I never sent this letter but I wrote it all the same, a few years ago.
I remember freshman year, you picked me up from my dorm as the sun was setting. It was cold, January if I remember correctly. As I ducked into your car the streetlights were starting to chirp to life in the twilight.
You asked me, “Are you ready, man?” with a flame of enthusiasm in your words.
I said, “As ready as I’ll ever be.”
My words passed through a mouth that was smiling, then.
You pulled out of the dormitory driveway, speaking now with subdued passion, “I’m so happy Steve is finally 21. Did Diane tell you what he got?”
“No, what did he get?”
“Oh, I meant that as a question.”
“Ah, no. I have no idea! I’m probably not going to drink too much tonight.”
Your left blinker was ticking the time a little too fast. You turned his head left and right, left again, as cars passed. A red jeep had its gas cover open. “Jackass,” you muttered under his breath, and then you said, “You’re not getting drunk tonight?”
“I just don’t see the point in it, man. I like staying in control.”
“Hey man I get that. You can babysit me tonight.”
“Oh, haha, sure.”
Everywhere was white: the street, trees, fields, cars, all white, pure and clean. I had an ache in my heart. I was in love with Diane (I don’t remember ever telling you that) but she was with Steve, and so that was that. They had only been dating a few months then. She had been single while I was in my last relationship, and by the time I was out of that mess she had taken a liking to Steve. Hanging out with those two was like watching fireworks go off. They really were nice together, like sunrise and coffee, a cuddly cat and a nap.
“I have to stop by Elaine’s, is that cool?” You asked.
“Sure, of course.”
“I left my camera there.”
“Wait, who is Elaine?” I ask after a moment of listening to tires churn snow on the roads.
“She was in my photography class. I thought she was cute so I asked her out. She said yes, but she just wanted to hang out and smoke weed.”
“I’m sorry friend.”
“I just don’t understand. Why are people so afraid to connect with one another? We’ve traded intimacy for fucking. Not even that, getting drunk beforehand so we can laugh off the fucking afterwards.” You talked with your hands even while driving, which always worried me but you were generally keeping one hand on the wheel so I focused on your words instead of worry.
“Did you guys…?”
“No. You can’t sleep with nobody.”
“Oh I sleep with nobody most nights.”
You cracked a smile and recomposed yourself, serious, “You can’t make love to nothing. You can’t even make love to most people who are into you. That’s just the way it is, it seems.”
You went on, “I can’t even stand half of these women. I walk up to a woman and start conversation because I like the way she looks. What does that even mean? I am judging who I want to spend time with based on their physical appearance. It’s not fair, but I feel programmed to think this way. I like knowing before I talk to someone there will be some connection. Elaine and I talked about photography but it was shallow and then she hopped on my lap and started making out with me. No, making out at me is more like it. I thought that was what I wanted, but as soon as I got a taste I realized behind the curtain was just some woman interested in a physical connection. Oh, and she had been drinking. Go figure.”
Your sentences were showing signs of stress fractures, disjointed at times and invoking pain.
I chimed in, “I think it’s just a patience game. Sadly, I think sometimes you just need to wait for the right one to come along. Don’t stop looking, though.
“Yeah you’re right. I’ve just been sifting through fool’s gold for the past goddamned eight months.”
I thought then of the other ones, the ones picked from the river that glistened in the sun but who were all just iron pyrite in the end: Lauren, Jenya, and Kate. I decided not to bring them up.
“Are you doing ok, though?” I asked.
“I think so. Life’s just been hard but I know I’ll get through it. Failing out of my mathematics program really messed me up. I had never failed a class before, but I’m happier now. I think economics will be a good fit. Enough math to keep my brain busy, and if I want to go to law school it’s an option.”
“That makes me happy, that you’re happier now.” I said.
You grimaced and flicked on your right blinker. We turned into a driveway of an older dark blue house, some of the blue paint was chipped to reveal the dark brown and moist natural finish underneath. No cars were in the driveway.
“God damnit. She said she’d be home.”
You texted this no-one-person and got a reply almost immediately.
“Five minutes.” You sighed.
I wanted then to let you know how little all of this mattered, that it really wasn’t worth stressing over. People come and go and if you let go of the ones that do you no good one day you find yourself surrounded with great people. I thought that you didn’t really want Elaine but rather the idea of Elaine. I knew you probably thought of all these grand reasons for why Elaine was truly great and special, but upon piercing beneath what you wanted her to be there was little substance, at least compared to what you wanted. I knew this because I do it too.
As we waited in your car (you left the car running) your speech turned laconic, as if you just wanted to get this whole thing over with and be done with it.
Finally, a red Chevy pulled in beside us. I smiled at her briefly and politely as she got out of her car.
“Be right back.” You told me, as you opened your door.
You two walked down the walkway towards her side door, small talk filtering through the driver’s side window you left cracked open.
“I’m really sorry about this.” You told her.
“Sam, it’s really ok. I’m sorry about how this all turned out.” She fumbled with her keys.
I saw you two continue to talk but you were out of earshot. Come to think of it, I don’t have to tell you what you talked about. You were there. I rolled down my window and let the cool winter air into my lungs. I inhaled that familiar crispness. Elaine’s neighbor arrived home, smiled and waved at me politely when she noticed me. It was Friday night so I expunged my brain of the responsibilities I had for the weekend (mostly homework and studying for a chemistry test). I looked at my fingernails (they were clean). A shiver rippled through me and so I rolled up the window. By then you had been inside for nearly ten minutes. Elaine looked pretty, her figure obfuscated by her winter jacket but she was skinny and had brown hair with faint streaks of lighter brown, probably leftover from the distant summer sun. I could see why you would want to approach her. Her voice was delicate and soft with an underbelly of emotion that contrasted starkly with the cold weather. I thought of how perhaps the Elaine she was during the day was very different from the Elaine she was during the night. Maybe. Personality is largely a product of its present environment. I really didn’t have a lot to go on to accurately assess Elaine as a person, but I had nothing better to do than think.
Nothing was truly too exciting in my love life. Too many prospects, not enough pursuit. I thought of my friend Jessica. She was a third-year student my freshman year. She had a boyfriend but they had been off-and-on. We were very close and I loved her, too. I had kissed her a few times. She was talented in making very human, very real, intimate moments. As I sat in your passenger seat I thought of the time she cut my hair in her bathroom. She had been trying to persuade me for months, and finally one day I decided to not go to a barber but instead to Jessica’s apartment. Her fervid smile didn’t just light up a room but also had the potential to blind you. Whenever she smiled I found myself squinting with a smile back. That’s something I’ve noticed about my family: when we smile, we smile with our eyes, too.
She cut my hair in the reflection of her bathroom mirror and I sat on a hard wood chair from her kitchen table. I liked the way she was assessing me, pulling softly at parts of hair, surveying my physical form with her eyes and fingers. She had taken my glasses off my face and so during the haircut process I was entirely at her will. I asked her questions like, “How’s it looking?” and “Should I shift my head?” At times, she put her face beside mine to gain a better vantage point. She smelled of sage. God, I remember thinking how I could just drown in her. She ran her fingers through my hair, messing it up and testing it.
“Okay, I think I’m done.” She said as she slid my glasses back on. In the reflection was a boy who had been shaped by Jessica’s hands. I really loved her for that.
Another time we walked into the woods and smoked weed out of an apple. One night we gave each other backrubs. She was on her stomach with semi-loose, comfortable washed-out green pants. Her shirt laid on the desk beside the bed. I traced her muscles with my fingers for a minute, tripping over her bra-strap.
“You can take that off, if you want.” She whispered.
But her heart was not only in my chest but danced from person to person because it was hard not to fall for Jessica. For as long as she exists I’ll live on somewhere in the white matter of her nervous system, waiting to be brought to life by neuronal pulses of electricity recollecting memories of us.
I was staring at the dashboard, thinking of how I would ask Jessica if she was free this weekend, when I heard a door shut. You walked back to the car inspecting your camera.
“Sorry about that, man. Let’s get out of here.”
I didn’t ask about what went on in Elaine’s house because I knew you would bring it up if you wanted to talk about it. Instead, I told you about how the chemistry class was going that I was in, the one that you dropped.
I had a limited amount of money from my part-time job but I offered to buy us pizza. You told me we would split it. You weren’t talking much in the car-ride.
“I feel like you want to tell me.” I said with a mouth half-full of pizza.
“I do. I’m just still processing everything.”
“Was it really that bad?”
“Well today, not really. It’s just all of it, man.”
“I’m sorry. You’ve been through a lot this year.”
“Yeah, and Kate is texting me again.”
I sighed, “You know that’s not a good idea.”
“These are extenuating circumstances.” You replied in a defeated tone. Defeated, that’s the word. That’s what you’ve been and that’s what I’ve been hiding from you and the others.
You continued, “I don’t know. I’m tired of being miserable. Let’s eat this pizza and start over.”
“Is Diane and Steve going to be able to make it?”
“Oh!” I checked my phone, “They should be here in ten minutes or so!”
I asked the waitress for more water. You checked your phone, texted someone briefly, stared out the window towards the street lit up by the lights from various businesses.
“Ah!” Diane winced, slamming her glass on the cheap wooden table. Her apartment was freezing, and only when I looked behind me did I see a curtain behind pushed by the wind.
“Who left the fucking window open?” I yelled into the abyss.
“Oh,” Steve answered, “haha, that was me.”
“Jesus, Steve, you’ve lost it, man. You’re too far gone.” I said in my best Hunter S. Thompson voice while shutting the window.
“It’s only because I was bringing that fucking fire.” He said.
And this was true. We were all playing a drinking game in Diane’s apartment where you laid a sheet of paper on a table and flipped a quarter onto the piece of paper. If the quarter landed on a blank spot of the page then you traced a loose shape around the quarter and filled it with a challenge. Steve was particularly good at “rhyme” where you choose a word and go around the circle and each person must say a word that rhymes within 2 seconds or you lose, and must drink. If you flipped a quarter and it landed in a circle on the sheet, then you did that challenge. You could also put a dare in your circle. There was really no way to win the game, but there was an assured way to lose.
It was your turn and you brought your head eye-level with the table, meticulously studying the topography of the flat sheet of paper lying on the table. You flipped the quarter onto the “Dogs” circle.
Later on we took Diane’s puppy outside onto the volleyball court of the apartment complex. There were hundreds of people out and around the complex. No drunk person can resist a puppy and we took advantage of that, quickly ending up in a group of three women. We made small talk, and they invited us back to their apartment. Inside, there was a man playing Call of Duty Zombies, and you played a quick round while I laid on their living room floor on soft carpet beside Katherine, who happened to be one of Diane’s friends. I remember talking to her about the abundance of holidays in this day and age, and how I wanted to make my own holiday too. Someone offered you a drink and you took it, drinking it while appearing comfortable but at a pace that suggested you were nervous. I couldn’t tell if you were running to or from something, but I watched you talk to some girl and you seemed happy, laughing. “Well, it’s been nice,” you said at one point, “but we should probably get going.”
We headed back to Diane’s and continued the drinking game. You had a regular glass and filled it with two inches of rum. You had to finish your drink and you did, two inches of rum in a regular glass entering your body at once. Within twenty minutes you were belligerent, yelling in French at Diane’s roommate in a friendly but manic manner. I thought it was funny at first but realized that you were slipping further and further from yourself. We put you on the couch and you fell asleep instantly. You were lying on your side and while I put a blanket on you your body convulsed and released pale yellow vomit over the couch and onto my hand. You kept vomiting, and Diane ran to grab a trash can. We finally had your head buried in the trash can, your whole being reduced to zero. You were unconscious, so we rolled you back onto your side and you slept.
I remember you looked dead.
Your chest was rising and dropping, but my best friend was nowhere in that body. I was scared. You kept vomiting. Diane took care of you the entire night, and at 3 A.M. told me to go to bed, that she could handle it. I fell asleep, crying lightly because I couldn’t take care of you.
We should’ve taken you to a hospital, just to be safe.
The next morning, I woke up at 7 A.M. to find Diane had stayed up all night caring for you, just to make sure you were okay. You woke up around nine. You were in pain, shriveled up and dehydrated. We all ate breakfast together, discussing what you had no memory of (you couldn’t eat much). I only had my permit then, but I drove you home (illegally). I remember you telling your parents, and how they told you we should’ve called them, we should’ve taken you to the hospital. People die every night from alcohol poisoning, they said, no one is invincible.
I want to tell you I’m sorry, sorry that I couldn’t fix you, that I didn’t stay up with you, that I didn’t deny you that last drink. I felt I had failed you, and I know it wasn’t my fault (you chose to drink while sad and lonely) but I could’ve done so much more.
More than anything, I’m glad you survived that night, and that you’re alive today.
You stopped drinking rum after that, for a long time. You stopped drinking for a while, actually.
I wrote that letter a little after that night but felt weird giving it to you, so I didn’t. I don’t know what made me want to send it to you now. I hope you’re enjoying Quebec and you’re meeting new and exciting people there. A semester can seem like the longest shortest time. In the throes of it you feel the days stretching endlessly but before you know it 3 months have passed and you’re taking finals. So, until the end of the longest shortest time.