The Long Road From Friends To Lovers


Crouched down in the dirt, picking the dried leaves off the tomato plant before he moves onto the zucchini, inspecting the squash for bugs, spraying them with a natural concoction of water and cayenne pepper, I wonder if he’d rather be elsewhere. This beautiful plot of land that he’s shaped into three-dimensional color out of nothing is far from exotic, far from the experiences of the men out west, with their deluges of money born of a deluge of oil and spent on only food, alcohol, drugs, and maybe mortgage payments.

That is the dream now, and it might soon become his dream by default, because there isn’t a lot of room for other dreams anymore, at least not here. This garden is not the realization of a dream; it’s just something to do from April to October — long enough to tie him down, an excuse to stick around for the glorious summer. But winter is coming now. It’s the best time to pick up and go.

But before he does, we meet in a context that’s never been allowed: when the days are suddenly short and the wind suddenly brisk. There seem to be no real transitions up here. There is summer, and there is winter, and a paper-thin bookend called autumn in between them. The leaves turn earlier than expected, always earlier than expected, and then they’re all over the big lawns he used to skim across from class to class, or from some girl’s bed to his own. Then they’re gone. He is driving through the town, down Main Street, and thinking this will be the last week he’ll be around. Too many students now, too many cars. He thinks about the recent deaths at the school, all of them associated with drinking, and wonders whether that place set him on the path he’s on now, where drinking is an antidote to not-drinking, where drinking, that is, is an antidote to a hangover.

But he and his college friends are good people. It’s his friends back home that start shit, and most of them are too busy now, out west, or doing carpentry around town, or working on their families’ farms, to have much time to start shit. They’re too tired, basically. They still drink, and probably too much, but it’s mostly in front of the television in those middle hours between dinner and bed. He contemplates sticking around for the winter, for the holiday parties, which are always worthwhile. There is a girl he winds up with every few New Year’s Eves. They grew close, if you can even call it that, through smoking, enduring the cold outside a mutual friend’s back door for a few minutes, and prolonging it, or at least she sometimes seemed to, so that they could be alone a little longer. Once he gave her his gloves, so that she was wearing two pairs while they finished the smokes and he was wearing none, shoving his hand into his jeans, crumpling it up in there, his fingers kept warm by his palm, or at least that was the hope.

But he has remarked to his friends several times: She’s just so stupid. You can still greatly enjoy the company of someone who is stupid. The company, the warmth, the emotional generosity. But if he stuck around here again this year he would really feel like he was going nowhere. Almost ashamed about it. He is almost 30.

He meets me at the airport, also a new thing for us, but I asked him to, because I have decided to say what I mean, to say what I want, and he said yes without hesitation. It was surprisingly easy. I emerge from between the fogged glass sliding doors. There is seldom anyone waiting for me on the other side of these doors. I usually take a cheap bus down to the house, an hour away. But there he is, behind the rope, looking even more tanned than he was when I last saw him, six weeks ago. I sort of skip to him, across the marble floor in slippery-soled boots, and I throw my arms around him, my thin, long arms that he thinks could use more muscle. In these shoes I am exactly the same height as him, but his hair gives him an extra inch or two. He laughs into my neck or thereabouts, with relief and, I think, a bit of fear. I can hear the nerves in his laughter. He always laughs when he’s nervous. But this is a quieter laugh. I decide it is mostly an excuse to breathe out. He knows from this hug, if he didn’t know from all the events that led to this moment, all the words and money spent and airplanes, how much I care about him. I think he is equal parts glad, flattered, and afraid.

He hoists my bag over his shoulder and puts it on like a backpack. I packed light, despite having no idea how long I would be here for. And the bag forces me to let go of him. So I hold onto his wrist, and then he moves that arm and puts it around my shoulder. And he says very stock things in a chipper voice. And I say, in the middle of it, that it’s so good to see him again, even though all I do is see him: in my sleep, in a movie theater, walking down the street, in fictional characters that bear very little resemblance to him. It is impossible for me to believe this is happening. I walk backwards in my head as we walk under the tunnel to the airport parking garage. Despite all the evidence, I am still miles away, miles back in the past, in my uncertainty, in my certainty that this would never happen. I walk backward also to try to understand why I wanted this so much, whether I can give myself permission to have it. What am I doing? Patching up the past, making it whole? Claiming redemption for my teenage self, the girl who grew up on happiness that he fed me, who seemed to thrive most in his presence?

I have always asked too much of him and here I am, asking the most of him that I’ve ever asked. For him to be mine. For him to take me under his wing. Something he longs to do, but not permanently. Something he aspires to, but not wholly. He is too young to. I know that in a matter of weeks I’ll have to let him go. I waited a decade to have him, waited a decade for him to be old enough to have. I didn’t realize it would take longer than that — that in some ways he and I would be more damaged, more confused, at nearly 30 than we were at 20.

He is still not fully formed. He is an amalgamation of his past and future self, a palimpsest of caring and not-caring. A confused adult. A domesticated young man. A noncommittal adventurer. He knows what he likes — he likes me, whether I believe it or not — but he doesn’t want to be in a relationship. Not a real one. We know that’s not with this is. This is a kind of seance, a communication between souls that might last a lifetime but will surely never be as significant again as it is right now.

A relationship would mean staying put, buckling down, growing old. He made the garden, and it was a sight to see, but I let that stand for too much. I let that convince me that he was fully grown. That garden is not the beginning of the story. It’s the prologue. He’ll be ready in a few years, and by then I’ll be long gone, I know, married with a dog and a kid and a goat and chickens, a thousand miles away, as usual, and possibly very happy. Who’s to say.

He has to go off, see the exotic things the world has to offer because this place has none. Drive on the other side of the road. See the stars in the middle of a desert. Screw random women. Get too drunk, use people, run away, quit jobs too frequently because he’s always sure there’s something out there that’s better for him, something and someone. Way out there, a thousand miles away or more. Just a plane ticket away. He’s always made it look so easy. I’ve always envied him that.

“You like to be either at home or two thousand miles away from home, don’t you?” I asked him once.

“Two thousand?,” he said. “More like five.”

How we got from that to this, I have no idea. He says he will not kiss me in the parking garage because it’s a parking garage. I remind him that we’ve already kissed before, 20 years ago. I have to remind him where and when. His eyes grow wide. “Oh yeah,” he says. There is a sweetness in his voice that his been there for decades but which I’ve only let myself really hear now. I always told myself that he lent that voice to anyone, everyone. That cute but stupid smoking buddy he’s known almost as long as he’s known me. And the twin who sort of looks like me and who likes every goddamn one of his Facebook posts. And the ex he dated long-distance at the beginning of college. And the other ex who taught him to ski. They all got that voice, earned that voice, at some point or another. They all got that soft laughter in the ear, the affectionate, feathery sound of love and relief. But for some reason I think I’ve caught it, bottled it, that it’s just mine now. I only think it because in retrospect my whole life has been leading up this, or at least the life of my heart. I waited long enough. This must be the end, mustn’t it?

Later, we wade out into the water. I would never normally do this at this time of year, but I am burning up from the sheer proximity of him and what he’s finally allowed me to do. So I walk into it without hesitation. Most of the neighbors have gone home for the winter. They won’t be back until June. June, the very word, sends chills up my spine. Where will we be then? Once again I am thinking, thinking when I should not be thinking. Thinking so much that it paralyzes me. He swims very far away from me, with his exacting crawl, which is so endearing and beautiful in its imperfection: he very carefully slides his right hand into the water, but more or less slaps the left one across the surface like a whale’s tail. He never breathes on the left side, so he neglects that arm.

He’s gone all the way out to the dock, which floats a few pool lengths out from the shore. “Coming out?” he says, and he sounds just like the person he used to be to me, the only kind of person he was allowed to be: my brother from another mother. I dunk my head under the water — the hardest part — and feel the freeze run from my jaw to the top of my skull. If he’s still there when I come up, his legs hanging over the edge, his arms back behind him, smiling at me, then I guess this must be real. I hold my breath for as long as I possibly can — not long under here because it’s almost as cold as the open ocean — and bounce back up.

He’s looking away. He’s already thinking about what to do next, and where this is going, I decide. He never sits still for long, and nor does his mind. I am always agreeing with him about his lust for adventure and novelty, and I’m not lying when I say that I lust for them too. But then I want to tell him that he’s the only thing that can anchor me. That nothing else can hold me down. I already know that he doesn’t feel the same, or rather that the world is still a more powerful lure than I am, and possibly always will be. His independence frightens me. When he’s not asserting it I think he must just be being charitable.

I pull myself up onto the dock and survey the shoreline. It is strange that nobody is here. Nobody to keep us apart. Nobody to judge us. Nobody to smile hopefully or fearfully at us. Nobody to nervously or happily anticipate the inevitability of us. Nobody. Just us. I watch a drop of water travel down his shoulder to his waist, but I won’t touch him, for fear I’ve gotten this wrong again, or that he’ll disappear. I wonder how we earned this. Because I still feel like a child around him, and it is so strange to count the years and see that, yes, we are old enough to run this place. To usher in the next generation, even. To put ourselves aside to make way for them.

But who will those people be? Will they be ours? I can’t see anything. I can’t even see tomorrow. He dives into the water and as I so often do, I have a momentary vision of his death, of his not coming back up, of his body being too heavy for me to pull toward the sand. He has always been my solace, my safe haven, but as I watch that crawl again, how he carefully then sloppily he pulls himself through the water, barely making a sound, I find myself thinking of what might allow me to seek solace from him, to hide. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe the greater the love, the more repellant it is.

In three hours we will both be drunk. He will be lying under the bright task lamp, the only light that lights my bedroom, with my arm uncomfortably under his head. I will be leaning over him, examining him. I’ve imagined this before, imagined looking into his eyes under that lamp, his head on the old green pillow, and wanting to see love, but only seeing mirth, thinking that the only thing that could get him there would be booze, and realizing that even drunk, eyes never lie. That eyes can’t fake love. But now he is here, and he’s more delicate, more fragile, than I thought he could be, and I realize that I have caused him to be that way. Suddenly, mercifully, it is not about me, about redemption or things coming full circle. I realize that I have been so in love with him that I was unable to actually see him, to see what was in his eyes, to imagine they could express anything good, anything serious, anything real, anything but the ordinary, the everyday. Reasonable, sane emotions. They are saying something very different now.

I don’t believe in myself, and that lack of belief is a monster in me that can make a monster out of even the most undeserving and loving people. I told myself this wasn’t possible, that it was just a dream that would recur, like some sort of nagging chronic condition, daily and without end. That I would carry him forever and that he would slow me down in life just a little, not enough for other people to notice, but enough for me to. But there is this now, this real thing. When it ends — it has to end — I wonder if it will kill me. I slip back into the water and swim back to the shore, up the stairs and across the grass to his door. He is standing drying his hair with a towel. He tosses the same towel to me when I’m close enough to catch it. It seems to move in slow motion through the air.

Only one way to find out.

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