When Do You Stop Wondering If You Did The Right Thing?
There are some people you remember seeing for the first time. She was one of those people. I was stretched out next to the low Victorian window, lounging hard in a friend’s room. He lived in a labyrinth, four-story frat-style commune, across the street from the Berkeley campus. It had been a long night of drinking and we were just coming around. His room smelled like the armpits of men mixed with the sour top note of spilled beer, but she smiled when she walked in the door. It was the middle of a lazy afternoon. I don’t recall whatall we did the night before, but I will always remember her standing there in that doorway.
She was petite in a way that let you know she was sick of dealing with it. She was fine-boned, delicate, of a physical fashion I didn’t normally go for. Although it was a warm day in May, her cheeks had a blush like a china doll from the 19th century. Her eyes sparkled — not in a cheesy Hollywood way, but naturally; the sun angled at just the right degree to catch the wetness of her eyes. Since the sun was clearly in her eyes, she stepped into the room. But not all the way in — I assumed because of the smell.
She said her name like we should know who she was. Someone had recommended she check with my friend about renting a room in the commune for the upcoming school year. The word commune suggests razor-averse vegans and hummus for lunch, but this was more like a house of socially-averse super geeks who also liked to party. Of course, he said there was room for her. She looked like she’d fit in. If there weren’t room, I’m sure my friend would’ve kicked someone out of the house to make room for her. Like all of us, he immediately had a crush on her.
After that long hot summer, she moved into the frat-commune in the fall semester. Whenever I came to town to visit, I often got lucky and saw her, too. She partied tough, but not compulsively. She traveled internationally often. She spent a portion of her childhood in a hotel her parents owned and operated in Jamaica, but she wasn’t pretentious or obnoxious. That sort of lifestyle can ruin a person, leaving them out of touch and unimpressed — but she wasn’t spoiled. She was game for whatever. She was eager and curious, she wasn’t emotionally detached, or socially stunted. She was a little weird, in the best possible ways, and aloof towards most people she met, but as real as they come.
She eventually left the place they called PAX house, moving in with one of my best friends. This meant I still got to see lots of her. But around that same time, she started to date a guy I grew up with, a friend of mine. This made things a little weird, but I was still stoked because this meant she was around whenever I passed through town. Then, I moved to town.
She and I had flirted for years, but she’d always had a boyfriend. Now, she and I both lived in Berkeley, and she’d just broken up with her boyfriend. Which was rad timing since things had been particularly magnetic the last time I’d seen her.
A few months prior, during the summer, I went camping on a private beach owned by my friend, her boyfriend. On the second night, the lot of us — about ten women and dudes in total — were listening to music on a boom-box that ate batteries as we burned a bonfire. I make no claims to be a great dancer, but if the music moves me, I must and will dance. I was moved. So, I got up to dance. No one else was dancing. And I did not care.
My friend repositioned the logs in the fire. When he dropped a large half-burnt log into the flames, the fire crumbled from the weight and released a giant flurry of sparks. The sparks caught the wind and blew toward the water. I was downwind and suddenly surrounded by a cloud of sparks like a flurry of fireflies. They stung a tiny bit as they lit against my cheeks.
She hopped up and ran over to join me. We danced in the sand and sparks. A second friend smashed the fire with his walking stick. He released a tremendous cloud. Now, the drunken men around the fire had a new game — who could release the greatest flurry of sparks from the fire? She and I danced together surrounded by tiny constellations of dying light.
The music switched from rap to r&b. Following the music, we slow-danced among the sparks, as my friends took turns creating giant plumes of sparks. Crack! Floosh! Up went a new windblown storm of sparks pushed by the sea breeze. In front of everyone, dancing inside our clouds of swirling sparks, she and I shared looks that said, without any need of vowels or consonants, that we both knew how special the moment was. And it was. But she was still dating my friend and she spent the night in his tent.
Now, she was single. And I had just moved in with my best friend — her former roommate. Within days of settling in my new home, the three of us got together for drinks at her place up in the Berkeley hills. It was a tiny place. But that was okay because so was she. After our night of drinking and laughing, all three of us crashed out on her bed. My friend was the first asleep and began to snore. She was in the middle. I lay there staring at the ceiling, unable to sleep. Because her.
With a deep inhale, she rolled over to face me and made a joke about how loudly our friend snored. I laughed, teased her for acting like she doesn’t snore. Pre-emptively blaming him. She laughed, then kissed me. Perhaps it was the risk that we might get caught but we kept kissing. That eventually led to each of us climaxing on her bed while our friend slept next to us. He never woke up, even when she gripped the sheets and moaned.
A few days later, she came to our house. When my best friend/roommate left to go buy beer, she and I stayed behind. And we made out on the couch like one of us was a babysitter. We kept kissing until we heard his car pull into the driveway. He walked in with the folks we’d allegedly stayed behind to let in when they arrived. We hadn’t heard them knocking. They waited on the front porch until he got back and let them in. She and I acted as if nothing had happened. Nobody seemed to guess. At least, nobody said anything.
Later, in front of everyone at our little house party, she asked me to drive her down from Berkeley to Carmel so she could go to a hair appointment at her favorite salon. She grew up there and hadn’t been back in forever and a day. Of course, I said I’d drive her. Everyone who knows me knows I like road trips. She knew I had the time free, or would make the time free for her. The next day, my best friend asked if we could talk. Out on the back porch.
He said she was special to him. He asked me for a favor. Let her go. He asked me to not make a move when we were alone in Carmel. I couldn’t tell if he knew that she and I had been secretly making out whenever we had a chance. I didn’t feel like asking. He was lucky. I wasn’t in love with her. I could see how easy it would be to fall. But his timing was about as sweet as it could be. I was in a place where I could still see that he was in love with her. They’d lived together that year before and I didn’t know how he could do that and not fall for her. When he asked me not to touch her, he asked me to promise on our friendship. I looked my best friend in his eyes. They can be so hard to read, but in that moment, I could see his fear. So I promised him, “I won’t touch her.” He thanked me, and we stepped back inside.
That Friday, as others worked their day jobs, she and I drove the Pacific Coast Highway along the continent’s wet edge, all the way down to Big Sur. We drove into Carmel like a young couple from a ‘60s European road movie. We laughed drunkenly. We ate cheese and bread and grapes and gossiped about our families. We smoked joints that she rolled and sang along to mix tapes I’d made.
When we arrived at that tiny town by the sea, I dropped her off at her hair appointment and went book shopping. Later, I wandered around like a lost tourist, even though I know the town fairly well. After hours apart, I found the salon and she was almost done. I read until she and her hairdresser had questions for me. They both liked my flippant answers and my attention to the color of her new highlights. It felt like I was passing all the boyfriend tests.
After goodbyes, we drove south into Big Sur and visited her aunt and uncle who lived on a dairy ranch on the coast, just over the hill from where monks invented Monterey Jack cheese. We took a walk through the coastal cow pasture, and then strolled down sun-warmed sand along the beach barefoot, making it back to the main house just in time for dinner. Everyone in the farmhouse — her aunt, uncle, and a few of their ranch hands — was a little surprised to see a dreadlocked dude walk in the door with their little girl. But a third of the way into dinner we were all telling jokes like old friends. After dinner we took seats in the living room and watched the PBR Bullriding Championship.
The ranch hands were stunned by how much I knew about bull-riding history. When I described my reaction to the first time I saw the old video of Tuff Hedeman’s face basically explode on impact against the lifting back of that legendary bull, Bodacious, the ranch hands stomped their boots laughing. I knew as far as they were concerned, I was good people. After we teased our favorite cliches from the commentary of veteran bull rider Don Gay, and once the winner was crowned, everyone was quick for bed. I looked her way, she was smiling at me, I guessed for fitting in so well with the family she’d been embarrassed by when we first arrived.
Her aunt showed us where she’d set up a tent in the front yard. She told us falling asleep in a pasture, listening to the sound of the waves, would be one of the most romantic nights of our lives. And waking up to the smell of bullshit would bring us back to reality. Sleep tight.
We unzipped the tent and stepped inside.
“Sorry about this, I told her we’d sleep together, that way they didn’t have you set up in the living room on a cowhide on the floor,” she said.
“Your aunt’s right. This is real …nice,” I said, sidestepping the obvious word choice of romantic.
“Good,” she said, with a small satisfied grin.
We were alone in one of the most romantic settings on Earth, after spending an epic day together, where it felt like we were trying each other on as boyfriend and girlfriend. And we fit really well. Then, in that moment where everything felt so good, it was like a rib broke and punctured my heart. I heard my friend’s voice in my head. I heard myself swear on our friendship that I wouldn’t touch her. I thought my mind had turned on me. What an utter betrayal of the body!
Questions leapt to the fore: Do I follow my heart? Do I keep my word? Do I reject her? I gave my word … does that matter to me? Why is she so fucking sexy … even her breathing is sexy … what the fuck …?
I lay there paralyzed while she rolled a joint. I thought about telling her that our friend was in love with her and that I couldn’t do anything until they… until they what? Until she told him it wouldn’t work? Yeah, that wouldn’t be super awkward. The woman he’s in love with sleeping in my bed every night, while he sleeps alone in his bedroom, thinking of her. Fuck my life. All I wanted to do was kiss her and let the problems of other people’s feelings greet me later, like the smell of bullshit in the morning.
I had the length of a joint to think. Awesome. We laughed about jokes the ranch hands told us at dinner. We recalled the impossibly glassy smoothness of a tree in the cow pasture; we spoke of the feel of the spot where the cows scratched themselves and had worn the bark smooth. The tree was almost violently rough all over, except that one band the cows had polished. We kept joking about polishing different things with cows.
We’d both instinctively crawled into our sleeping bags when we first got in the tent. She eased up out of hers and announced with the glee of a new plan and the tug of the zipper that we should sleep together … to stay warmer. The night air was cold, but not that cold.
I said this was a damn fine idea, even though it was actually the worst idea she could have. I was doing well in my own sleeping bag but now…
We unzipped both our sleeping bags.
We lay on hers and covered ourselves with mine. Together we cuddled warm and snug against the night’s cold air. …Holy fuck! The temptation was real. And it was relentless.
We lay facing each other. Wordless. Close as clothing. Eyes drifting into each other. The waves broke in their romantic rhythm. Every cell in my body voted in favor of kissing her.
She touched my face.
I touched her hand.
She waited for me to kiss her.
I lay still and admired her eyes. My gaze lingered. For a moment, I got deeply lost, knowing I would never see her looking at me that way again.
It’s not that she was used to getting what she wanted as much as I knew she wouldn’t forgive me for rejecting her in this, our perfect moment.
I thought of us dancing in those swirling clouds of sparks of the campfire on the beach.
I remembered the first moment I saw her in the doorway, the sunlight reflected by the wetness of her eyes.
And I asked myself if I was willing to lose everything for her — would I risk the happiness of my home, the heart of my friend, and my sense of who I am — would I give up myself for her? It was a silly prideful way to frame myself in that moment, with that question.
In the morning, when we woke up, we walked through the screen door of the farmhouse and found her aunt had made us a country breakfast. Her biscuits were still warm and unfairly flaky, biscuits so good that you compare all future biscuits to their memory. After coffee, we thanked her for having us. She told me she looked forward to seeing me again real soon. I wondered what she’d been told about me.
On the drive back up the Pacific Coast Highway we barely spoke. At first. Eventually, she said, “I know why you didn’t do anything…”
“No. No, you don’t,” I said, as calmly as I could.
“Yeah, I do. He’s in love with me, isn’t he?” she asked.
“I don’t know anything about that.” I said, obviously lying, “You’d have to ask him.”
I was glad she knew I hadn’t rejected her by choice, but out of respect. She knew I found her impossibly sexy. That was our moment. The timing finally lined up. And I said no. But we said no more about it. I didn’t tell her how I barely slept, how I listened to her sleeping next to me and imagined hearing her gentle breath lifting and falling like that for countless nights. I wondered what it would be like for the sound of her breathing to feel like home. I didn’t say any of that to her, because that’s just weird shit to say out loud to someone. Especially after you rejected that person the night before. Instead, I kept my friend’s secret and drove us home.
And then, on the way, to make sure she never again saw me as a romantic interest, I pulled over on the side of the highway, turned around to park on the coastal side, and made her wait while I urinated off a cliff and stared out at the Pacific, wondering what the fuck I had just done.
I knew I’d done the right thing because … that’s what I did. It feels different when you do the wrong thing. You always know the difference. But still, you will doubt it from time to time. Did I do the right thing?
Later on, the two of them tried dating. It never worked. She eventually married someone else. She’s the mother of a toddler. Three years ago, before the baby was born, she invited me and my friend to meet her at her parent’s hotel in Jamaica for a week of fun at the beach. But I knew that wasn’t a good idea. I told them to have fun without me. And I thought about her, and remembered the sound of her breathing, and I still felt like I’d done the right thing in that tent, alone with her as the waves crashed. Of course, sometimes doing the right thing still feels wrong.
Read more from Zaron Burnett III: