he finishes drinks that get left on the bar, and he’s tried most drugs (heroin excluded) once. He’s always up for weekend trips to Red River Gorge or Hocking Hills—or slightly longer trips to New York, on the overnight bus that’s only sixty dollars round trip but often has no bathroom. He has the same kind of flexible schedule I do—he’s a college dropout too, but he left the University of Cincinnati after only one year.
He was studying architectural design, but really, he wants to be a working artist. He shows his paintings at DIY spots around the city, and he lives with three other painters in an old white house that makes me think of Buck and the transients of Tofino. Sometimes, after one too many beers, sitting on the porch while they all smoke weed or clove cigarettes and talk about their dreams, it makes me so nostalgic I could cry from some mixture of sadness and happiness whose proportions I can never quite sort out.
Julian is rake-thin with hollowed-out cheekbones and alert eyes that can feel like they’re x-raying you. After our first kiss, outside his favorite bar, a grungy place downtown that has a bike repair shop in the back, he told me he didn’t ever want to get married or have kids.
“That’s okay,” I told him. “I don’t want to marry you either.”
He laughed gruffly and kissed me again. He always tastes like cigarettes or beer, and when he spends his days off work—he works in a UPS warehouse at the edge of town—painting at home, he gets so lost in his work that he forgets to eat or drink. When we meet up afterward, he’s usually in a foul mood but only for a few minutes, until he has a snack, at which point he melts back into a sweet, sensitive boyfriend who always kisses and touches me so sensually that I regularly find myself thinking, I bet this would look beautiful on film.
I consider saying it to him, asking if we should set up a camera and take some pictures, and I’m immediately embarrassed to have even considered it.
He’s the second person I’ve ever slept with, but he doesn’t know that. He didn’t ask. The first still comes into my bar every once in a while and flirts a little, but we can both tell that whatever mild attraction there was when he first started coming in fizzled after those two quick hookups. They were kind of awkward but fine, and in the end, I’m glad I got them out of the way because I have a sense that Julian would’ve been too freaked to come near me if he’d known how inexperienced I was. He would’ve been afraid I’d get too attached to him, and probably I have, but I think he has too, so for now, it’s okay that we spend every spare minute together.
Julian met Alex once when Alex was home for Christmas break at my bar, a second time during spring break at Julian’s grungy bike bar, and a third time for breakfast at Waffle House before Alex and I left for this trip.
I can tell Julian has very little opinion of Alex, which is mildly disappointing, and likewise I’m aware that Alex despises Julian, which probably shouldn’t have been a surprise.
He thinks Julian is reckless, careless. He doesn’t like that he always shows up late, or that sometimes I don’t hear from him for days, then spend weeks with him almost constantly, or that he hasn’t met my parents though they live in the same city.
“It’s okay,” I insisted when Alex shared these opinions with me on the flight to San Francisco a few days ago. “It works for us.” I don’t even want him to meet my family.
“I can just tell he doesn’t get it,” Alex said.
“Get what?” I asked.
“You,” he said. “He has no idea how lucky he is.”
It was both a sweet and a hurtful thing for him to say. Alex’s take on our relationship made me feel embarrassed, even if I wasn’t sure he was right.
“I’m lucky too,” I said. “He’s really special, Alex.”
He sighed. “Maybe I just need to get to know him better.” I knew from his voice he didn’t think that would fix the problem at all.
In my daydreams, I’d imagined the two of them becoming best friends, so close that it made sense for our summer trip to expand to include Julian, but after seeing how they interacted, I knew better than to even float the idea.
So Alex and I headed to San Francisco on our own. My credit card earned me enough points to get one of the round-trip plane tickets free, and Alex and I split the cost of the other.