When I walked into my neighborhood coffee shop on a late August morning, there wasn’t a flicker of romance on my mind. I had woken up early to camp out at the cafe and catch up on work. I had fallen behind since I found out about the sudden death of Chris the previous Saturday night. I took two sick days for the time off, because a friend dying in a car accident while another friend was driving didn’t meet the requirements for bereavement leave.
So that morning when I showed up at the coffee shop, my head felt full of cotton balls and my eyes were still puffy from crying before, during, and after the funeral. Scanning for an open table, I spotted a familiar face hunched toward a netbook screen, and something inside of me seized. It was Sam. He and I had met each other the year before at a literary event at which I had read a story about dating an actively bisexual guy, and he followed up with a tale that involved him spitting on a girl’s ass.
Out of my peripheral I noticed Sam get up, circumnavigate a cluster of tables, and head in my direction.
“Hey, what are you working on?”
“Oh hey,” I said feigning surprise as though I hadn’t noticed him up until that moment. “Not much—just some work stuff. What about you?”
“Same thing. You wanna take a smoke break outside?”
Over-caffeinated and boy-nervous, like a middle schooler, my hands shook so badly that when I attempted to take a drag of my cigarette, I initially missed my mouth.
Sam asked me how I was and what I had been up to, and I quickly passed the inquiry back his way to avoid spilling the truth:
“Oh, me? Can’t complain—except that my friend was thrown from the bed of a fire-engine-red 1972 Chevy pickup and instantly decapitated, and I don’t know what the fuck else to do with myself because the only two tasks I’ve been able to successfully complete in the past week are chain smoking and drinking on my front porch. I’ll spare you the details about the scream-crying fits that ironically leave my abs as sore as what happens after a hearty belly laugh.”
We stood next to the cafe entrance talking long enough that I unsuccessfully attempted to smoke two cigarettes, both times having no choice but to let the Camel Lights languidly burn down unassisted, since my hands shook so visibly and I was too self-conscious to attempt any drags. The next night, Sam and I ran into each other at a rock show and ended up draining whiskeys on the rocks and talking into the early the morning, nestled up like old friends and familiar lovers in a shadowy corner booth. Nearing 3 a.m., he kissed me in the parking lot and invited me over to his place for a nightcap.
I told myself that it was probably a bad idea to start dating someone when I was so emotionally raw, but my heart felt startlingly swollen with a desire to open up, extend kindness, postpone intercourse. Rather than give in to what had become a masochistic tendency to sabotage potentially decent relationships, the shock of Chris’s death had startled me into desperately wanting to do the right thing, and so I pursued him anyway—along with the hope of inhabiting a shinier, healthier version of myself in a future redemptive relationship.
It didn’t take long for people to begin referring to Sam and me as a unit. I didn’t mind. His constant thoughtfulness surprised me, and his clear pride in introducing me to his friends only endeared me more. I bragged about his comically large penis to girlfriends, and we clinked glasses in filthily pointless delight.
Meanwhile, as the summer heat eased, a version of normalcy returned to my circle of friends following our period of communal mourning. After a couple weeks, we couldn’t go for more than an hour before someone mentioned Chris. A month or so down the line, days would pass without hearing his name. Soon enough with jackets on, we again drank beers together on patios and began making costume plans for Halloween.
Collectively, we had emerged on the other side of Chris’s death relatively unscathed, and I quickly learned that I was also, for the most part, unchanged. And for that reason, the lifeline I selfishly thought I had needed now started to weigh down like an albatross around my neck. Pet peeves developed, like the stale smell of Sam’s apartment, his penchant for alt country music, the way he sniffled his nose almost violently when waking, and his earnest desire to please me. With frightening speed, considering my determination that This One Would Be Different, my old self retook the reins, growing distracted during conversation and steering my sightlines to surrounding men when he would go to the bathroom.
“I think I’ve figured you out,” he told me one Saturday afternoon over bloody marys.
I flushed reflexively at the thought of whatever horrible truth he had stumbled upon: That I was a bitch. That I tended to be blindingly selfish. That I didn’t function well within boundaries. That I, in the words of an ex-boyfriend, just didn’t love properly. At that point, what beat in my chest was knotted tangle of scar tissue. And while I desperately wanted to get close to someone else and lay bare the emotional mess that I was in, I could only manage intimacy for so long before I would drive them away by becoming insufferable or blatantly unfaithful.
“You’ve figured me out, huh?”
Behind my sunglasses, I glanced at a chatty pair of couples sitting at the table next to us, wedding bands sparkling in the daylight like tiny trophies.
I reached for my pack of cigarettes as he took a long drag from his Marlboro Red, momentarily squinting at me as though contemplating whether or not he wanted to break the terrible news.
“What have you deduced?”
I struck a match, as he blew out a cloud of smoke.
“You’re a really private person”
I tapped my Camel Light against the lip of the ashtray awkwardly.
“And, like, I get that,” he continued. “I’m the same way, y’know?”
I instinctively recoiled at the comparison of us to each other.
“But why do you say that—that I’m private?”
With not so much as a pause for contemplation, he continued and proceeded to detail with fumbling hand gestures and factual precision how I tended at times to pull in, recoil, freeze up, resist. But also how every now and then he could see my shoulders relax and my jaw un-tense and my chest well in a wisp of relief.
“I don’t mean any of this as a bad thing,” he concluded, reaching his left, cigarette-free hand across the table toward my right, cigarette-free hand, “I just think I understand you more now, you know?”
I pursed my lips and glanced away, found out and uncomfortable.
Two weeks later, I ended the relationship, citing a litany of excuses; everything except for the truth that I simply wasn’t stable enough to be anyone’s girlfriend. And if he had been around, Chris would’ve told as much I’m sure. Then with both us sitting on a back porch in downtown Atlanta drinking Miller High Life and him smoking a discount-brand cigarette, we would both laugh our asses of at the notion of him transformed by death into my own personal Jesus. Chris’s dying hadn’t wiped away any of my sins or offered a shortcut to emotional salvation. The mangled part of myself didn’t fly off the side of a bridge alongside him. Instead it would take years of me reverting and restarting, lonely and despairing at times, to begin living.
Cristen Conger is an Atlanta-based writer, a podcast co-host of Stuff Mom Never Told You, and the internet's unofficial Curator of Lady Knowledge. Her work specializes in all things women, gender, sex, and getting laughs. Not always in that order.