Max Von Trap, better known as MVT, was two years older than me and walked everywhere. With no license, no bike, and no patience for the screeching freshmen at the front of the bus, his only choice was to travel by foot. He was a gloomy contrast against the suburban backdrop; his dirt brown beanie and greasy hair seemed more suited for back-alley drug trades than three-car garages and freshly mowed lawns. Kids riding the school bus would smush their noses up against the windows’ laminated glass as they passed him on the street, thirsting for a closer look at his worn leather jacket and nicotine-stained nail beds.
I met him at a theater party during my Sophomore year. Despite having spent three months in the same cast, we’d had no interactions save for accidental eye contact as my chorus character did fan kicks across the stage and his starring role observed with a snooty pout. About an hour into the party, I ventured through a side door in the basement that opened to a narrow stone stairwell leading up to the backyard. I closed the door behind me and the noise of the party became a distant hum. Sitting on the third step flanked by a couple of friends was Max, flicking the ash from his cigarette with a cavalier air that was surely contrived but to me seemed other-worldly, or at least European.
“Sorry,” I said at the same time as he held up his pack and said, “Want a cigarette?”
“Sure,” I said, and positioned myself awkwardly on the step above.
The rough concrete was malicious and then redemptive, scratching the undersides of my thighs and then soothing them with its after-dark November chill. I put my lips to the filter and let the end of my cigarette meet the amber tip of his. We inhaled. That was the first time I’d ever smoked a cigarette. I gathered the smoke into a cloud beneath my tongue, unsure of how to transfer it to my lungs. I let it sail out of my mouth between my teeth.
I watched Max as he spoke to his friends, simultaneously the center of the conversation and dodging through the outskirts, making a bold statement with only contentious intent and then sinking into the shadows as the other kids fought it out. I remained silent, unable to fully concentrate on what was being said due to a wooziness that I attributed to the cigarette but was only just a mix of alcohol and crushing infatuation. I wasn’t following the conversation until I heard the word “depression.” I sat up straight.
“I know a lot about that,” I said. Only Max looked at me, the other boys concentrated on loading the end of a pipe with the coveted kief gathered from the bottom of the grinder.
“So do lots of people,” Max said.
“Yeah, well,” I said, “last year, I took it too far.”
He looked at me, and despite the dark, I could picture the electric blue of his eyes sitting quietly in an expanse of bloodshot white. I prepared myself to explain to this near-stranger what I meant by “too far” with an ambiguous string of words that I’d rehearsed before.
“You’re still here, aren’t you?” he said. The corners of my mouth dipped into a hesitant frown. He made me feel, in that moment and every moment over the next two years, so deeply ordinary that I confused it with comfort.
“Yeah,” I said, swallowing the lump in my throat. “I guess I am.”
Our first kiss was in December, just a month (of many phone calls, private lunches in music practice rooms, book exchanges, and neurotic laughter) later. We were high in my bedroom and the lights were dimmed. I laid in bed, eyes bleary and chest full with the nervous tick-tock of my heart. Max stood in front of my dresser, leather jacket on but hat off, green polka-dotted socks on but red Converses off. He cleared his throat, removed his jacket, and performed for me the monologue from Brighton Beach Memoirs that he’d used in his college auditions. I tried to savor every word that trickled out of his mouth, but I could only let them wash over me in my dazed state. When he finished, I clapped slowly, and he crawled into bed beside me. We were facing each other completely horizontally but still inches apart. My left shoulder throbbed quietly under the weight of my body. I took a breath and shifted toward him. He took a breath and shifted toward me. I breathed, he breathed. Our lips touched but still we didn’t kiss, simply breathed together in a lazy fashion, an intimate fashion. Finally, my hands found their way into his hair and his around my waist, and we fell deeply into each other, lost in a world of two, emerging only after I’d forgotten how to breathe on my own.
In the winter, we holed ourselves beneath his covers and soaked in our depressions, our respective blues deepening the other’s until we were buried twice as deep in apathetic exhaustion. The winter months of 2011 were heavy with blizzards, and as soon as the snowstorms hit, it was clear to me that Max had years before cultivated his depression so deftly that it was not a hindrance but an amplifier to his character. He was most handsome when he was brooding, when his thick bottom lip sat heavily atop his chin, when the tips of his hair poked into his eyes until I swept them away with the palm of my hand.
My own depression felt catastrophic and unsolvable. It was like a misshapen pebble lodged in my ribcage; it was barely detectable but every breath still hurt. Max made this feeling — this awful weight inside of me that had been continually worsening since the year before — seem normal. He treated it as an unquestionable fact of me and himself. On this topic and all others, he spoke with such conviction of his own knowledge that I found it difficult to find fault in his words. Under his wing, I learned to embrace my depression and make it as much a part of myself as his own was of himself. He’d stroke my scars like they were trophies.
The first time that Max told me he loved me, we had just watched a movie on his bed. I had been lying down with my head in his lap, falling in and out of sleep until the credits rolled. I blinked my eyes rapidly to shoo away the sleep, nervous that he would be upset that I had missed the end of the film. I sat up and smiled at him, and he did not smile back but said matter-of-factly, “I love you.” The moment was far less special than I had ever expected the moment would be — the first time that someone told me they loved me and the first time that I told someone that I loved him. I found myself saying, “I love you” matter-of-factly as well, because it was not a revelation but something that I knew from my heart-beat and my bones, which felt sturdy only when they were next to his.
The following August, Max left for college. Four hours before his flight to North Carolina, we stood leaning against his fire-engine red car, parked in a shaded cul-de-sac that curled around a little-league baseball field. The windows were still steamy despite every door hanging open, and the back seat had been put down to make room for our bodies. Max had flung the used condom into the grass, and I stared at its slimy body as he reached into the car to fiddle with the radio. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, and I reached forward to trace the freckles on his pale back just as he settled on NPR, which was pouring out smooth jazz like it could feel the day’s humidity. Max lit a cigarette and sat in the passenger seat.
“Aren’t you worried?” I said, again.
“No,” he said. “You’re going to be fine, Betty. Relax.”
“How?” I whispered.
He didn’t hear me, having already started to retreat back into his individual world, unconcerned with the fact that I’d lost my grasp on mine. In a brief moment of clarity, I saw that my love for Max had developed into unprecedented dependence, which was not requited. I could not be without him, but he could be without me if he needed to. I wrapped my arms around his back and rested my cheek against his damp skin.
It was cold in Westport but warm in Winston-Salem, so during the winter I sank alone, holding myself beneath my covers and wishing that he were there. My depression was made worse because during the first few weeks of January, I felt a growing distance between us. Phone calls were avoided; texts went unanswered. “I love you”s dwindled. When I did manage to get him on the phone, his voice sounded worlds away. It took most of the month for me to muster up the courage to ask him over the phone, “Are you still in love with me?”
“To be honest, Betty,” he said, and my body would no longer accept oxygen, “No.”
When I was in third grade, I was the only girl on an all boys little league baseball team. I was not athletic and mostly got in the way during the game, so the coaches got in the habit of putting me far in the outfield where they knew no 8-year-old could ever hit the ball. The grass was never fresh but always dotted with buttercup flowers whose warm reflection beneath my chin would prove to onlookers that I liked butter. At that time in my childhood, I had trouble holding my bladder — an ailment that was not a night terror but most visible during weekends in Vermont when my mother would have to wash my snow pants after every day on the slopes. In the outfield, the home plate seemed blurry with distance, so when I felt the familiar pressure in my bladder, I felt comfortable squatting down in the grass and relieving myself in my pants. I would crush buttercup stems between my fingers as I peed, assuming that no one would notice what I was really up to. Of course, the onlookers of the game weren’t really that far away, and my parents did have to take me home from the field every day. But there was not a doubt in my mind that I was getting away with it.
I had been chained in the outfield with Max. I had decorated the chain with flower petals to disguise the sharp shavings of rust that chafed against my ankle, and everybody around me could see what I thought was arcane: the isolation of our world. Now, from home plate, I could see plainly that I had gotten lost deep within our relationship. But I was somehow both by the dugout and still in the outfield, alone, and I couldn’t yet figure out how to stop straddling the diamond and come back to earth.
It is hard now to see how I had ever fallen in love with him, but the proof is in the monotonous slate of white that was my winter with him, the ache in my rib cage when I remember his abandonment. Now that I’m in a much brighter place in my life, I could never imagine being sucked into something so deeply depressive. Had I had the maturity to recognize it’s consequences before it was too late, perhaps I would have stopped myself from falling in love at 15. Sometimes I’m so incredulous of my teenage self’s vulnerability that I tell people that I wasn’t actually in love with him, I just thought I was. But life has proved time and time again that love, whether it be at 50 of 15, is just as deep and real as you fall.