By Maddie Carey
The winter I first dated him, we bonded over weed and Jäger, and I pretended he didn’t have a coke problem. I held him as he cried when he told me his cousin OD’d, and we fumbled around in the shower until the water ran cold and we laid together in the dirt-stained tub staring into each other’s eyes.
I use the term “dated” loosely mostly because we didn’t date because he was too busy falling in love with the girl next door. Literally, she lived next door, and they’d go on to date for the next two years. But I didn’t know that then, and my feelings are validated if I call it dating. Mostly we just fooled around and planned dates I canceled too scared to go.
I liked the idea of being with him more than anything. I liked that he carried his backpack around at parties, and that everyone knew him. A few times a night he’d disappear into a back bedroom to do coke. We liked to pretend that wasn’t happening. And I liked to pretend he didn’t carry the coke everywhere he went.
That winter was the coldest – five degrees and below unbearable cold. He lived three blocks above me in our college mountain town. I would climb the hillside’s ice-paved sidewalks in my combat boots, wrapped in my parka, my hair perfectly straight lungs burning just for a chance to stand next to him. He’d strum his guitar at parties, play DJ – mostly jam bands like Phish and Moe. that I pretended to like, while I pretended I knew what this was, pretending I wasn’t in over my head.
His eyes were what I liked best. “Your eyes are beautiful,” he told me as I straddled him in the tub. I laughed breathlessly thinking his eyes were the most beautiful I had ever seen. Afterward, my straightened hair now ruined and curly, I wrapped myself in his over sized sweatpants and Led Zeppelin tee while he held me. When the sex is good, cuddling can be awkward. But we were opposite. The sex was bad and I didn’t care. I almost liked that about us. Fumbling and indecisive. When he held me, he wrapped his entire body around me.
The winter I first dated him was my third winter in undergrad, and I smoked too much and got too high too often. It was my second winter of sadness – a sadness that had begun the winter before running into spring, through a summer of crying in the rain and never eating, and a fall of giving myself away. That year I lost my virginity like ripping off a Band-Aid to a man who forgot my name and couldn’t stay hard. The night after, I ripped the Band-Aid off again just to prove I could. His eyebrows too thick, too thick for his caveman forehead and he wore tube socks as I repeatedly told him, I lost my virginity last night. And I unwilling ripped off my third bandage a month later—sleeping with a man I didn’t mean to, in a bed I don’t remember.
He came a few months later, but he was different. I was infatuated with the idea of him, dorky and smart and low-key trouble that I tried my best to ignore.
I loved telling my family about him, my friends, my therapist—the engineer. An engineer? Their ears perked up. I had succeeded. My friends told me he was cute, and I told them to stay the fuck away from him. He came along the same time I got bronchitis – heaving and wheezing to breathe. Catching my breath felt like fire, but nicotine was my calm and weed my escape. I tried a lot of escapes that winter like carelessly driving at midnight mid snow storm my $500 beat down Ford Escort the only thing standing between me and death. I drank until I was sick or lost my memory or both. Escapes were preferable. And obsessing over him was another avoidance. Skip class; get stoned. Go drinking; get stoned. Use my parent’s grocery money on an eighth and pretend I’m not dead inside. He reminded me I wasn’t dead inside whether he meant to or not.
The winter I first dated him, I met Will, or at least I think his name was Will. He sat in the corner of a house party playing the guitar and harmonizing with a friend’s boyfriend. They sang Jack Johnson and stared deeply into each other’s eyes. We played a drinking game with a pizza box, and I wondered if he was cute or if I was just drunk.
He had a flask of Jack and a feminine voice and I remember thinking he was gay as I dug my nails into his back and bit his chest. I wanted to hurt him. I knew him for three hours before I fucked him, and I only remember the biting. I knew him for three hours before he saw me cry, before I told him about the overwhelming sadness and hopelessness, about wanting to be loved, about wanting to hurt myself, that hurting him was the first time I’d felt something in a year.
He played me a poem on his phone and then another until they ran together in my head until the dark of my room was no too longer silent or reeking of sex. He told me about teaching kids in foster care, about taking them on camping trips, about finding a calling. He taught me to love myself, whether he meant to or not.
The winter I first dated him, Will, one I barely knew, who bled easily and spoke softly re-introduced me to poetry.
I listened to poems on repeat in the shower, in bed at night, on my way to class. They held me close as much as I tried to hold onto them. I began to speak in rhythms. My body buzzed with imagery and precision
At night, these voices in my ears, I strolled through the empty campus, the moon and street lights reflecting off the snow, illuminating the night around me. The surrounding buildings encasing me in their shadows, I spread my arms, relaxing my shoulders, eyes closed. Holding the moment. I paused here, took out my earbuds—silence, but not necessarily a lack of sound, a safety.