Written By: Jessica Gruenstein

We sat there at the end of our dingy dorm hallway, not saying anything. He stared straight ahead, cross-legged, with a pained look on his face. His hand was sweaty and limp and as I took it in mine I felt like I was giving it shape. Even as he angled it away. Even as he got up, and stumbled into his room, and closed the door.

I did not know how I had ever expected anything other than that sinking feeling. Holding his hand was the fragile string holding the anchor of my body above the ocean. I saw watched him as he ran laps back and forth across the hallway, his hands shaking ever so slightly. Even though he was from a trailer park in Texas, I saw something in him that told me we were the same. Perhaps it was just sadness, but even so. There was something in him that I needed, desperately, even if I knew it was not love at all. I saw sarcasm in him that I wanted to know how to unleash. He was like me without a filter, and the confidence he had told me himself was only a façade was nevertheless enviable. I thought that by agreeing with him, I might earn some of that confidence, wafting off of him and into my porous skin like fairy dust. Redheaded, libertarian, and without friends—except me, infinitely and unreasonably ready to listen.

Why did ever I think he owed me something? I felt desperate, played with, helpless to the bone. Perhaps it was the fact that he had taken my “virginity,” or whatever arbitrary name I had assigned to having sex for the first time. Whatever it was, it felt important, that it wouldn’t just be over after that. Were this, our jokes, our conversations—not what he wanted? And if they weren’t, why couldn’t he just tell me? From last I checked, “not a label” is still more than “not together.” But “not a label” only a couple times a month, when we lived literally right next door to each other, tied me down more than it logically should have. I thought too much of him when I should have moved on. It was the lack of clarity that did it—no answer meant too many questions to just cross off the list. I needed one constant in this terrifying new world that I had just moved into, and without even meaning to, I had attached myself to him, parasitic to both him and myself.

That semester he had told me about his depression and anxiety many times. We spent hours walking around in the frozen park at nighttime, risking our balance on the slippery stone steps. It was always him talking, the vast majority of the time, but I felt that by listening to him that I was telling him I understood, and that that was more important than anything else I could say. I thought of these conversations not as pitiful but as something we shared because he needed to express something no one else could see. In time, he would see what I was doing for him, and he would learn, and he would give something back.

Just afterward, I invited him out to the Hamptons for Thanksgiving, as he could not afford a flight back home and had nowhere to go. I suppose it was selfish of me to think I could trap him—us alone, together for a weekend, without the pull of school to distract him. But how could I not feel validated when, Friday evening, he kneeled down and kissed me out of nowhere?.As he slowly pulled his lips away from mine, I felt a sense of logic: that after hard work and determination, the rewards were finally here. It had been two weeks since we had spent time together, and I was irritated that he couldn’t be bothered to set aside time for me. But being myself, I twisted it around. This was the only way he could apologize without hurting himself. This was the appreciation, not the goal but the inevitable result, the calm after the storm of adjustment to college life. Oh, he was just brought up with a different lifestyle, I reasoned. What is important is the kiss, the touch, the fact that I care. I care so much that everyone I care about simply has no choice but to care back. It was a silly game, really, seeing how long I could play without admitting that I’d gotten the rules wrong.

Perhaps this was a way I asserted my independence. In a way, it was the ultimate rebellion: pursuing something with no predictability and no experience, in a new environment, without perspective or plan of attack. And as I look back now, I realize it’s a minor miracle how much I was blinded to. The way he argued with my parents so stubbornly, insisting that they were wrong with the grin of a stupid man. The way, at my mother’s special birthday dinner at North Fork Inn, he slurped his soup, picking it up by the bowl– and, after finishing it, claiming matter-of-factly that though this was “the best soup I ever had, it’s not worth the money.” The way he kept sitting on my brother and farting all over him, when he was trying to take a nap. All this I explained away with the cultural rift between us. All this my family saw, but were too polite to tell.

By the time December rolled around, I was in a pretty dark place. I had been knocking on his door for two weeks, stepping over leg after extended leg, absorbing giggles and murmurs until a sickly pleasure settled in my stomach. I was just getting ready to leave, lowering my toes from the ground, when I heard some fumbling, and the door swung open. He was not happy. “I’ve been studying,” he said sullenly, leaning disheveled in the doorway. “I could’ve kept you company,” I pleaded. “I could’ve helped.” “I’ve had no time for people,” he replied. “I haven’t even showered.” He was monotonous. Why couldn’t he be bothered to see me? If I was that pathetic, hoping against all hope, why was it that every so often he would give it to me?

One day, I got a Facebook message from him. It was June, and the anger and confusion had mostly subsided. It said something like this:

“Hey, so I just thought I should tell you this because why not. I’m finally out as an asexual. It has haunted me for a really long time and has made it difficult for me to understand relationships.

But I guess you must still be angry at me because of my identity. Really, I don’t care if you still have something against me because I don’t know what I did to deserve your ire. Perhaps you would care to explain?

Either way, I forgive you, and I hope that one day you can accept me and forgive me for not fully understanding who I was.”

I was surprised at how un-shocked I was. I put down my phone, a grin spreading across my face. Really? After all this time, you think that you can blame being a shitty person on being scared? On the unknown? If you don’t know what you want, say it. If you do know, say that too. But don’t drag me around. Don’t treat me like a toy. We all have to deal with this. Do not forgive me for you. Ask me for forgiveness. Ask me.

I felt pity for him, that he couldn’t understand, but I was also relieved in a way. All that confusion had been explained away into this enigma of a person, who either felt that I had done something wrong, was just a jerk, or confused, or scared, or all of the above. But this helped me realize that though he probably was all of those things, it was never about me at all: it was always all about him. He had so many problems that he couldn’t see mine, didn’t care, and didn’t want to. Sure, I could have acted more maturely, or differently, and it could’ve turned out differently. But it was not my fault. It might not have been his fault either, but it certainly wasn’t mine.

It was summer, and I was alone and scared, but also excited, excited to finally begin to figure myself out, to explore, to do what I wanted, and to live. If I wanted, I could just chalk it up to: he was immature, and so was I; and I would be right. But no human experience is as neat as data. Unfortunately, learning to accept the unknown is ridiculously hard. Unfortunately, too, it is something that everyone has to deal with.

But it is something I am working on. Like everyone else, I am growing.