May Time Never Turn Us into Strangers

There were a lot of things I loved about Washington D.C.: the crisp edges of all the monuments, the rumble of the metro, the distinct districts and areas, and a general pulse of city life that I’ve missed since leaving London, my one and only love, behind. I was ready to take advantage the moment I arrived. My cousin laughed at me when I showed up with bus schedules, opening times and a full color map of the heart of the city. I had itineraries and things to do. But by far the best part of my trip was the one thing I didn’t plan on.

I made the standard travel announcement on Facebook. DC Bound, I wrote, which led to my cousin and I sitting in Jack Rose, a whiskey bar around 18th street, waiting on a friend I hadn’t seen in six years. Hit me up, his comment said—I hadn’t even known he lived there.

“God, how do I look?” I asked my cousin, a meaty EOD guy sipping his whiskey neat.

We’d spent half the afternoon trekking through the Zoo and then walking back towards U Street. I knew I was sweaty and my hair was a mess. I already ran straight to the bathroom to wash my hands fifty times after swiping what I thought was a mushy leaf from my cousin’s sleeve but turned out to be bird poop. My ankles were killing me, pinched up in my cute brown boots, not tourist shoes by any means. But I had enough practice in London hiking up and down the uneven pavement in heels, I figured I could do DC the same—I could, but it hurt nonetheless.

As I patted at my hair, my cousin looked me over. “You look fine. Like you’ve been outside all day, but then you have.”

“Ugh, not much I can do about it now, I suppose,” I said, taking another sip of my mint julep. I kept watching the windows along the front, keeping an eye out of my friend. Every time someone opened the door, I glanced over at the hostess station. I was so anxious as I wanted to see him first. I wanted a chance to look him over again before he saw me. I’m not sure why, except that time was a long space between us. It had been probably closer to seven years since I’d seen him. I hadn’t even realized so much had gone by until the prospect of seeing him came up. There’s something about the people who knew you when, who throw you back like a personal Delorean, and suddenly something as intangible as the passing of time becomes a measurable moment, inked by levels of nostalgia, proved not by seeing how they have altered without you in their life, but how you have altered since they were in yours. And when my friend was last in my life, I was in many ways still a girl. I just didn’t know it then.

I met JR when I was 19, during the spring of the ’08 Presidential Primaries. He took the seat next me in the back row of Public Affairs Reporting, shamelessly even considering the wellspring of empty chairs. At well over 6 feet, he towered even sitting down, and that was even before I could wrap my head around the hair. It wouldn’t take long to learn that JR’s pride and joy was the black mane that billowed out in tendril waves past his shoulders. It was metal head hair, like Slash from Guns N Roses, but even more well groomed and luscious. And it suited, because JR, at heart, was a metal head, but an intelligent and mannered one. The spark of our friendship was our divisive politics. He was campaigning for Obama. I was of course a Hillary girl. It started in class, and eventually kept it going until we reached the lobby and the door of the journalism building. Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, we spent the hour after class usually discussing policies and platforms. I was certain I could convince him of his folly in supporting an untested senator. I never did of course, and he never quite got me to buy into an action-less message of change. It’s impossible to really change someone’s politics.  Instead, politics gave way to the personal and our ferocious banter morphed into friendship. Soon, we walked to his house after class, playing guitar hero, watching TV, until one of us had to go to work.

I’m not the kind of girl who has a lot of friends in general, but especially not back then. So, JR, despite his poor choice in candidates, became sort of special to me. It was a little odd because he was 26, a bit of a man whore, and a touch off course on his life path, but he and I clicked in those days. I still remember the night we picked up five-for-five old movies (the black and white kind of old, not early Kevin Smith kind of old) and a giant StoneSlab pizza and curled onto his bed to watch It Happened One Night with Clark Gable. He is the only man I’ve gotten to watch old movies with me who didn’t cringe at the prospect or tell me it was horrible. JR liked golden age cinema, just as I did. But we still fell asleep during the second movie. Cuddled slightly next to me, JR let loose the worst snores I ever heard in my life. To this day, those sounds bring chills to my spine. Every time I sleep next to a guy who snores, I console myself with ‘at least it’s not as bad as JR’. He wasn’t just a train. He was a train being strangled and digested by Godzilla. Even though it was nearly five am, I left his place to get some quiet sleep at my own. And then I mercilessly teased him about it for the rest of the semester. The problem with being a man whore is that JR didn’t have any girls sticking around long enough to tell him about the monster that lived in his sinuses.

I stuck around, but not for that. He tried once to get me to sleep with him. I don’t remember it actually, but apparently (according to his story) he was drunk and I asked his roommate to drive me home. I’m satisfied with my own moral fortitude even if I can’t remember it. I never slept with JR back then, one reason being that ridiculous metal hair. Though I liked the way it floated behind him as he rode his Harley (which I refused to get on—I only followed him to help bring it back home after a repair), something about his hair being longer and prettier than mine was a turn off. I watched other girls that he picked up at his restaurant job fawn and touch, but I could never get that into it.

The other reason, and the biggest reason I never hooked up with JR when we were friends, is that I was still seeing my first boyfriend Bran, who thought I was already sleeping with JR. I remember pacing around JR’s backyard on the phone with Bran assuring him that JR and I were just friends. It wasn’t a healthy relationship even then. But when I came back in, JR didn’t judge my relationship, or convince me to let Bran go. He just handed me the plastic guitar and we battled it out over some Black Sabbath. JR won of course. Still, I stayed with Bran, I never slept with JR, and then in the fall, amid Obama’s Hope campaign after defeating my precious Hill-Dawg, I jetted off to England for four months. I lost contact with JR, as those sort of things go. I never saw him again except as the most distant of Facebook friends.

At least not until I was 25 and sitting in a bar in DC…

The first thing I noticed was that his hair was gone, shaved down to a half inch. Then he was dressed in black slacks and a white button up, slightly undone. He was professional, and still tall as hell. On a random street, he might have passed right by me. But the nose and the bulbous chin were still the same. I watched as he greeted the hostess, spoke to her about looking for his party. He began to scan the bar rail, searching the back of heads and then the dining area.

“Well, go get him,” my cousin said. “He doesn’t see you.”

Almost reluctantly, I raised my hand in the air, calling out “JR.” I repeated it. Finally, he turned, seeing us in the corner. We grinned at each other. I wondered how I looked to him. All the time I’d spent with him before felt like the experience of a kid. Age consistently misleads us. At 19, I’d believed myself wise and mature. At 25, I knew that teenager had still been a foal with rough footing. At 30, I imagine this twenty something girl will seem just as inept. But in that second, I wondered if I looked as put together as I hoped. Like JR had obviously abandoned his metal hair, I had long since abandoned my lazy, short coifs and uniforms of yard sale jeans and graphic t-shirts. Now, I had auburn hair down the mid of back, and I wore a pair of All Saints shorts with a yellow and cream, open back blouse. Though things had never been that way between JR and me, I still wanted to look ravishable. After all, we never want the memories others hold of us to ever best the present.

I got up to hug him. He was tall and sturdy as ever. Up close, I could see the flecks of grey and white creeping their way along his temple. It was the only reminder that my old friend was in his thirties now. But I liked the flecks. I gave his short hair a rub.

“What happened, mister? Where did your hair go?”

“I cut it all off when I moved here,” he said. “I got a fancy job, had to clean up the look.”

“I like it. I mean, the other was impressive, but this I like.” I was hesitant to emphasize how much I liked it, and the whole new look of my friend. I’d always adored my long haired bartender, but I was quickly attracted to the short haired professional. I don’t have a type, but I do have a preference for men in suits. There’s just something about a button up or a tie. A quick inner reminder that JR had a girlfriend helped quell the new instinct to pounce.

Not long after I left for England the first time, I heard he started seeing a girl I used to work with. They’d been together ever since. Through Facebook, I saw them move around together. All of his recent pictures had her in them. I’d been so proud of my favorite man whore for settling down. But then about twenty minutes into the conversation, as we ordered another round of drinks with JR, it turned out that his woman hadn’t made the move to DC with him.

“Yeah, we split up when I got the job here and she went back to Texas,” JR said. “Still on good terms though. We drunk dial each other.” I murmured something and nodded my head. For the first time, he and I were both single and in the same city. I tried not the linger on the thought.

“Where abouts in Texas?” my cousin asked, curious since that’s where he was from. He and JR began to bond over some shitty little town neither of them would ever go back to. They also bonded quickly over motorcycles, though JR had sold his Harley to pay for graduate school.

“You know it’s nice,” I said, interrupting their spew of engine sizes and whatnot. “I always love being in a foreign country, listening to the locals speaking their language, even though I can’t understand a word of it. This,” I gestured my drink at them. “Is kind of like that. I have no idea what you are talking about, but it sounds kind of pretty, melodic even.”

“Ha, we can stop,” JR offered.

“No, no,” I said. “Keep going. I’m enjoying it.” Well, more that I enjoyed JR and my cousin getting along. My primary concern had been the awkward mesh of my southern cousin and a liberal friend from my past, but everything went smoothly and with them talking shop, I had the chance to let the liquor and the nerves settle. It was nice just listening to the way conversation flowed. There was something easy about having JR next to me again.

As soon as he’d sat down, JR and I had started to whitewash the near decade since we’d seen each other. I learned about his move to Oregon for grad school and his work in municipalities. He’d studied solar power and now worked at a non-profit, helping to educate people and improve access.

“I just decided that I wanted to do something that would go beyond myself,” JR explained about his work for his Masters. Handsome and selfless. It was the kind of statement that makes a girl cross her legs a little tighter and bite her lip.

He asked about my life. I told him about London and writing, my work on a PhD. He seemed thoroughly impressed. I couldn’t help but like that, even if his non-profit work already made me feel a right sham and louse. I certainly wasn’t saving people or make lives better.

“You’re making people’s grammar better, and the world certainly needs that,” JR assured me.

A drink turned into two. Two drinks into three. I’d lost count of how many my cousin had and I was definitely feeling the buzz. We spent about five hours sitting around our high top at the end of the bar. Laughing, talking. I joked about how few women were in this bar, that it was ninety percent men in button ups after a long day at the office.

“If I was a single girl in DC, apparently a whiskey bar is the place to be.”

“I thought you were a single girl in DC,” JR commented.

“Well, I mean if I lived here. Then I would be fishing right now. I love a man in a suit shirt.”

“Hey, I’m right here,” JR joked, catching me off guard. I couldn’t tell if he was flirting with me, or if it was just old banter rearing back up. Either way, I laughed in turn, refusing both JR and my cousin’s dare to go hit on some of the guys at the bar. Not that I wasn’t interesting in trying, but I had two large men with me, no one was going to bite.

Finally, it came time to get the bill. JR had a bus to catch to Columbia Heights. My cousin and I needed to find the metro before it closed. But I felt loath to leave JR behind again. We’d only planned on a catch-up and suddenly a few hours over drinks didn’t feel like enough. He’d made me realize there are two types of friends in this world: the ones who keep up with you no matter where on earth you go and the ones who even after not seeing each other for six years can make it feel like you hung out just yesterday. The latter is what it felt like with JR, like any moment we were about to walk from campus to play guitar hero at his house, or that he’d just gotten off work at the restaurant and it was a late night drink, or that our debate on the merits of Hillary for president had never ended (even if my cousin was on his side this time too). Some friends just always stay friends, even when they don’t speak.

“Look, I’m in town for a while,” I told JR on the street corner where our paths divided. “Let me know if you want to hang out again.”

“I will,” he said. We hugged again. He and my cousin shook hands and then we parted ways.

“Do you think he was flirting with me?” I asked my cousin before we finished walking the next block.

“Maybe. I thought you were just friends.”

“We were…are,” I said. “He’s just looked so good…I really want to see him again before I leave. Do you think he’ll call?”

“If you don’t hear from him, just call him tomorrow night and tell him you want see him,” my cousin stated, ever straightforward.

“Right, you’re right,” I agreed. “I’ll just call him myself.”

But it turned out to be unnecessary. When my cousin and I were out a dinner the next day, I got another Facebook message from JR: Are you free and still in town Friday? I’d like to take you out, maybe dinner and drinks.

I’m definitely still in town, I replied.

After six years, JR and I were going on our first date.

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