It’s been psychologically proven that you can not be hypnotized unless you believe in hypnotism. For someone who professes to minor in psychology, I’ve done a poor job at remembering the specifics. However, I am not one of those people who believes in hypnotism, and if you were to snap your fingers in my face I’d rear red with annoyance, not compliance. I’ve spent the better part of two years trying to start this story differently, because if there’s one thing I believe in less than hypnotism, it’s a cliché. But when I met the boy on the elevator on move-in day of my freshman year in college, his skin as black as the sky on a proper winter night, shoulders like a mountain ridge I knew I’d get lost in, his hold on me was hypnotic. I felt magnets at my feet pulling me closer. The gap between his two front teeth seemed just big enough for me, and I laughed at the way he had to bow his head as he left the elevator.
“How tall do you think that guy is?” my sister asked, hair a frizzy disco ball framing her face. “He’s gotta be almost seven feet tall.” I nodded, knowing that somehow I’d never ask him how tall he is. He probably hated that.
More than anything I wanted this boy to be my friend. I wanted to make him laugh and watch him cry and I wanted him to want to make me laugh and watch me cry. You know the kind of friend you believe was your soulmate in a previous life? That nagging familiarity poked me on the shoulder in that elevator on that day, and when I whipped my head around to ask it how I knew him, nothing was behind me. Our story lay ahead of me.
I didn’t know the definition of the word “convocation” when I attended my first one, and I didn’t have a roommate to walk with either. The girl who was meant to live with me in the dorm had moved out before moving in, leaving me, a twin, who had shared a room most of her life, alone for the first time. I found an empty seat in the back left corner of the gathering, near a boy named Kevin.
“Is this seat taken?” A voice hovered above me, and I shook my head, not caring who it came from but only that it came. A pant-covered leg sat down next to mine, so close I remember it brushing my thigh. I thought how deceptively soft the fabric was, and you guessed it—these pants, which I would only later learn cost more than my apartment’s rent, belonged to the boy from the elevator. Can you believe my luck? I couldn’t. I had never been a luck magnet. A good grade always came with a bill, and a compliment always came with a question.
“Howdy,” I said, wishing right away I could snatch the word out of his ears and eat it again. But he laughed, showing that gap between his two front teeth and I laughed too. I couldn’t tell you a single word the university president said to us that day, but I could tell you the exact sentence Elevator Boy said to me that nearly broke my heart: “I think we’re going to be great friends.”
In true Elevator Boy fashion, he was right. We were great friends. And then we were more than friends. And now, I don’t know what we are.
This boy, with hands that could hold an entire set of the encyclopedia britannica, was an earworm who weaseled his way into my head. Later when I would walk home, I would want to rip that earworm from my head, chew it up and spit it on the ground. If any of my brain came with it, so be it. But getting rid of an earworm isn’t so easy. Many people say you need a new one to replace the old one, but I don’t think that counts as moving on; that’s just moving over, laying down your body yet again for someone else to invade and I didn’t much want that either. I wanted people to want to invade me, but when it came to actually happening, fists like angry apologies would beat them away.
I’m not a jealous person. I’m really not. So being in a “friends with benefits” type of situation seemed like something I would be good at. I don’t know if believing you’re good at having sex with a friend while maintaining some semblance of a normal friendship is a healthy way of viewing yourself and what you can offer people, but that’s how I went about this situation. I also don’t know if a “friends with benefits” situation is a healthy way of combating simultaneous boredom and a broken heart from a different boy (Jazz Boy), but that’s what I used it for—a new earworm to invade my body.
My and Elevator Boy’s freshman year of college was like the ten seconds before the gun goes off at a race. We spent entire nights in his dorm room talking and laughing. I’d share my poetry with him and he’d write down lines he liked on the calendar on his wall. He’d invite me to his room when the girl on his floor who was crushing on him would show up at random. He’d sling his arm around me to imply that we were more than friends. I didn’t feel bad to be playing that joke on her. I was my own version of a girl with an insane crush on him.
We went to McDonald’s that night, at one in the morning. He ordered two medium fries and I sipped some water while people looked at us with crowbar eyes. Elevator Boy is very tall, very dark, and very handsome. I still never asked him his exact height, though he offered the information willingly. “I’m 6’10 but I tell people I’m 6’8 because it’s somehow less intimidating.” People stare wherever he goes. And they stare at me too. I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t a reason I liked to be with him.
In the mad, confusing, and completely self-centered perspective I had of our friendship, I told him a lot—offered a lot of myself. When my sister called and told me I needed to book a ticket to Los Angeles to say goodbye to our father who was dying, it was his shoulder I cried on. And it was his alone. I told nobody else at school, save a teacher who asked why I was on my phone in class to which I responded, “because I was being told where my father’s will was.”
It’s only now—now that I no longer know what we are— that I can look back and see that he also offered pieces of himself to me that most aren’t asked to hold. Small admissions that I had taken for granted, large chunks of his puzzle, the reason for the scar on his hand. They add up. And they are the reasons I find myself thinking about him even when I don’t want to. Even when I tell myself I’m done.
They say there’s always one person in the “friends with benefits” scenario who ends up catching feelings. (I don’t know how this mythical “they” got so wise and all-knowing but I’d like to submit myself to be indoctrinated into their ranks.) I think Elevator Boy and I both caught feelings, before we started having sex and at misaligned times. Our feelings for each other were never steady, never consistent, and often punctuated by periods where we didn’t even speak.
Laying on the blow-up mattress that had been my permanent bed for two weeks, vodka pulsing through my veins, Elevator Boy’s hands on my back, so strong and so open, I kissed him for the first time in my first apartment. It was September of our sophomore year. A surprise birthday party was raging in my living room, planned courtesy of myself with a hodge-podge group of attendees, all of whom were my friends and not the birthday girl’s. I was so tired that day and willing to lose it all with him. It wasn’t a romantic kiss, it was a hungry, desperate, sad kiss that he answered with an open mouth and open eyes. He left without a second one.
We were both scared of the kind of story we could have had, and we stopped ourselves from ever having it.
The next day he invited me to his place after I got off of work, under the guise of “wanting to talk.” I thought I had ruined everything—that he’d never want to see me again. We watched a stupid cooking show, me perched on the edge of his bed ready for flight, him lounging like a rock. When watching the show became a too-painfully obvious disguise, he took the back of my head in his hand and led it to his mouth.
We kissed for a long time. It felt different than the night before. The last night was shocking to both of us. This was confusing. This wasn’t two bodies needing each other, it was two bodies simply having each other, and I didn’t know if I was ready to simply be something he could have.
My shirt slid up my back like a slow sunrise. His lay tired on the floor. The buttons on my jeans crawled open and his hands felt rushed.
“Let me be clear,” he said, “I don’t want more. . . I just want to hook-up with you.”
I opened by eyes and blinked away the fog. I untangled my legs from his, picked up my discarded glasses from the ground (which I would later consider a grossly disrespectful place for him to put them), slapped on my shirt (backwards I’m pretty sure) and left without saying much.
Weeks would pass before he apologized for that night, though his apologies lacked the critical understanding as to why he was saying sorry. Months would pass before I would be able to articulate to him why that hurt like a slow-burning sunburn.
The gist of it is this: I liked him a lot. And I thought he could possibly like me too, until he said that. Later, he would admit to harboring a crush on me all of freshman year, only falling out of my clutches when he thought I would never like him back in that way. I remember countless seconds of our freshman year when we’d look into each other’s eyes and I would imagine us kissing, only for him to say goodbye or for me to turn my back on him. Neither of us took the plunge. So you see, I truly believe we could have had the kind of fucked-up-crazy-pull-your-hair-out-scream-at-the-top-of-your-lungs-and-hurt-as-good-as-you’ve-ever-hurt-before kind of love. But neither of us wanted to say it. And by the time we did, one or both of us had moved on, or found someone else for the time being.
I know this doesn’t explain how we became friends with benefits, or even how we became friends again, but I think this is a similarly important part of our story. We were both scared of the kind of story we could have had, and we stopped ourselves from ever having it.
Here’s some advice from someone who has had her heart broken—by Elevator Boy, Fuck Boy, and Jazz Boy—it’s terrifying to claim your feelings. Partly because if things go south, you blame yourself, and you’re more hurt than you would have been if you’d ignored them. It is infinitely easier to see your feelings as extensions of some other you. But blame, while uncomfortable, doesn’t have to be a bad thing. You can blame yourself for being hurt, but that doesn’t mean being hurt is wrong.
I left Elevator Boy’s apartment at two in the morning after he said it was “just a hook-up”, walking the ten blocks home in a backwards shirt and messy hair, fighting against determined tears. The night was pecking at my skin, making little craters in my surface that, instead of releasing the hurt I was feeling, absorbed the darkness around me. The closer I got to home, the more I absorbed, and the more bloated I became, until, by the time I laid down on my bed, I was so heavy I was scared I’d break the frame. The weight of everything I wanted to say was swirling around in my body, pounding and demanding to be let out. But I didn’t think he would want to listen. So I kept it all inside.
It wasn’t until months later that we talked it through, and I let him back in piece by piece.
One night, we went to the State Penitentiary for the Halloween haunted house. We were the only sober ones there, and we spent two hours waiting in the line outside, slinging philosophical debates back and forth, confusing each other’s conceptions of time (an intense cliché, I’m aware of). He played with my hair and I held his hand through the maze. I laughed when he screamed like a little girl, and he called me his girlfriend to a random couple who whispered I was “too white for him.”
It was a beautiful and cold night that ended with a particularly long hug. My head fit in the space right above his collarbone. I liked to imagine that if I were to lie on top of him for long enough, the space would mold perfectly to my form like memory foam, and no one could compare. But those were the thoughts of a girl drunk off possibilities, ignoring our sobering reality.
I was wearing a new shirt the night we first had sex. I was leaving for a few months and decided not to sleep the night before my flight, lest I miss my alarm and thus, my escape from school. My apartment was peppered with boxes of my books and sweaters. My bed was nothing but a frame, and I didn’t even have a cup in the cupboard for a drink of water. He asked if he could come over to say goodbye. I wanted to say goodbye so I said yes.
He came through the door wearing the same outfit he had on the first time I kissed him. We didn’t do much talking before he removed my glasses (without much furniture remaining in my apartment, he placed them, yet again, on the floor) and lay me down on the open futon that stood like an island in my empty living room. I don’t think he actually wanted to come over to say goodbye. I wanted sex too, so that didn’t stop us from having it, but I also wanted to say goodbye. We worked incredibly well considering both of our abnormal heights. I hesitate to say it felt right (what is right really when it comes to sex?) but it certainly felt good. So we kept doing it.
In my eyes, Elevator Boy was first and foremost, my friend, and I wanted to express how much I would miss him (as a friend) when I left. I don’t know if he felt the same way, and I didn’t ask, out of fear I wouldn’t like his answer.
So here I am, on the opposite coast as him, in a city I’ve never been to, working a job I’ve never done before, writing his story. I don’t know what will become of us when we return to school, and I don’t think I know what I want us to become. Do two people need to become something together for them to still mean something to each other? Do I tell myself that to feel less unwanted?
People can be beautiful friends with benefits, but I warn you to be wary of when the benefits eclipse the friendship. You can have sex with anyone, but not everyone is your friend. We had good sex, and I’m never going to regret good sex because life is too short to deprive yourself of it, but being friends with benefits isn’t a bandaid for a gaping heart wound waiting to heal. It isn’t an antidote, nor is it a poison.
You can be the least jealous person in the world and still get hurt by a friend with benefits. My smart-ass really thought I’d be fine because I didn’t care that he was seeing other people while he was sleeping with me. But I’ve realized that it wasn’t the other girls who made me upset—it was me. Our tantalizing situation came from a place of at least one of us wanting more at some point or the other, and sleeping with each other is too close to the story we could have had. I don’t think allowing ourselves to have an uncommitted relationship isn’t doing us any favors. It allows him to remain immature and it allows me to continue to avoid my feelings. But our mutual destruction found in mutual satisfaction does not yield necessary growth.