“I don’t know what you’re in the mood for,” he said, “because those are three very different things.”
I paused, looking up from menu to bartender and feeling like what he’d just said applied to more than which drink I should order. I told my friend about this the next day and she nodded her head. “There’s light and fruity, dark and heavy, or just something that tastes like alcohol.” That sounded about right.
And what kind of buzz was I after? That one night, it was the smooth-headed and silky high of a Brut rosé; it sparkled beside a steaming bowl of ramen while me and my girlfriend talked about finishing school, ditching old religion, and how we go with boys.
“He knows what to say to keep me around for another couple of months,” she said once and I couldn’t forget it.
I performed twice last Saturday: a few songs at a local coffee shop, a few songs on the floor of a friend’s living room. She’d invited me to play at her house party and her home was lovely: it smelled like sugar (she’d baked cookies that day), its colors (red, orange, yellow) were warm, and she’d hung Christmas lights that trailed the walls like vines. I got to meet a bunch of her other friends while I was there and they were all funny, outgoing, kind.
You tend to go elsewhere when you perform, so when it was my turn to play, I closed my eyes and pictured the ones I miss, the ones I’ve written about. I haven’t written for any of them in a while now and I think it’s because I’m able to miss them now without wishing for them still because I can finally understand and accept why they’re not here.
But I’d lift my eyes just a little every now and then… catching the occasional tapping of the barefoot girl’s foot as she sat on the floor across from me, her back against the couch with her boyfriend’s legs on either side of her and his hands in her hair (he was sitting on the couch behind her). I’d been noticing how close the two were all evening and wondered if James would hold my hand more, put his hands in my hair more, the longer we were together.
He was in the corner of the room now, sitting still on a chair and watching me while I played cross-legged in the middle of the floor. I wouldn’t look at him while I played but my eyes shot towards his immediately, without me even thinking about it, once I’d finished.
“Are we talking about setting?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Well I like the way you use punctuation.”
“And I like the upward lilt in his voice — it goes up at the end of each line.”
“Yeah… it does. Are you from North Carolina?”
“Every single scene felt like it was necessary, you know?”
“And if he’s interacting with anyone, he’s observing them.”
“Right. It has a nomadic feel.”
“If you’re called a sissy and you cry about it, you are one.” Everyone laughs at this.
“I like roof scenes.”
My last creative writing class. We workshopped a few stories and then Braziel said an unceremonious goodbye to all of us. He’s sensitive, so I think that’s why he did it that way. I didn’t approach him directly to offer my own personal goodbye because he’s been such a mentor to me that I knew I’d cry if I did and I didn’t want to seem silly to him.
Instead, I thought about the final story I’d be submitting online that Friday — the one about three addicts. I still wasn’t entirely happy with it and wondered if he’d like this one. It was such a personal story that I haven’t even put it on here (and doubt I ever will), but I will say that – by the time I actually finished it and turned it in, just an hour before midnight – I did like it. It was really good.
Anyways, I was making this one comment before class ended, sharing something with a student that I thought might make their story more dimensional, when Braziel looked over at me suddenly and asked me to repeat what I’d said.
“Repeat what?” I asked, because I’d just spoken a great deal.
“What you just said,” he said, taking up his pen.
I couldn’t remember exactly what I’d said but I still knew what I meant. “Okay — right now, we see him hit the road, so the story only goes in this one direction, right? He’s standing still first and then going somewhere. One direction. But if he starts out on the road,” I continued, “we can see him there on the road always, extending infinitely in both directions. The coming and going becomes blurred then.”
Braziel nodded, writing the words down just like I’d been writing down everyone else’s.
My friend and I went to this concert last week. The musicians were from Florida and their sound was an ambient beachy-reggae.
There were these boys behind us that kept spilling alcohol — hitting my white shoes, bare shoulder — and this one time, after another splash from behind and somebody suddenly cutting in front of me to weave their way through the crowd, I took a step backwards and felt the girl behind me reach her arms around me to cradle my head in her hands. She held my head for a minute, swaying and laughing, and I laughed too because my white shoes were turning brown now and all of us were just being here together, drinking and dancing and feeling sad or happy or a little bit of both.
“Are you having a good time?” my friend asked later and I could see the words on her mouth better than I could hear them.
“YES!” I said, smiling. I was moving my feet and moving my hands and thinking that I didn’t know what would happen at all — who would come and who would go and who would ever actually stick around. I only knew for sure that I would.
“Do you think you’re going to leave me someday?” I asked him, buzzed on something clear.
He smiled and shook his head, river eyes sparkling like rosé. “No.”
“It’s just… I don’t want to be the bird in the hand that’s better than the one in the nest or the bush or whatever,” I said, my neck going limp. Earlier on in the day, I’d told him I was a bunny and a bird at the same time: a bunny bird. “I don’t want you to choose me and then stick with me because you chose me… I want you to WANT me.” I sighed deeply then, tired and lost for the right words, the best ones.
I felt his eyes on me. “Can’t I do both?”
I remembered him leaving the room early one morning, several weeks before. My eyes were closed then and I was facing the wall, pressing my knees close to my chest and slipping in and out of dreams, slipping in and out of him still being there in the room with me.
But I could hear him quietly slipping on clothes and grabbing things, getting ready for his work day, when his sounds suddenly went away and I felt a blanket being draped over my shoulders — gently, slowly. The blanket was heavy and warm and I fell more in love with him then.
Then I remembered arriving to his house late one Friday night, saying I needed to shower and change clothes before we started on dinner together. That might have been the evening we made curry together. Anyways, I dropped my duffel bag on the kitchen floor and set my dirty coffee mug on the counter and then, when I got out of the shower, I noticed the mug was wet and clean and sitting on the other side of the sink. Too nice. Too thoughtful.
And I remembered other things, too — like walking out of a gas station a month ago (we were heading to this hiking spot up north) and seeing him standing outside my car. He could have just stayed in the passenger seat and waited for me but he was busying himself with my bike rack instead, making sure everything was tight and secure as he adjusted straps and fiddled with the small details of things.
I also remembered his reaction when I gave him a copy of my book a few months ago: surprised, delighted. He brought it up in conversation a few times afterwards, sharing his thoughts and observations as he progressed through it, and then he finally told me, after he’d finished it, that he didn’t like the ending. It was too quick, too undeveloped, he said.
He’d finished it. Meaning he’d actually read it. AND he was being honest with me about it — helping me consider other possibilities and become a better writer instead of just complimenting me so I’d like him more. But what I appreciated the most was that he’d simply read the damn thing when no other guy I’d ever shared a book or a story with had. They seemed to like the way I looked more than the way I thought, wrote, talked. James seemed like to everything.
But then, I remembered how I’d embarrassed him recently.
He wanted to take me somewhere, he said. This was early April, so springtime, but it was still cool out and I’d left my Vans back home in Birmingham.
I pulled a pair of sandals and two mismatched socks out of my duffel bag. “I can just wear socks underneath the sandals,” I said, knowing he’d hate it.
“No way,” he said quickly, looking down at my bare feet. “Let’s go find shoes.”
I rolled my eyes at him and smiled, slipping socks and then sandals on anyways.
We went to the mall (I don’t like malls) and looked at ALL of the shoes that were there and I didn’t like ANY of them. I’m a thrift store shopper kinda gal, super simple in taste and in no way fussy, but when it comes to shoes, I am kind of particular.
Desperate to get me out of my weirdo get-up, James took me to the store he works at and I quickly surveyed all the pairs of shoes — they were covering tables, lining shelves, and tucked into the walls… we ran into a few of his coworkers while we were there and I knew he was secretly hoping that none of them would notice my feet.
I felt bad for him and decided that it would be less awkward for him if I just directly drew attention to the matter. “James is embarrassed because I’m wearing socks with sandals today,” I’d say to each person, and then they’d laugh a little and then that would be the end of it.
We never did find a pair of shoes I liked well enough to buy but he decided that – socked sandals aside – we could still go do the surprise thing anyways.
And the surprise thing was caving. I couldn’t believe it! On one of our first dates, I casually mentioned that I liked caves and caving — and James had obviously been listening.
What I especially love about James is how he doesn’t pretend to be anything other than himself on these dates of ours. He grumbled almost the whole way through the cave because kids were being loud and people kept pausing to take pictures and our deep boondocks tour guide liked thinking out loud. A lot.
I told James, repeatedly, that he just needed to surrender to these fixed conditions so he could enjoy all the variables — like where he could place his eyes (stalactites, stalagmites, and sudden deadly drop-offs — oh my!), what he could think about, and how he could hold my frickin hand whenever the heck he wanted.
But his persistent dissatisfaction with voices and phones and crowds proved profitable in the end; after the tour guide turned the lights out in the very back of the cave and the two of us kissed in the dark, he told me to hang back with him as the lights flickered back on and everyone began turning back.
I was sure the tour guide would wait to leave himself until he’d seen every single one of us file toward the exit but he didn’t. He led the way, in fact, while James and I stood there motionless, waiting for bouncing phone lights and ghostly cave voices to fade. I closed my eyes as everything left and imagined that this is what it would sound like to die someday — voices would get murky and hazy and distant as they phased in and out until they were gone all the way. I kept my eyes closed and I wasn’t afraid at all.
So thanks to his severe moodiness, James and I got to trek out of the cave alone together. It was dark and quiet and I was finally able to slip underneath those yellow restricted access chains I’d been eyeing all the way in, ducking down low and then emerging on the other side so I could touch limestone rocks and dip my hands in cave water and even climb up this one hole near the ceiling to look at a tiny waterfall I could only hear before. And all of this because of James’ discontentment — thanks, babe.
When we left the cave, James wanted to go get ice cream, so we drove to this big ole shopping center in town. We got ice cream and walked around with it and then visited this one outdoorsy store where I thought I might find that pair of shoes.
Two young guys were working the floor and, after they’d apologized for not having Vans (I assured them it was no problem at all), James and I began to leave the store.
“I like your socks and sandals, by the way!” one guy called out, and when I turned around, he was smiling at me. My heart stopped — not because of him or even what he’d said, but because of something deeper within the layers of things.
You should know that our tour guide also complimented my socks and sandals — back when we were all trekking into the cave together and people were commenting on how chilly it was.
“This one back here’s got socks on with her sandals,” he’d said approvingly, and I’d elbowed James then, like: See? Ha!
And now, deeper within the layers, I could see what I’d been hearing: Do I want to be with someone who’s embarrassed of my socks and sandals or someone who, like the old tour guide or the young shoe salesman, thinks they’re great? Someone who likes and appreciates the many weird and quirky things about me?
I was quiet during the car ride home; James noticed but I didn’t say anything about it because I wasn’t ready yet. I generally like to keep my sadness and anxiety under wraps until I get a good grasp on it myself, so I tried to smile at him reassuringly and talk lightly while I thought about these other, hard things. And finally, after thinking through it, I decided…
It actually means more to me that someone would walk around with me all day — in caves and coffee shops and stupid malls and ice cream parlors — not because they naturally like my socks with sandals and it doesn’t phase them at all but because they like me enough to do it anyways. EVEN if it makes them feel silly. I think that says more about a person and their feelings for me… you know?
James is very different from me: he’s particular and cerebral with a strong preference for high quality, high-end things — cars, homes, clothes — while I’m laid back, low-key, and in love with almost anything but especially the things that are tiny and old and generally unloved. Whether we’re peeking our heads into booths at an art festival, picking up items at the grocery store, or driving through somebody’s neighborhood, we’re both always pointing out entirely different things to each other and disagreeing over what’s most beautiful, most flavorful, most alive, most interesting.
He’s the kind of guy who has a single set of plates, a single set of cups, and a single set of bowls — everything matches and nothing is chipped and there is the same number of each thing in his cupboards. Well my cupboards are very different from his; the things inside them are different colors and different shapes in different sizes and different styles…
I’m not sure what it would be like to live together someday; maybe we’d have our own cupboards with our own things in them, or maybe he’ll relax a little or I’ll appreciate order more. Maybe we’ll both change. But I’d hate to think of ever losing any color, of ever having everything look and feel and be the same.
“Look at that Porsche,” he’ll say, and then he’ll go on to say what he likes about it.
“But check out that VOLVO,” I’ll cry out later, preferring beat-up, boxy, and understated things over stuff that’s newer and rounder and “nicer” (so subjective). Always have, always will. Old is soul… new is just alright to me.
As we walked through a suburban neighborhood on foot together yesterday, I fawned over all of the old homes — their dingy grays and broken bricks and wide-open porches with cracked foundations — while James evaluated paint jobs and styles of architecture and commented on how well-manicured a person’s lawn was or wasn’t. My own yard’s crazy; I let everything grow as tall as it wants and I get upset if Charlie even talks about trimming back the weeds.
Throughout our walk, I declared at least five different homes to be my favorite while James never claimed a single one. He pointed this out to me later and I laughed over it. I like that he pays close attention to things like this, like I do.
A snapshot of us: When I – in incredible good fortune – spotted a pack of German Shepherd puppies bounding around the park on Friday, I dropped James’ hand (because he’s been holding it a lot recently, since I told him it matters), ran over to them, and collapsed onto the sidewalk so they could step all over me while James gently bent over and petted just one of them. That’s us.
I offered James a sip of my latte earlier yesterday morning. He just looked at the mug and then me in a way that asked what it was; while I’d take a sip of something offered to me without asking, he has to know first.
“White chocolate amaretto,” I said, continuing to hold the mug in front of him.
“I don’t like amaretto,” he said.
“Well I DO,” I said proudly, taking a big sip to prove it.
“I’m glad,” he said. “Somebody’s got to…” He had his hand on my knee when he said it and he was smiling at me the moment before, saying he was so glad I was here. I never forget the sweet things he says.
He said something on accident last night, I think; we were placing empty bowls of homemade mac and cheese in the sink and preparing to make a smoothie when he put his arms around me suddenly and said that I was silly.
“You’re different from how I thought you’d be, you know,” he said — shiny eyes, smiling mouth. Everything felt very heavy and still then and James was staring straight down at me, looking at and then under my eyes, deeper into the layers.
“Really? You thought I would be different?” I was trying to see both of his eyes at once and realized, for the first time, that I couldn’t — that I could only really focus on one.
“Not you — my dream girl.”
One last thing before I go: As I was wondering about Flint River yesterday afternoon — where it was and how I could get to it (I figured it out later) — James leaned toward me and asked if I’d ever seen the element mercury. I never even think about mercury.
But I know a lot about it now.