Sean said, more than once, that his first impression of her involved a sense of her sexual deviance. He said he was attracted to her because of it. In remembering those occasions, Jenna could never put her finger on what prompted the comment. She knew she conjured the memory often and reflexively in response to her own internal questioning, about his reasons for hanging out with her. For being friends with her, if that’s what they were. But she always felt unsure about the connection. She didn’t think he meant the comment as an answer to her questions.
Besides, if she had a question for him it wasn’t really why he hung out with her. Their connection was largely based on circumstance, on proximity, on work in the same building. But lots of people worked in the building and among them, she and he were connected. Connected in ways they weren’t with other people who worked in the building. If Jenna was honest, her question was truly about whether or not he even liked her. If she pondered anything it was that, and in either case - like or not - what his specific reasons were. Why did he, or didn’t he, like her?
Once in an email, Jenna had said something along the lines of: “I’m glad we’re still friends…” and Sean had replied, not in any hostile way, but with quotes around the word “friends”. ”Why do you think we are still “friends” ?” his email read. The overall context had been lighthearted, but the quotation marks were neon in Jenna’s memory. She always felt utterly baffled by their meaning. To her, the implications seemed full of infinite possibilities, ranging from highly significant to entirely inconsequential.
Another time, when she was upset, he confessed an overwhelming urge to “taker her in [his] arms and hold her whenever [he] saw she was upset.” Saying he had no reason to think it would help her but somehow sensed it was exactly what she needed. Once, when her sister was in a serious car accident, Sean had done just that. He put his arm around her while they were sitting alone on a bench in the outdoor courtyard/smoking lounge. She had leaned into his shoulder. The exchange wasn’t romantic or sexual but she recalled in a sort of distant disconnected way that both of their bodies had responded physically. His being obvious, she’d often wondered if he had sensed her own body’s, less than chaste, reaction.
When she finally “came out” as bi, with her first girlfriend, Sean was warm and genuinely nice at their introduction. Jenna remembered feeling silly, at that moment, for ever having questioned the sincerity or the nature of his “friendship” - quotation marks or not.
It was shortly after that meeting, though, that he called her. Maybe the first time he had ever called her on the phone. Jenna was pretty sure it was a first. She knew she had spoken to his girlfriend in the past, planning the occasional meeting out for dinner with a group, but Jenna was pretty sure that was the first time she’d ever heard Sean’s voice over the phone.
"Hey" he’d said.
She was at an outdoor grassroots chickfest lesbain music festival. It was the middle of rural midwest farm country, literally. There was a decent crowd of lesbians, most out from the city. They had driven two hours with their coolers and tents and in many cases instruments, to entertain and be entertained and generally get intoxicated on fun and drinks and the company of like-minded women. They were parked in a cut alfalfa field between corn on two sides, beans on a third and an even larger grass lot surrounding two huge barns and an old three story traditional farm house.
Porta potties had been hauled in, tents for a handful of vendors erected, a tarot card reader and massage therapist among them. A hooping club performed between musical acts, spinning fire and hoola hoops lit with flashing led lights as they danced among the women sprawled on the grass with a handful of mostly gay men among them.
She recognized Sean’s voice immediately and even though it wasn’t computing why he would call her, exactly, she immediately rose from her place on the grass, on a quilt, next to her girlfriend, where they’d been lounging all the long day. Jenna hadn’t wanted to come at all, but not seeing a way out without pissing her new romantic interest off, she had given in and not only come along but agreed to drive. She remembered being painfully sober when she got his call.
She went around to the back of the house, past the foul smelling johns where an old hired hand’s mobile home sat empty and stacked on concrete blocks over tall grass. She sat on the second step of a tiny wooden porch leading up to the door and she listened to his voice through her cell phone.
Sean had called for a reason, he’d called to tell her about an old old friend, a woman he’d had a small crush on, a woman who had been addicted to bad things and knocked around a lot but was just starting to “get her life back in order” he said, when an ex-boyfriend got her drunk and beat her to death in a hotel room.
It had happened two days before, he’d just found out. He was upset. Maybe crying a tiny bit, she thought. Of course, she remembered thinking. My god! Beat her to death.
Jenna had been sympathetic and empathetic and expressive and engaged and listening to him intensely, the whole conversation. First because she was shocked that he’d called. Second because it had gotten her away from the date situation she was so reluctantly in at the moment and third because he so needed her to be listening and engaged. He’d called her with a purpose, with his own tragedy to share.
Whenever she thought of those moments talking to him on the phone, that night, at the lesbian music festival with all the women getting drunker in the dark and their tents and her tarot card reading that said she had put dangerous men into her past for good — whenever Jenna thought of that phone conversation, there was a sense of sweet peace. And underneath it immediately, but not in a way that spoiled it, there was that same old question. That totally flummoxed question. Why did you call me? Why are we connected. Why for this. Why did you call me for this?
The question had been there screaming, behind Jenna’s dull peace, behind her listening to him and his feelings, behind her distraction, it was there all along. But it never ruined the memory in any way. Instead, it was, somehow, verification. The questions themselves, in this memory, seemed like some sort of verification to Jenna. Of what, she had no idea. But, there it was.
A few years later, they were talking at work one day, the day before he went on a two-week vacation. She looked at his eyes and saw how tired they were. Scorched scuffs under, frayed sizzling black pupils. Jenna understood then, the urge to hold someone, the surety it would be comfort. She looked at him, knowing that, and all her questions surfaced again under a new layer. A new layer of truth, she knew.