Fran and Emma (2016) by Kate Mitchell
I sat with my back against a hundred-year-old grave marker, eighteen years old, the promise of liberty as a soon-to-be-college-student pumping adrenaline through my veins. Michael kept close. He knew the graveyard creeped me out a little. It was February and a few degrees below freezing—the perfect excuse to sit side-by-side, knees touching. Funny how quickly intimacy can blossom between strangers.
We met at dinner during a prospective student weekend at a small liberal arts college, rudely isolating ourselves from the rest of the table with spirited talk about My Morning Jacket and Wendell Berry. We walked out of the banquet hall before the after-dinner coffee could be poured and continued to wander the rural campus after dark. Eventually, we stumbled upon the lichen-covered stone crosses of a graveyard, where the thick forest enveloping the campus opened up to the sky. A perfect place to stargaze, Michael pointed out.
As we approached our third straight hour of conversation, Michael reached for my hand. The perfect amount of closeness. It felt right. I looked up at the stars, feeling his gaze lingering on my profile. I thought about my ex-boyfriend, whose name was also Michael. He was a year older than me and had left for a state school a few months before. He asked me to apply to the school’s journalism program. I broke up with him in response. The last words he said to me were something along the lines of, “I hope you meet someone who means as much to you as you did to me, and I hope they fuck you over just as badly.”
The Michael sitting beside me in the graveyard fell silent. I turned my head to meet his gaze. He leaned in—this didn’t feel right. I looked away, then stole a glance sideways, watching the moment of confusion pass across his face. I gave his hand a gentle squeeze, and didn’t let go.
A few months later, Michael and I found ourselves side-by-side again, in a different graveyard this time. We were with a dozen other college freshmen, dressed in black, here to bury our friend Katy, a fellow classmate who died in a car accident only a few weeks into the new school year. Katy often slept in my dorm room, crammed under a twin-sized comforter with one of my roommates. A nineteen-year-old transfer student, she realized early on that the college’s residential life office didn’t take as much care in assigning housing to transfers as it did with the freshmen. She lived quite far from central campus, and her roommate wasn’t the best fit, to put things kindly.
I think Katy found this sleeping arrangement infinitely more comfortable than the prospect of having to spend the night in a semi-hostile environment, only to wake up and walk a mile to class. Perhaps she found comfort in the closeness with my roommate as well, but that’s something I’ll never know for certain.
The night before the accident, Katy slept alone in the bed while my roommate and I were away on a trip, leaving her books and bras and charging cables for us to find in the months to come.
Michael was another frequent visitor to that room. Despite the rebuff, we had stayed in touch over the summer and into our first semester of college. We were assigned to the same dormitory, a crumbling neo-Gothic fortress from the ‘60s, with heated bathroom floors and no air conditioning. I knew for a fact he was hooking up with other women—it’s pretty easy to figure this out when you live down the hall from each other—and that made me a tiny bit jealous, though never enough to say something. I only sometimes regretted turning my head away that night.
As we walked out of the church, Katy’s casket leading the way, Michael’s eyes met mine. We walked next to each other, keeping pace with the pallbearers. I reached for his hand. He nodded once, and gripped my hand tighter. Maybe we just had our wires crossed the night we met, missing each others’ signals and cues which led to that awkward exchange. I’ll admit, it was a picture-perfect meet-cute—chilly starry night, chemistry, and all. But is intimacy really that easy to explain? I find it hard to believe that the confines of what we consider romantic or sexual or platonic relationships are as neat as we’d like for them to be.
A year ago, someone introduced me to “The Fourth State of Matter” by Jo Ann Beard. For those unfamiliar, this essay recounts the horrific 1991 shooting in the University of Iowa physics department. Beard lost several colleagues during the incident, including a man named Chris. Discussions of this essay describe Chris as a “close friend,” as Beard never mentions any sort of conventional romantic entanglements with her colleague. But the essay is framed by Beard’s divorce from her husband, and one cannot ignore the author’s tender descriptions of Chris’s sartorial choices, or her heartbreaking grief when his death is confirmed by the nightly news.
“Friend” is such a wide category, spanning everything from folks regularly exchanging pleasantries at the gym, to two people casually sleeping together—in both the literal and the figurative sense—to one person holding another as they both cry over a casket. “Close friend” might be even murkier, the additional descriptor adding an extra layer of ambiguity to the relationship. “Close,” you say? Define “close.”
The heightening of closeness is almost always depicted as forward inertia leading to a liminal space, a threshold, bound by formulaic movie plot points that tell us x plus y must equal z. But what if this liminal space isn’t a simple line of demarcation that signals binary movement—close versus not close, in love or not at all?
Perhaps there’s something more to the in-between, a muddled, chaotic mess, unbound by strict categories of human relationships that don’t actually give you any analytical leverage when you stop to consider them.
Recently, I met up with the person who recommended “The Fourth State of Matter” to me. After having dinner, we curled up on her couch with mugs of green tea and talked well past midnight, feeling like undergrads again as we moved the conversation to her bedroom so we wouldn’t disturb her housemate with our shrieks and giggles. The essay came up again in conversation, and she pointed out that intimacy isn’t just difficult to define, but it’s also a shapeless, shifting creature, changing on a whim based on context, on other relationships, on further realizations about the self.
Its mercurial nature could explain how in this particular context, the two of us sitting on her bed, nestled under the covers, felt purely platonic, sisterly even, while drinking tea on a couch with another person, even when sharing a similar emotional and physical proximity to each other, could create a situation charged with an entirely different energy. “Intimacy means different things with different people,” she mused. “Some people could be married to each other for years, and the way they describe their closeness wouldn’t give you any idea of what their relationship is actually like.”
On New Year’s Eve last year, I found myself beside a roaring bonfire at a near-stranger’s home, instructed to write down an intention for myself in the year to come. High off the spontaneity of the evening that led me to this situation in the first place, I scribbled “enjoy the present moment” on a scrap of paper. Perhaps the confusion and inertia that builds in these in-between spaces is related to awareness and enjoyment—or lack thereof—in the present. After all, there’s a thrilling, almost intoxicating freedom that comes from throwing away the protocol and examining closeness and boundaries and intimacy on a case-by-case basis, one day at a time.