He used to come over to my place and we’d walk downtown to a gastropub. On slow nights, we’d talk about our coworkers. We’d debate who would be next to be fired. Once, I told him I’d bumped into the director after what was rumored to have been an especially brutal firing, how she’d been crying.
“Do you think you could do it? Fire someone?” He’d asked.
“Yeah. I wouldn’t like it, but I could get it done,” I’d answered.
“What about me? Could you fire me?”
“That would be illegal.”
I’d smirk-smiled contentedly and tapped my velvet flat against his ankle under the table.
Harrison had been the new guy at the library. Both of my department managers made comments to me before he started- how cute he was, how much like me he was. Okay, we’ll see, I’d thought.
Harrison walked up to me in the staff lounge one day in April and asked about the book I was reading- All Summer Long by Hope Larson.
“Umm… yes, it’s a book. A good book!”
Fan-freaking-tastic. I pictured my car in the parking lot and considered running outside to it. Instead, I told him more about the book. I was reviewing it for a website called The Sartorial Geek.
I compared an element of Larson’s writing to Glass Animals, and he said he liked the same band. We talked more about music. He made a recommendation- Unknown Mortal Orchestra. I listened to their album on my drive home while thinking about his kind eyes and the sound of his voice- warm and smooth as a rolling river.
Over the weekend I thought about his music recommendation and about some of the other things I wanted to discuss with him- like what he thought of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (an M83 album), whether or not he liked to hike, what some of his other hobbies were. I knew that if I didn’t write the talking points down, I would forget half of them before he was next scheduled to work.
On Tuesday I walked up to him and pulled the list out of my pocket. He looked down at my list of five or six discussion prompts, and when he looked up I couldn’t read his face.
“I’ll have to look at it later. Thanks for this.” I watched him walk away from me, worried that I’d blown it.
But he approached me ten minutes later.
“I love this, thank you! Can I write back?”
“Sure! Yeah, I’d like that.”
When Harrison came back to work two days later he handed me a piece of notebook paper that had been folded into a perfect square. On the outside it read: a reply, as promised…
His handwriting was in the most gorgeous cursive script. He wrote a little about his website/personal blog, and the URL was inserted in blue ink. Then at the end of the letter, he asked me to go hiking with him.
I understood from day one that he would be leaving at summer’s end- to study biomedical science at the graduate level. His impending move to Maine was what stopped us from defining the relationship. He suggested at the start that we just see what happens, and I’d agreed that it was the most sensible thing to do.
Even though there weren’t any serious definitions or promises in place, he was a better communicator than anyone else I’d known. When we were both in Ohio, I didn’t have to guess at his thoughts or feelings.
For example, we had another coworker who had used her work email to send flirty messages to his work email. He’d told me immediately, because he’d wanted me to know that he intended to ignore them. He said he wasn’t interested in anyone other than me.
His parents invited me to his house for a Memorial Day barbecue. Before that we’d said that we probably wouldn’t have enough time to meet each other’s parents (an excuse that relieved us both), but I couldn’t say no, and in the moment it came up he acted like he wanted me to say yes.
He met my parents a few weeks later.
The start of August seemed sudden, in that it snuck up on us- one day he was there and the next he was gone. Any texts I sent went unanswered.
He called once at the start of September. I mailed a couple of letters, they went unanswered. We met briefly- in Boston- over Presidents' Day Weekend. He texted me some after that, but only for the following week or two.
Again, it had been a long time without any contact, when he texted me out of the blue to say that he’d bought a house in Maine. I texted him a couple weeks later, from the comfort of my Grandparent’s vacation home to ask if he wanted me to visit. If he’d said no, I would have biked to The Sweet Spot and ordered a chocolate banana milkshake.
The first flight had been delayed twice while in the air. I’d ran off of it and raced through the hellscape of LaGuardia in search of flight number two. A noisy propeller on the side of flight number three had vibrated the whole body of the plane. I’d smelled smoke outside my window.
None of that mattered when I saw the shimmering outline of his car turn into the back of the Hancock County Airport’s parking lot. I saw his smile, his sunglasses before his car came into a more solid focus. As fraught as my first journey to Maine had been, I would have done it all over again.
We lay in bed and talked about what we might do on Saturday.
“There’s a place I think you’d like… do you dance?” he said.
Last I remembered he did not like to dance. I could perfectly recall a day last summer when we’d tried to plan a group outing with friends, and he’d vetoed a place for being too dancey. I don’t dance- that’s what he’d said.
How had we let a year pass? I had to stop myself from thinking about it too hard.
“Only if you want to! And before we go out, you should know… people are gossipy. They will look at us. They will talk. It’s a whole thing.” He rolled his eyes, but I knew better- he loved that shit. “Very… Bar Harbor proper,” said in an absurd accent.
I laughed- at the Bar Harbor proper part. It was impossible not to laugh at his accent.
I stayed up an hour after he fell asleep thinking about the Bar Harbor proper social scene and told myself that I wasn’t wrong to be nervous.
On Saturday we took a short walk through the woods behind the Bar Harbor lab where his summer job was and he talked about how much better things were there than at the lab where he’d done his first year rotations.
I wanted to know more about his life, and the big decisions he had to make about his future. He continued to talk about the other lab he’d rotated through, how the opportunities there were better, how he’d learn more in the end. It all sounded extremely competitive, there had been times in the past year that he’d texted me and not sounded like himself.
“I get that, I do,” I said. “But isn’t there something to be said for being happy?”
“I’ll have the whole rest of my life for that. I can do this for a few more years.”
He’d be nearly thirty at the end of the program. Most people do not feel as if they have the whole rest of their lives ahead of them when they turn thirty.
It isn’t that I couldn’t wait for him, it’s that I worried while I waited. More selfishly, I didn’t know that I wanted to put life on hold- especially not if things were still uncertain or undefined.
Before going back to his house, we stopped at a liquor store. Sampling whiskies together was one of our things. The selection we made in Maine- Monkey Shoulder- was amazing. It opened us up even more. My heart sang- first in relief, then in pure happiness- it was happening, we were reconnecting.
“Well, Sumney, we made it. I am just so glad you’re okay. You have no idea how worried I was. I almost called a squad.”
He had to be joking. Every bone in my head screamed the minute I cracked an eye open. No, not joking. I had given him lots of reason to worry. I’d let him share some of his (legal) marijuana with me. The little bit I’d had must have mixed badly.
My memories petered out to blips and jumped forward with a jolt to flashes of him propping me up, holding my hair back.
I hadn’t known I was vomiting. He’d had to convince me not to fall asleep. His voice: frantic and scared- stay with me- would haunt me long after I would return home.
The GPS led us down a gravel path that appeared to be one-way. We wondered if it was an ATV trail. There was no signage, the best we could do was speculate. I picked up his phone to search for a new route and saw that we had zero service bars.
We kept going along the bumpy gravel road until we came to standing water.
“I don’t think it’s that deep…”
“But how do you know? If we can’t see the bottom? Hold on, I have an idea,” I said.
I hopped out of the car and picked up a boulder from the side of the road. I held it up in front of the windshield for a minute and rotated it, before chucking it into the middle of the flooded area. I watched the boulder disappear into the water and listened for a plink. I shook my head at him when I turned back to the car.
“I don’t think we should chance it,” I said as I slid back into the passenger seat.
“Okay. I trust you. That was a good idea by the way!”
We grinned at each other like idiots, like partners in crime.
Monday in Maine- my last day. I awakened alone; unsure how long Harrison had been up. I lay in bed, staring at the wall. I rubbed my eye, sat up, and slowly walked out to the living room, where Harrison was playing a video game. He was taking a half day off, but he still had to go in for morning meetings.
Before he left he gave me a deep kiss goodbye. Then he took a small step back from me and we stood there for a long beat, transfixed by the moment, holding each other with our eyes.
The drive to the Bangor airport, like all of our other drives around Maine, was absolutely beautiful. I was stunned by the abundance of trees. Maine is a rare gem of a place where they don’t cut trees down. It was almost too perfect. The place, the people. Maybe it was a good thing our Acadia hiking plans had been rained out. He would have taken in the trees, the people and places around them, and seen… me. Mainers have a term- outsider- for those who aren’t from the region.
My manager is the second person to walk into the staff lounge, where I sit crying in front of a glowing computer screen. Crying in public has always been hard for me. The only places I feel comfortable crying are the shower and the driver’s seat of my car.
I try to put a stop to it, only to start crying harder.
“Is it Harrison?”
I gasp-honk for air and nod. She hands me a tissue and waits for me to explain.
“Well, I sent him this email last night. I guess, technically, it was a ‘break up email,’ but I left things open ended enough. I thought maybe he’d want to try and talk.”
“All he said,” I continue, “was this.” I gasp again, on the verge of another big cry.
After some reflection, I agree this is a wise decision. I’ve very much enjoyed the time we’ve spent together.
Please know you always have my friendship, and I wish you the best in all you do.
Laurel leans over my shoulder to read and an invisible knife twists in my stomach.
“Oh, dear. Oh, no. Come on, Harrison. What is he thinking? I’m so sorry.”
I stand next to my Mom in the damp air of my parents’ basement and sort through two baskets of laundry.
“What a jerk. I thought he was different. Was it just me who was fooled, or did you guys like him too?” My family had liked Harrison, he was the only person I’d dated they’d liked so far.
“Never mind,” I say. “Doesn’t matter anymore.”
I start the pile of laundry to wash next by picking up a piece of clothing and whipping it straight down onto the cement floor. ~Crack.~ I’m furious.
“What did you expect, honey? You broke up with him.”
That’s precisely why I’m so angry, I only ever get mad at myself. I wonder constantly why I’d thought that breaking up with him would be a good way to get his attention? What kind of person does that to another person? I might never get answers and it’s mostly my own fault.
My Mom looks at me, waiting for an answer.
“I don’t know… I guess I shouldn’t have?”
If I drive to Maine and show up at his house there’s a sixty percent chance (at minimum) that it will go well. Harrison likes thoughtful romantic gestures. I learned this on our day in Boston- when he surprised me with a perfectly-timed sunset walk down Beacon Hill.
I’m going to give myself one more shot, I’m going to tell Harrison that I love him.
Neither of us had said it yet, but I almost had several times- at the end of a double date we went on right before he moved, over breakfast in Boston, and when we drank together in Maine. I hadn’t said it the first two times because I’d been too scared to lose him too soon and I hadn’t said it in Maine because I’d randomly remembered a memory I’d pushed out from long ago; a memory of someone else.
The first person I was serious about would try and bait me into saying it. He had delighted at putting me in the painful position of wondering what would happen if I were to tell him how I felt while knowing deep down that he’d say something like I know haha and then use it as an excuse to ghost me. Though it’s not a past I think about often, it can come back to haunt me at inconvenient times.
The idea of being the first to say I love you still makes me nervous, but I don’t have anything to lose now. In the least, I’ll probably get some answers, and I deserve that.
My car is full of gas. I’m leaving tomorrow.
I start to pack a bag, and as I pack I imagine all of the ways the trip could end. I see myself calling work on Monday and quitting over the phone, I’m in Maine! And I’m not coming back! We’d giggle into the phone together and I’d shush him halfheartedly. I’d have to find a job after that. I could look for something in another library, or maybe I could be a barista again! Barista work is underrated. Free coffee, decent tips. I’d once been a seasonal barista and I wouldn’t mind doing it again. Or I could try something new. Maybe in the summertime I could work at Acadia National Park. I could see if there were any positions at the nearby children’s hospital. There have to be other possibilities I don’t even know about yet!
I can see the two of us exploring more of Maine, having coffee shop workdays, taking turns getting up in the mornings and shoveling our cars out of the snow.
Unless… well, it might be too much too soon. We could visit more often. That would be a good place to start. I have to try.
In the morning I put a few last things in my bag- phone charger, laptop, instant camera, and then I load the bag into the backseat of my car. Time to go!
I take a long look at the bulging bag I’d packed in daydreams of excitement and anticipation, and I meditate on Maine, the possibilities. I see a Harrison- so clear, so sharp, beckoning. I see an Us- so bright, so happy, together. But I can’t easily see a me- unless I squint hard into the distant rising sun. She’s a wavy, sketchy line that lags behind the Harrison and the Us.
I pick the bag up and heft it onto my shoulder. It feels heavier than it did when I loaded it into the car earlier this morning. I take it back inside, fall backwards onto my bed, and cancel my airbnb reservation.
I am achingly, deeply in love with him and I worry that some parts of me will always be. The daydreams I had while packing were only fantasies featuring our best selves and I realize that our realities aren’t compatible right now. I’ll find a way to forge ahead, to live new adventures on my own.
Like anyone else, it’s natural for me to want closure.
I’m up early one day, about to start packing the contents of my first apartment, and I call him. The phone rings twice, then goes to voicemail. I don’t know what I say exactly, something short and casual that ends with just call me back whenever. I say it convincingly, as if I believe that he will.
My phone goes off one minute later. Oh, wow. He’s calling me back. I catch my breath and slide to answer.
He asks me deep, searching questions about what I want and what I see in the future that I’m unprepared to answer. I tell him that I want to give him answers, but that I need to think. He suggests that we talk again before the end of the weekend.
I should be packing for Chicago. Instead, I’m taking a daytrip to Mohican State Park. I stop hiking sporadically- when I’m hit with a deep thought to add to my list. At the end of the day, I lay sideways on a picnic bench and make a sort of map or flowchart out of the thoughts. When I get home, I re-do the chart with blue and black ink. I’m careful to write neatly, so that the chart is easier to follow. Once the ink is dry I scan a copy to my laptop and name the document “Discussion Guide.” I draft an email to him that I’ll send when he calls me back. I attach a PDF of the discussion guide to the email draft, that way we can go over it together. It will hold me accountable.
I keep my phone switched on at high volume all weekend. He doesn’t call.
I’ve been a Chicago resident for three weeks. I have access to widespread public transit, well known museums, live author talks, and music concerts- I’m seeing Andrew Bird right now. His setlist is a mix of Christmas music and original songs. The historical chapel, already stunning on its own merit, is decorated tastefully with strings of little golden lights to complement the glowing stage design.
Andrew is introducing the next song, one about Chicago. He’s telling a story about the day he wrote the song on a little airplane napkin, as his plane was about to take him away from the city, this city that he has so much love for.
I’m attending the concert alone. But I’m not alone. The chapel is filled with hundreds of other people- several of them by themselves. This is the happiest I can remember being in a long time.
Greetings from Chicago
City of, city of light