I took over Exhibit A’s blog again, this time with my new short story “Camille.” As EA notes in the post’s introduction, on the surface this story could not possibly be more different than the first guest post of mine he hosted over the summer. Where “Slush” was about sex in all its “cold, hard and intense” glory, “Camille” is soft, slow, and cerebral. But when writing this post I realized that they actually have a great deal in common, as they both address something I’ve been teasing out through fiction and in my own life for years: How can we be intimate with people we are not “with”?
First, an excerpt of Camille to provide reference (you can read the tiny short in full here):
There was a long, exposed zipper on the back of her dress and he tugged it down slowly, tooth by metal tooth. Most women he just fucked, but sex was something different with her. Sex with Camille had a way of peeling his skin back until his hands shook as he touched her. He guided one sleeve off her shoulder, and then the other, and she turned to stare at him with big, gray eyes that burned even when she cried—he knew, he had seen it. She had an elegance that disguised so much force. Sometimes she wrote her anger into his bones and wanted it to hurt but tonight wasn’t one of those nights. She reached out with one of her tiny hands and brushed his hair out of his face, and she smiled as she poked his cheek. He grabbed her wrist and kissed her thumb. That was how they worked: she gave him her time, and he allowed her to see him like this.
And an excerpt of Slush, as it’s been a while (full story here):
The sex they have isn’t nice.
They used to love each other. The memory is a splinter driven too deep in her palm to dig out with tweezers: a dull and irritating hurt, worsened by the temptation to pick. He used to hold her messy and tight in the middle of the night when it got cold and she drifted away across the mattress. They do not sleep together now. They fuck in the small spaces, in bathrooms, against bookcases. They do not hold each other. Instead they tear in selfish, desperate scratches.
They do not talk much either.
“Slush” and “Camille” fall on opposite ends of the intensity spectrum, but they exist in the vague hookup culture universe of college. The characters care about their partners immensely, but they are not with their significant other for whatever reason. There is respect and there is desire and there is an odd sort of stability at play. The only difference between the two is pain: in some ways “Camille” is the before, and “Slush” is the after.
I think most college students at least once find themselves marveling at the intimacy that can exist between strangers. When a random hookup holds you just so, or you wake up entangled in someone else’s limbs, there is this little moment of confusion and how can this happen? Is this real? And usually those moments are fleeting, and they get disposed on the walk back to your dorm along with your paper coffee cup and your uncomfortable feeling of regret—for what, you’re never sure.
But when you do really care for someone and your relationship falls in that big, drifting middle ground of not quite strangers but not a committed, capital R relationship, those intimate moments collect into a weird level of affection and importance. You can fall in love with someone you aren’t dating, that’s not exactly a shock. But what do we call the non-loves? Or the almost loves? Or the could be loves, if things were different, if we let ourselves? During a situational sort-of breakup with a friend-with-benefits, I told a man I was half in love with him and he barely let me walk away, curling his fingers around the edge of his chair to prevent himself from reaching out and stopping me. I walked out because I was scared, because I wasn’t ready, because I knew it wouldn’t work even if I wanted it to. The relationship wasn’t real, but the feelings were. I just didn’t have the words for them.
So how do we articulate caring about people we are not with? Or what about when friendship is laced with attraction, when sex and respect are inexplicably linked, when we want each other for who we are and not what we look like? A man once told me he was attracted to me for my emotional openness, for my willingness to be vulnerable in spite of the wounds I bear. How do we write erotica based on strengths that aren’t physical? Based on sex that isn’t fucking but isn’t traditional “and now we spend the rest of our lives together” linear romance? How do we write about respect and sex and attraction without traditional relationships? And what about love? What about almost love, the awareness we have that we could love, or when we have love left over after we say goodbye? Where is the space for intimacy outside of commitment? Can you make love to someone you aren’t in love with? How do we write that sex?
Realizing you could love someone is like recognizing a worthy adversary. It’s frightening, and exciting, and oddly peaceful. Finally there is an equal, a singular person who doesn’t have to matter but could, if you let them. In “Camille,” it’s a quiet revolution, the softest chaos. In “Slush,” it’s a painful need that still hasn’t gone away.
Pure, simple, healthy love is a remarkable and priceless thing. But the messy almost loves, the tarnished and burnt-out loves, the loves woven through with friendship and other priorities… they need to see print too. They matter differently but just as much in the moment, and, while they aren’t unique to college or to hookup culture or to my very vocal generation, they present a unique challenge to my friends and I. When there is no reassurance but the stakes are just as high, that’s where the best fiction is. And that’s where I want to play.