But how can I write on flat paper
this impulse that arcs between us, inarticulately
as I fly?
—Richard Tillinghast, “Westbound”
I’m sitting with my feet up on the back of the seat in front of me pretending to watch the Pistons play basketball. I’m not here for the game; I’m here for the guy next to me. The $8 beer in a souvenir cup is just an unexpected bonus. He shifts in his seat, and I can feel the warmth come off his body. I glance over and find myself scrunching my nose at his choice of t-shirt and ripped jeans that are just a little too tight, while simultaneously finding ways to gently bump his arm, his shoulder, his knee. He could be wearing anything, and I would still find myself intensely attracted to him.
He’s talking. The game is nearly over and our team is losing, but neither one of us is paying attention anymore. I stare into my cup as I listen to him; it’s my third beer on an empty stomach, and I’m feeling it. My cheeks are warm, my arms are cold. My knees, bent from being propped up, are shaking slightly. He doesn’t notice.
“She spent the night last night,” he says. Tracy. Lately, all he talks about is Tracy. I don’t understand why. She’s not pretty. She has the look of a woman who is never happy: her eyes unfocused and vacant, her mouth turns downward at the corners when she smiles. She can’t construct a sentence or spell a word with two or more syllables. She also abuses the exclamation point, an unforgivable faux pas. “We didn’t have sex,” he says. He looks at me and then back at the court. “Not that I didn’t want to.”
My mind flashes to what that scenario must have looked like. He had just moved into a house in Hamtramck, a working-class town that overlaps Detroit. Once a thriving neighborhood of Polish immigrants employed by the auto industry, Hamtramck has come undone, much like other cities feeling the consequences of a failed economy—poverty, abandoned homes, drugs, vandalism. Yet there is a growing trend among up and coming twenty-somethings to move into these kinds of neighborhoods, renting or buying houses extremely cheap and working diligently to improve their homes, and consequently, the city.
I know that was his motivation for moving there. Though it didn’t change the fact that for now his bed is a mattress on the hardwood floor, the same bed she shared with him. What possible romance or seduction could occur in a house with barely any furniture, heat that worked only sometimes, and bars on the windows?
Then again, what she finds appealing about his house likely mirrors what he finds appealing about her, and all I know is I can’t understand any of it.
A few more minutes pass, and I don’t say anything. Finally I turn to him. “Let’s go,” I say. “If we leave now, we can beat the traffic.”
I climb into my car, and position my high-heeled, boot-clad feet over the pedals. I know I have no business driving, especially not twenty minutes on the freeway in the dark, but I put the key in the ignition and start the engine anyway. At this moment I don’t think about legality or consequences. I just want to be able to have this conversation without looking at him, and driving is the only way I can do that. I roll down the window to stay alert. He’s quiet in the seat next to me, and I try to not appear mad. After all, I’m supposed to be emotionally detached.
It had started with a phone call; at least I’m sure that’s how he remembers it. For me, it actually started with a failed relationship that shredded my self-esteem like confetti strewn across a dance floor. Over the years, I thought of Dan often when my relationships ended as I would look back and try to identify explanations as to why I was drawn to the wrong men. I had always idealized him as my first love that never manifested into anything but a friendship in which he was kind even though he knew how much I pined for him.
After Raul and I broke up, I thought that maybe, just maybe, connecting with ghosts of love’s past would give me some kind of closure, some kind of personal understanding to help me move forward. Starting with Dan was the logical choice. So a quick Google search using the right combination of key words, and I was able to track him down after so many years. I sent him an email with my phone number, and he called a few days later.
That first conversation was no more than eleven minutes of polite exchanges, small talk disrupted by noticeable silences or interruptions to avoid the silences. I told him I was moving back to Michigan at the end of August. What I didn’t tell him was that it was because I had nowhere else to go, that I was without a job or any prospects, and I would be sleeping on an air mattress in my parents’ basement until my life stabilized, not knowing how long that could take. Despite how unimpressive I was, I still suggested that maybe we could have lunch or something and catch up.
After I hung up the phone—grateful his break was coming to an end and he had to finish his shift—I noticed the slight, but distinctive, layer of sweat around my hairline and the warmth in my cheeks. I was twenty-six years old and talking to a boy on the phone had me flustered.
The wind hums throughout the car. He puts his window down halfway, sits back in his seat, and then puts the window back up. I try not to smirk at his discomfort.
“You need to figure out what you want,” I finally say. “She probably senses that you can’t commit.” I can sense it.
He looks at me with an expression of surprise as if he has forgotten what we were talking about. “I want to do the right thing,” he says.
I clutch the steering wheel tighter and focus on the road. Only ten more minutes until my exit. I relax a little knowing I’m so close to home. I breathe in deeply and glance over at Dan. He’s not looking at me.
The right thing. I know what that means; this isn’t going to work out in my favor. “Figure out what you want first, and then make your decision. Someone is always going to get hurt. That’s the risk you take,” I pause to change lanes as I approach my exit. “If it’s me that you hurt in the process, I promise I will get over it.”
He’s listening to me, nodding. I park in the street in front of a house where I’m renting the top floor. Before I even turn off the ignition he says, “Am I using you if I’m with you when I can’t be with her?”
I don’t answer. Instead I climb out of my car and walk toward the house. I don’t look back, but I know he is right behind me. This conversation isn’t over.
It had been almost ten years since we last saw each other. We were just teenagers then. I was awkward and insecure and took up permanent residence in the town of Unrequited Love. He was a wrestler and on the football team, full of confidence and the kind of guy everyone wanted to be around. I was a dark and brooding introvert who edited the literary magazine, directed the school plays, wore oversized clothes, and let my hair hang over my face if it happened to fall that way. After graduation I cut ties with all things high school, including Dan. I had heard brief stories about him throughout the years, but nothing substantial enough to think I knew anything about him as an adult. In many ways I hoped he knew just as little about me. Because four weeks after that awkward and nervous re-introduction phone call, he was standing at the end of the driveway holding the passenger door of his car open.
“You look great,” he said, and I knew that he meant it. He stepped forward, wrapped his arms around me and hugged me. I had waited more than a decade for him to respond that way to me. Perhaps this was my chance to get it right.
During high school we had one date. He took me to the homecoming dance my junior year; I asked him, and he went most likely only because he was too nice to say no. I wore a purple satin dress that hung just above my knees. The back was open with crisscross ties beneath it; a type of reverse corset that accentuated my then-small waist. When he picked me up, he handed me a single rose instead of strapping a corsage to my wrist. It was the closest I had come to being able to call him my boyfriend. For me, that wasn’t nearly close enough.
“You’re extraordinary,” he says to me. We stand on my porch, a beer bottle rests on the railing next to me, the souvenir cup from the game already rinsed and placed in the dishwasher. I don’t know why we’re out here, and more importantly, why it’s an October evening, and I’m not wearing a jacket. I shiver, but I don’t suggest we go inside. I don’t even look at him. His words would have been a comfort if they had been said in a different context. How do you respond when someone ruins a great compliment by leaving you?
For my twenty-seventh birthday we made up our own bar crawl along the streets of downtown Ferndale. Ferndale was what Hamtramck hoped to become. Like Hamtramck, it was a city that bordered Detroit. At one time it was unsafe, barren, had no drawing power. While I was away growing up and earning my degrees, Ferndale had grown, too. Young couples—straight and gay—bought houses, established businesses, and remade the community. The streets of Ferndale now looked like neighborhoods, where people sit on their front porches and talk to each other in the summer time, who shovel each other’s driveways after heavy snowfall. His parents had moved to Ferndale a few years after he graduated high school, and watching the city evolve in front of him inspired him to change Hamtramck in the same way.
The night of my birthday, I had the displeasure of making awkward small talk with his mom in their kitschy living room. It was like I was fifteen again with slightly better skin and much longer hair. But this time instead of hoping her son would hold my hand or even kiss me at some point that night, I knew in a few hours we would be drunk and naked in her basement defiling the floral retro couch like we had done so many times already that summer. He was living with his parents, and I was living with mine. We were two teenagers in our late twenties without the modesty of our youth to hold us back.
“Don’t expect me to fall in love with you,” I had told him. “I’m not fifteen anymore.” I smiled to make it seem like I was joking, but I wasn’t.
Maybe I imagined it. Maybe I made it up. But for just a moment, a look of sadness—maybe disappointment, maybe hurt—flashed across his face.
The rare moments of affection came from me, after sex. They were subtle, but ever-present. He would lie on his stomach facing away from me, and I would run my fingertips up and down his back, alternating between a gentle, almost tickling touch, and light massaging.
“You’re so giving,” he once said to me.
Like so many other times, I didn’t know how to respond.
Our affair carried on into the fall, after I found a job, and finally got an apartment. With the change in season came a change in desire. Our incompatibilities were gradually becoming more evident, and any ability to satisfy each other physically was dwindling. One time when making out was going on for just a little too long, and his moaning was just a little too distracting to be sexy, I could tell we were both about to lose our stamina. I had the window a/c unit on full blast and my iPod hooked into speakers next to my bed, hoping the downstairs neighbors couldn’t hear every bump and creak of the mattress through the floorboards.
He let out a noise that could only be described as a frustrated growl, reached over my head, scrolled ahead to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and climbed on top of me, pumping away to the cadence of the music. I could tell by his focus and his rhythm that I had until the end of the song to get my shit together or my opportunity at getting anything out of this would soon pass. For the record, I didn’t make it. A week later, he started hanging out with Tracy.
“You’re quiet,” he says. “Are you mad?”
My beer bottle is empty. I have half a mind to let it slip out of my hand and fall to the ground two stories below the balcony. “No,” I say. I tilt my chin downward and look up at him. “I’m not mad. I’m just taking it all in.”
He shakes his head and looks away. “I shouldn’t have touched you,” he says. “I shouldn’t have pushed you.”
The regret hangs in the air between us.
It didn’t matter that I was twenty-seven. When I visited my parents for dinner, my dating life was the topic of many table conversations, just like when I was sixteen. We weren’t even finished with our salads when my mom asked about Dan. “They’ve been on a few dates,” she told my dad. My parents had cringed from a distance for over a year as my relationship with Raul devolved into volatile. To them, Dan represented more than just a few dates. He was the ultimate distraction from Raul, who—for months after we broke up—pursued me so relentlessly, my parents feared I would eventually give in and go back to him.
“The same guy from high school?” my dad asked of Dan. “That’s great.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t think he’s all that into me.” I looked at my plate as I said it, pushing the food around with my fork.
“It’s too bad,” my dad said. “You deserve someone who is into you.”
It’s the next morning. I roll over to face him; he’s already awake and waiting for me. He puts his arm out, and I settle in next to him, resting my head on his shoulder.
“Is this the end?” I ask.
I don’t pull away. Instead, I say, “You may not know what it is that you want, but at least you know now what you don’t want.”
“You told me you can’t love me,” he says. He has clung onto that, unable to realize the lie.
So here I am. It’s not a breakup if you weren’t together in the first place, so what is it? It’s a crush that gets crushed. It’s pathetic. Embarrassing. Sex, then, becomes impersonal, temporary, no longer even having the potential to be a building block to anything but wreckage.
I don’t let on that I’m upset about this. It’s not safe to let my guard down, and I know it will make him incredibly uncomfortable if I do. I want to uphold my story that for us it was casual. For us it was fleeting. That for me, it was unemotional and didn’t have anything to do with love.
So, I don’t cry. That is until he grabs me and kisses me, hard; his lips square against mine, his hands around my elbows pulling me into him. My breath catches the moan in my throat, turns it to a gasp, and the rush of emotion brings the tears. Dammit.
There is no sobbing, no begging him to reconsider. No ridiculous overpouring of emotions. No confession of hidden love. Instead I pull away, smile, wipe the tear from my face, and offer to drive him home. As I approach a stop sign, I notice that trees lining the street have all turned to yellow, orange, red, many in piles on my neighbors’ front lawns. Summer is over.
A year after that final night together, I will find myself back at that moment, standing in my kitchen, wondering how it was so easy for yet another man in my life to want nothing from me but half-drunk sex on his terms.
“It was my way of convincing myself that it was ok, even though it wasn’t,” Dan will say to me. We will meet up on a patio outside a coffee shop in Hamtramck, the tail end of summer making it just warm enough to break a sweat, the sun too bright for September.
We will hide our eyes behind sunglasses; I will hide my shame behind my smile.
He will know I’m not OK, even though when I ask him if he has time to talk, I insist that I am. We will have stayed in minimal contact during that year, catching up on the phone every few weeks, meeting up even less frequently. He will make more of an effort to stay in touch than I will. He won’t talk about Tracy—who will be living with him in Hamtramck by then—unless I ask, and I will not be able to stop myself from asking.
I will force him to tell me what I meant to him when we were together. “I’m not trying to make you feel bad,” I will say. “But I need to find a way to make sense of all this.”
He will be quiet for a while, not wanting to tell me the truth. I’ll push my sunglasses up on top of my head, lean in, and wait.
“It was easier for me that way,” he will say. “I told myself that I gave you an out by letting you know I wasn’t looking for anything serious. I didn’t have to feel guilty then.”
I will sit back in my chair and cross my arms. Not because I will be mad, but because I will know I need to settle in for what will come next.
“This guy,” he will pause trying to remember a name, but then will realize that it doesn’t matter. “This guy just wants to have some fun. And he’s getting what he wants without having to give anything.”
“Is that why you did it?” I will ask him. I will know this is a hard question, and I just won’t care.
“I got what I wanted, but I couldn’t give you what you needed,” he will say. “Tracy”—this will be the first time he says her name unprovoked—”Tracy didn’t need anything from me. It was easy.”
I will lean into my folded hand as my elbow rests on the arm of my plastic chair. I won’t cry. In that moment, I won’t even really care. I will not be able to understand his words, but I will be able to empathize with his position. He will tell me he’s sorry if he hurt me, that I deserved something—someone—better. I will appreciate his kindness, and tell him so, laughing a little when I tell him he sounds like my dad. When our conversation is over, I will get back into my car and get lost leaving Hamtramck. I will drive up and down streets where the houses are much too close together, the yards much too small, the parking much too limited for my taste. When I find my way back to the freeway, I will lower the visor to keep the sun out of my eyes and drive.
Melissa Grunow is the English and Humanities Program Coordinator at The Art Institute of Michigan, where she also teaches composition and creative writing courses. Her writing has appeared in Wilderness House Literary Review, Beginnings and Prism. She lives and writes with her many pets in Ferndale, MI. Visit her website at http://www.melissagrunow.com.