When I was nineteen, I peer-pressured girls into sleeping with me. Most of my friendships back then were predicated on aspirations of sex, and I craftily bided my time, confident that eventually you would get drunk enough for me to pounce. In a man, this behavior is disgusting and predatory, and it’s only slightly less reprehensible when you factor in my tender age at the time, my gender, and my collegiate adorability. And then I met Smoke.
Smoke didn’t wear makeup or shave her legs or wear anything but baggy tee-shirts that were legitimately vintage, and spotting her across the quad she wasn’t the kind of girl I typically pursued, but when she talked to you, you felt like someone was really seeing you for the first time in your life. Everyone loved her, and I wanted her all for myself.
Of course I was living with my boyfriend Bummer at the time, which I believed did not disqualify me from pursuing another, totally separate relationship. Meanwhile, Smoke had started hanging around with this group of lesbians who disliked me at first sight. But I didn’t care. She had these full lips and the throatiest laugh I have ever heard, like she was congenitally missing that bullshit laugh that the rest of us have, and I loved to make that laugh come out. I followed her to parties and I waited for my opening.
It was weird, though, because it wasn’t really a lust thing, the way it was with other girls I knew and liked and tried to manipulate into positions where they would have to take their shirts off in front of me. I mostly wanted to have sex with Smoke because I wanted her full attention, and because I wanted to have something of hers that everyone else didn’t already have. I wanted to put my name on her. Mine.
We made out once, in the living room of my crappy basement apartment behind all the frat houses, with Bummer passed out in the other room. Everyone in the world drunk or high or both. Her mouth tasted like fall, her cigarette abandoned in the ash tray, and she laughed that laugh of hers, and I wanted to crack across the middle like a nesting doll so I could offer her the smaller, cleaner version of myself that was inside.
A week later, she told me she had started seeing one of the lesbians, a girl with naturally glossy hair and Doc Martens who watched me the way a security guard at the mall will watch a group of teenagers, certain that they are going to try to steal something.
Smoke was my friend, and I told her that I just wanted her to be happy and I meant it and was lying at the same exact time. And I went home to Bummer, who I was too cowardly to break up with because I wasn’t on speaking terms with my own family back then and I didn’t know where else I would go for the holidays if not for him. I made it through finals with generous applications of Wild Turkey, and one of my friends took pity on me and let me take her to bed, probably because I was walking around looking like a cartoon character who had just stepped on a rake. I would later repay this kindness by fucking her boyfriend behind her back.
Smoke and I stayed friends, but I knew her girlfriend didn’t like me, and it was strained, just being friends. I got involved with other people and their interesting narcotics, but anytime I saw her, I had that same sure sense that she was the right person for me. I just wasn’t the right person for her.
Smoke and the lesbian were the ones who rescued me from my own bad decisions a few years later, when I washed up in New Orleans after graduation. She came and found me, walking into the grim little bar where I was taking off my clothes to that Portishead song. Smoke like a hallucination. The girls had a dog with them that they had found behind an Arby’s somewhere, and the whole thing was like a fever dream.
It was Smoke who gave me the news that Monster had died, and I remember how her face furrowed; I had never seen her cry before. It made her look like a different person.
After Monster’s nakedly horrible funeral, I kind of went to junkie shit and Smoke moved to Chicago to join one of those teaching programs for inner city kids. The next time I heard from her, she was calling because she wanted to tell me that she was very sorry to have to upset me, but she was receiving word from my dead ex through the bones in her head. Apparently, despite being long buried, Monster had begun calling her on the telephone.
She was relaying all this to me from the confines of a Chicago hospital, where she been brought by some police officers after a very public mental breakdown involving Smoke running around in the snow in a pair of boxer shorts, trying to open people’s car doors at the red lights and shouting things at them about the Marxist revolution. She didn’t seem bothered to be in the hospital, but she definitely thought I would be upset that Monster was reaching across the veil to call her instead of me.
Smoke was a person who used to make you feel like she saw you, and now she looked right past me, at visions only she could see; I didn’t really exist for her anymore. I saw her a few times after that in New York, but it wasn’t the same. She was jittery with revolutionary fervor, talking in double time about the Communist party and Che Guevara and power to the people. Sketch met her the last time she visited, and she slept unmolested on our couch. We’re Facebook friends now, although she never posts, and I have only her profile picture to squint at.
I loved her. I’m sure I loved her. But time passes, and that matters less and less.
These days, the way I feel about Connecticut, it reminds me of the way I felt about Smoke. He and I are just friends, and I keep resolving to slow the battery of soul-baring texts we will exchange when I am home, alone and lonely. The whole thing is deeply unsettling, because there’s not that familiar poke of lust, which is normally the only way I am able to motivate myself past my own social insecurities and leave the apartment. I’m more eager to nap with him than I am to sleep with him. I have a boner for, like, his companionship, a longing that is gross and weird and definitely not normal. Sex: it gives things a solid shape, whereas this friendship feels like trying to carry around a handful of milk. I don’t know what to do with it. Other people seem to be running around knowing what they feel and wanting only one thing at a time, but I blow around like smoke, filling whatever space you leave me.