Somewhere out in the near back roads they were wandering, he and she and her visiting friend. They weren’t far outside of Hudson’s placid, gentrified heart, but all Ohio suburbs end the same way at their outskirts: where they don’t bleed into another town they turn quickly into farmland, greenery, wet trees, canals of mouldering cement, unpurchased acreage, too-small signs delineating inconsequential boundaries. All differently the same. They had parked her car and were walking along the side of a dusty, unkempt road. There was a plot of land on their right, with a hill with a house on top. The house was old and untenanted, built square and tall: the kind of geometrical, pilgrim-unhumorous house that gets embroidered into samplers. It was the middle evening of a clear day, and the sky was hypersaturated, a dark cosmic blue, the kind of arcane shade that usually it takes a telescope to excavate.
One of the perverse things about his memory is that, much later, he would be able to remember the texture and tumble of the gravel they walked through, but not what they talked about or even why they were there. She remembered the long grass growing in the uneven ditch runneled along the road beside them. Later, not even the friend remembered if it had been hot earlier in the day.
The next day, she had to work, so she asked him to spend the day with her friend. First, they went to the Starbucks in Aurora, which was still in Barrington Town Center, the shopping area that abuts the gated community of the same name, an enclosed winding snakesnest of roads twisting between massive, modern near-mansions.
At that time, when she made friends, she made them intensely, and consciously or not the intensity came at least partially from the fact that her friends were often like her – not in the particular convolutions of her mind, but they shared some of its intensity; so that in talking to her friend at the cafe that day, although they’d only met the day before, their talk was in some way like a continuation of the conversation he’d been having with her, ever since they met.
The friend invited him out to smoke with her and so he did. He wasn’t a smoker, but there was always an irresistible social thrill for him in being invited to smoke with someone; unfailingly he read it as a gesture of intimacy, and saw in it the silver thread of possibility, even if that possibility was merely getting to know someone better.
Later, they went to Half Price Books in Mayfield Heights. It was a lucky day for him and he came away with a big stack of books, which was good for him because at this point he still believed that the books you bought were an expression of personality, another way of having a conversation.
And throughout the day they did talk incessantly. They both believed in incessant, meaningful conversation as one of the big privileges and delights being with others; one difference between them though, was that the friend (like her) thought this was possible even in groups, whereas he thought it could only happen between two people, and even then only at a certain layer or level of intimacy.
The topic of intimacy came up at some point, too, and he expounded. “I think of everyone as having like these concentric rings of intimacy, y’know, like the age rings in a tree or something. And getting to know someone is a process of moving through these layers.”
That night, when he dropped the friend off, they said goodbye in the car. They both had such a good time, and they were both the kind of people who couldn’t help but be surprised when that happened. So they were cowed into a semi-coherent, subdued goodbye, like that people make when the commensurate gesture they see inside themselves fails to manifest.
It wasn’t a romantic moment, but it came close. The elation that comes with immediate connection has the same immediate authority of love, even if just for a little while. They ended up shaking hands.
“Well good luck on the GRE tomorrow,” the friend said.
“Thanks, and hey, have a safe trip home tomorrow,” he said.
The next day he saw her for the first time after seeing her friend. They were alone in her parents’ big house, in the giant living room. Unusually alone; her brothers were out, the cat had vanished, even the dog was nowhere to be seen. He was sitting in the big leather recliner and she was sitting on his lap, facing him, and they were discussing the friend’s visit, discussing it in broad terms but also analyzing particular parts and occurrences individually. The conversation was mostly lighthearted.
“Do you like her?” she asked.
“Yeah, she’s really great.” he said.
“Do you have a crush on her?” she asked, with a tone that clearly indicated she meant this as a joke.
“Yes,” he said. And it was true. And it can be said that crushes aren’t unusual, even for people in relationships, and in this case this admission caused only minor problems for them; but there are things that should be said and things that shouldn’t, and they both knew immediately he shouldn’t have said that. He couldn’t help himself. Even though he didn’t know it then, he was as happy as he would ever be, and that made him cruel.
(He found out in a few weeks that he didn’t do well on the GRE – not because he was tired, but because he hadn’t studied at all. He had only bought a single slim study guide, and he never opened it. It sat half underneath the end of his bed, and gathered dust like every other unmoving object in the room.)