Julia went to see James in New York before she left for Paris. When she wrote him that she was moving there, he was the only one who didn’t ask her why. That was James. That was why she had to see him before she went.
She took the train from Philly into New York, and it rained the whole way. For Julia, trains were time machines. As she looked out the foggy window at the gray clouds, she remembered when they were freshmen in college, how he would come over after class, and they would lay in her bed and listen to the Doors or Dylan or anything else moody and rich with words.
She remembered how he would drag his finger along her arm slowly back and forth. Maybe she was naive, but she never even thought to kiss him, until that one day. His finger on the smooth skin of her inner arm and a low bass line from the speakers making her drowsy. Rain against the window, just like on the train. Slowly, almost asleep as his hand moved up, past some imaginary point, up to her shoulder and just under the sleeve of her dress.
Julia remembered her eyes fluttering open just as he stopped. He was a good boy, and he was going to stop if she was asleep. The weight of that crushed her chest.
Everything was so weighted back then. Everything had tension and longing. That day, Julia took his hand and put it on her leg, just under her dress. It felt like she was jumping out of a plane. His fingers made more figure eights slowly moving up as her heart raced and raced. Then he teased and traced the edge of her panties for what seemed like forever.
Julia opened her eyes again when she felt him move forward, move over her, and she saw his handsome face for a moment before she closed her eyes again, and they kissed for the first time. But that was college and forever ago.
Back in the now, as the train moved from the woods of Pennsylvania to New Jersey, Julia realized she had only ever been to his apartment in the city once, with a bunch of friends, after some gallery opening or something. She didn’t get to talk to him much, but she looked at his bookshelf—all those Beat poets and a surprising number of books about Buddhism.
New Jersey passed in flashes of green and gray. Country and City, both blurs, then New York in the distance.
At one time, New York City had been like Paris in her mind. When she moved there for college, it was some sort of training wheels to her final adventure. Coming back, she only saw the negatives. She only saw how dirty midtown was and how crowded the train station felt. She found a cab outside Penn Station and winced, knowing how much it would cost to go all the way out to Brooklyn. It was worth it.
She sat back and sighed deeply, her mind still in the memories. Looking down, she smiled at her outfit. She wore a summer dress and cowboy boots, the way she’d used to, back in college. A silly outfit for such a cold rainy day, but it just felt right to her.
Walking up the stairs alone, Julia wondered what awaited her. Was it stupid to think he would kiss her? Or was it stupid to think they could be alone in a room together and not touch each other?
He opened the door, and she saw the adult version of the boy she fell in love with once. Settled into his skin. Better hair. Soft jeans and a black t-shirt. Well worn engineer boots and a crooked smile. His hug in the doorway filled her with warmth and the smell of him, old and new, clean clothes and soap and a little sweat and some hint of cologne. Absent was the smell of smoke, and she wasn’t sure if she missed it or not.
His apartment reminded her of all the things she loved about New York. The place was painfully small—a third-floor walk-up one-bedroom in Prospect Heights. The paint was 20 layers thick on the walls, and in the spots where it chipped and cracked, you could see the whites and light blues and pale greens of bygone eras, like the rings of a tree.
His bookshelf was bigger than last time, with annexes on the floor around it, neat piles of Dostoevsky, and political essays. The two windows faced a busy intersection of three streets, and it was picturesque and cosmopolitan.
He made coffee in a little metal pot on his stove. “I’ve never been to Paris,” he said, as they sat on either side of the couch.
Julia was surprised, since she’d known he’d been all over Europe at one point in his mid-twenties when that sort of thing was easier.
“I went to Europe broke, and while I was fine doing that in Prague and Budapest and all through Italy, I couldn’t bear going to Paris and not being able to eat and shop and luxuriate.” That was James.
Julia explained how she sold off her little company and figured out how to make it work and that she already had a place to live and a job, and she knew people, and she was already re-learned French.
He nodded and looked down at his coffee. She wondered if he was sad that he couldn’t do the same. He didn’t look at her like she was stupid or childish the way her sisters had and the way her best friend had. He didn’t pat her on the knee and tell her that she would get over it.
“On the train, I remembered lying in my bed with you and your fingers on my arm,” she said with a small flat laugh, finishing her coffee. She put the cup down on one of the piles of books near the couch.
“Is it because of a man?” he asked with a little apology in his eyes. She shook her head, no. “A woman?” No. “Good,” he said and finished his coffee.
And then there was college tension in the air, and it made her smile.
“You and me on my bed, listening to the Doors,” she said with a laugh.
“Right, playing with the edge of your underwear for an hour while we worked up the courage to kiss each other,” he laughed. His face had laugh lines. She wondered if he could see hers.
She sat back and looked at the cracking ceiling paint. She was leaving for Paris in a few days, and she was sitting on James’ couch, and he was looking at her in that way. She felt powerful and beautiful and brave.
“Good thing we’re old now and don’t have to wait to kiss,” she said and crawled over to him.
Then she was in his arms, not kissing, but he was holding her. “You’ve always been leaving for Paris,” he said.
It was stupid and cliche. What kind of thing was that to say? It was a line from a movie or something. Ridiculous. But she was crying.
“And you’re always taking too long to kiss me,” she said, holding him tighter, but not looking him in the eye.
“Then what? Play with your underwear for an hour?” he said with a sad little laugh.
She pushed him away and laid back on the couch and cut her eyes at him. She thought about how it was stupid to come to his place. Thought perhaps she needed to see the only thing she’d miss.
“You could come and visit me,” she whispered. He looked very hurt.
She looked away and squirmed on the couch. She squirmed and wormed until her panties were off, in a ball on his hard wood floor, and she sat there in her thin dress and her boots in James’ apartment.
“You can’t play with them now. You’ll just have to go for it, Jimmy,” her heart no longer racing because the bravery had taken seed.
It was like she could see the lust overcome the sadness. The flicker of a fight and then the resignation and then finally the need. And then stubble on her thighs and her hands in his hair and reality mixing with memories and fuck he got much better at it in fifteen years.
They fucked on his couch with his jeans around his ankles, and her dress hiked up, fast and wild, like her father was going to be home any minute, and he was rough the way she remembered, but with some new intensity and skill. She wondered what he thought of her, how she pushed back at his every thrust and kissed him while he came, and how she’d grown into her body and knew how to take what she wanted.
That was the silly part about seeing an old lover. Wanting to know they think you’ve become better. Wanting them to know in that moment of primal action that you’ve grown up, that you are a better person. It was stupid. It was true.
They took off their clothes after they both came, and he got them some whiskey, and they laid in his bed, properly.
And his fingers made lazy figure eights on her skin, and she laughed and kissed him, and he whispered into her belly that he was proud of her for moving to Paris and he couldn’t miss her any more than he already did and then her James was all blurry again, and she kissed him again.
He asked her to stay the night, but she had to be back home. She had to finish things and ship things across the ocean and ready her new life. He hugged her so hard it hurt, and she thought his arms might become too addictive to ever leave again, but then she was at the door, and he was sniffling.
“Is this where I ask you to come with me?” she said with a sigh.
“New York has always been my Paris,” he shrugged.
“Maybe you can finally make it there, now that you have some money,” she said, wondering how hopeful she sounded.
He kissed her forehead. She kissed his lips. They stood there for too long, and then they both took a deep breath and said goodbye.