When it comes to a bedroom, my general rule is that I slumber far more effectively when I can theoretically see my breath. I’m not entirely sure where this preference comes from or even recall how long it’s been a habit, but my guess is all of those years spent tucked under the covers inside of dank and steamy cabins at sleepaway camp probably contributed to my current hope that I’ll see frost forming on my windowpanes in the height of summer.
Sometimes, though, manmade chilliness does not quite go as planned. It was a few months ago when I crawled into a bed in someone else’s home and fell into what initially was a blissfully heavy sleep. I woke up less than an hour later due to a miserable combination of factors: a puppy exploring a bed she’s not used to, some Netflix show about gangsters blaring at some ungodly volume, and an air conditioner that was apparently made by NASA to approximate what Pluto feels like. I tried snuggling further under the covers. I thought about that Barbados heat wave I’d once sweat straight through. I nestled into the person completely passed out beside me who clearly wasn’t impacted in the least by everything in that room that was causing me total misery. I considered getting up to turn down the air, but I was afraid Tallulah would think it was morning because, while she’s a very wise puppy, she has yet to master distinctions in time when she gets excited. I finally realized my only real option was to undress the guy next to me. I figured the best-case scenario was I could put on his clothing to warm up, but should he misread anything, sex might work to thaw the frostbite, too.
I did not end up putting on his clothing. And my clothing didn’t stay on either.
I’ve gotten pretty adept at creating a sleep atmosphere most conducive to snagging myself some much needed escape time and most nights the whole thing works like a charm. I glug water all day long, but I stop at least two hours before I know I’ll be heading to sleep. I change my sheets at least twice a week because I think I dream dreamier dreams when there are fewer germs in my bed. And, though I’m in no way proud to reveal this, I don’t think I’ve fallen asleep completely naturally for years. I almost always take some sort of sleep aid so there’s not really a chance that I’ll experience a nocturnal form of misery. It’s a habit at this point, and I know it’s a bad one, so in a recent effort to wean my poor body off whatever medicine I tend to ingest that ends with the letters “PM” on the label, I’ve started using this spray. It’s natural and it tastes medicinal-minty and I spray a few bursts into my mouth and hold it under my tongue for a full minute before swallowing like the instructions tell me I should. And you know what? That fucking spray works like a voodoo charm! My face is mashed into my fresh pillowcase in under two hours and I slide down an unconscious golden staircase made out of fragmented memories and still pictures that appear completely out of sequence and the whole masterpiece is tinted with an orangey-brown sepia or in cool tones of blue. The dreams I’ve had after whatever is in this spray hits my system have been insane and I’ve somehow been able to recall more details from those dreams hours after I wake up than I usually do and sometimes it takes me more than a long moment to differentiate between what is a real memory and what is something that only really happened while I so soundly slumbered.
I stopped at Starbucks on the way to work this morning because I was out of k-cups and, frankly, I’d prefer to start the day by finding I’m out of deodorant because I’m a lady and I tend to smell like daisies naturally, but if I don’t shove some coffee into my system as the sun comes up, I fear for those who come into contact with me. It was while I selected the Pike Street box and waited for my iced coffee with nonfat milk – yes, it’s February, but I’ll drink iced coffee year round – that I realized all these visions of that guy I’d undressed in that cold room months ago felt very present. Did I talk to him yesterday? Did he text me? You have to remember something here: I’m not a crazy person and I have a decent recall of actual events in my life because I’m both entirely lucid and I’m a writer and you need to keep an inventory of life moments on an invisible spreadsheet in your mind if you write predominantly nonfiction like I do, but his presence seemed so tangible in my head for reasons I couldn’t fully understand and I struggled to figure out if I’d had a conversation with him lately that I just couldn’t remember. By the time I grabbed my icy cup and maneuvered my way to the car in boots with heels too high to wear after even a light snowfall, I knew definitively that the guy in question had just visited one of my hundred dreams the night before.
It was nice to see him. To this day, I think of him and I smile. It’s sort of funny – I know there are certain people who will forever be main characters in the rolling tale of my life and I also knew, maybe right from the start, that this guy was not going to be one of those people. Still, for a while, he mattered to me and sometimes he didn’t matter all that much to me and it was a feeling inside of a push and a pull that would normally leave me panting and spent, but with him, well, I just enjoyed the ride.
For a long time, every single person I dated and eventually formed a relationship with started first as a friend and somehow we morphed into something more. It was a pattern and I wasn’t particularly aware that I was making certain choices, but I understand now that it was about comfort and the need to feel safe and I won’t apologize for that. But once that time in my life ended and I realized “The One” was probably not someone I already somehow knew, I had to do the typical dating thing and that meant I had to go spend quality time with strangers. Not a bit of that appealed to me and I’d find myself applying mascara and looking at my lips in the bottom of the mirror. They’d appear pursed, pissed off. Before the random guy would show up, I’d feel antsy. I’d consider any possible way to get out of what I figured would be an evening of awkwardness by praying that my ceiling would collapse on top of me and I could then crawl through the rubble and cancel on him. To actually stop myself from calling him and giving some bullshit excuse that would get me out of all of it, I’d often dial my best friend instead and she would make me laugh and remind me that this was just another night and there was nothing to really worry about. One time she wasn’t around when I called and her boyfriend picked up the phone instead and I launched into all the reasons I’d rather be in a coma than heading out to a restaurant with some guy I’d met only once before. “Is there anything I can do to make that opening minute feel any less awkward?” I remember thinking aloud to him. “A blowjob always calms me down,” he replied – and I laughed, though a small part of me wondered if he was on to something there.
I never once blew a new guy the second he walked through my front door, but when I finally saw the guy who appeared last night in my dream for real, I actually considered it. He lived in the city and we talked for about two weeks before we actually got together. He texted constantly, almost too often for me – and I’m a rabid texter. Early on – like by day three – he started ending his texts with xoxo and the evil dwarf with the frizzy hair who I swear sometimes lives inside of me would recoil and whisper It’s too soon for all those “xoxo” messages and a big part of me believed that evil dwarf despite the fact that all I really wanted in my life was a guy I cared about who cared about me right back and felt comfortable showing me that affection on a minute by minute basis. I eventually decided to kill that evil dwarf by starving it and by the time two weeks had rolled around and it was time for my first date with this new boy, I was skinny and that dwarf was dead.
His first journey to see me was one filled with inconveniences. He took the train out and discovered that there was some sort of track work happening and he had to get off the train and onto a bus that eventually brought him to the station near my house. Since I’d spent a small fraction of my past dating douchebags who wouldn’t so much as cross the street to see me, his willingness to take a subway to a train to a bus before hopping in my car was like listening to a fucking love song. The only concern I had – and yes, girls can be superficial assholes, too – was that he looked really cute in some pictures but completely not my type in others. I’d eventually learn that he was the worst selfie-taker in all the land, but I didn’t know that yet and so I sat in my car at the train station and waited for some bus to roll in and I guess I knew that he’d probably stay over since it took him so long to make his way to me and I just hoped it wouldn’t feel in any way awkward and that maybe he’d be a good kisser since that’s all I planned to do with him anyway.
When the bus arrived, I got out of my car. It was early summer; I felt a hot wind move through my hair and in between my legs as my fluttery skirt rustled back and forth. With a loud hiss, the bus doors slowly opened and a group of dazed-looking passengers walked squinting into the late-day sun. I watched as a guy with a guitar walked towards me and I felt my heart quicken because, guitar or not, this person was not my physical type in the least with his careful hair and his muscled body, but then I remembered that I really need glasses and this guitar guy wasn’t the person I was there to pick up and that’s when I saw my guy right there in the distance.
His walk was a confident lope. His smile spread slowly across his face the second he saw me. He was tall – like, as tall as my father had been – and he was wearing jeans that hung off his hips and a worn grey tee. He had a leather bag slung over his shoulder that was large enough to confirm he planned to stay the night, but not a bit of me minded anymore. He reached out to hug me and the hug was a grab and I felt my senses slide out of my head and dribble from my ears and I could almost swear that I saw those senses drift away behind the setting red sun.
Here’s something I can say about this guy and who we were together: it was comfortable right away. His presence in my house never felt invasive. He’d fling his bag on my dining room table and plug in his phone and he never once asked me if he could grab something out of my refrigerator. The casual manner in which he sprawled across my couch made me think that maybe he’d been on that couch somehow before – and the way I slid on top of him in one hour flat felt natural, too.
I feel the random need to announce here that I have no issue about whenever some adult decides to fling off her clothes and have sex, but I’ve always been someone who kept her shit on during the first date. My choice had nothing to do with strategy and even less to do with a self-enforced morality code. What I’d actually realized was that I sort of liked delaying the inevitable; it made everything feel heightened and after a few years of feeling almost nothing, the quickening and franticness of my emotions was something I was beginning to crave. Still, less than an hour had ticked by and we were sitting on my couch and both of us were drinking water and I have no idea what we were talking about when he pulled me on top of him. Out of the corner of my eye I looked at the clock on my cable box and he stopped kissing me for a second and looked at me quizzically before asking what I was doing. “I just want to make sure you’ve been here a full hour before I climb on top of you,” I responded. And then I climbed on top of him.
Listen, I have no excuse or rationalization for what happened next, but I know that at some point I saw God and she gave me a fucking high-five. Late the next night – once he’d gone back to the city – I called my friend and said, “I don’t quite know how to say this, but I did a backbend off a virtual stranger’s face last night,” and her response was to applaud me for my sexual confidence and my flexibility and that sort of reaction will forever be why she’s my best friend.
But here’s another truth: I didn’t miss that guy when he left. I knew I’d see him again. We’d actually already made plans for another date and I was happy enough to go on that date that I’d already planned my outfit in my head – a halter dress and wedges – but once he was gone from my house, he also felt gone from my mind. The texts kept rolling in, including the ones I find the kindest in their quiet sweetness because all they say is “good morning” and there’s just something about being wished a good day that the purest part of my soul responds to with a happy sigh. I wasn’t quite sure why this guy wasn’t becoming my newest obsession at a time I was really sort of looking for one, but I knew almost immediately that he was just going to be temporary. I tried, though, to sing his praises so whatever part of me couldn’t seem to care would maybe take note – and I did this for about a year.
“Tallulah really liked him,” I told my friend Shannon over the phone soon after I’d brought my brand new puppy home. And Tallulah did like him. She crawled on his lap and scaled his chest and his shoulder and sat on top of his head, a fluffy cherry atop a very sexy sundae. When we went to my bedroom to go to sleep, she bounced from the bottom of the bed and landed directly on his chest with a gleeful pounce and that’s when he turned to me and mumbled, “Nope,” and I rolled my eyes and took Tallulah downstairs and set her bed up in the kitchen and apologized for her temporary banishment. As for my human buddy, Shannon was very pleased to find out that my new canine hadn’t torn this guy limb from limb, but she was far more casual about her reaction to this news than I’d expected.
“It’s nice that Tallulah likes him,” she said to me as she powerwalked up the hill near her house. I could hear a slight quickening of her breath, but it was nothing like the sound of my own breathing on that same hill. “But Tallulah is only four months old and she basically likes everyone. How did Wookie feel about this guy?” I thought then about Wookie and how she’d known him also and the way she’d sniffed his shoes when he first walked inside and that she’d sort of shrugged at his presence. She was old by then for sure – almost eighteen – but she stayed by my side all the times he was there and gave him almost no reaction. I remembered how Wookie used to drape herself around two other guy’s necks like an infinity scarf and all of a sudden Tallulah’s heightened reaction to this guy didn’t mean all that much anymore.
He used to come to my house and cook me dinner. I’d lean casually against one of my counters as he’d slice and mince and ask me to hand him things that I usually had even though I sometimes didn’t remember buying those things in the first place. “Any chance you have Panko breadcrumbs?” he’d ask as he looked over his shoulder at me while he sliced a zucchini, and I’d be shocked that I did have Panko breadcrumbs and a root of fresh ginger, too. I’d set the table and he’d kiss me lightly as he slid the food onto my plate and our conversations were always easy. He liked to tell me stories about his childhood that had been spent across the country, about his grandfather whom he’d loved completely, about a complicated family dynamic that almost matched my own. He laughed easily and quoted movie lines. He got even better looking as I got to know him and sometimes he’d stop talking in the middle of a sentence to tell me I looked beautiful right then. When we’d walk around my town or his city, we’d stand very close together, our arms touching, and he sometimes fell asleep holding my hand.
But in one of our early conversations he mentioned that he’d never once voted in a Presidential election and he had no plans to ever do it in the future because his vote couldn’t possibly matter and I couldn’t get that ridiculous logic out of my head, not even later while he was holding my arms above my head in the sweaty darkness.
“You look just like Eddie Vedder,” I told him eventually, maybe during one of our last dates.
“Who’s that?” he asked.
To be fair, his lack of knowledge about a particular musician maybe resonated louder than it should have, but Eddie Vedder has mattered in my life for a very long time and in a very significant way. His music scored my formative years. I think I fully understood masculinity for the first time when I heard him growl on Porch. The boy who made me feel the earliest pangs of real love had called me one night when I was just sixteen and told me I had to turn on MTV immediately and check out this band called Pearl Jam and I remember that words were scrawled on the singer’s arms with a black Sharpie and he gripped the microphone with something that can only be defined as a passionate desperation. A different man I eventually loved for real many years later told me early on that Pearl Jam was his favorite band and he took me to see them play and I recall, even now, how I closed my eyes at one point during Black and thanked the staggering power that comes with the passage of time because this song was now defining a new and amazing moment in my life instead of reminding me of the past and of a moment I’d once been certain I’d never be able to move beyond. Much later – years later – I stood in my kitchen one morning and made coffee for someone new and he, out of nowhere, played Just Breathe from his phone while he scanned the photos lining the front of my refrigerator. I’d avoided listening to that song for an entire span of years. I used to think that if one of my former boyfriends and I had gotten married, Just Breathe surely would have been our wedding song, but now it was reverberating through my kitchen and someone different who mattered was standing beside me with adorably rumpled hair and a seriously gorgeous face and I sang along to the words because the past just didn’t hurt anymore.
So yes, that this guy’s response to being told he looked like one of my heroes was a series of dancing question marks mildly freaked me out. It also turned me off, maybe for good, and I know that’s not quite fair. Regardless, I had to show him the resemblance that was real and the talent he’d somehow yet to discover, and I decided to pull out my phone so he could see Eddie Vedder performing Darkness On the Edge of Town with Bruce Springsteen. I’d discovered years ago that these two artists were buddies and whenever I saw either one of them play live, I’d say a quick prayer that the other one would somehow appear on that stage also. It never happened, but there’s a ton of footage of them performing together all over YouTube and I put my head on his shoulder and he pulled me even closer as we looked down at my phone.
He was a good guy and I’ll never say otherwise. He watched the entire clip and afterwards told me how much he enjoyed it. And I smiled and told him I was glad and that I was happy to introduce him to that music because he’d already introduced me to some great TV shows I’d never seen (check out Schitt’s Creek and The Boondocks – they’re really funny), but then I went into the bathroom and turned on the water while I stared at myself in the mirror. I knew in that instant what I’d already suspected for months: this man would not loom large in my future and he’d never become a complicated character from my past. He encompassed all those things you want in a guy. He was down for anything. He was never judgmental. He was edgy and gorgeous. He listened to my stories and ideas closely. He checked in constantly and told me I was smart and sexy. He paid attention to details and was as cuddly a person as I am. He was considerate as hell in bed and never batted an eye if I said something spectacularly filthy. When I made the horrible decision to put Wookie down because it looked like she was in the kind of pain she never deserved to feel even a bit of, he called to check in, to make sure I was okay. When I made the completely spontaneous decision to get a new puppy to fill the gaping hole in my heart and in my home, he comforted me by telling me Wookie would want me to be happy.
But I stood there in that bathroom on that winter afternoon after I’d shown him the video and I admitted that I never discussed my writing with him. I never told him about the process or my doubts or what it really was that I was working towards. I never sent him articles I thought would inspire or inform him and I never once imagined floating down the aisle to where he was waiting for me. And as I washed my hands until they were raw so I could at least feel something that was true, I heard lyrics echoing in my head on repeat:
Tonight I'll be on that hill `cause I can't stop
I'll be on that hill with everything I got
With our lives on the line where dreams are found and lost
I'll be there on time and I'll pay the cost
For wanting things that can only be found
In the darkness on the edge of town
For a time – and what turned out to be a longer time than I’d expected – this guy became what I thought I maybe needed. Uncomplicated and outwardly adoring, he was the fucking meadow I’d thought for so many years I could see far in the distance beyond one of those hills I crawled up until my fingers were bruised and blue. That meadow had become a safe harbor and a part of me could see making a permanent sort of camp there. We could sit, him and me, and watch the sky turn black and count the stars and he could tell me colorful stories that made me smile and he could protect me from anything that came our way because he’d once been an Eagle Scout and I always just figured the apocalypse would include a knot-tying competition. I probably could have been content had I remained in that meadow, but I also know staying there would never lead to a long-term kind of joy. He and I, we are just two very different people. And I’ll forever be the sort who holds out and then pays the cost for wanting the kind of man who lives on the tippy top of that proverbial hill.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle. Also be sure to check out her website at nellkalter.com Her Twitter is @nell_kalter