It was only after seeing the note that said "do not eat" that he was able to figure out why the brownie had tasted like disappointment. Moments ago, he found it under the shrink wrap and had swallowed the thing whole. And now his mouth tasted like PBR and pot brownies. He and this girl he knew were texting about meeting up at a party, but she hadn't responded for hours, and as he combed his hair in front of the mirror, trying to sweep his bangs away from his forehead, he could hear his ex's booming voice from the common area.
His friends were having a pregame, and Thomas was visiting Peter, their mutual friend from high school. Clarissa texted him, "yo. you still coming?"; he waited a minute or two to respond, rinsed his mouth with mouthwash and, as quietly as possible, opened the door to the common area. He saw Thomas, his back turned, wearing — and pulling off — a red blazer with felt snowmen for the pockets. Julian said hi, mostly with a quick nod and a smile.
"I like your sweater," Thomas said.
Julian looked at his ugly Christmas sweater, a knit blue thing with a neon green Christmas tree decorated with miniature jingle bells. It made noise as he walked. In his grandma sweater, faded jeans and the overbearing cologne he put on to cover up the smell of smoke, he felt uncomfortable. He must have lost weight because his pants were falling down.
"Thanks," Julian said.
"How have you been?" asked Thomas.
Julian shrugged. "I'm doing okay. You?"
Standing next to Thomas, he realized that he forgot how tall he was, six-foot-three almost six-foot-four to his five-foot-seven inches. Since transferring to Columbia University in the fall, Thomas had lost weight and had cut his hair short.
"I'm doing great," said Thomas.
"You liking New York?"
"Yeah, it's amazing. You like it here?"
"Yeah, it's fine."
Julian shrugged again.
"Yeah, I mean it's fine."
He didn't want to tell Thomas how un-fine he was, how he spent the first month of his Sophomore year getting drunk four times a week with the Australian exchange students and hitting up guys on grindr, how that fizzled out to sleeping until 1:00pm, skipping his classes to binge watch television shows, and smoking next to the flagpole with his group of friends, a grungy bunch of hipsters, faux artists, chainsmokers with questionable drug habits and strangers set apart from the crowds of clean-cut students.
"Great I'm glad to hear it."
Before he could turn around and response, another mutual friend walked in and slapped Thomas on the back. He checked his phone to see if Clarissa had responded. She said,
Ugh my roommate just spilled beer all over my clothes so now I have to go home and change. I'll meet you at the party. Is that cool?
Yeah, that's cool.
You wanna come to my room afterwards?
"Yo Julian, are you coming?" Peter shouted from outside their suite door. As everyone gathered in the hallway, ready to go, Julian had stayed behind, scrolling through his phone on the couch.
"Yeah, yeah, give me a second." Looking in the mirror, Julian tried to brush his bangs out of his face once again. As they trekked across the campus, most of the crew surged ahead, their drunken banter rising and colliding. It was just Thomas who periodically looked back to make sure Julian was keeping up with the crowd. Thomas gave Julian a quick smile, before dropping back with him.
As snow fell gently from the sky, Julian and Thomas exchanged details about their new lives. He learned that Thomas loved his classes and was looking at grad school programs.
"You meet a lot of interesting people in New York," he said.
"Do you have any plans for the summer?"
"Probably going to Greece again." Julian felt a pang of longing. They facebook chatted sometimes, but that was nothing like the hourly updates they used to send to each other whenever they were apart...Thomas usually of the electric blue waters of Greece with the caption wish u were here :((; Julian usually pictures from his job at the Lowes flower nursery captioned: I have to clean up a bunch of dirt! Boo! Even when they were together, Julian felt like a tourist of a different kind of life. Now as they talked, Julian wondered if he still believed all the the things he had said to him about him being adorable and smart, or if he saw him how he saw himself: a jackass.
As they arrived the party, Peter and Thomas made their way to the backyard, and the rest of the group joined a circle of girls in the front yard. Even though it was only 10:30 at night, crushed beer cans littered the yard and people were spilling out the front door into the yard and into the street. Julian was starting to feel stoned from the brownie, and made his way to the backyard to see if Clarissa was there. From the kuler, he fished out a can of PBR. At the edge of the yard, covered in leaves, was a trampoline.
In his stoned state, he cleared off the leaves and lay on the bouncy surface, remembering the trampoline at his house in Boone, fifteen years old and probably covered in leaves, Thomas' favorite places to go and talk - and occasionally fuck - because his house was small and his walls were too thin. Unless you walked to the back of the yard, the trampoline was obstructed by a dirty shed where his dad stored his tools.
"Don't you want to get out of this town?" Thomas had asked him.
"Only a little," he said.
"Just a little? Not a lot?"
"I don't know man, was that the wrong answer?"
As Julian sat on the trampoline stoned and a little drunk, the back lawn of the party was filling up. People were walking from the kitchen to the grab some beer from the keg. He kept watching his friends play beer pong, Thomas losing miserably but acting super confident every time he took a shot, different from the guy he was, afraid to look people in the eyes.
"Yo," said Clarissa. She joined him on the trampoline wearing green tights and a puffy jacket; the harsh light formed a shadow of her flyway curly hair.
"Hey," he replied.
"Sorry for blowing you off. Life's been pretty crazy."
"I told myself I wasn't going to smoke tonight, but fuck it." Julian lit his cigarette. "You want one?"
"Sure, why not?" She took a puff and then started coughing. The cold air seeped through the thin layer of his shirt. Snow was falling onto the lawn. It zig zagged through the trees before disappearing into the grass. "God, you must be cold," she said.
"Nah, I'm from the mountains, so I'm used to it."
"Whatever, dude." She dropped her cigarette on the porch and extinguished the flame by crushing it with her boots.
"We should go inside or something." She grabbed his hand and pulled him from the trampoline. As Clarissa grabbed his hands and guided him to the kitchen, the floor rocked back and forth with each step. Fighting against the ebb of the crowd, Julian scanned the party for familiar faces; he recognized one of the frat guys from his English class as well as the tall raven-haired girl that frequented the coffee joint he worked at. As he watched a circle of shirtless men pass around a glass pipe, Thomas chatted up some guy in a Grinch T-shirt by the refridgerator.
Pointing to a bottle of absinthe from the top shelve, Clarissa exchanged glances with Julian, who nodded, pulled the bottle from the shelf, and poured both of them a shot. Clarissa gagged; Julian swallowed it quickly as the burning sensation traveled down his throat. Thomas laughed at something the grinch guy said. Julian fought the urge to jump in and hijack the conversation.
"Stop staring at him," Clarissa said. "You should just have fun."
Clarissa pulled him into the living room where hip hop music blared from an old stereo and they started dancing on each other. With her body on his, he became hard. He put his hands around her waist, as the alcohol numbed his body and cast a haze around his conscious. He was vaguely aware of Thomas jumping around with grinch guy; Julian casted gazes every few seconds to see if he was still around. He remembered what Clarissa said the other day, when he showed her his picture on Facebook. Why do you care if he's coming? she had said. I run into my exes all the time.
When someone turned off the light of the foyer, the crowd cheered. Purple strobe lights flashed on their faces. People poured in the from the lawn and the kitchen to join the dance crowd and soon they were encircled with other bodies pushing against them. It was too dark to see anyone. For a moment, he forgot about Thomas and leaned down to kiss her, aware of their whiskey breath, the taste of the sour beer they both held. Every time he woke up sober and naked, his words stalled, but drunk he could convince himself to let go, sleep with strangers without regards to the ambivalence he would feel the next morning.
He danced with her for a song, the lights off, thinking about how besides a few late nights, they never really spent much time together, alone. She was around, occasionally stopping by his suite to join their weekly Super Smash Brothers tournament, but even then they acted more like casual acquaintances. As the two drifted closer to Thomas and grinch man, Julian noticed every time he looked at him, every time he and Clarissa almost collided with Thomas and his dance partner.
"She's really cute." From the way he said it, he sounded intoxicated, too.
"I thought you didn't like girls."
"Don't be an idiot. I can still find girls cute."
"We're just friends."
"Yeah. She doesn't want to date anyone. I don't want to date anyone. It's cool, man."
"You should try some of this wine," Thomas said, pouring him a glass. Julian swallowed it. It tasted like sweetness, like something that would send him gagging. He winced as he set his glass down.
"Eww," he said.
"Eww to you, drinking that gross beer."
Later on in the evening, Julian was looking for Clarissa when he stumbled upon Thomas laying on the trampoline.
"What are you doing?"
"Looking at the stars."
No matter where you went on campus, there was always a floodlight, another voice, the occasional car whizzing by even in the early hours of the morning. This house was no exception with the light from the kitchen window and the bonfire still burning. After counting a handful of stars, Julian watched Thomas, eyes glassy, watching the sky as snowflakes melted on his cheeks and forehead and thought about the hours they would spend together, punctuated with long winding moments of nothingness.
"I guess you don't see a lot of stars in Manhattan."
"Not really." Thomas turned to face him. His eyes were red and sleepy looking. "You're more likely to see someone take a crap in the street."
Julian laughed. "I wouldn't know. I've never been."
"You should come visit some time."
Thomas had been acting distant this entire night. Both of them have. Like two people who knew each other well enough to cause damage, to know what they were capable of. Julian was surprised he said this.
"What would you do if I came to visit?"
"I don't know. Go to the museum. See the statue of liberty. Try to do friend stuff I guess."
Julian remembered the rush of discovering his body for the first time, the fear of falling for a man and, afterwards, the ease in which they both fell into; how normal it felt, like breathing, like laughing. It would be so easy, he thought. To pick back off where they left off.
"Could we see the Empire state building?"
"Sure," he said. "We could also go ice skating or go to a french movie theatre."
"I'd just like to walk around. See all the big buildings."
Julian sat with his beer, hearing the backyard crowd thin, the clamor of conversation falling beneath them, watching the snow pile onto the ground, the cold biting the exposed skin of their face and fingers; Julian feeling as if he was floating away from his body, hearing himself from the third person, watching Thomas lean back on the trampoline, his teeth white, his face symmetrical.
After Thomas finished his bottle of wine, he took off his blazer, even in the freezing the air. Before he could blink, they were sloppy kissing, Thomas almost missing his lips entirely and sucking on his chin. Julian laughed. Clarissa had come back outside and was hanging outside with Peter and the rest of the guys. Julian waved at her and she waved back, confused.
Clarissa wasn't paying attention to him anyways. She was talking to another guy, someone he didn't recognize, laughing more than she did when she was around him. Then he felt like an idiot for being jealous because they were only friends and she could talk to whoever she wanted to. As Thomas pulled him into his lap, he wondered if Clarissa cared that he was spending so much time talking to Thomas. From the way she followed that guy to the dance floor, he figured probably not. He let himself kiss Thomas some more, figuring it was okay for him. Good even. Or at least it felt good. It made him feel better about himself.
When he got to his room, he ripped off his ugly Christmas sweater. While most of their suite, plus Clarissa, hung out in the common area, playing video games, Thomas followed him into his room, taking off his shoes and blazer and sitting on Peter's desk chair. By the time they had left the party, most of the people still there had already stopped dancing and had paired off on the couches or had flocked to the front yard to watch two frat guys punching each other. Now as Julian walked into his room, he had to step over a pile of dirty clothes to get to his desk, where 3-day-old nachos sat, cheese already hardened. Julian hoped Thomas hadn't noticed them, and when he stepped out to use the bathroom, Julian brought them to the common area trash can.
"Are you okay?" Thomas asked.
"I guess so," he said. "I think I'm just tired."
There was silence hanging in the air. At the party, the had talked a lot but it seemed like now that now they were in a quiet room together, neither of them knew what to say. Thomas was on his phone, scrolling through Facebook. It was almost like they were picking back right where they left off last winter, Thomas scrolling through his phone all the time; Julian, unsure how to articulate his thoughts to him, choosing to keep them private.
"I'm not really tired yet. Can I still hang out with you?"
Julian was now in his boxers. His clothes smelled like smoke and beer. Thomas commented that he looked extra skinny, then the two of them climbed on the bunk bed, so cramped that Julian was practically wedged against the wall.
"Yes?" he said.
"I'm going to take off my clothes. Is that okay?"
Thomas had stripped down to his underwear. As Julian crawled underneath the blanket, their bare skin touched. Outside, their friends yelled when someone won in Smash Bros. There were people opening and shutting the doors to the rooms and bathroom.
"Don't worry, I locked the door," said Thomas after pulling his boxers to his feet.
The whole thing was done in about fifteen minutes. When they were done, Julian felt dizzy from the alcohol and constant back and forth motion. The whole sequence had been a bit hazy, but from what he remembered, Thomas had been too aggressive, pinning him to the bed too forcefully, going to the next step without giving Julian a chance to guide him. The bed had rocked so hard, he was sure that everyone in the common room could hear it.
"Do you think my ass is too flat?" said Thomas, even though his ass fine, good even.
"No, it looks fine."
"See that's the problem. It's too average."
"Dude, you lost like sixty pounds in the past two years. Is that not good enough?"
"There's always something that can be better."
Julian rolled his eyes. He had forgotten how exhausting it was being around someone who constantly talked about his appearance; no matter how well he dressed or how much weight he lost or muscle he gained, it was never good enough, how occasionally after the hours they would spend together, Julian would walk away feeling worse about himself, wondering why Thomas was with someone who barely even tried at all.
"Who do you keep texting?"
"Just this guy. We're getting brunch tomorrow."
"It's Eddy. He was wearing the grinch shirt at the party?"
"We just had sex."
"Yeah, that's what friends do these days."
"What the fuck? We aren't just friends."
"Why are you getting mad at me? I thought this was just for fun."
Julian collapsed on the futon and covered his eyes from the florescent light. He remembered the night Thomas had crashed his car: Julian was supposed to be DDing but after swallowing the first two drinks he forgot and kept swallowing more. When Thomas heard him slurring his words, he became annoyed and sullen, ignoring him for the rest of the night before waiting out his own drunkenness and driving him home. They had yelled at each other that night. Thomas had called him a fuck up. When Julian woke up in the hospital the next morning, with only faint memory of the crash, he told Thomas it was "best they not see each other for a while." He remembered saying it now. But Thomas had agreed so easily, Julian always remembered it as a mutual breakup.
"Because I missed you."
"I did too, but I thought I'd move on. Make my life better," he said, "It doesn't change any of the good things."
Thomas had stopped texting and put his underwear on. Julian was still next to the desk, avoiding eye contact.
"I'm proud of you, by the way," said Thomas.
"For what?" replied Julian.
"For going to UNC. I think it's awesome."
When he got his acceptance letter to UNC he wrote an email with a picture of the acceptance letter with the words "Fuck you. I'm not a fuck up" but, exhausted from all the mean things they had said to each other in that bitter end, deleted that email and instead texted him with the good news. Thomas had said he was "beyond happy" for him. He wondered what Thomas would think if he told him that he was already on the verge of flunking out, that he hoped, that he promised himself he would do better but that it seemed impossible to dig himself out of the hole he was in, out of anything really.
"Thanks," said Julian.
"I mean it. Just learn to take a compliment, please." His tone was more pleading than snarky.
"I said thank you," Julian said. "You're the one who could never take a compliment. You think I wanted to hear about how dumb you were whenever you got a B on a test. I'm lucky if I even pass my classes."
"I'm sorry. I never wanted to hurt your feelings. I just -" He buried his hands in his hair, which made it even messier. "Fuck. I think I should leave."
Thomas climbed out of the bunkbed. He grabbed his pants from the floor and started zipping them up. Days later, Julian would skim a message from him, apologizing for the confusion, saying that he thought they were "just having fun" and that "for a long time he was just trying to move on." Julian would stare at his phone, trying to figure out what to say. There were so many things he wanted to say to him then and as Thomas was zipping up his pants and back in September, when he said he was "always there for him." It took letting Thomas walk out the door, shirt untucked, hair disheveled, unwound in a way he only saw when they had been together, to realize he was sorry, too.