The last time I ever saw him was at his family reunion. Lincolnton, Georgia was a two hour drive from where I was living in Athens, and the little I saw of it from the rainy window of his green MINI cooper was mainly farm lands, two stoplights, and a Hardy’s. I found out later that his grandfather had been the mayor of Lincolnton until his death – five years prior.
Before we ever met, (at a basement Halloween party, dressed as a rabbit and a cowboy), I had known him by his corse shock of orange hair, and had quietly watched him walk girls to their classes, or argue with teachers in hallways. I didn’t find him attractive then, with his short legs and white eyelashes. In fact, my interest in him felt so intuitive that I hardly noticed it. When we did meet, it was brief and unmemorable. I was in the throes of a schoolgirl crush on his friend Jackson, and spent most of the party on the couch, drinking orange punch filled with plastic eyeballs.
When we met the second time, it was the summer after my freshman year of college. I had come home from college bored, and dangerously depressed. I was sleeping on an air mattress in my parent’s basement as they had filled my former bedroom with two Chinese exchange students. One night in late June, I stepped into a party filled with public high school’s druggies and drop outs. There he was, standing by the fridge, clinking ice into his grapefruit juice and Seagrams. I don’t remember most of that party, except swing dancing with him in the living room, and ruining my white Keds running through the early morning, wet grass.
We dated for a year. I heard from him, on average, every three weeks, usually at five in the morning, after he had eaten mushrooms or drunk enough whiskey to make both his liver and I fearful. When I went home for Christmas and spring break, I neglected my family to lie despondently in the mattress on his bedroom floor all afternoon while he was at work. We hardly ever had a conversation. I was so desperate to impress him, that eating or speaking became absurdly difficult.
The next summer, I moved from Brooklyn to Athens, a two hour drive from his house in Atlanta. We rarely talked, and I told friends that I was attempting to wriggle out of the whole thing. The last week of June, he called after a month of silence, asking if I’d like to come to his family reunion the next weekend. I was flattered. He picked me up, and we had a goofy, awkward drive to dinner. I was happy. We were going 90 on a 50 mph highway through the Georgia countryside, with my hand on the back of his neck.
His family was kind, but most of the weekend found me sitting in the corner of a public park amphitheater, while he wandered away, failing to introduce me to anyone. We spent the night in a bunk bed in a lakeside cabin, adjacent to his father’s house. I sat next to him on the bottom bunk, reading. When he finished his homework, he turned off the lights, took off his pants, and moved against me in the sweltering July heat. “I want to be rough,” he said. I whispered okay, wondering whether he wanted me to be rough in return or to simply lie limp in his arms; something to be handled. I half-heartedly dug my bitten nails into the arch of his red back, but soon lost enthusiasm and went weak. When we had finished, he told me to put on a shirt and crawled to the top bunk. I lay on the bottom bunk in a pool of sweat, awake until seven am. His father came to wake us up in the morning, throwing the door open with a gusto indicative of his need to make sure his son and I had not fallen asleep on the same mattress.
That afternoon, after lunch with his grandmother and cousins, we drove home in complete silence. I put my hand on the back of his neck and he flinched away. We went 90 miles an hour and got a speeding ticket.
Desperate for conversation, some indicator that I had not failed to impress his family, that the 24 hours we had just spent together had meant something – I asked him his plans for the fall. “I’m moving to Romania on August 15th,” he responded. He was going to make a documentary film about an orphanage choir. If I had never asked, I probably would never have known until he called from the airport, or updated his location on Facebook. Moments later, we pulled into my driveway. He kissed me goodbye and then leaned across me to open my car door. He shifted the car into gear and muttered without looking at me, “I’ll see you around.” I got out of the car, walked inside, and dry heaved over the kitchen sink.
Three weeks later, on schedule, he called early in the morning, slurring and sad. I crawled into my closet, and cried from the dark spot behind hanging sweaters and stacks of books. That was the last time we spoke, when he promised to write, and I asked him not to.