Jonah arrived sweaty and breathless, holding a bike. Only the daring biked in Los Angeles. He looked like his profile pictures—thick glasses, a scar on his eyebrow, rolled up Dickies. The kind of guy who could go for days without food but not without coffee.
We drank IPAs at a patio bar and shared the evening. Jonah talked like his hands were alive. He told me about the life he’d left in San Francisco—a publishing job, a reading series, an apartment with empty frames on the wall—and his upcoming move to Vietnam. I talked about my recent college graduation and the environmental job waiting for me in Chicago. We were both non-believing Jews who grew up in L.A. but left as soon as we could, back for one summer in the city where we didn’t belong.
A few days later Jonah said I had the muscular legs of a Robert Crumb comic heroine. We were sitting in an empty parking lot, stadium lights outshining the moon, eating tacos from the best truck in town. I’d never read Robert Crumb, so we walked uphill to his apartment, sipping horchata from Styrofoam cups.
Jonah was staying with his brother that summer, in a shag carpet rental on Mohawk Street. Banjos and guitars littered the living room. The place felt distinctly 70s. Jonah was alive in the 70s. I was not.
We sat down and Jonah plopped a comic on my lap. He leaned close to me as he turned the pages, image after image of thick women driving scrawny men into sweats and tremors. I stared at the pages, Jonah stared at me, and the comic was set aside.
That summer became ours. We sang to his sourdough starter and sniffed his homemade sauerkraut. We lay on the carpet and drew on the same sheet of paper. We ate salty mango freeze pops at Echo Park Lake. We played duets on the clarinet and banjo. We sang to the black cat that followed us home. We read Walt Whitman in a twin bed. We watched a movie in the park and got mad when someone stepped on our blanket. I didn’t imagine being pushed up against the laundry machine, or the way he’d crawl on top of me in the middle of the night, or how he’d shiver when I traced the tattoo on his back. I didn’t imagine it, but I remember it now.
One night Jonah invited me over for dinner. In the kitchen he unpacked a canvas bag of groceries—eggplant, pasta, asiago cheese—and I handed him a bottle of wine I’d been saving. It was a Moscato, too sweet and thick as syrup, but Jonah said he liked it anyway. While we waited for the eggplant to char, Jonah brought over a notebook. I looked at his drawings of men in bowler hats, eyes popping out of their heads, choking themselves. It was a type of darkness I thought made him more interesting than me. “Don’t like me too much,” he said. “I’m about to leap into the sky.”
Before Jonah my experience with men was like cold food in small portions served late. In high school on Saturday nights I made dog adoption flyers while my twin brother took his girlfriend to the mall. My first date, at age 19, was a walk through a graveyard. My first kiss, a year later, was with a man who kept a photograph of Anne Coulter by his bed. I watched friends fall in and out of love and lust, pained as to why I was outside the club of the desired. I figured there must be something wrong with me. When I met Jonah, I realized that might not be true.
One late summer evening I drove to Mohawk Street for the last time. We stood in his room among boxes and suitcases. His clothes were packed, but his books were not. He evaluated people by the contents of their bookshelves.
I was nervous when I handed him a card. “You’re the best romantic thing that’s happened to me in a long while, except for a dream involving Nietzsche and hot wax.” His eyes blurred. He said thank you without looking at me and took me in his arms. He smelled the way he always smelled, like hard work on a hot day. We hugged as if it were just us, deep breaths in a small room, rag dolls in each other’s arms.
In the car I took my shoes off and felt the ridges of the pedal underfoot as I drove back to my side of L.A. I tried to quiet the feeling of loss in my chest. In other circumstances this could have been my chance to be loved. But only the summer was ours.
* * *
In Chicago my life started with a mattress on the floor, a box as a night table, and a butterfly kite on the wall. I had no friends yet and walked the streets until my hips hurt. The hardest part of my new job was sitting still. When Jonah came to mind, I tried to set him aside.
But a few weeks later Jonah wrote about the coagulated blood patties at the outdoor market, the street named after barbecued chicken, and the chaos of navigating traffic via motorbike. I told him about cycling on Lake Michigan, my new kickboxing gym, and my Excel spreadsheet of ways to make friends. Soon talking and writing became a daily ritual. I cataloged the details of his emails—stories about his madman grandfather, his favorite recipe for roasted beets, his confession of past affairs—and saved pieces of my life to share only with him.
When a vellum envelope arrived from Vietnam, I waited until my roommate left the apartment to open it. “I promised you weird mail from a weird male,” the cover note read. It was a series of eight cards, drawings on the front and poems on the back. “You’re a burning star I keep in a jar safe from the wind and the trees.” We were 11,000 miles apart but I snatched up pieces of him everyday, holding them close and choosing how to piece them together.
Winter approached. One evening at a bar I met a friend of a friend named Matt, a solar panel engineer twelve years my senior. Matt had a dimpled chin and an online poker habit. We exchanged business cards under the cover of discussing sustainability. At the end of the night Matt gave me a sloppy hug and I knew I wanted to see him again. Slowly, we started dating. The physicality of it—holding hands in the car, throwing snowballs, feeling his heat as I fell asleep—comforted me.
Meanwhile the amorous discourse with Jonah intensified. “We had this relaxed summer fling, but it morphed into something sweet and meaningful,” he wrote. “Before you, I didn’t want to be in a relationship again. But I had a vision of myself in a home with a wife and a family, and I realized the cause of it was you.”
Guilt mounting, I decided to tell Jonah about Matt. “When I first read your confession I was upset, but I have no reason,” he wrote. “Is it fair to compare a man who’s in your life to me, when I’m just a collection of words and stories, more of a ghost than a man?” Jonah was a ghost. He kept me company as I trudged through snow, hoping my nose didn’t fall off. As I rode the train, snaking through bricks and sports bars. As I went to networking events, meeting people I didn’t want to see again.
Jonah started sending links to flights from Chicago to Vietnam. I wondered if the feelings we shared on the page were true in the flesh. Jonah had told me he felt abandoned by America and might never move back. Should I give up a tangible relationship, albeit a hereto-uncommitted one, for one that might be impossible?
On Valentine’s Day Matt took me to an Italian restaurant with cloth linens and carnations. Over linguine and clams, I gathered courage to ask him what we were doing. “We’ve been dating for a while now, but we only see each other once a week. I can’t tell how much you care about me.” Matt didn’t seem surprised. “Sometimes I get wrapped up in my research,” he said. “But I’m not seeing anyone else, and I want to see more of you.”
The next day a grainy, time-delayed version of Jonah appeared on Skype. I told him Vietnam was a long way to travel for a week. “At this point our relationship depends on a broken language to represent the whole feelings of two whole people,” Jonah said. “I never took your visit as anything but eventual.” He ended the video call.
A few evenings later I sat on a stool in my kitchen with my laptop open to Expedia. I thought about Matt’s settled life, his L-shaped couch that would take four men to move. I thought about what Jonah took with him, a travel banjo and poetry chapbooks. I winced and clicked the purchase button.
Before leaving I sent Matt an email, subject “one thing before I go.” I had told him I was going to visit someone I used to date, but not that we were still involved. “I can’t promise nothing will happen between me and Jonah,” I wrote. I felt cowardly but absolved.
It was my turn to leap into the sky.
* * *
I landed in the Hanoi airport sweaty and grinning, wearing a fanny pack and a pearl on a string around my neck. I grabbed my backpack off the luggage carousel and went to the bathroom to try to make myself as pretty as he remembered. My hands shook as I put on more deodorant.
When I walked outside Jonah was the first person I saw. We hugged each other like our ribs were broken. He walked me to a cab and gave directions to the driver in Vietnamese. I’d never heard his throat make those sounds.
He lived in a large colonial building with tiles out front and vines growing on the walls. We went inside and I handed Jonah his requests from America—Tom’s toothpaste and Reese’s peanut butter cups. Jonah took me to his room—walls the color of blue Gatorade and a drawer full of money—and showed me where he kept my drawings. I wrapped my arms around him and inhaled the Jonah smell. Here we were, sweating together on the other side of the world.
The next morning we rode a motorbike through the fog to a rural village called Mai Chau. We ate fish soup for breakfast. We wandered through rice paddies and angered a water buffalo. At a thatched bamboo guesthouse the owner asked if we were married. Jonah said not yet. Or at least that’s how he translated the Vietnamese to me.
Next we flew to Thailand and stayed in a floating cabin on the River Kwai. We walked to town for dinner and found a patio café with more ferns than tables. Plates of papaya salad and frog soup arrived. We asked each other questions. Almond butter or peanut butter? Alarm clock or sunrise? We knew each other’s secrets, but not the day to day of how one makes a life. On the way home we passed bare-chested girls dragging businessmen by the hand. We were all paying for love, but in different ways.
Back in the cabin the light of the moon illuminated the walls. We undressed and lay on top of the sheets, sweaty from the heat of the night. I was swollen with mosquito bites. Jonah placed his face close to mine and put a finger on my lips. “Did I tell you the story about the girl from Chicago?” he said. His breath was warm on my face. “I love her.” For moments I was too happy to talk. When my face finally worked again I said, “She loves you too.”
We arrived back in Hanoi and had one last night together. Damp from a shower, Jonah lay beside me and curled into a fetal position. I reached my arms around him and scooped him up like a pile of laundry. He was still lying on top of me when I started to cry, ribs shaking. “Hey,” Jonah said, propping himself up to look at my face. “Don’t do that.” But he couldn’t give me a reason to stop.
In the airport we gave each other a wordless hug goodbye. As I was walking away from him I felt nauseated. I sat down and clutched the seat of a plastic chair. While waiting for the plane I forced a smile and took a picture of myself, wanting to remember how happy I’d been. But my eyebrows were slanted downwards, as if they themselves could cry.
I landed in gray Chicago and sank in the quietness of the streets. Jonah and I resorted back to writing. We lamented our empty beds and talked about what to do next. “We’re both thinking about this puzzle and how to make it not a puzzle at all but a life of some kind,” Jonah wrote. I offered to move to Hanoi. Jonah replied with a poem about what the heart is and isn’t—“the heart is a small animal that lives in a basket”—but no response to my offer. We set up a time to talk via Skype.
In the meantime I met Matt for a drink. I brought him coffee from Vietnam. He brought a grocery bag with clothes I’d left at his apartment.
The next day Jonah appeared on screen wearing a red shirt. I remembered how soft that shirt was. “I don’t know what to do in lieu of having you,” he said. “But the idea of losing my freedom terrifies me.” I walked to my bed, fell face down on the bedspread we bought together in Mai Chau, and cried.
I sat in loss. By building a relationship of words and stories, did I delude myself, thinking the selection we chose to share was a full reality?
Re-reading our emails, which I had pasted into an 80-page word document, one of his messages stood out. “What a strange and hungry feeling this is.”
Maybe I did delude myself. But it didn’t matter. Jonah leapt into the sky for himself. I leapt for Jonah. But I also leapt for me. For the first time, I had felt the strange and hungry feeling too.
STORY IMAGE: Flickr Creative Commons/Julian Marlieu