He was older, not by much, but enough to exhibit seniority over our first meeting. I was a freshman in college and he was supervising my rambunctious dorm floor. We were both majoring in English literature and ended up partnered together for an array of assignments. We spent the early morning hours hunched over novels and scribbling notes across another pathetic sonnet of obsessive love.
I had filed him under the umbrella of mentor, a big brother of sorts. He directed me to classes and made sure I signed up for the most inspiring, albeit crazy, professors. We split six packs and bags of pretzels when our motivation alone couldn’t get us to focus on our homework. Sooner or later we’d resort to sitcom reruns until one of us fell asleep, awakening only in time to find a jacket as we hurried to get to class. I would later find that the majority of the next four years would be spent spread out on his bedroom floor, rewriting yet another prose.
We moved across the street from each other his senior year. We shared a quiet friendship, sitting next to each other silently for hours on end, each paying attention to our own books but walking away as though we’d just shared every intimate detail. We spent empty days together making grilled cheese and walking through back neighborhoods as we ripped the crusts off our sandwiches.
We had both ridden out each other’s heartaches, each other’s lows and, subsequently, each other’s highs. We had a silent agreement that if we, somehow, never spoke directly about our relationships and affairs with other people, we could continue our reliable and well-meaning friendship in peace. We flew under the radar, inadvertently. Our friendship continued only in each other’s presence, we’d seamlessly go about our days apart until the next time we found ourselves together on the road connecting us.
On his last night before graduation, we decided to get too high in his attic, nearly suffocating from his packed up belongings looming around us. In our usual fashion, we blocked out the world and were consumed with our petty arguments on where we’d both end up. As I flipped through his notebook of poems, quotes, and essays he’d written over the past four years, I paused to interject my own notes, adding details to places I thought needed it and erasing lines I found irritating. He didn’t mind, we had been correcting, adjusting, working on each other for years now. We ate the inside filling of Oreos as we read aloud the lost chapters of his stories. We laughed at our foolishness, trying to recall how we once believed our creative writing degrees would serve us in the real world. We pretended we’d get published and be famous and end up spending all our money on a backpacking trip across Europe. Or Africa. Or Wisconsin.
We woke up the next morning with an empty bottle of Andre and a thick haze over us. His notebooks remained opened to unknown pages, sonnets that would once again retreat back to their modest identities. As we had done numerous times before, we split breakfast and acted as if this was like every other Sunday morning. Our anticlimactic goodbye was a reassurance; we knew we’d see each other again. An odd habit we had. By not acknowledging our separation, it ceased to exist. It was only a matter of time before we would be back together.
We kept in touch in our usual fashion. He’d send me haikus, I’d tell him how I thought my professor was a lunatic, but I liked it anyways. He had found a job at a publishing company but quickly grew tired of the routine, as I knew he would. I had secretly admired his adventurous soul, although I knew he often found fault in the fact he couldn’t tie myself down. He called to tell me he would be leaving to travel across the country, on his own. He needed to be alone, he needed to discover if not the world, then himself in the process. He wouldn’t have a phone, but he’d be in touch.
Even after I had graduated and moved down south, I thought of him often, in the most unexpected of times. He’d cross my mind on long walks home from work or on the days I drove upstate to visit old friends. It wasn’t until months later that his trip took an unexpected turn and he ended up outside my apartment. As we had hundreds of times before, we stretched out across my floor as I listened to his stories, asking questions, and, of course, correcting his inaccuracies. We read through his journal entries and looked through his souvenirs from the trek he had almost completed. He left the next morning in the only form we knew. There was no heart-wrenching goodbye, no unstoppable tears, no moment of reconsideration. As I calmly returned back into my apartment, I immediately noticed he had left some of his notes underneath the pile of blankets we had only moments ago been buried in. I quickly reached for the collection as I stumbled to return them before he left.
Until I saw the page holding them together. In bold letters he had written,
“Good morning Jul! I’ve been editing my old poetry for a few days now – just something I felt had to be done before packing up everything else necessary in my life to relocate for good. I found these old poems I don’t think I’ve ever shared with you, even though you’re the subject. Nothing fancy..but here.”
Clasped together were pages and pages of old papers, napkins, even faded receipts with words splattered across them. Some notes were typed while others were scribbled in his recognizable handwriting. It would take me days to go through each one, pen in hand…though I would never actually make a mark. Their creation alone was too beautiful to consider rectifying. He wrote about my perpetual habit of munching on baby carrots when I was nervous. How I consistently underdressed in the dead of winter, forcing him to hand over his gloves. He wrote how I’d tie my hair up when I got serious with him, or how I’d inevitable smile when he purposely said something unreasonable to break the tension. He remembered the dreams I had of moving abroad and how I always cut sandwiches diagonally, never across. He wrote about the times we had accidentally held hands when we got too drunk and the dark moments I’d somehow forgotten I had shared with him. The things I had never once found significant about myself, he had been treasuring. He cherished the moments I had mindlessly accepted as just another aspect of our otherwise ordinary friendship.
He had accidentally shown up in this city I had moved to, I convinced myself. This must have been some sort of pure act of coincidence. But as I unfolded and refolded the poetic notes repeatedly, I knew this wasn’t true. He had meticulously made the trip to see me, not to prove some drastic declaration of love, but rather, to further make evident that we were a staple in each other’s lives, whether we agreed to it or not. It was as if I had been feeling nothing and everything all at once. All the thoughts I had pushed out of my mind for years suddenly flooded over me. How could I not have realized this? Had I been so set on being blinded by love that I, quite literally, couldn’t see him? The narrow views I once had of him were crashing before me.
We had never been intense, mind blowing, life-changing, not in the radical sense at least. It hadn’t knocked me down over and over again. But who was I kidding? That sort of thing was doomed to fail. The ones who take your breath away often forget to return it. I began to realize that the ones you should keep around are the ones who maintain a subtle, yet substantial, presence in your life. He was a constant, sure thing. Never flashy, boastful, arrogant. In fact, very few of my friends would remember his name, if they could recall him at all. But that’s how we had always been, our unmatchable relationship only evident to the two involved. His presence brought me peace rather than a sense of urgency. He hadn’t needed a grand gesture to make it clear. Our history together was proof enough.
I think about him more than I should. I have lead myself to believe that I had been so concerned with looking ahead that it never occurred to turn and see who had been next to me the whole way through. I remind myself that our sensible relationship was always one to answer the questions of life, not ask them. We would continue to subsist on our accidental partnership. And this, this stable balance of life-long friendship, is how we would stay. We would remain in this limbo where neither one of us would put forth enough momentum to be anything more, nor anything less. And this, somehow, would always be enough.