By: Raina K. Puels
I was a fresh notch in the bark of his carnal history; the latest in a string of lovers with long brown hair and light eyes. J had a reputation at my university, just west of the Adirondacks, as a boy from town who had no-strings-attached sex with girls in gowns. He was charismatic and handsome: six-feet tall, muscled, blue-eyed, with a wide, crooked smile. Our romance began when I stayed on campus for a summer writing fellowship.
In a field of damp grass under the Milky Way, we talked about how selfish it was to assume we were the only sentient life in our universe. Then he asked, “Do you want to have casual sex with me this summer?” Charmed by his unabashed lust for me, I followed him into his bed.
From the beginning of June until the end of August, we spent every night in a sweaty, orgasmic haze. Soon, we were also walking through meadows of phlox, cooking together, sharing space while I wrote and he built electronics with oscillating lights.
When I asked personal questions, he was all facts: his parents divorced when he was four, he and his dad often fought because they were so similar, his mother was kind. He never asked questions in return. If I volunteered stories about my own broken home or the fluctuations of my mental health, my words were met with silence and a meek, “I’m sorry.” I thought I was boring him, or that he didn’t want that level of intimacy. I squashed the part of me that hungered for emotional closeness. After all, this was just a summer fling—yet I knew I wanted more.
Some mornings, after J left to build sets for stage productions, his father and I shared a pot of coffee in their cluttered kitchen. The counters were piled with hand-written lists, nature magazines, and feathers they’d collected. Their aged, blind cattle dog snoozed in the corner as J’s dad and I talked about his decades of work as an environmentalist, his three failed marriages, and how he both wished—and didn’t wish—he had his son’s ability to have sex without developing feelings.
To him, I first confessed my love for J. A slow nod of his snowy head told me he already knew. As if in warning to his absent son, he said I reminded him of his second wife—Alaska beckoned her toward adventure; he stayed behind. If he’d taken the risk and moved with her, he was sure they’d still be together.
I followed his gaze to the bulletin board above the desk nestled into a corner of the kitchen. I saw a postcard of a glacier she’d mailed him nearly 30 years ago. Time had stolen the image’s glossy finish and replaced it with a faded mustard hue. Although he’d tacked the cardstock’s left and right sides into the cork, the top and bottom edges curled toward each other as if stretching for one last embrace.
I moved to Manhattan for a semester of writing; J moved mid-state to take classes in electrical engineering. We parted ways with the understanding that we were good friends who’d have great sex when our paths next crossed.
At the end of November, when maple seeds resembling dried-up tadpoles blanketed the sidewalks, he called and said he missed me. In the city I was dating men and women with whom I could talk for hours about the mess of feelings inside of us, but the physical chemistry never compared to how a single kiss from J filled me with an insatiable desire to merge our bare skin. I went to him.
He treated me to tales of building circuits for illuminated sculptures. I shared my experiences with street harassment and why I stopped making eye-contact with strangers, hoping he would respond with more than silence. When he didn’t, I grew frustrated, and demanded him to ask me questions. He only stared at me and apologized. We filled the ensuing quiet with sex, but the thrill had faded. I felt hollow, like returning to a favorite haunt that is never as big, or as green, or as fun as it is in memory.
I told him I needed to be alone. I collapsed onto the brown grass behind his house. Sheer proximity and sex didn’t satiate me anymore, I wanted a connection with him like I had in my city relationships, but this visit cemented that wasn’t going to happen. I cried and cried, grasping for any leaves within my reach and ripping up their crunchy bodies until I wore a pile of autumn carnage instead of a skirt.
On my walk to class, I no longer saw the congested streets of New York City, but skeletal trees; I was back in the North Country to stay. I had a difficult time adjusting from city life to a tiny town where not even a McDonald’s could stay in business. Paired with a nasty bout of depression, I was hopeless. I couldn’t believe that under the bleached landscape the perennials slumbered, their bulbs surviving negative 30 degree wind chills and endless dumps of snow while winter tore away at my own body.
My lips chapped and bled. My hair fell out in dull, dry clumps. My fingertips split open; I superglued them back together. I wanted to grab the Earth out of orbit and hurl it forward.
J’s visit broke February’s icy monotony. He told me he’d recently slept with a woman who latched onto him when he tried to leave her bed. When he finally extracted himself, she cried and demanded his return. In that moment, he had a newfound appreciation for me and the summer we shared; I’d always let him go. He knew I was the woman for him because I understood he needed time alone to tinker with his electronics and climb trees, just as I needed space to scribble in my journal and build fairy houses in the woods. He apologized for his emotional deficits and said he was ready to put in the effort to learn how to engage with me on a deeper level. But he needed me to teach him.
Shocked, and paralyzed by sadness, I couldn’t muster a response even though he offered me exactly what I’d wanted just a season before. The winter had grown a numbing layer of thick, white frost across my feelings—freezer burn of the brain.
Crocus shoots parted the last of the snow and speckled green the scene outside my window. For the rest of the winter and the beginning of spring, J and I talked on the phone every Sunday. I fed him lines, with much stammering on both of our ends, until he learned to ask: “How did that affect you?” or “Do you still feel that way now?” These simple questions made all the difference; J was showing that he heard me. He also opened up about how his inability to emote hurt many of the women he’d dated, because like me, they assumed he didn’t want an emotional relationship, not that he didn’t know how to have one.
I invited him to stay with me for a weekend. When he arrived, I told him I’d been so tangled in the threads of my melancholy that I hadn’t gone outside to play since the first snowfall. He coaxed me into my coat.
Barefoot with pant cuffs rolled, we ventured onto my soggy lawn. He twirled me through the mud as we laughed and laughed. My brain began to defrost; puddles of water sloshed inside my skull as we danced on to his father’s house where the dragon of a woodstove and the old, blind dog waited for us.
I was met with hugs, red wine, and thick venison stew. When I looked up at the postcard of the glacier, his father caught my eye and smiled.
After dinner, J and I went outside. Our noses were dazzled by the smells of melting snow, spring rain, and decaying leaves. I asked if I could kiss him. He nodded, dark curls bobbing. In the meeting of our lips, I absorbed the heat from his body and continued to thaw. I angled my ears toward the ground and hopped on one foot, then the other—jostling the now-liquid frost from its dark bone cave. The freezing water poured from my ears and cascaded into the soil to nourish the new growth in a way it hadn’t nourished me.
Raina K. Puels is an MFA candidate at Emerson College and the Nonfiction Editor for Redivider. She leaves a trail of glitter, cat hair, and small purple objects everywhere she goes. You can read her in (b)OINK, Animal, Weave News, Three Line Poetry, and forthcoming in The American Literary Review. Tweet her: @rainakpuels