Before Nothing, A Little Something (Essay)

Words by Beca Grimm.

He stuffed his huge man body in the back of an old Corolla, an anomalous chariot the summer I was 19 and would primarily propel myself on a bicycle. A mutual friend made hasty introductions and drove the full car to a house party downtown. *Alex* was just a year older but looked full-grown. He had swatches of dark hair on his arms and stubble dotting connecting his chin and neck. It was an exotic, enticing departure from the smooth-skinned boys I kissed before.

Over multiple gin and juices—kept classy by the Publix BOGO natural options—we talked music. Clipse’s Hell Hath No Fury had dropped the fall prior, inspiring many drives near the dorms, while passing around a bong. I was smitten with the lean, fast spitting. Turned out Alex was too. Cups freshly refilled, we walked back out into the hot Florida night. He stooped to meet my ear, whispering with perfect cadence, “Feel like a chuck wagon cuz I’m on 12 horses.” We spent the next two hours making out in a plastic lawn chair until friends poured us back into the campus-bound Corolla. My memory was fairly spotty, but one thing remained clear when I woke the next morning alone on my futon mattress: I had to know Alex.

I dragged hungover as hell to a part-time gig at the record store in Jacksonville Beach. My colleague offered a packed bowl out back so I could convincingly mimic human status. It really was an ideal gig–hanging with friends with perfect surround sound, and manners and sobriety optional. We dug into our shitty Panera salads when the door’s jingle bells chimed, which–in a mid-2000s record store, sadly–was rare enough to notice. It was Alex. “A pinky promise is still a promise,” he said, handing over a documentary DVD we’d drunkenly discussed the night before. We swapped numbers, kick-starting what quickly turned into a intense month together. We spent days we didn’t have class nursing hangovers, and spinning records in my first apartment (where I regularly lit the carpet on fire). Nights we’d see live music wherever we could, typically capping off skinny dipping in the Atlantic, phosphorescence scars left in our limbs’ wakes; like a glowing slow shutter speed. I grew accustomed to him and sand in my bed so when I left to study in London fall semester, it was with a quiet sadness. His goodbye mixtape–complete with a freestyle he recorded himself about our height difference–was one of the very few discs I brought with me for the semester.

I went abroad, and he went into an acquaintance of mine’s arms. I returned stateside, and he went through a breakup. We tussled again, then stopped. A pattern developed, albeit a messy one. When he moved to Atlanta to chase a PhD, I felt a complicated disappointment, not sure what to call it since we were never officially together. I spent two years in an emotionally abusive relationship, where Alex faded into the peripheral, reduced to a handful of text exchanges throughout the course. I became single again and we went right back to old patterns. He stayed with me in New York and flew me down to Atlanta to visit. We exchanged music and handwritten letters. We drank bourbon on my roof, splayed on a blanket, and bathed in the gauzy glow of Brooklyn’s light pollution. It wasn’t the ocean and we were older now, but some of that illuminating magic remained intact.

I flew and he drove so we could meet in Jacksonville, Florida and he motored us to a pastel motel by the water in Daytona Beach. We played surf music on the sand, retiring during the afternoon thunderstorms to our pink tile abode. Once safe inside, activities would range from wild (sex) to tender (painting with watercolors in silence, dismantling respective fears aloud). There was a sense of security in the familiarity of each others’ brains and bodies–even if the latter had changed. His arm hair spread to his back; not uncommon as we approached late-20s. My hips filled out and evidence of a beer affinity showed in my belly. In order to keep the nostalgia spell intact, regardless of the clear boundaries of reality, we talked about everything but how we felt about each other.

“After years of intermittent, vulnerable communication and nebulous feelings, I asked we call it. He couldn’t answer and I couldn’t accept that.”

In his new car (ironically, another Corolla), we zoomed to meet my parents halfway to Tallahassee. I couldn’t keep on suspended in this silent disbelief. “What are we doing?” pushed out of my mouth and took up space in the car, creating a physically cramping feeling. After years of intermittent, vulnerable communication and nebulous feelings, I asked we call it. He couldn’t answer and I couldn’t accept that. I wanted to make good on a long series of promising glimmers but he was too scared. Or thought of me differently–a vacation, maybe, from the stress of school. A reliable, comfortable person from his past who, with continued interaction, validated the person he was presently.

He left me tear-stained outside a Starbucks in a nameless North Florida shopping center, and for a long time we didn’t talk.

A year later, I packed up a tiny room in Brooklyn and drove two thousand miles to a modest one-bedroom apartment in Atlanta. Alex and I’d grown forcibly into strangers. Word spread through friends and light Internet stalking that he lived in Kirkwood, as did I. “Where in Kirkwood?” he asked in a text about a month into my residency. We lived two blocks apart.

“A friendship like that, marked with pockets of intimacy and regularly dozing off on his shoulder while we watched cartoons late at night, isn’t sustainable.”

It felt inauthentic at first, testing the friendship waters after quite the heady, complicated history. We got into a good, minimally-guarded swing as two single people. Then I got in a relationship and when I got out, I got into his bed. Nothing salacious happened in the physical sense–which, ultimately, made it all the more dangerous. I wasn’t looking for an orgasm, just the familiarity of his body spooning mine.

But of course, a friendship like that, marked with pockets of intimacy and regularly dozing off on his shoulder while we watched cartoons late at night, isn’t sustainable. It was why it changed as soon as one or both of us entered other romantic relationships.

Slowly he ironed himself from my life. Stepping down as my go-to cat-sitter, ending dinner invitations, diminishing to an acquaintance to wave to at shows. We couldn’t pretend the other didn’t exist, but we tried.

“We couldn’t pretend the other didn’t exist, but we tried.”

As he prepared to leave Atlanta just a few months ago, we met for a final dinner at a Mexican dive bar–our favorite. We were both in relationships, too. We sat down and…nothing. Conversation felt stilted and limited. Half an hour after sitting down, we settled and bounced. It felt more like a networking situation than drinks and food between two old friends, reminiscing before yet another chapter. It took a minute to sink in after dropping him just two blocks from my apartment, and a little anguish. Ultimately, I had to actualize there was no better way to end things. For me and Alex, it had to be all or nothing, and for better or for worse our deal shook out as nothing.

The night before he left, I scrambled to assemble a mixtape–the first mix CD I’d made in years, honestly. I didn’t hope for any last-minute romance or big words. Instead, I left it in a bag on his porch. I knew we were working our way to nothing and even though it was a flimsy, outdated offering holding a couple Clipse songs and other hits from our ‘ship–whatever ‘ship that was–I felt like it needed to end with, well, something.

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