11:59 P.M.    October 18th, 2009

Hey J.,

Thinking of you. Longing to go back to what we had. The universe tends toward entropy, I know, I know, but the thought of you has concentrated mass, a definite pull. For me. What has passed between us is more intense than, well, anyway, I don’t want to lose track of where I was going with this.

I can be different. You said I never told you enough about myself, my feelings. Funny to hear from a surgeon-in-training but maybe feelings matter more once you know what we’re made out of. When you left you said, “I don’t know who you are,” and yeah I just gestured like, Here I am, you know?

That wasn’t enough, was it?  

So, let me try and explain myself. I have to start at the beginning. To get at the heart of why I am who I am. Who I am is not who I wanted to be, OK?  I’m not kidding. I never wanted to wind up here, writing

Look, there’s no obvious way to communicate how alienated I was then, when this all started. You didn’t appear in my life until years later, Baltimore, grad school, that October when we met online, sure, but who you first reminded me of, the way your neck cants forward like your head is a little too heavy, how you spoke of your mother—a lunatic, her obsessions at the supermarket, going through every melon, all that talk of bruises—and then your kinky hair of course, your hair, was and could only be, Paige. Because Paige is well, Paige was there at the beginning. And you know she has nothing on you. OK?  Honestly—nothing.

I haven’t seen her in five six seven years  

It’s just the memory of that time, that crucial year. And Paige

As a doctor you know corrective surgery is not standard for young people. It’s not everyone who needs it, it’s not always that it works. No one was there to tell me how to catch up on what I’d missed, dreaming of the day a procedure would relieve me of what had, well, definitely, inconvenienced my life since puberty. All the kids I knew were growing and touching each other and telling each other about touching each other, building confidences. It was the whole world. Outside there was, what?  Nothing or very little. That’s how it felt. All my confidences were imaginary—in books.

You know books really do a better job than movies of telling how it really is for a pair when they get to the real thing, what brought them here, face-to-face. In the movies, it’s always like, Oh, he deserves it cuz he’s this movie star we all recognize, or she, or whoever. You know them before you even arrive in the theater. Prepackaged. Like baby-food. On the page, there’s this absence and you have to fill it. I would stare at the words and lose my place on the page and read the words again. The doctors all said to wait until my body had recovered from the surgery.

Then I was in college and still a virgin and working outside Boston delivering pizzas for Papa D’s, and Paige was there too. She was a sophomore—she had her own apartment. And that spring leading up to the end of my first year I had gained forty pounds and seven inches in height, suddenly 5”10. The doctors didn’t think it was possible, but, hey, their intervention worked, boy did it fucking work. There I was, by all outward signs, 18 years old in a new body and just aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa

Sarcasm was my native language. I didn’t know how to speak about anything without mocking it, nothing was good enough because I always felt frustrated. I was fit, had grown my first ponytail, and all the time Paige would get me high. Paige had a boyfriend, this skater who was going to dentistry school, but she would get me high and make fun of him and we made a space where both of us were comfortable. We’d take turns doing voices, put-ons, characters we played. She always made her liaisons with the dentist-in-training sound kind of ridiculous in the retelling, impersonating his voice. As if, when whatever happened happened, she was watching from outside herself. It was weird too, because I never knew how involved they ever really were, like maybe she got free drugs or something? Or I wanted to believe that. In more delusional moments I dreamed she was a virgin too and saving herself for me. I’d imagine the stoned pleas of her skater as she turned away from him, naked on a strange futon, and then I would say something sarcastic to the actual Paige who was right there next to me on the futon in her own rented apartment. Particle displacement. Paige would keep the night going with one manic notion or another, Somerville to wherever. How many burritos, how many glasses of cheapo wine, how many rock bands and beer-stained sneakers, I wasn’t keeping a diary, I can’t remember, I only remember

Yeah and so at some point I noticed how she would show up at the pizza place and how she looked at me. There was something in her eyes and in her voice like, You Are Such a Boy!  And the way she looked at me was kind of how I was looking at myself in the bathroom mirror, like wondering, Is this real? And, When will it go back to how it was before? I’d slam a novel shut to go online and track down a picture of a famous actress letting down her dress just to feel like someone somewhere was giving permission. That my eyes had permission. It could be me, the other part of a couple, together. Look at how my own looks had changed!  Like the pictures of how a guy is supposed to look. The scars had healed nicely, and I followed doctors’ orders on the rowing machine at the gym, and I don’t know, when I saw her looking at me, I knew, maybe there was Something Now. Something between us. No matter how much time had passed, the entirety of freshman year, everyone mad with hookups, while I nursed a crush on her and

Colt at work would give me shit when I showed up to retrieve a few orders, asking had I “hit that yet?” and I’d stare until he said, “Sorry, man, chill, be chill.” Which never stopped him from saying the same thing the next time Paige showed her face at Papa D’s. But Colt, he sang in a band and he was always getting wasted after work and seemed to have trouble remembering much of anything after the fact except which brand of whiskey he liked the most. There were a bunch of different stories he told about the women who would fellate him, like one beneath a staircase and another behind a dumpster outside a rock club that had no dressing room. He had written a song about that one, although he didn’t mention the dumpster in the song.

You know I’m not an unmotivated guy. Motivation I’ve got in spades. I was doing the pizza thing, OK, smelling of pepperoni and green peppers on the drive back to the dorms, but always with saving toward grad school in mind—I never let up on the reading, I’d hit the books after hours if Paige was busy or whatever. There’s that law, right, where someone proved there are things that are true that can never be proven true, and that’s how it was with Paige and me, what we shared, the window of time where I know something might have happened, because what did happen is one night in February she asked me to take her home from a party where her skater-dentist was talking to this other girl with just this vapid, blank stare, or that’s how I remember her, anyway, and Paige had been drinking a lot, three or maybe four shots of tequila plus whatever else, while I had had just one beer. Meaning I was responsible to drive but kind of surprised when she leaned against me over the armrest, and then she placed her multi-ringed hand on my thigh and let it rest there, right on my corduroyed thigh. Whoa, how fluid was that!  I can’t really do justice to how exciting it was to me, the breakthrough for my virgin self. She laughed, in a deep way, and I laughed. Then she said, “Holy shit, look out!” and I swerved to avoid hitting one of those Cambridge lunatics who decided to turn right from the left-most lane. Boston drivers, you know.

I walked Paige upstairs. We were getting closer to her apartment door where it felt like the universe might collapse. A line had been crossed—her hand, my thigh. I worried what was the best thing to do?  I wanted it to be like the movies, the long-awaited loss of virginity, where a soundtrack would start playing to cue the removal of clothes, but at the same time I knew Paige was drunk and I was not, and I’d read a lot about how being drunk made sex not that great. The next morning she might say I’d taken advantage and that was the last thing I wanted. I wanted just the most crushingly mutual thing, our first kiss and what would come after, like tears and oh-it-was-you-all-along and

She shimmied out of her jeans right in front of me, in the middle of her living room, facing the other way, and her legs had the bluest hue, even if there was a birthmark like a thumb-print on her right calf. Her underwear was rose-colored and lacy at the edges and covered her ass mostly but not entirely. She wobbled a little bit and I turned around, but in the glass of the window, it’s such a movie cliché, I could see her unbuttoning her blouse and then unsnapping her bra, the reflection of her bare back. She disappeared into her bathroom and when I looked up again she was wearing a long, ratty sleep shirt for some harbor getaway she cared about aesthetically more than anything and I walked her into her bedroom.

“You,” Paige said, “Opie. You’ve always been such a sweetheart to me.” A pause before she said my name, like she had to search to place it, and that is what got to me most of all, the thought of her scrolling a list. While inside my head there was one name and one name only, just hers over and over and over. In that sad way people who are alone have of thinking about what’s meaningful.

“It wasn’t always that easy for you, was it?” she said. “You almost never talk about yourself. Really talk, I mean.”

“Yeah…,” I said, then it slipped out, like that, “I mean, the years before this one. I had some bad years.” And her eyes got a little wetter and more diffuse the way eyes will when taking you in for real. Kind of the way yours would sometimes, or maybe how mine did the night you left. But then, what I said next, I said, “I was like one of those starving children on TV, no hope at all. It was like every single one of the world’s biggest problems, that’s what it was like, my life.”

And her brow crinkled up, and she said she didn’t mean to make light of my suffering or anything. I placed my hand on her shoulder and told her she probably had had too much to drink and maybe we could talk in the morning. When I drew the covers up to her chin, she said she wanted a glass of water and when I returned with water in a glass, she kept repeating how the bed was so, so comfortable. And so well I

J., my face probably scrunched up the same way you said it does when I’m working late-night on a paper and the paragraphs aren’t right. Like I know the right form is out there. I know I should have access to it. But, for whatever reason, it’s escaping me. Her lips were barely any distance at all from mine and it would have been so easy to lean down. I don’t know what Paige saw in my face then, but it must have been something, because she took my hand and leaned up on her elbow in bed and as tenderly as a mother would kiss her baby’s brow, she set her lips to the back of my hand. And held them there. And looked up at me. Then set her lips on the back of my hand again and leaned back on the bed.

And I mean: What was that?  

My first thought—I hate to say this—is that she was making fun. Being sarcastic. I felt like her kiss was probably sarcastic. When what I wanted was for our outward behavior to just peel away like a bug’s carapace. All the characters, all the put-ons. I wanted for us to be earnest.

So I left. I walked down the steps and out of the building, leaving Paige in bed, the luster of her kinky hair across a pillow. And as I walked to my car, my mind leapt ahead to our wedding. Because I was certain right then that we would be married. Once the moment was right. I felt like she had shown me a new horizon for our relationship, and now it was only a matter of disowning the guy she was with, the skater with his messed-up teeth, and soon we would go out for a proper evening together, the symphony or something followed by dinner at a restaurant that would cost me a week’s savings, and then after dinner, I would carry her across a threshold and more and more of the most ridiculous headlong delusions you have ever

What was it that finally drove her away? Something did, spooked her I mean, something in my eyes or tone of voice, a possessiveness maybe—we never did kiss—and then we stopped talking that winter, even though I heard soon after, she did break up with her idiot tooth-man who maybe gave her drugs, I don’t know, and, well, the way I finally lost my virginity was one night Colt showed up outside my door and kept knocking and calling until I finally let him in and he said we were going out. Out where, I asked. To a club. And I said, I never go out to clubs, I don’t even know how to dance. And Colt said, “Drink this.” And I drank. And he drank. And eventually we caught the T to this place where we waited in line like tools for an hour as women in sparkling tight pants beneath long dark coats went by us before getting inside where it was dark and loud and warm and we ordered three more rounds of shots and I was looking in every direction at once, disgusted with the whole scene, all the mirrors, myself in the middle of them, when I recognized a girl I had been sarcastic to outside Papa D’s the week before—a tall girl with beautiful legs and a smile that showed her gums—and she said to me in the dark as the music throbbed, “Hey, you gonna hook up tonight?”

We got back to my dorm-room and we put our mouths together and with my eyes closed and our tongues writhing it felt like we could be anybody. Like I could be anybody. When I touched her beneath the belt, she asked if I had a condom. And as I undid my pants and put it on, I thought about Paige, what she would have said if she could see me right then—I imagined her there, right there with me—looking at the guy putting a condom on like a character in a movie.

The next morning


The Kiss is a bimonthly series curated by Brian Turner.

The Kiss: Intimacies from Writers is available from Norton in February 2018.

J.T. Price

J.T. Price's fiction has appeared in the New England Review, Joyland, the Brooklyn Rail, CONSTRUCTION Magazine, Electric Literature, and Post Road #33. This work of fiction grew out of his interest in the epistolary novel. More at www.jt-price.com or follow him in the Twitterdome, @_jtprice_

At Guernica, we’ve spent the last 15 years producing uncompromising journalism.

More than 80% of our finances come from readers like you. And we’re constantly working to produce a magazine that deserves you—a magazine that is a platform for ideas fostering justice, equality, and civic action.

If you value Guernica’s role in this era of obfuscation, please donate.

Help us stay in the fight by giving here.