Telling this story was a response to Maroon 5’s song Daylight. I’ve changed *most* of the names. But like Anne Lamott says, “Tell your stories. If people wanted you to say nice things about them they should have behaved better.”
I could barely breathe when Tuesday ended.
The house had been full of people. A going away party. Our last night together. Only Angela would still be there by the weekend. The rest of us were leaving, one and two at a time, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. So the last night, Tuesday, we had a party.
Tonight. It’s still tonight. It’s the same drunken silliness we’ve been having since April. My parents are all but completely absent and we’ve had run of the house. Downstairs right now are a dozen sleeping teenagers, paired up under blankets and sharing whatever darkened corner they can find.
I’m pretty sure Tag is in my dad’s room. He’s the only one who ever sleeps in there because he always sleeps alone. The only girl he wants rarely comes and when she does she brings her boyfriend.
The boyfriend is much too serious for the rest of us and eight years from now he’ll be killed in action as a Marine in Afghanistan. He’s better than the rest of us. At least that’s what we’ll say about him later but tonight he’s with the girl that breaks Tag’s heart over and over. She’s my best friend so I miss her and I keep inviting her. We said goodbye this afternoon after a day swimming in my parents’ backyard pool and she and the boyfriend-who-is-better-than-all-of-us left the party before the blender started mixing margaritas.
We played the same story last night that we’ve played all summer: plenty of booze, a few spills and mishaps, some he-said she-said drama, seemingly random hook ups. Caught between childhood and adulthood for what seems like the interminable future, we took full advantage of the swimming pool and hot tub out back.
On Tuesday I’d come upstairs to change into dry clothes and he’d followed me and that’s how he ended up on my couch. Despite some other girls’ efforts to get him to share a blanket with them, he’d come with me. I handed him a towel and closed the door. He had a bag with him and turned his back while I pealed my bathing suit off and shimmied into shorts and a t-shirt. I gave him the same privacy and together we charged the air with its first real tension since we’d first met.
With our backs to one another, in unknown states of undress, he said, “Will it be okay if I crash here tonight?”
“Of course,” I said.
“I mean here, on your couch?”
I closed my eyes. My single bed against the wall in front of me, a couch on the wall behind me, a drawing table-turned-desk in the right and a ladder I used as shelving on the left held down the corners of the room. I knew the arrangement like the length of my arms and legs.
I nodded first and then said, “Yes,” so he could hear. Then, “Done?”
With his affirmative, I turned and we faced one another in this room we would share. We didn’t go to bed right then; we left the room, flipped the light off, rejoined the party which at this point had Dancing Queen blaring on the stereo on the living room. We paused at the balcony overlook and watched the crowd dancing. I felt eyes on me and met them. Jason. All summer we’d played this drama, I wanted him but he didn’t want me but he didn’t want anyone else to have me either. The Sophie-Jason drama was tired but we’d kept it up.
Now, though, I’d changed the game. Standing next to me, having just emerged from my bedroom, in fresh clothes, with a time of nakedness elapsed, was his brother. Jason looked at his brother. Joel just looked back.
We descended. The open stairwell met the first floor on a wooden foyer into which the front door opened. Tag was playing a game at the bottom of the stairs, seated on the opening to the living room and facing the foyer. When I came down his eyes widened. I went to him.
“Not Joel,” he said quietly.
“No,” I agreed. “He’s Jason’s brother.”
“I know, Soph, I grew up with them.” He reached up and took my hand. He met my eyes. “Don’t. Just don’t.”
“I wasn’t. I won’t. It was just a towel and dry clothes thing. Nothing else,” I assured him. I smiled then sat down behind him, putting my legs out on either side of his and pressing myself against his back
Tag rubbed my leg and I smiled and laid my cheek on his shoulder.
My parents’ house had ceased to be theirs when they’d split at Christmas time. It was now firmly mine until tomorrow when I left for college. I looked around. Tag and I sat on one side of the foyer, the door to our left, the living room behind us. In the living room was the formal furniture we’d only ever sat on during special occasions, company, or if we were being talked to because of some inscrutable sin we’d committed.
Now, though, drunk teenagers were draped over it. My mother’s lamps, the ones she’d gotten from her grandmother that we’d been led to believe were so fragile we ought not to touch them except to dust them, glowed on either end of the sofa. In here it was a sofa, a deep golden velvet piece with four cushions and stiff tube-like pillows below the arm rests. It sat opposite a piano whose bench was stuffed with sheet music we’d never learned. In the family room it was a couch, okay for rough housing and Sunday napping but in here it was a sofa and no one sat on it until about five months ago when my mom moved out.
I looked over Tag’s shoulder to his opponent. On the other side of the foyer, below the staircase and with the formal dining room behind him, sat Ben, a sandy blonde drama instigator who right now was wrapped in the legs of his sometimes girlfriend Michelle. She’s the one Jason wanted, but she wanted Ben, usually, except when she didn’t and she turned to Jason, who was waiting to drop me and pick her up.
I hated her but we did pretty much everything together except talk about why she kept pulling Jason to her when she knew how much I wanted him. She was leaving for Virginia Tech tomorrow but she wouldn’t stay there. We’d make a single road trip to party which would be torn asunder by the passing of Melanie’s grandfather, and then I would never see Michelle again. She’d drop out of college and end up stripping in Myrtle Beach, a future Jason and Tag would defend as legitimate despite my passionate assertions that it was completely unacceptable.
That Tuesday she was sitting behind Ben, pretending to be in a real relationship with a future that included college and marriage and family, unaware that future would not be hers. And he rubbed her legs, turned and kissed her now and then, unaware that when she was stripping in Myrtle Beach he would have left college, too, and be working at Abercrombie & Fitch as a retail professional for much longer than it was okay to be doing so. Then he’d get wasted and miss a shift and get fired even though the manager really wanted to fire him for being too old and for fucking all the teenagers they hired. He was twenty three when that happened.
I hear my name and stand up behind Tag, pushing on his back so he folds almost in two over the plastic cup in front of him. It’s got beer in it and Ben is tossing beer caps from across the foyer into it. They played this game for hours all summer long. Usually Jason played, too. But when I walked past the stairs, under the walkway, I saw him sitting in my dad’s recliner watching some girls dance.
Melanie is with them. Her grandfather was still alive that Tuesday but he was really sick. She was about six daiquiris in but way better off than the night she drank Brass Monkey. She’d wandered around with that bottle in her hand being the biggest bitch ever. I’d probably deserved some of what she said but I’d been drinking vodka which makes me cry and so her attitude and my emotional instability were a terrible combination.
By the summer after senior year she’s had sex with eight guys and I have, too, and we have an unofficial contest going to see who can get to ten first. She was making a legitimate effort to secure number nine as I entered the room. She gyrated and squealed in that drunk girl way, singing every word to another Abba song. She called, “Sophie!” and pointed at me, pretending to lasso me toward her.
I looked down at Jason who was noticing me standing there. Then I looked past him and saw Joel and two other guys sitting on the couch. They were all just watching.
Later I would understand that look to be the mental video cameras recording what they were seeing for future masturbation material but right then I just saw three girls in various states of summer nakedness, triangle bathing suit tops, string bikini bottoms, hot pants, cut-off t-shirt, tank top, but mostly skin. Lots of skin. Touching and hugging and dancing.
Someone plugged a strobe light in and it flickered. Another squeal went up, more touching, more skin.
I walked past the living room to the kitchen. The floor was sticky but I didn’t bother to wince. We’d clean it tomorrow. We always did. That was the thing about this group, no one left the next day until the house was clean. We had a deal. If you didn’t stay and clean you didn’t get invited back. If you told anyone else about where we were partying, you didn’t get invited back. We had to protect the venue from too many people showing up, that’s when the cops got called and we all got busted. So we kept it to our eighteen-to-twenty regulars and the rules were simple: don’t tell anyone else, bring a blanket for sleeping because no one drives drunk, and stay to clean in the morning.
When I entered the kitchen there was an intense game of Asshole going on at the table and some shouting erupted as someone broke a rule and the others caught the infraction. Behind them a group played quarters on the counter top, bouncing coins into cups and slamming the mugs back whenever one found its mark.
All that noise, all that life, all that youth wasted on the young. I looked through the window and saw people still in the hot tub, still in the pool, on the deck. Our numbers rounded out but everyone was downstairs.
A touch on my back and I didn’t have to turn, I knew it was him. He handed me another beer and stood a little too close and I wondered if he’d finally decided he’d just go for it.
That’s how we got to where I couldn’t breathe.
The house had let go of everything else like a long exhale sending drunken teenage drama into the night and those sober few who hadn’t stayed had gone and the drunks who had stayed were under blankets coupled up all over the house. Angela and her boyfriend had my older sister’s room. They would break up within the year and then reconcile nine years later after Angela got stranded in Atlanta where he was living and used Facebook to put out an SOS to which he responded. She and I would reconnect on Facebook, too, after a long time of misunderstanding one another and thinking that ended friendship.
My younger sister and her boyfriend had made it home and were in her room. She wouldn’t survive the fall with our parents missing in action. She’d miss so much school that my mother would disenroll her, making her a high school dropout and effectively giving up on her. Even though she rallied years later and finished college and turned out okay, that night her future looked dismal and kept that pallor for some time.
Tag had my dad’s bed. He followed me South and lived with his mom for a year before moving to the college town I was in and sharing an apartment with me and Melanie, who’d come down after her grandfather’s death. Tag would work in restaurants and date several women until one of them graduated and moved back to Northern Virginia which is where we all were that summer; our hometown.
Eventually a company called America Online would put their corporate headquarters in our hometown and the whole area would quadruple in size with immigrants legitimate and not constructing four lane highways and wrap-around exit ramps where there used to be two lane traffic signal intersections.
But that Tuesday, after the quiet descended, it was just Joel and me in my room.
I’d asked Jason to stay. Though he’d been cold to me all summer it was the last night and I still wanted him. He’d done his handstand on the diving board that made me wild. He was tight, strong, so ridiculously sexy I couldn’t stand it. I’d made a fool of myself all summer after breaking up with him. He’d refused to get back together though we sometimes hooked up. After seeing me and Joel on the upstairs balcony and Michelle wrapped around Ben, Jason had decided to go home. He had offered Joel a ride and Joel had declined.
All summer I had been taking what I could get from Jason. I took the hookups and pretended to be satisfied. I also hooked up with others, most of whom were not in our group. I had rules. In a previous group of friends there had been one girl the boys passed around and when she wasn’t with us they talked about her. I heard what they said and the way they compared what she’d done with them and I refused to be her. So the rules I set for myself were that the guys couldn’t be friends, couldn’t be teammates, and later, couldn’t be fraternity brothers.
I had a guy I swam with that was a great low-commitment hook up and a friend in my sister’s group that provided a few hits when I needed one. I spent two weeks with a visitor from South Africa, who had been brought to me by a friend that was unwilling to take him to bars and compete with him for women; easily the hottest guy I ever had in my bed. But in our group there was only Jason.
And Joel. Who was laying on my couch as the night slipped away and the quiet of the house settled around us.
“Are you glad to go?” he asked.
“God, yes,” I said, automatically, without blinking, without thinking. It was the best decision I’d ever make to get the hell out of there. “Yes,” again, softly, not knowing then whether it was the right decision or not and feeling like I ought to be afraid even though I wasn’t.
“I remember when I left,” he said, “I couldn’t wait to get out. Sean and I were so ready.” He had his hands beneath his head and his legs crossed at the ankles.
“What brought you back?” I asked, staring at the ceiling but wanting to look at him, really look at him, until I couldn’t anymore. A gap opened and closed between us like the stretching threads of taffy as we pulled and pushed the conversation around looking for thickness and durability.
“It was too easy there. We weren’t going to survive if we stayed. So I left.”
I knew he meant the drugs. I knew he meant they were in to stuff they couldn’t control and couldn’t escape. Tag had told me the first year at VCU had splashed Joel and Sean in so much acid they’d come home disfigured. Joel came home at Christmas of year two, went to community college, tried to get his head on. Sean hung till the end of the Spring term but he’d been home for summer break two weeks when he overdosed on heroin.
A month ago Tag had come to my house, cheeks and eyes red from crying, to tell me about Sean. I didn’t know Sean, I’d never met him, but he and Joel and Jason and Sean’s younger brother Tim had all been best friends since grade school. Joel and Sean were two years ahead of us; Tim was one year ahead of us.
Before Sean died I’d only ever seen Joel when I was with Jason whom I had dated for the better part of the spring. Joel was home from VCU by then but he was in college and we were still in high school and so he didn’t pay too much attention to us. He may have noticed me. I’m not sure. I couldn’t see anyone except Jason because, right up until he’d decided on Michelle, he couldn’t see anyone but me.
After Sean died we spent more time with Joel. He didn’t want to be around people that reminded him of Sean and so Jason had been inviting him to hang with us. We didn’t do drugs, either, we only ever drank our faces off, so Joel was safe here. He worked and drank good beer but we all drank whatever anyone would buy us. Joel was just 20 and I don’t know where he got the microbrews he drank but he smoked hand rolled cigarettes and wrote poetry and drew. He was deeper and more mature than we were.
It was these last two things that connected me to him. I wrote. I wrote passionately and poorly and had been working on a novel for years. I knew the central love story and when I learned about Sean I suddenly had the central story. As I got to know Joel I slowly learned my main character and I infused him with all the beautiful broken things I learned about Joel.
He would eventually finish at George Mason University in bioengineering and go to Ithaca in New York and complete a PhD. Eighteen years later I would hear a radio DJ mention Ithaca in some benign statistic like “Smartest U.S. City” and think immediately about that Tuesday when Joel was just a recovering drug user whose best friend died six weeks ago.
After he said they wouldn’t have survived if they’d stayed I didn’t know what to say. I’d never done a single drug in my life. I’d never even smoked a cigarette. It wasn’t my style.
“I’ve been happy here,” he said.
“I’m glad,” I said.
“It’s been easier with you,” he said.
“I’ve tried to make it that way,” I said.
The darkness hung between us. The window over his head let in some light from the street but the blinds were closed and the light was severed with shadows. If he’d lift his arm I’d see it zebra striped in the night. But his arms were folded over his chest.
I turned onto my side to see him better and to slow the bed spins. I took a breath and let it out audibly, thought about all the people around us. I’d been calling them dead bodies, teenagers passed out and intertwined on couches and carpet and under tables. I didn’t call them dead bodies to Joel. I just thought about them and how easy this had all been all summer long and then I wondered how hard it would be at college.
I would find out I’d taken for granted the comfortable intimacy we shared and that people didn’t just ease into groups of friends in college like they did in high school. I would find I was homesick mostly for nights like this one when everyone had seemed in possession of the same smiles, passing them around and drinking deeply from them like chalices of understanding and security. I would find it wasn’t the booze that created that. It was something else I would never be able to duplicate.
“It is easy here,” I said. “Are we special?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Can we be different, then?” I asked.
I knew he meant we couldn’t be anything other than the girlfriend and the brother and that it was a rule I should have made but hadn’t yet.
I blinked and the bed wouldn’t stop so I sat up. He sat up. We faced each other.
“We’re supposed to be sleeping,” he said.
“I know.” I felt chills on my legs and the warm rush of saliva that comes just before all the beer I’d had reappears. I swallowed three times until it went away. I kept my eyes wide and breathed deep, slow breaths, though not the breath of sleep or peace. I reached for the water bottle on the small chair next to my bed that served as a night stand. I drank deeply and tried closing my eyes again. The nausea had passed and I didn’t feel quite as drunk as I thought I was.
He was still watching me. He was still waiting. We sat for a moment and let the darkness hang between us. I imagined his expression, thought I heard his lips part into that boyish smile with the tiny dimples.
“You’re laughing at me,” I said.
“No,” he said, but I could hear the smile in his voice.
I stood and walked across the room, stopped in front of him, and waited. The gap was closed. I could feel we both wanted more. I could feel the chance there. Then.
I reached over his head for the string on the blinds and pulled. They opened and the street light streamed in. I looked down at him, the top of his head. I could have cupped it and pulled it to me but I didn’t touch him.
His hand left the couch, his arm rose up beside my leg, his palm flat against my thigh. His touch singed and I could hear myself sizzle and steam. For a second I stood there, his hand on my leg, his face at my belly. The edge of my pajama shorts hung just over his wrist. His palm didn’t move.
I could kneel in front of him. I could press myself into him, wrap my arms around him, lift my face to his kiss. I could have him. I couldn’t breathe.
“This can’t happen,” he said softly.
“No,” I said, stepping back, breaking the contact, and retreating to my bed. I sat back down facing him. The light now showed his face, sharp cheek bones, beautiful round eyes, the tousled curls of a boy on his brow. I could push them aside, press my lips to him. But not from here.
I turned and laid back down. I could see he was still sitting. I could feel the intention. I begged him silently to follow me to the bed. Sit next to me, crawl over me, lay on me. I was begging and closed my eyes.
“I want you,” he said.
I felt a tear slip out of my eye.
“I don’t want you to go.”
I nodded. I heard him shift on the couch and when I opened my eyes he was laying down again. I squeezed my eyes shut and another tear dripped out.
He would come to visit me not six weeks from then, pulled by that magnet force we’d identified in my room that night. He’d drive all the way down, lying to his brother about where he was going, meeting up with Tag and arriving late one night on my dorm hall. Tag would have been to see me so often he would know how to sneak them in and they’d stay. But by then the world was bigger. Even when Tag left the next day to work and Joel and I were alone and he was lying in my bed, we’d only be able to hold one another.
Another month after that I’d be back home and naked under his brother and the tears would fill my eyes and we’d have to stop so I could gather myself. Then I’d smoke my first cigarette.
Tonight I could hear him breathing, a little ragged at first and then more even but not yet the steady breath of sleep. The daylight was coming and when it did, we would be on our own, apart. This brief moment would have passed and be irretrievable. I wasn’t ready. I clung to the dark, widened my eyes, interrupted my breath.
“In another life,” I said, “I’ll come to you and let you touch me.”
He stopped breathing. “I’ll kiss you,” he said.
I stopped breathing. “I’ll have you,” I said.
I turned my head and saw he was squeezing his eyes shut. His hands came up from the blanket at his sides and pressed into his eyes. I saw his elbows over his chest, his fingers on his forehead, the heal of his palm fit under the bone of his eye sockets. I saw his chest go up and down, then he raised his knees, bringing the blanket with them and I thought certainly he would come off the couch now.
I watched him, lying on my side, my hands tucked under my pillow, squeezing my chest tight, holding my breath.
In my memory he breaks that posture, sits up, and faces me. He doesn’t stand, just lunges quietly toward me, low to the ground, to the edge of my bed and kneels. He places a hand on my cheek and leans to me. We kiss gently at first and then deeper. In my memory he’s desperate for me and I for him. In my memory we know no one will ever have to know what happens in that room. We know the next day I’m leaving and this is the only moment we’ll ever have. In my memory we can’t let it pass.
His lips are warm and gentle and I slide over and make room for him. He crawls into the bed next to me and pulls me to him. We kiss and smile against each other’s lips. We agree to let it be. We agree to not tell. The secret becomes the binding we were looking for.
I let him pull my shirt over my head and I pull his off, too. We are chest to chest in the dark side of the room. He’s over top of me, against me, firm and ready. I’m soft and pliant below him. In my memory he can have me and he does.
I take that memory to school with me the next day. I hold on to the way it could have happened. I repeat, “Nothing happened.” I call it nothing.
He would come to visit and we would be unable to connect, really connect, for fear of what it would do to Jason. We think one of the things we have in common is Jason. We forget what we had in common in my room that night. We forget.
Six hundred miles away from that room, six weeks from that night, we cannot put six degrees between us, there’s only one. While Joel and I are sitting in my room at school listening to some music he’s bought that one degree calls me. He tells me things he shouldn’t and I blush on the phone and Joel leaves the room to smoke a hand-rolled cigarette.
“This cannot happen,” comes back into the room with him.
We go to bed and hold each other.
A month later I would sit on the side of the bed crying and Jason would say, “Did you fuck him?”
In my memory it’s nothing. I remember nothing. I would say, “No.”
The daylight pulled at the edges of the night and the blinds admitted the pinkish hues. Breathing slowed to that deep and peaceful rhythm of sleep. I looked at him again, boyish smile with tiny dimples that indicated mischief even while sleeping. Then I closed my eyes and let the moment pass. Let daylight come.