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We Met At A Protest photo

In early June of the never-ending 2020, I attended an anti-curfew, anti-police terror demonstration in my hometown of Oakland, California.

It was a warm evening as myself and a couple friends flitted nervously to 14th and Broadway, the clock ticking past 8PM curfew, where we clustered in with a few thousand masked people to sit-in on the city block. There’s safety in numbers, I thought, though maybe not during a global pandemic. 

In the crowd, we ran into Sam, a young politico I sort-of knew from childhood. We’d never been friends, but our dads grew up together in Berkeley, we’re the same age, and we have friends in common.

“I want to let y’all know there are snipers on the roofs around us right now,” one of the speakers said. I looked up to confirm that, yes, there were shadowed figures crouched on buildings above. On the drive over, we’d seen three groups of riot police in full regalia, lined up behind the Trader Joes and blocking freeway exits around Lake Merritt. There’d been a civil disobedience training in resisting arrest at Snow Park. Downtown Oakland doesn’t really have tall towers, but I suddenly felt very small and claustrophobic between the modest office buildings. I imagined the pain of a sniped rubber bullet to the face. Would I even feel it? Or would it just take me to the ground? Take out an eye? Could they snipe rubber bullets? or were those real guns? What if I were sniped, arrested, and got COVID?

To the left of my inner turmoil stood Sam, radiating calm confidence. He’d grown tall and handsome since the last time I’d seen him, probably back in early high school. His forearms, long and tan, rested casually on his bike handlebars, as if he were waiting in line for coffee. Eventually, I sank back into myself, and we listened as history was written before us: descendants of Black Panthers took the mike, exclamations of Oakland pride and passion danced through the crowd. I redirected my thoughts to the positive. It was the first time I’d really been out of the house in months—and here I was with a purpose, fighting for something important, after so much stagnancy. No more lying on the couch, refreshing my feed, and feeling helpless.

As the demonstration ended, lapsing into a Mac Dre dance party, Sam offered to walk my group back to our car.

Later that night I texted him a thank you. We exchanged sporadic texts throughout the following week—he invited me to a protest at the mayor’s house, I asked him about his time working in Spain—and I discovered he lived a few blocks from me in Berkeley, just on the other side of Willard Park. Synchronicity, I mused. We planned to meet at Willard for beers and catch up.

It was another warm evening. A Thursday. A week since the protest. Sam arrived sweaty from his short walk, 6-pack in hand, his hair falling into his eyes. I’d brought us each a blanket and we sat on the grass a few feet apart, with and then without masks. Our easy conversation kept us there until dark.

“Can I come over?” he asked, almost shy, when I said I really had to go home to pee.

I hadn’t had anyone in my apartment for all of lockdown, but he was, for an inexplicable reason other than intuition, worth breaking isolation.

I made pesto tortellini and we drank a bottle of wine. We kept talking, never touching, him sitting on my couch, me, facing him, cross-legged, on my bed. We talked about our families, our friends from high school. The cross-over was satisfying. We already knew some about the other’s parents, friends, and upbringing, but since we’d both left the Bay Area for college—Sam went to UCLA, I went to McGill in Montréal—we had many questions, gaps to fill in.

Around midnight, the conversation drifted into the topic of drugs. I’d since moved beside him onto the couch, where we’d been showing each other pictures of things on our phones.

“I have some LSD,” I said.

“We should do some,” he challenged.

“You’re serious?”

He shrugged.

I cut us two tiny pieces, maybe a quarter tab each.

“Can we walk?” I asked.

We started towards deserted Berkeley campus, passing dark homes, then weaving through campus buildings and redwood groves. I clipped flowers with my pocket knife: big pink roses, edible nasturtium, geraniums. I described my favorite flowers, peonies, and told him how they begin as taut balls, only to be opened by the saliva of ants. On acid, I remembered all of this, and I sensed my knowledge impressed him. As we walked, we got into headier topics: our studies, the pandemic, our future creative pursuits, our favorite writers. We peaked in library windows, the stacks lit up and glowing golden, drooling over the books. We sat on a ledge and watched the sprinklers on Memorial Glade. We made fun of a guy night-biking up a hill. The walls between us had all but gone. I wondered if we were soul mates.

As the trip progressed, I gave Sam ample opportunity to kiss me. We still hadn’t touched and I wanted him to make the first move. Tension simmered between us, a question we couldn’t yet answer. We’d make intense eye contact, but then one of us would break, change direction, point to a flower or a window or a fountain.

“I feel safe with you,” I said, wanting to hold his hand. We were walking again, under a wide bridge, our voices shimmering in the echo.

“Do you want to see my place?” he asked. “I have strawberries.”

Sam lived in the carriage house in his grandparents’ garden. As we entered quietly through the side gate, sometime past 5 A.M., I surmised I’d been there before, as a child, at some family function. On acid, this information assumed cosmic, potent, meant-to-be weight.

We lay on the back deck and watched the stars. I could feel Sam looking at me, but I’d look away, unable to tolerate the tension. I took off my shoes and wandered through the dark garden, dense and green and perfect, with stone paths and dripping willow branches. Outside his cottage was a little bistro dining set, a folded newspaper and an empty espresso cup, still brown at the bottom, resting on the table. I saw myself sitting there, reading with him on slow, sunny mornings.

Sam led me inside. His apartment was attractively spare: a shiny espresso pot on the stovetop, a pen and notebook on the kitchen table. On his bedside was a stack of theory reminiscent of my intro to literary criticism syllabus—Foucault, Walter Benjamin. “Light bedtime reading,” I ribbed, “how pretentious.” He chuckled and suggested we rest on the couch. We sat close—his arm extending over the back of the couch, his hand near mine, the cuff of his shirt long, dangling over his wrist. I grasped the end of his sleeve and cuffed it back once, twice. I grazed his forearm with my fingertips, feeling his skin for the first time.

“You’re so beautiful,” he said, and lifted his hands to cover his face, as if he couldn’t stand it.

I leaned forward and kissed him. Relief, like a splash of color, flooded the room. We breathed and separated and kissed again. We laughed, our hands clasping and unclasping. I hadn’t touched someone, really touched someone, in months, and the pleasure of it was intolerable. Hot currents raced through my fingertips and down my spine.

“You are so exciting, Emily,” he repeated, cupping my face, “I am so excited about you.”

Sam walked me home as morning broke. He wanted to stay, but I sent him away, needing some time to collect myself. I gave him my favored copy of Don Delilo’s White Noise, which he tucked into his jacket pocket. Then I slept an hour, took a shower, journaled. My stomach was killing me, probably from the drugs, so I scrambled some eggs, but couldn’t eat them. I knew what I wanted. I was resigned.

Sam came over that afternoon, and we didn’t get out of bed for two days.

For two days we kissed, drank vermouth on ice, ate cheese and baguette, smoked joints, had a lot of sex. It was incredibly restful. I’d been on high alert for months, so fearful of getting anyone sick, grieving life as I’d known it, a hateful, uninterrupted American news-stream narrating every day. But as I watched him plant delicate kisses on my belly, joy resumed, and I saw the potential for beauty. We slept well together from the first night, which we agreed was rare. In the mornings he spooned me and we drank coffee and hid in the sheets. We made plans to drive up to West Marin, to go to the beach. We talked about a trip to Japan once the pandemic was over. I haven’t felt this way in years, he said. Your body is so beautiful, it is truly a privilege, he said. I wanted nothing more than to integrate Sam right into my world.

But Sunday morning, after almost 72 hours together, a slight, almost imperceivable shift occurred. He rejected the fresh cup of coffee, the bowl of peach slices. During sex, he felt far away.

“Can we talk about what’s going on?” I asked, after.

He nodded, looking weary.

“I don’t want to see other people,” I said.

“I’m not talking to anyone else.”

“Do you want to keep going?”

“Don’t worry. I’m not going anywhere,” he said. But his eyes betrayed him, his voice lacked bounce.

We parted. And for two days, I didn’t hear from Sam.

At first, I thought he just needed a little space. But, by Tuesday morning, there was not so much as a check-in text, a call, no beach plans, no future plans whatsoever. I couldn’t sleep. I was sweaty. Normally self-possessed, I was reduced to mania, longing, doubt. I called my friends, my mom, and they assured me it was fine. He’d call.

I couldn’t take it. As soon as I texted, he responded, which made me feel worse, like he’d been available enough to communicate but hadn’t wanted to. I told him I wanted to talk and we decided to meet that afternoon at Willard Park. When I arrived he was already there, but he looked different than the Sam I’d known that weekend. Rested, composed, and withholding. I started crying immediately, sensing an imminent pain, so we walked in silence back to my apartment.

“What do you want?” I asked. “I want to be with you.”

I sat on my bed, he was on the couch. California golden hour streamed inappropriately, taunting, through the window behind him.

“I don’t want a serious relationship, Emily. I did not want to have this conversation. I planned to keep seeing you through the summer. Casually.”

“But we haven’t been casual! We spent an intense weekend together. I love that you live just around the corner.”

“To be honest, I think our proximity is dangerous. We’ve only known each other for three days. I don’t trust you, and I don’t know your politics. For all I know, you could be a racist!”

I stared at him, this young white man, in disbelief.

“You said you hadn’t felt this way in so long,” I pivoted.

“I was just going off of your energy,” he said, as if I’d dreamt the whole thing up.

We spoke in circles while I cried and he sat, indignant, spewing ideology. He described the enjoyment of food and wine and bed as frivolous, over-indulgent. He said he didn’t want to go to Japan. He called himself a Stoic, and me an Epicurean, and I would have laughed had I not been so sad, reduced to an apolitical hedonist by a guy with no sense of irony.

“What about all the sensual pleasures of our weekend?” I asked.

“I’m a Maoist. I want to live an austere life,” he said. “There’s much work to be done. I need to be in New York.”

“I want my book back,” I said.

His face fell for the first time as he pulled White Noise out of his bag, setting it gently on the coffee table between us. He told me quietly he hadn’t marked it, not even with a bookmark. Then Sam rose, gave me a stiff hug, and left for good.

I cried for two pain-stricken days, from a deep place of genuine heartbreak. I’d fallen in love so quickly. But I vowed not to blame myself: I’d been true to my feelings, I’d been honest, he pursued and then gaslighted me and shut me out. I still don’t understand what exactly broke our spell, but I refuse to believe that loving connection renders us politically ineffective. Rather, I see the act of love as the ultimate protest against the power structures that drive us into the corners of the individual.

I haven’t talked to or seen Sam again. Not in the flesh. I did see him on Venmo, paying someone for chairs in Brooklyn, and I guess I’m happy he followed his inner compass. I don’t think about him much these days. I imagine that he and I were just two asteroids on a heightened trajectory, destined to smash into each other, before going our separate ways. Truth be told, I think he’s more scared of me—of what I represent—than he is a man with a gun, hiding on a rooftop.