My flirtation with the boy, if you could even call it that, was beyond furtive. The three of us were often together, and he and I behaved toward each other with an irreproachable mixture of mannerliness and hostility. He came to visit me alone once when I was sick and brought me magazines and orange juice. Our conversation was innocent bordering on banal. I think we talked about the declining quality of the cereal selection at breakfast. Neither one of us told Stella about the visit.
And yet somehow we both knew. It was as abstract and agreed upon as an arranged marriage. I felt it when I stepped into the cool morning air, and gulped down a milky cup of coffee before class. I felt it when I walked next to the slate-colored river, watching the shallow crew boats skim the surface. It was with me, in other words, all the time: a low-grade excitement about this boy I barely knew. From this distance in time, this may be the most foreign and inscrutable part of the story: the attractions that could at any moment flare up and end your life as you knew it.
At this point I may as well offer a slight, very slight, argument in my defense: people didn't belong as absolutely to other people then. There was a kind of fluidity to our world. The barriers that in adult life seem so solid and fixed, literal walls defining your apartment, your bedroom, did not exist at that age. You listened, for instance, to your roommate having sex; you slept easily and deeply on someone else's couch; you ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner with everyone you knew. And somehow nothing was quite real unless it was shared, talked about, rehashed with friends, fretted about and analyzed, every single thing that happened, every minute gradation of emotion, more a story in the process of being told than events in and of themselves.
Over the summer the boy came to visit me in New York. I remember him standing in the doorway to my room, grinning, with an army green duffel. Had we pretended it was a platonic visit? It seems far-fetched that he would have come all the way from New Hampshire to New York to see a casual acquaintance, but I have a feeling that was what we told ourselves. We climbed up to the roof of my parents' building and watched the boats go by on the Hudson, the sun silhouetting the squat water towers a dark silvery green.
I am aware, even now, of some small part of me that would like to say that it was worth it, some adolescent, swaggering side that would like to claim that the sexual moment itself seared the imagination, and was worth, in its tawdry, obliterating way, the whole friendship. It was not.
Of the act itself, I remember almost nothing at all. It seems that when one is doing something truly illicit, not just moderately illicit but plainly wrong, the sex itself is forgettable. The great fact of the immorality overshadows anything two mere bodies can achieve. All I remember is that he was gentle, in the way that sensitive boys were supposed to be gentle. He brought me a warm washcloth afterward, which sickened me slightly, and embarrassed me.
Excerpted from The Friend Who Got Away by Edited by Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell Copyright © 2005 by Jenny Offill. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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