Sometimes when I am sitting in a Starbucks on my lunch break, I will remember sitting there with Joey* nine years ago. I will see my 20-something self a few tables over, leaning forward towards him, my cheeks flushed. I will see my hands flailing through the air as I talk to him about my acting classes and ideas I have for future projects. I will see him looking sideways at me, biting his bottom lip, trying not to smile.
Sometimes when I find myself in the subway station a block from where he used to live, I will feel my feet hitting the concrete of the platform, and imagine his feet tracing those same steps over and over again on his daily routine. I will walk through his neighborhood and picture us walking together, our bodies so close I could feel the heat pass between our arms, but not quite letting them touch.
I remember him sitting down next to me on the first day of acting class, smiling and flirting, introducing himself and asking me questions. I remember looking at the lines around his eyes and extra weight around his belly, thinking that at 11 years older than I was, he was way too old for me. And I was definitely not interested in him.
Until I was. Until his friendliness, flirtation and warmth wore me down. Until his age and his lines and his belly didn’t matter, made me like him more even.
He was a guy, a guys’ guy, with a thick New York accent and a dark and complicated past that involved drinking and drugs. But he had turned his life around, and he was clean and sober now. Being near him felt a little bit scary and dangerous but mostly I felt safe, so safe, that he wanted to talk to me, liked me, bit his lip trying not to smile when he saw me.
There was the time he asked if he could come to yoga with me.
“Ummmm,” I said, wanting to say yes but knowing that I wouldn’t be able to focus on yoga at all if he was moving through the poses right next to me.
Then, to prove how serious he was about doing yoga with me, he dropped into Crow Pose right there. This tough guys’ guy was on the floor in this really hard balancing pose at my feet, and I couldn’t believe he could do any yoga let alone such a complicated maneuver.
“Please?” he said, looking up at me, blinking, still in Crow Pose.
But I said no. Because the other thing about this dark, complicated guy was that he lived with his girlfriend.
We kept flirting though, and I pretended to forget about his girlfriend. I’d pretend that he and I were getting to know each other like a man and a woman would if they were just starting to date, as if there was a future for them, a possibility of more. He asked me to do a scene for class from his favorite play, “Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune.” Over the phone, he named the scene he wanted to do and the page it was on.
Please let it be a kissing scene, please let it be a kissing scene! I thought to myself as I flipped through the play.
When I finally reached the page I exhaled. It was even better – it was a sex scene!
I bought a brand new baby blue camisole and white cotton underwear with blue and tan polka dots and lacey blue trim at the GAP for our scene, hoping he’d think that all my underwear was cute and matching, that I lounged around my apartment every day in pretty sets like this. When we rehearsed we’d roll on the ground at the beginning and it always took me until at least the middle of the scene to get my bearings and be able to focus on saying my lines. I just wanted to keep rolling around with him.
He thought I was a good writer and he said so. I wrote a play that was really about us, thinly veiled. I showed it to him and he didn’t freak out; he thought it was great and wanted to perform it with me.
“Let’s set up a reading right away!” he said, and we did.
One afternoon in July we were rehearsing my play for a festival it was appearing in at the end of the month. We were in a room on the top floor of our acting school, and it was bright and hot and stuffy. The sun was glaring through the windows, illuminating swirls of dust in the air. We got to the part in the scene where we kissed, and usually it was just a quick kiss on the lips, but this time was different. This time he really kissed me, long and deep, and I kissed him back.
“I want you so bad,” he said, which was not in the script, and I felt like my dreams were finally coming true.
“Don’t say it if you can’t back it up,” I said.
Then he pressed me up against the wall and put his hand between my legs.
Later, when I walked out of the rehearsal room and down the stairs with him, my face and neck and chest were bright red from his scruff and inside I was glowing, guarding my secret that was showing all over my body. After almost a year of flirting and talking and almost-kissing and close-to-touching, I didn’t care that he had a girlfriend anymore.
A few weeks later, right before my play, I was nervous. He pulled me across the street outside the theatre to calm me down.
“Muscles!” I said, making a muscle with my right arm, which is what my Mom always did when I was scared.
“Muscles!” he said back to me, laughing, and I felt like everything was going to be OK.
A month later, he promised to come to my birthday party and didn’t show up. The next day, I sat on a bench in the park with my journal in my lap, looking out over the Hudson River. My eyes were puffy from crying all night and my head hurt. I was reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, which had an exercise where your 80-year-old self writes advice to your current self.
What should I do about Joey? I asked my wise, 80-year-old-self.
Get out now, she wrote back, or you will waste your life being in love with someone who is with someone else.
So the next time he called asking me to come downtown and meet him, I clutched my desk, took a deep breath, and said, “No.”
I deleted the emails he’d sent me and the ones I’d sent him, his email address, and his number from my phone. I only saw him a few more times after that for his acting projects or mine, and then I didn’t see him anymore.
I’d run into him every couple of years. He’d be with a group of guy guys when I walked by him on the street. Pulling me aside, he’d stand protectively between me and the guys because he didn’t want them checking me out, and I felt that familiar heat pulse through my body, thinking that maybe I could still go back.
When he’d say, “We should get together sometime, you know, catch-up, have coffee,” I’d say, “Yeah, we should do that,” but I knew that I never could. Because getting over him was the hardest thing I’d ever done, and I didn’t think I’d have the strength to do it again.
I hadn’t thought about him for years, and then I wrote a blog post that mentioned how he’d dropped to his knees in Crow Pose, asking if he could come to yoga with me. Two weeks later, I was teaching a class a few blocks from his apartment and I got there early, so I went to the Starbucks across the street from where he lived. I sat at a table in the window and looked out at his building, thinking that it would just take a few steps to cross the street and walk into his lobby. And then what? I couldn’t call him because I’d deleted his number years ago, and I couldn’t just check-in with the doorman considering he probably still lived there with his girlfriend. And what would I do anyway, what would I say?
Hi? I’m thinking of you. I still remember.
Instead I took one last swig of my latte and walked to class.
A week later, I found myself looking over proofs of yoga pictures that had just been taken of me. In one photo I could see my muscular back in my yoga halter top, and a memory flashed into my mind of climbing the stairs up to the rehearsal room on that hot July day. I was wearing a red halter top and faded jeans rolled up to my knees. He was right behind me and I could feel his eyes on me.
“Nice yoga back,” he said, and a chill ran down my spine.
The following Monday, I found out he died. I’d just gotten home from watching “The Bachelorette” at my neighbor’s and logged onto Facebook.
“My heart goes out to Joey O’Donnell’s friends and family,” the status update of an old acquaintance from acting class said in my News Feed.
Why? I thought. What happened?
My heart was racing as I typed his name into Google, held my breath, and pressed return. “Joey O’Donnell Died in Tragic Accident” the headlines screamed, one after another. I blinked at the screen, feeling like it couldn’t be real, it was all a mistake. Like if I just wished hard enough, I could go back in time and see him again and he’d still be right there where he always was, he’d still be alive.
At his memorial service that week, I sat on a wooden pew in the church listening to his best friend speak about him.
In a thick New York accent he said, “Joey had three categories of how he’d greet people: If you were a guy and he loved you it was, ‘Hey, Pal.’ If you were a girl and he loved you it was, ‘Hey, You.’ And if he hated you, he’d call you by your name.”
I remembered for the first time what I hadn’t thought about in so long. I remembered rounding the corner, him standing in front of the school smoking his Marlboro Reds in his beat-up leather jacket.
“Hey, You,” he said, biting his bottom lip, trying to hide a smile.
“Hey, You,” I said, looking into his blue eyes, at the crinkly lines around them, and feeling safe, like this moment would last forever.
*Name has been changed.