Rain spotted my clothes as I walked into James’s place. The wind from the ride over had ruffled my hair, so a curl dangled in front of my eyes. James lived in a big house with five others two blocks north and one block east of me. That Sunday, though, his roommates were still gone on a camping trip and he had invited me over to make pancakes. The gate to his house was hanging from one hinge, so the bottom of the gate had scraped an arc of white streaks along the sidewalk, marking its history. I pulled it open and walked my bike through.
The door was open. “What’s up, James?” I yelled into the house, hoping James was within earshot and that I wouldn’t have to search the house for him.
“Hey man,” he said as his head appeared from the kitchen. I walked past empty chip bags and a couch that was missing a couple cushions. Crumbs and scraps littered the area between the front door and the kitchen: it looked like no one had bothered to sweep after a party. The kitchen, though swept, was dirty; coffee grounds layered every surface, and dishes were piled on the counter next to the sink. James stood there trying to wash the bowls, plates, and pans needed for us to make pancakes. He smiled as I walked in.
I could always tell when James was having a good day. His eyes would stay focused when he looked at me. They wouldn’t gloss over and he wouldn’t stare off into the mountains, mouth slightly open, unblinking. The little dimples near the corners of his mouth would linger after he looked down at his hands, pointer fingers curling and uncurling rhythmically, as if wishing he could hold onto the way he felt forever. He had a nice smile on the good days. I think I only caught that smile a couple times in the two years I knew him, often after a hard day’s work or a date. I wished more than anything he could fight off his demons and hold onto those smiles.
Before he left CC for good, James stayed with me to avoid paying an extra month’s rent. One night, he came in to the house around 10:30 pm. An hour earlier, he had left with a girl, who showed up unannounced to my housemate Grace and me. She walked in and said a quick hello, before turning to James and asking, “Should we go?”
“Yeah,” he responded, drawing out the vowels. He talked deliberately—his words reflected his movements, and it was endearing to people. It also vetted them: to talk to James required a patience and precision that few people understood. I often found myself waiting for him to finish sentences, despite knowing where they were headed, but giving him the space to finish anyway.
He stood, grabbed his jacket from a dining room chair, and walked her down the porch steps and onto the sidewalk.
Grace and I shared a look. “Makes sense,” I said.
We both went back to our computers.
Grace had just gone to bed when James came back alone. He sat on the couch across from me, smiling. Then he leaned his head back against the cushion and sighed.
“What?” I asked with a half smirk.
“Just tired.” He half laughed. “My back is still sore.”
“You should lay down on the ground with your feet up on the couch.”
“Will that help?”
“Does for me.”
He sat down, put his feet up, then looked at me upside down.
“What’s up?” I asked, still smirking.
“I just like looking at you upside down. You look like an alien.”
I laughed. He never joked like that. He joked only when he felt most comfortable. He, like most people, had a fear of slightly angering those he cared about. We think, incorrectly, that they will love us less. I think back to when he would walk into my house with those eyes and that smile, and he would joke about things. In some way we all feel how James felt most of the time, lost and floating, unsure about who we are to ourselves and to other people. We need reminders that we matter to those around us: reminders that James never got. He was reminded more of the demons he fought every day than how much his friends valued him.
Those reminders are why Shaun and I hooked up last year. I needed someone to remind me that I could be loved like that, just like Shaun needed someone to remind him how much he matters.
James sat briefly back on the couch, put his head in his hands, sighed again. “I’m leaving in three days, though.”
“Three days?” I asked. I thought he was staying longer, until just before school started.
“Well, five I guess.”
“That’s not a long time.”
“No,” he drew out the vowel and his eyes glazed over for a second. We both knew who was on the other’s mind.
“I think we just need eggs and the mix, maybe some water too. Oh, and I have some blueberries.”
“Dope,” I said, “blueberry pancakes, yes sir.”
James walked to the fridge and a head of lettuce fell to the floor when he opened it.
“You were right when you said there’s not enough fridge space for six people.”
“Yeah, and I’ve only got like one thing in here,” he said, pulling out a carton of eggs.
I leaned against the counter opposite the sink, watching James move between the sink and the fridge. Part of me was sad then, because I knew that soon I wouldn’t get much of a chance to have these times with him. A couple mornings before, over breakfast, he told me he was going to leave CC for good, leave Colorado, and head home for a while to figure out his next steps. There wasn’t much for him here—he hadn’t settled into a major or found anything to truly ground him in Colorado. It felt like the pancakes checked off another mark on the countdown to his departure.
“I associate this place with bad feelings,” he said once. Maybe he meant the bad feelings of two years ago, when he first got here and it wasn’t all he had hoped it would be, when his world turned upside down. I never got the full story—I only know that it was soon after everything happened that we became friends. Soon after that, he took time off—almost a full year—before coming back last spring. He decided to leave that first time right when we were becoming better friends. The timing of everything upset me.
In the dining room, I sat with my left leg crossed over my right, a plate of pancakes in front of me, and a mug of coffee between my hands. I watched the trees sway in the wind and light rain through the window over James’s right shoulder.
“I’m happy I’ve had the place to myself this weekend,” he said, scraping the last of the maple syrup off his plate with the side of his fork. “The silence has been a nice change. Do you want more pancakes?”
James brought in a large platter of steaming pancakes from the kitchen, and I pushed aside a bong and a book on psychedelics, neither of which belonged to him. Now they sat almost between us, a reminder of his housemates. He sat fiddling with a plastic wrapper from a sports drink neither of us drank.
James could push himself to the edge if he wanted because he knew himself well enough to find his edges. Before college, he’d been a golfer, finding calm in an explosive golf swing mixed into the slow and rambling pace of the game itself. But outside golf, he moved with such deliberateness it seemed the whole world slowed to his pace, and I always felt a little calmer being around him. He never pressured anyone to be quick or expected things to happen immediately. The way he moved always reminded me of the times I went too fast, the times I should have slowed down, and studied myself more the way he did.
When I was still at school in Switzerland, long before the idea of transferring ever crossed my mind, I made plans to take a 9 a.m. train to Lake Como, just over the Italian border. The night before, somewhere close to midnight, I stood outside Sully’s on the sidewalk.
“Come for another drink downtown,” Alex said.
I knew it from his blond hair, his strong jaw, the ease with which his Vermont voice floated from deep within his soul. I wanted another drink.
“Alright,” I said, checking the time on my phone, realizing that my morning would only get rougher the longer I stayed out. But I could feel the pull of Alex’s guitar and the laughter shared with Alex and friends, pulling me into the night.
I got to my room at 7 a.m. the next morning, not fully remembering how or why I’d gone out.
I left on the 9 a.m. train, my head finding comfort on the cold glass window of the car, but my stomach finding no solace. I thought of that train ride as I watched James’ movement. I knew that he would have known himself and the situation well enough to go home, to sleep, to take the next day with a smile and a good breakfast instead of tormenting himself the way I did with lost love and time.
As I watched the trees, James fiddled with a plastic wrapper. I spun my coffee around in the mug, waiting for him to speak.
“I’m not super out there,” he said, still looking down at the wrapper. “I’m not good at social things, like I want to be sometimes, but other times I like being introverted. But then again, I’m not good at being in groups, I never know how to act or what to say.”
“It still takes me a long time to figure that out,” I said. I watched his face as we talked. He had this funny way of using his eyelashes to communicate: more blinking and a twitch in his left cheek meant I’d hit a note that resonated. I watched him now and his eyelashes fluttered, his cheek twitched up, and he looked at me. He met my eyes more than most people. But he said nothing, so I spoke instead. “I know it seems like I know how to act with people, but I’m not always sure. Being happier these last few years means I’m more extroverted, but even now, I’m still not always sure.”
I was high the first few times I talked with James, and for months I thought he judged me for it. He lived with Wilson, and Wilson and I smoked together a lot back then. Once, Wilson left their room and I said hello to James, who turned around from his computer and responded. I missed what he said, so I kept quiet. I figured James only knew me as “the kid Wilson smoked with.” I figured out too late that he would have enjoyed hanging out with us if we had only asked. I regret that I didn’t invite him to hang out earlier. I, too, fell into the trap of seeing him first as an athlete, second as Wilson’s roommate, and only third as a person all his own.
I watched the wrapper. James used his hands more than most. He spent the summer working on a farm, and whenever I saw him he had dirt under his fingernails and seemed not to notice. He cooked a lot, too, and I would watch him move about the kitchen boiling quinoa or watching a squash in the oven. I would watch confident hands chop onions and cilantro: smooth movements with sharp knives. There’s a scar on his left hand from a slip up with a hatchet. As I walked in that day he held out his hand to me and said, “I think it’s getting infected, but I’m not sure if I should have it checked out again.”
“Maybe go back to urgent care? That could be pretty expensive though.”
“It’s probably fine.”
I found comfort near James while he cooked. The care he put into each step meant that I could do little else but stand aside and watch. Cooking became a defining feature of his reputation. Whenever James came up in conversation, people would ask me about his cooking. I would tell a story about a night we spent walking downtown trying to get him into a bar and the person would stop me and say, “He cooks, right? Like he’s a really good cook?”
“Yeah,” I’d say, “he knows his food. He wants to be a farmer, or a chef.”
Lots of people come to this school because they’re too rich to not get a degree, but don’t feel all that motivated to work for one. I think James falls into that category, at least partially. When he arrived, before his struggles surfaced and before he took the time to find his edges, golf consumed his life, and he never got the chance to step back and ask himself what he wanted until it was too late. When shit hit the fan for him, just before we started talking, too many people in his life knew each other and the news spread too quickly. Too many people knew him here, too many people knew what happened, or at least that something happened, for him to regain that anonymity he arrived with. CC was too small for him to be anything other than what people heard about him.
After a year and a bit away from everything, James finally knows what he wants to do and how to get there. He wants to be a farmer. Or a chef. Probably both to some extent. He wants to be anonymous, to disappear into the crowd, have no one notice him, be left alone to trudge through his days.
I don’t blame him for leaving. I will forever remember my last night in Switzerland, sitting on the hill overlooking Lugano. Carter had bought cigars. Alex was gone already, and I was to leave early the next morning. The sun dropped over San Salvatore and we puffed our cigars.
“So that’s it?” he said.
“That’s it.” I took a deep inhale and exhaled everything the semester had brought to me: the mojitos, the shallow friendships that followed, the loneliness, the feeling of inexperience, the sloppy roommate, the disappointment. I was getting out, but at the expense of the handful of friendships I found myself desperately clinging to. My need for change outweighed how close we got, and I figured I needed to forego the budding friendships for the ones to come in the future. I told myself that I would keep in touch with them, that they would mean as much to me in a year as they did when we rented an Airbnb in Annecy, when we finished a couple bottles of wine at a chateau in the Swiss Alps, or when we snuck onto the roof of our apartment building with Jack Daniels and Alex’s guitar. Yet I haven’t talked to any of them in months. But I wouldn’t change the happiness I have now for anything. So no, I can’t blame James for leaving.
There’s a picture of me from that final night standing on a stone wall, with the sunset and the mountains in the background. I’m blowing into my hands. I’m wearing the only hat I owned at the time, a beanie from my high school baseball team. The picture tells the story of a boy on the edge of leaving a place that never really accepted him, a place that brought fear and internalized anger. It’s a picture I hope never to take again. It strikes me now how times have changed.
“That’s it,” I said again, “it’s all done now.”
James surprised me sometimes. Back when he was staying with me for a couple nights before he left, some other folks came through my house to spend a night or two before they could move into their sublease. We talked in the kitchen that night. I was leaning against the sink. Simon stood against the doorframe of the kitchen. James sat on the counter next to the stove. Two bottles of hot sauce stood on the counter next to him, one his, one Simon’s.
“Can I try that one?” James asked, picking up the bottle and dabbing a bit of sauce onto his finger. He licked it, moved his tongue around his mouth, and nodded. “That’s good. Pretty vinegary, but I like it.”
“It’s just some hot sauce from the store, not from some fancy hot sauce place,” said Simon. “Can I try a bit of yours?”
“Go for it.”
Simon took up James’s bottle and went to put a small drop on his finger. It came out faster than expected and ran down his index finger. “Oh man,” Simon said, trying to lick all the sauce before it became messier, “that’s not ideal.”
I laughed. James smiled. “Did I say you could take that much?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, sir.” Simon sounded defensive. He had missed the joke. I looked down at my socks, embarrassed for them both.
With James’s joke I saw myself at six years old, hand on the serving spoon of the sweet potato casserole at Thanksgiving. My father stood behind me saying, “Excuse me, mister, did I say you could take that much?” and tickling my sides with gentle fingertips.
James got the tone just wrong enough that Simon missed it, and I saw James as a father, years from now, saying “Did I say you could take that much?” to his child, who just misses the joke. I rubbed my face, trying to remove the scene in front of me from the insides of my eyes. “I think I need to go to bed,” I said.
James nodded and put the cap back on his bottle of hot sauce.
After sitting in silence for a while, I looked up from the mug I held in my lap. James was still sitting across from me. He was still playing with the plastic wrapper. A breeze still blew through the open windows of the dining room, across the room, and out the open front door.
“I think you’re going to be alright, James.”
His eyelash fluttered, his cheek twitched, and the wrapper paused briefly in his hands, but he did not look up. “I hope so.”
I nodded that slow nod of understanding, leaving his hope in the air for it to settle into reality. And I let it linger after he left, after I wished him good luck, after I hugged him goodbye and shipped him the fly-fishing rod that he left at my house. I let his hope stay with us in that moment because hope that genuine and deep should never be tampered with by another.
Two nights before he left, James and I sat opposite each other on the couches in my living room. He was reading as I watched Netflix.
“I stopped taking my meds recently.” He set his book on his lap and smiled at me. “It’s kinda scary actually. I haven’t seen a psychiatrist in months.”
“Is that a good thing?”
“I don’t know. It’s invigorating, I’ve been able to drink more.” His eyes stayed steady in mine.
“I see.” He always took me by surprise when he opened up. There would never be a build up or a lead in, only a single statement. I had to switch on in those moments, because it is in those moments that lives are suspended from fragile strings, when all the darkness of a soul reaches out to be illuminated by a friend. I’ve been on the other end, inching myself out into that open and vulnerable space too many times to refuse to be that helping hand. When he opened up like that, I listened, always gave him space to keep talking before I asked anything.
“I don’t know,” he said, “I think most psychiatrists are bullshit anyway, they never really listen, just pass you off to the therapist, who passes you off to the pharmacist and says, ‘see you next week.’”
“They don’t help at all?”
I closed my laptop. “Why do you keep going back?”
“The meds help a little. They make me less anxious, more like a person.”
He told me once on a couch on a porch that he felt sluggish while on his meds, that they made him tired, but that it was better than being off them. But now, I guess he wanted more control. He wanted to drink more and go out and be around people. The girl whose name I never knew had something to do with it, I think.
People never got past James’ tall frame and endearing smile. They saw him only as the golfer he came to college as and nothing more. Few people ever took the time to ask James who he was, and fewer still cared enough to stick around for the answer. For too many of us, he started and stopped at his smile. In some ways he, too, stopped, stopped at the chopped cilantro and onion, stopped at the blueberry pancakes and the wrapper he fiddled with while we ate them. I consider myself lucky to have known him as well as I did. I got a glimpse of the man he’s going to be and am forever grateful for that.
We often meet people at the wrong times, when they are still looking for themselves and can’t give us all we might need. In many ways, he and I are the same, both trying to figure out just who we are in the grand scheme of our lives. All we can do is take the lessons they give us and latch onto those lessons in the hopes that one day in the future they’ll come back and reiterate all they taught us, and maybe, just maybe, give us something more. I hope that one day James and I will reconnect, when we’re both a bit older and wiser, and will share with each other all we learned about ourselves and the world.
Just before we stood up to wash our pancake dishes, I said, “You know, it’s not really the quantity of communication that keeps people close, it’s what they say.” He set the wrapper aside and looked at me. He blinked and his cheek twitched as he smiled, stood up, and stacked my plate on top of his.
Names have been changed for privacy.