It’s dark; it’s nearly ten o’clock. I park, and spend at least ten minutes wandering his tony street, looking for number 3 South. Finally, I decide it must be that house– the odd, rambling, old-fashioned stucco bedecked by wild dune grasses on either side, which looks deserted, but for the light in one second story window. I have to walk the perimeter to find the stairs to the front door. No bell. I knock lightly on the storm door.
I try the handle– maybe he can’t hear me? After all, we’d planned to meet here, sometime after 9.
Already, I’m annoyed; it’s such an effort to get away, to make sure the baby’s out– really, truly asleep– that my work for school is done, that I have a window before class tomorrow to do any last minute prep that arises. And every minute that passes is another minute we’re not spending together, another minute I’m not holed up, writing, or sleeping– oh, most blessed, most elusive sleep, when will I know your likes again? In other words, if I have carved out two hours– two late hours– to spend with you, you had better be there.
I crane my neck to the left, past the wrought iron railing. And there, through the barely lit, open, second story window is my old friend– we’ll call him J.– asleep on the couch, with the television blaring and the light on.
“Hey!” I say, loudly, in my best schoolteacher tone, rapping the screen. “Wake up!”
He lifts his head. There’s a beat as he stares and takes me in, confused. Then his eyes– small, and black, and twinkling– light up in recognition, and he grins that devil-may-care, shit-eating grin, the one I’ve been a sucker for since he sat in front of me in statistics, junior year, when I let him copy my homework, and he chose the stocks I should buy for my mock portfolio. By the time he gets to the front door, I discover I can barely contain how happy I am to see him, and throw my arms around him in a bear hug before he crosses the threshold.
We sit. The wind blows in from the sea, a scant three blocks east, playing havoc with my hair. It’s only the second week in September, but a hurricane has cooled the sweltering heat to early fall, and turned the ocean mean. He lights a Newport Lite; I produce two bottles of Coors Light from my red leather handbag, note to myself that this is the second time in two weeks I’ve paid late night visits to old friends, old boy friends, and brought beer in my purse, filched from my parents’ fridge. “Cheers,” he says, clinking his bottleneck with mine, and I nod my assent.
“So,” I say, running my left hand through my overgrown bangs. “What’d you do?”
J. is on house arrest. He told me as much in a Facebook message about a week ago, when we reconnected after losing touch in the spring of 2011. I said we should go get drinks, and he said, Sure, but you’ll have to bring them here, at least for the time being. I agreed to do so, despite the fact that I did feel a slight twinge in my belly when he told me his bad luck– one I immediately quashed. House arrest, how bad could it be? I looked at it twofold– I did want to see him, was excited, actually, at the prospect; and I’m teaching The Trial this semester, so I could technically view it as a research visit. He cautions me via our Facebook conversation, “… not to confuse morality with legality,” which leads me to think he was probably selling weed; he also writes, “I’ve got some great fight stories from jail,” and I can practically see him grinning the grin I’ve just described above as he writes it. Somehow, it makes me grin, too.
In addition to being ex-military (the Navy), a local boy who was always getting into trouble, and a bit of a Casanova, J. is also fiercely political, a diehard Libertarian, something of a conspiracy theorist. Obsessed with personal freedoms, with the Constitution. Fond of guns. More than fond, actually. Spends a good deal of his free time reading about laissez-faire economics. Dislikes Marx. No, hates him. The only person on earth who I probably disagree with more, politically, is currently running for vice-president of the United States, but somehow, we always manage to keep it light, and interesting, even if I think his ideas about society are the Right-wing version of retarded Utopia– instead of everyone having healthcare and the possibility of a free public education, everyone is strapped, glories in the possibilities of the free market, and ignores one another to go home and read Jefferson’s collected works.
As my dad would say– as my dad has said (he coached J. in Little League baseball, many years ago)– “I like that guy, but he’s a loose cannon.”
Which is likely what has drawn me to him, over and over, for the better part of the last fifteen years. In high school, he was “bad”, and I was a goody-goody– no meta-quotes necessary, I just was. Yeah, I smoked pot and wore hideous, Claire Danes inspired clothing, and read a lot of Plath, and smoked cigarettes on the weekends; but for the most part, I was a jock in goth clothing, hellbent on getting out of Atlantic City and into whatever college gave me the most money and the hippest possibilities.
And, as previously discussed, I was in the sexual slow lane. Boys like J. did not like girls like me. They either ignored me, or thought of me like a thorn in their side, or, occasionally, like a kid sister they needed to protect, which is how, I imagine, he felt about me. We’d known one another since forever; by the time I sat behind him in the aforementioned math for dummies class, I had a massive crush on him. Everything about him– his mouthiness, his quick brain, his adorable face, his total disregard for authority, his total ability to talk his way out of anything– turned me on. I found myself wearing red lipstick and tighter jeans. I was entirely too shy– and too loaded up with self-righteous self-respect– to do anything rash, to even, God forbid, flirt with him, something I don’t think I even knew how to do, at the time. Instead, we just talked. About anything and everything. Years later, running into him at a bar, I copped to the fact that I dug him in high school, and he said with total sincerity, “I never picked up on that!” and I believed him, but was also convinced he had a slightly faulty memory: once, in the winter of junior year, I was wandering down an empty hallway en route to the bathroom, when I discovered him standing by an open broom closet.
“What are you up to?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Nothing,” he said, smiling mischievously. “Wanna do nothing in here with me?”
Did I ever. My jaw hit the proverbial industrial carpet, and I looked around for teachers, before stuttering, “Um… I– I mean–” I was saved by a security guard, who, rather than scolding either of us, high fived J., and ignored me.
Nearly ten years later, we finally did do “nothing,” after a very drunken party, during a particularly insane time in my life. All night, actually. The next day, he left again for the Navy, a long tour of Europe, and were it not for social media, we might not have reconnected at all– that same summer, I moved to California, where I would take up residence for the next five years. But, thanks to the miracle of MySpace, and later Facebook, we are still good friends.
Which interests me. Which is part of why I’m at his father’s house past ten on a school night, tipping back beers. I even smoke half a Newport, and immediately know I will hate myself in the morning for that decision; indeed, the next day, it will take a giant fried egg sandwich and a long, steady jog to the tune of five miles before I feel steady, and pure, again. But J. has a way of relaxing me, via engagement. Just like statistics class, we just talk– about everything, about politics, largely, but also about family, and shared friends– one, in particular– about parenthood: he has a 5-year old daughter, a little beauty, who has his eyes, and the same animation in her face. About language, about drugs. About sex. About, of course, what he did to end up tethered to his father’s house, with an electronic leash around his ankle–
“Remember M.?” He sucks down a big portion of his beer, mentioning a mutual acquaintance, someone I have never cared for.
“Of course,” I say.
“Well,” he says, “we were out one night, in Somers Point…” Before long, I have the whole story, the gist of which is a barroom brawl. He’s in trouble for aggravated assault– “No big deal.” He doesn’t think he’ll get in much trouble for it; he’s already spent a month in jail. By the time he finishes telling me the story, we’re both down one beer, and beginning to verbally vomit on one another; we are both absurdly chatty. That grin is starting to affect me. Our dynamic is so odd, so much fun– kids making a conscious decision to be bad. He’s still sexy, I still find him attractive, but that’s ultimately secondary to the conversation. At a certain point I realize sex– or at least some heavy petting– is definitely on the table, but the thought of it doesn’t seem immediate, or in any way pressing. If it happens, it happens. In the meantime, I bring it up, mostly as a means of talking about social mores, taboos–
“I’m sure,” I say, “that taboo is part of our connection. I still feel on some level like I’m 17, and you’re asking me to make out in the broom closet!” I pause. “Which, I mean, don’t get me wrong– I love that. That’s great. You’re the bad boy, I’m the good girl. That’s a hugepart of it.”
“No way, Em,” he says; all the boys I grew up with call me by my nickname. It warms my heart. “If we had never, ever evolved to speech, you and I would still be sitting here, kickin’ it, enjoying one another. I really believe that. It’s just who we are.”
“So, what? It’s all chemistry?”
But chemistry– which is, of course, a metaphor for the way two people’s personalities, or pheromones, or brains, or some combination of the three, or whatever the fuck, connect, combine, and appear to mutate into a third, tangible substance, that charged air, that spark– well, chemistry is a funny thing. The week before I saw J., as chronicled on this blog, I slept with one of my old friends, who also happens to be one of J.’s old friends. That night, in fact, that I finally “did nothing” with J., back in 2004? It was partly motivated by the fact that our mutual friend was at that party, and was treating me like a first cousin, affectionate and fond, the proverbial pat on the head. He did his Christopher Walken impression to try and smooth things over between us. I told him I’d heard better. When I realized it wasn’t going to happen, I did a quick sweep of the room– who am I going home with, tonight? And there was J., grinning, wide open, funny and ready for anything, pulling me off to the side of the house and kissing me like it was his job, with an aggression that matched my own. In other words, this was no consolation prize. We had– have– chemistry in spades, but it’s vastly different than my chemistry with Christopher Walken, who, for the sake of easy reading, I’ll call Z. I’ll admit it– Z. makes me weak in the knees. He makes me blush. I think I do a little of the same for him. We are perpetually shy with one another until we finally take our clothes off. Like I said before– everything is tinged with that kiss we never had in our thirteenth summer. It’s breathless. It’s rather darling. It takes me out of myself. It’s a Todd Rundgren song– Hello, it’s meeee… I’ve thought about you for a long, long time…
With J., though– well. It’s fast, it’s tough, it’s a wrestling match. It’s equal footing, and no bullshit, and a lot of laughing. It’s a little dangerous. I bite my lip and narrow my eyes just thinking of it. It’s not the kiss we never had on the boardwalk, with the salt breeze caressing our baby-fine skins– it’s the desperate fuck we never had in the broom closet of our wacky, urban high school, up against the WD-40 and the industrial sized mops. It’s– guaranteed? Does that make sense?
Three hours after I arrive at his house, I force myself out the door. We’ve exhausted politics. We’ve laughed hysterically. And yes, ok, we’ve kissed a bunch. But somehow, that’s not what stays with me the next day, not what makes me want to write about him. Or see him again, which I hope to do. He has no pretense at all. He disarms me. I am exactly myself with him, and vice-versa. He is a real friend, albeit one I would never have guessed I’d still be pals with, in, say, 1997. He is the person who, in the spring of 2011, got me through one of the worst nights of my life. When I thanked him in an email, a week later, he wrote the following back: “For better or worse, Em, you’ll always be part of my tribe.”