In The New Yorker’s most recent Summer Fiction Issue, they asked some awesome writers, including Joshua Ferris, Miranda July, and Rachel Kushner to write short essays on the topic “My Old Flame.” They were so wonderful, and after a long writing drought, they inspired me to hurriedly write my own (albeit non-fiction). From my perspective, most people only have one or two actual “old flames”—those few humans that you once really struggled to let go of; those lucky people who become vessels for our idealized mate projections, even if they’re nowhere near that ideal. With that in mind, here’s a story.
My old flame entered our college library swinging—a Ziploc bag of homemade biscuits in one hand, to be precise. I was a freshman with 40oz. dreams of instant college romance, something I expected with the same certainty of receiving an ID card and a chubbier tummy. After a thirty-second eye-lock in the cafeteria earlier that day, I had determined that he was the one. Exhilarated by this peekaboo with fate, I kept cool by telling everyone I came across about him (and the effect of his facial structure on my loopy hormones). Soon enough, my freshman fuckability had solidified like a midnight snack in the back of his mind.
In the library that evening he had been searching for someone who was definitely not me, but his girlfriend: a bubbly, au natural type who was studying something like neuroscience, rendering my English major pursuits completely unworthy. With the delicacy of a man mid-proposal, he offered her a grubby biscuit, which they shared in a grossly normal fashion (nothing to criticize), causing me to damn gluten to hell. I tried my best to stare through her at his thick runners thighs (what they might lead to), playing with my hair like a self-conscious lunatic on speed. “If only he knew this book was on Andre Breton!” I sighed to myself as they departed with the foulest whiff of happiness I’d ever inhaled.
Some guys, in certain life stages, appear rather turned on by desperation, and mine was wrapped like the most elegant gift, all too ripe for the taking. When the girlfriend had one of those hurried senior year epiphanies a few weeks later and announced her plans to leave him for travels across Africa, he smartly circled back my way to cash in. This meant adding me on Facebook, still considered a bold move at the time if done between near-strangers. We began chatting like old friends, except that, in this case, each word I offered him was loaded with the weight of our future children. I quickly became a sweet springboard for his most obscure interests, each one alluringly pretentious and reducing my language capabilities to a stream of enthusiastic yes’s. His narcissism made my panties wet, so fascinated was I by this foreign notion of self-admiration. I latched onto it, hoping a little bit might sprinkle onto my eager cheeks (all four of them, if lucky).
We talked in person intermittently, but in my mind we were a deal sealed in cement—an idyllic love match borne out of happenstance and the repetitious twang of then-newcomer Nicki Minaj’s “Your Love.” Having always struggled to draw proper lines between imagination and reality, I found myself driving an hour to see him over our Spring Break just weeks after our first introduction. The car ride provided just enough time for me to flesh out our future in toto—it would involve lots of nubby, thrift store sweaters and regular reading in the nude.
The results were different—more…isometric, you might say. He was charming enough to keep flirtations at a steady beat, but seemed to enjoy me most when his view was from behind. I assured myself such positive physical sensations signaled deeper connections, each grunt an operatic confession of something close enough to love. I don’t remember kissing much at all, though this seemed alright in lieu of him taking me to an Irish café for dinner where we shared soda bread and ogled his tattoos with matched enthusiasm. I had fully ceded control of my brain to my pinker parts for a man who tattooed Alex Trebec’s face on his arm so casually you felt as if you were the crazy one for questioning it.
We didn’t talk much the next few days and I wasn’t so thick not to realize doom was imminent. Back at school, he beckoned me into the printing studio where he worked and started sobbing in a way that was so baldly pathetic it only made me want him more. He served me a heated dish of: I’m going through things, my ex-girlfriend, Africa and shit. There was a weak-willed sorry tucked somewhere in there, too. I swallowed it all relatively well considering my own wobbly sensibilities at the time, and tried to get off on my own blip of maturity. I left with the stride of someone finalizing divorce.
Of course, this cycle would go on for the next few years, more regular than my period but no less satisfying for its predictability. There were a few trips to see him at home in Chicago, mainly to satisfy a sexual desire that we bookended with silent museum trips and bottomless sushi. One day, when the flames had finally fanned out on both ends, he would call to apologize for his vague but difficult-to-deny manipulations of my hungry heart. It was the most genuine apology I’d ever received, and the first time he’d offered me anything not beholden to the magic bullet in his pants. With the complicated strings of sex finally torn apart and shelved away, we had our first wonderful conversation and hung up happy to slip off in different directions.
It was the best fucking lesson I’d ever received.