I wanted to take a little time and write about a man I once loved. It’s been almost ten years since we broke up, and over 12 since we met. We were both quite young back then, I was 20 and he was 23. Even though it’s been a long time since I’ve seen or talked to him I’ll still think of him from time to time when something reminds me of him. It’s strange the way memory works: pearl onions will always remind me of Carson, and Dairy Queen will always remind me of the day we broke up. Even a summer breeze at just the right temperature can take me back to one of the summers we shared.
I first met Carson in a chat room online. It’s fairly commonplace for people to meet from dating sites these days, but back then I think it was still an oddity. He lived in Kalamazoo, an hour or so south of Jenison, where I lived with my mom at the time. I don’t remember if we’d chatted for days beforehand or if that was the first time, but I think it was February 25th when we first met. It was a warmish night for February, no snow but some fog and rain. I remember listening Moby’s album Play while driving the hour down to Kalamazoo to meet Carson at a Steak’n Shake on West Main. I got there before him and had brought a book to read in case he didn’t show. At least that way I could have something to eat, read a little, and then head back home. Carson showed up a few minutes later, wearing a sweater he told me would be “red like Christmas” and also with a book (I brought Gender Outlaw by Kate Bornstein, he brought The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, a biography of mathematician Paul Erdos, by Paul Hoffman). I remember so many little details of that first meeting, but I’m not altogether sure what we talked about, probably because we talked for so long. We spent something like the next eleven hours talking, from probably 9pm to 8am, and it’s still probably the most memorable ‘first date’ I’d ever had.
We stayed at Steak’n Shake for a little while, and then went to Boogie’s coffee shop because I think that was where I’d said I wanted to go in the first place. I had spent time there with friends on my previous trip to Kalamazoo and liked the place. They were open all night, so it allowed us to sit there for all those hours, just talking. I remember the fogged-up window pane to my left, and how we’d both played with the last little bit of coffee in our cups, swirling it around and letting in dry into grainy brown spirals. A girl came up and started talking to us; I remember she mentioned something about bandanas and Carson was concerned that the one he wore on his head while he was out running might have something to do with gang colors.
Once the sun had come up we went back to his place for some sleep (I slept on his couch, I swear) and then after we’d gotten up he took me to University Roadhouse for lunch. One of us got a salad with mandarin oranges on it, I don’t remember who.
After that we had a conversation in his kitchen (“All important conversations happen in the kitchen,” he said) and I left to go home with his cell phone and text pager numbers. Again, I don’t remember exactly what we talked about, but I think there was some plan to see each other again at some point.
That was our first meeting. I think for me it was definitely what they call love at first sight, but for him I don’t think I’ll ever know. I know that the sensible thing to do seemed to wait a number of days before talking to him again (a convention I still don’t quite understand) but I think I made about a day or so. Looking back, I was definitely crazy about him, probably with an emphasis on the crazy. There was one time when I had a free Tuesday evening and drove down to that Steak’n Shake and left him some messages. I think it was around 10pm by the time he finally got them and showed up, feeling bad, but I explained to him it was okay, since I had studying to do, and was the one who was crazy enough to drive down on a whim. It was that night he played Nine Inch Nails for me—a lot of the quiet, instrumental songs—and explained why he loved music so much.
I remember things got serious when he let me come spend some time with him over Spring Break in March. He still had work to do at Western, so I was left to my own devices during the day, but once he’d got home we’d cook dinner together and watch a movies on his old television. There was one day I spent reading King Lear in its entirety at the Water Street Coffee Joint and bought on of their t-shirts to commemorate the occasion. I still have it to this day.
So much of that time I can’t really see to remember and after 12 years and having spent so much time in that apartment of his it all seems to run together. What I do remember in those early days, before that week and before we’d started really dating, was the anguish I felt waiting to hear from him. All that uncertainty and angst while I was still unsure if he even liked me at all, and wondering when I’d be able to see him again. Needing to see him again. I’d sit at a coffee shop or somewhere writing what are no doubt really terrible poems (numbered 1 through 47) about the experience. The first period we dated I remember there was a lot of waiting—waiting for him to be off work, waiting for my car to carry me to Kalamazoo, waiting for the weekend when I could see him again, waiting for him to call. The waiting was terrible, and the relief when I finally saw him again was indescribable.
We dated officially from that March until we broke up in the early summer. The exact date I can’t recall, but it was horrible and ended with both of us in tears. He was wearing this green soccer jersey that he loved. I think it was sometime in June, because it was definitely before my 21st birthday. That breakup rocketed me into a pretty severe depression. I spent the summer of 2000 feeling mostly lost. I slept with and dated a few people, but really the anxiety and depression kept me from really feeling anything. If it wasn’t for my mom, my friend Brad, my professor Milt Ford, and my therapist, I don’t think I would have made it through.
Somehow, and I don’t remember what happened exactly, but by Labor Day weekend of 2000 I was back in his apartment watching movies. Dark City was one of them, the others don’t come readily to mind. We had long conversations those three days about love and relationships, about what it meant to have another person in one’s life, and what we’d both learned in therapy that summer. At one point we were outside watering his hanging baskets as the sun was setting. He wrote his initials with a wet finger on the railing of his deck. I said his full name to him, and he was surprised that I remembered his middle name. I told him right then that I knew I’d never forget him.
Sometimes in the early summer the setting sun will cast just a certain light, and I can see Carson stopped on the wooden stairway deck behind his house, grilling vegetables on his little camping grill.
After that weekend we were on again and would be a couple for almost the next two years. Eventually he lost his job at WMU and moved in with me in Grand Rapids. I’m trying my best to remember when that happened, I think it was October of 2001; I know it was before the election that year because I remember waking up some morning before it’d all been decided and asking him if we had a President yet. There are, of course, several scenes that I can recall from our life together both in Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids. What I remember the most was the Christmases—in particular one day when we went and cut Christmas trees with Tom, who we rented our room from. There was a Valentine’s day when we decided to forgo dinners and such, and just went and bought things for each other we’d like. He got me a poster of Van Gogh’s Cafe Terrace at Night. I can’t for the life of me remember what I got him.
We broke up the week after Fourth of July, 2002. It started with a walk to Subway in Eastown (center of the universe), and ended in an argument. He’d been trying to decide to break up with me for awhile, and offered all sorts of excuses and said some horrible things. Once that conversation was over I ran a few blocks away to Milt and Gary’s house, where they tried to comfort me. Gary told me “it takes two people to be in a relationship.” At some point they sent me back home, and Carson asked if we could go to Dairy Queen.
He moved into the basement and we’d spend the next three months trying to ignore each other. Occasionally I’d pick him up from the bus stop, or we’d eat something together.
Sometimes I wonder if I really properly processed our breakup. Three months later my mother would pass away, and I pretty much fled from Grand Rapids in the aftermath. By some twisted coincidence I settled in Kalamazoo with Todd, who I’d only known for a few months but decided to move in with. I think because that relationship with Todd was so awful and I would spend the next several years in a tailspin of grief over my mother that I never really found myself feeling too terrible about breaking up with Carson once my mother was gone. Her death seemed to signal a very final end to that entire period.
During a cold Kalamazoo winter in 2003, I was in the front room of the house I shared with Josh, Jay, and Joe. I was struck by something that reminded me of Carson, and wondered what he was doing, but found myself not wishing us back together. I’ve certainly longed to have those good days back again, but that’s just the power of memories.
But his influence is still with me to the present day, from a lot of the music I still listen to (without him I don’t know that I would have ever gotten into Nine Inch Nails) and some of the food I cook, products I buy, and even some phrases I use in my speech. It’s amazing how some people leave parts with us long after they’re no longer in our lives. Surely of course I remember the good times more than the bad ones, but I can conjure up a good fight or two just as easily as a sweet moment or fun night out we shared together.
I’ve never fallen as hard in love with anyone else as I did with him, although it’s true to say that falling in love is different with every person. And my youth probably had something to do with it as well. And I’ve yet to have a relationship that felt as important as that one. The last one I had with Aaron came pretty close, but the distance and our different directions in life kept it from going much farther than it had by the time Aaron and I had broken up.
I’ve only spoken to Carson a handful of times since we broke up, but have heard about him through other people here and there. It’s been years since we’ve talked. He popped up on Google Chat in February of 2010, almost ten years to the day we met, but we didn’t say much. I still email him every year on his birthday, for no good reason, and I don’t know if he still uses that email address. But I suppose it proves my words from a dozen years ago true.