When a young man smiles with sincerity it can lift your spirits in a way that nothing else on this earth can. It makes you feel powerful and free and lovely. There is no reason for it but you feel it anyway, and it feels good. Of course I am thinking of a specific young man and a very particular night. I am not sure whether this holds true for other young men on other nights since I only ever remember the one.
The last time I saw this young man was in October. I was his friend but I loved him. And of course it was the type of love that wasn’t the friend-type. I knew he didn’t feel the same way. Don’t ask me how I knew. I knew. I was driving in my beat up 1990 Chevy station wagon on the I-355 towards downtown Chicago. His house was on the North side of Chicago in the Lakeview district. As I drove I recalled the last time I saw him. I ran into him in the cafeteria at school back in August. I was so surprised to see him because he had already graduated. I hugged him and his embrace felt like an old song that takes you back to the exact moment when you first heard it. Jesus, I guess that’s a bit cheesy, isn’t it? I tend to be like that. Now he was turning twenty-three and I was on my way to his birthday party. The nerves that swelled within me were absolutely nothing like butterflies in my stomach…rather like ants crawling through my veins.
I parked across the street from his small and sort of shitty house. Taking a deep breath I got out of my car and walked up the front steps. I knocked on the door and waited as I heard the chattering of voices and the clinking of glasses. He opened the door and his eyes lit up when he saw me. And every inch of me warmed as I forgot about those pesky ants.
“Oh my god, you came,” he smiled. The young man pulled me in for a hug and the embrace did the same damn magic it always used to, nearly making me forget my own fucking name this time. “Happy birthday!” I said as I tried to force my eyes to be a little bit duller so he wouldn’t suspect the nature of my affection. I stepped past the doorframe and pulled off my overlarge wool coat. “Want a drink?” he crowed. He led me past a few other people I probably should’ve known but didn’t and into the kitchen where there was an assortment of liquors and mixers along with beer and the like. He asked what I wanted and I said I’ll have a rum and coke. I only picked that because that’s what he was drinking at the time. I am such an ass sometimes.
I sipped my drink as I tried to make small talk with another girl who went to our university. She seemed amiable and even a bit interesting but I was still always frightfully aware of where the young man was in the room. It felt as if I had some sort of weird detection device in my brain, it would say “where is he?” “oh there he is, five feet and two centimeters to the north west.” As the evening continued I contemplated my resurfacing feelings. I knew I still had cared for him but this was a lot worse than I had imagined. When we were in school together just a few short months before that night he was in a relationship with a girl named Emily. I always remember that name. It’s the most annoying name in the world.
I decided to down the next drink a lot more quickly hoping that I would either gain more confidence or just forget my damn feelings entirely. The hour became later and inhibitions became smaller and the music became louder. Before I knew it we were all dancing in the middle of the living room with the couches pushed aside. The floor felt like it had fallen out from underneath me but everyone was somehow still stable. I remember looking down. There was a large Persian rug underneath my feet, whether there was a floor underneath that rug or not I didn’t know.
The music quieted. I sat on the floor still breathing heavily from the dancing. A few people went into the kitchen, a few went out onto the deck, and few went to the basement to smoke some pot. I looked up from my drink to find the young man sitting across from me on the floor. I quickly looked down at the Persian rug as if trying to read some secret message left for me in the design. There wasn’t one there. A few moments passed in the silence as I realized we were completely
alone. I remember at that point evaluating what state of mind I was in. I had around three or four rum and cokes, I couldn’t quite remember how many…but it wasn’t so bad. Wasn’t so bad that I couldn’t talk to him. But talk to him about what? What did I really want to say?
I looked up at him and he looked into my eyes. That was one of the things I really liked about him: the way he would look at me..well anyone probably because he was just that kind of person. He would look at you and in that moment you were the most important thing. He could still do it just as he had back in August even though I could tell from his disposition that he was slightly more drunk than I was. I opened my mouth to speak, “You were saying earlier that you had a really tough summer. What happened?” His eyes flashed with pain and he said “Oh, that. Yeah well you remember Emily right?” Oh boy do I remember Emily! But I just nodded my head. “Me and her broke up but it was really messy. Kind of all over the place.” I could see in his face that it still wrecked him when he thought about it. Suddenly what I felt didn’t seem as important anymore. I just cared about him and his hurt. Of course, that didn’t last very long just like all my moments of selflessness that I constantly build up into grand gestures that don’t actually play out. But during this moment I tried to draw his slightly unfocused eyes back to me then said “I am really sorry about that. I really am, I wish there was something I could do to help.”
We sat there in silence a bit longer. I started fiddling with the fringe on the edge of the Persian. “I really miss seeing you around since I graduated” he said. I raised my head but it felt all foggy for the rush of emotion. “Yeah, yeah. I-I miss you too” I whispered.
Something inside me broke then and I just didn’t care about the consequences anymore. I don’t know if it was the liquor or the dancing or the simple fact that I knew what the response would be and I was at peace with it. “The thing is..all last semester..you know, while you were with..Emily, um…I had feelings for you.”
I looked down from his eyes then and waited in the silence. I wanted a moment to myself before I looked at him again. In that moment I expected everything yet nothing at all from him at the same time. I looked up. His unfocused eyes came into focus and he responded. “Wow, really? Thanks!”
WHAT DID THAT MEAN? “Thanks.” I kept repeating it over and over again in my head until it didn’t even sound like a real word anymore. He was drunk. I should have known. I mean I knew he wasn’t going to be in love with me or anything. But I didn’t think of the fact that he was drunk at the time and might not even be able to respond properly. I expected a “I’m so sorry, I care about you so much but as a friend.” Yeah, that would be shitty but it would be clear and sad like a romantic movie about unrequited love. Then I could’ve cried over my tragedy-stricken broken heart. But “THANKS”.
I then forced a half smile as a few of his other friends came back in from the deck. I retreated into my mind for the remainder of the party. Things are always prettier in my mind. I think of young men, their smiles and the words I imagine they will speak.
The party started quieting down and at about one a.m. I grabbed my coat to leave. The young man walked over and hugged me goodbye. I gripped his shoulders tightly trying to remind myself that he was real and what I felt for him wasn’t completely made up like the other idealistic thoughts in my head. I knew at that moment I would never see him again and I was sad. I climbed into my Chevy and started driving home.
When I think back to that night, I still think in pretty words. I think about young men’s smiles and the feeling that comes from loving someone. I also dwell on the heart break that occurs when that young man doesn’t return love. That might be foolish. It might make me sound like a pedantic sap talking about smiles and unrequited love. But, honestly, I’d rather be foolish than say “thanks”.