I Like You Like More Than Friends

I knew her hair as soon as I pulled into the parking lot. Bright white and shining through the dusty windows of my office building — which was actually a dilapidated, sun-burnt performance hall stuck haphazardly behind a church — it was the same bleached shock I’d seen a week before, at a series of plays I’d helped stage at USC. At the time, I was working as an office manager at a nonprofit based in Venice Beach, where we would plan and put on after-school arts programs for at-risk youth. For a few dozen weeks, our trainers would teach the kids about acting, producing, directing and designing for theater, the hope being that accompanying such knowledge are lessons about self-esteem and setting goals.

I wasn’t earning much and my bosses, two waning actors who would speak often and lovingly of Woodstock, often seemed to have hearts bigger than their brains. But concerns about that stuff faded when I watched the children’s shows. Having trained for an entire semester, their performances were a final test, a chance for the kids to show off what they’d learned in 10-minute plays entirely of their own design. Themes were varied — drugs, gang violence, suicide, abuse — though one sure bet was the eventual appearance of an angel or other religious figure who would solve everything, as if a miracle was the only hope. The day I first picked up on that thread was the day one boy’s uncle, his sole guardian, called and asked if someone could bring his nephew to the Sizzler across the street when the play was over. “You aren’t going to the show?” I asked. “Nah, just bring him to the restaurant,” he said.

When part of a six-person nonprofit staff, you never end up doing just your job (in fact, the term “your job” loses all meaning, as every job is yours). The day I first saw E, her hair even more blinding in the May sun, I was shuffling around volunteers while trying to coordinate a Taco Bell delivery and move dozens of handpainted backdrops to the stage. She had a big, avian nose and would walk with her hips pushed forward, like a pregnant woman. She was so stunning that I soon felt embarrassed about my experimental orange fro-hawk, hiding it beneath my hoodie despite the blazing heat.

I remember looking several times for her mint green cardigan amidst the madness of the day and getting jealous — jealous! I didn’t even know her name! — if I saw her talking to a guy. And, as I cowardly watched her walk away at the end of the night, I remember turning to my roommates and saying, “I’m going to always regret not talking to that girl.”

But then, on Monday morning, there was that hair again. “This is E,” one of the co-founders said as I walked into her office. “She’s going to be our new summer intern.”

While entering E’s information into our database, I discovered that she lived two streets away from me in Silverlake. If you know LA, you know that driving to Venice Beach from our neighborhood every weekday at eight in the morning is the definition of maddening — a couple times, I’d have to pull over and cry — so it was with tremendous joy that I asked E if she’d like to start carpooling. That I wanted to kiss her everytime I saw her was something I kept to myself and was the icing on the Saving Lots of Gas Money cake.

Our car conversations started awkwardly, and on the first day, while trying to fill dead air, I told her about how my father’s right middle finger looks like a penis. “It was a freak tornado accident and now it looks like a cock,” I said. “It’s even got a little divot on the tip that looks like a urethral opening.” She laughed a little, but not as much as I would have liked, and I spent the rest of the night thinking, “Why say cock on the very first ride, you damn pig?”

Blessedly, things soon got better. It turned out E was studying costume design at the same art college as my roommate and best friend, a jazz musician; it turned out that one of her good friends, another jazz musician, was one of my good friends; it turned out that her favorite vegetarian restaurant was my favorite vegetarian restaurant; and so on.

I would also come to learn that E was from northern California, loved puppets and the Beatles and was the daughter of two Irish cops. Her teeth were so big that she had to have eight of them removed when she was younger so the rest would fit her mouth. I really liked that about her, but my favorite was her hands, which were some of the most elegant things I’ve ever seen; on the day she was born, her dad said he knew she’d be beautiful because of her outsized, delicate, pale fingers.

On E’s days to drive, she would play me David Bowie tapes. On my days, I would play her mix CDs full of Boot Camp Click, Biggie, Mobb Deep and The Smiths. Sometimes we’d do impressions of our bosses: “Could you tell them I’ll call them back? Mercury’s in retrograde today.” And in meetings, where we’d sometimes begin with improv icebreakers like “mime what you did this weekend,” E and I would shoot each other knowing glances and pass notes saying things like, “Can you mime puking in the Short Stop?”

E loved working with the kids and making art, and by the end of her internship I loved her. Of course, due to the aforementioned cowardice, I didn’t ever tell her this. We stopped carpooling and she went back to school, though we’d still see one another for quiet dinners before going our separate ways to separate bars. It took my friend Tracy cornering E in the bathroom at a massive Halloween party for anything to actually begin. “You know Cord basically loves you, right?” Tracy asked. “He’s just a total pussy.” And I was, because when Tracy told me what she’d done, the most I could muster when I saw E was, “I, uh, like you like more than friends,” and that I could only do because I’d had two forties. It felt like my heart grew to twice its size when she responded, “I’m kind of obsessed with you.”

I was dressed as zombie Basquiat and she was something called a “garbage clown.” Our fake blood smeared together when we kissed and, when I had to dive into a fight my friend was having with a group of assholes dressed as Girls Gone Wild cameramen, I returned to see that she’d folded my blazer across her arm and kept my beer from spilling.

Becoming a man isn’t a question of age, but experience. I imagine many boys become men when their father hits them for the first time. Perhaps all boys become men when they go off to war. Hardship and turmoil, I think, is the turning point for lots of young males, the moment when they say, “Oh, so this is real life.” For me, I’d never felt more like a man than when I would lie in bed with E, her white hair blurring into my pillowcase. I loathed my job, occasionally struggled to pay rent and longed to do something creative with my time. But she made me forget all of that, replacing those considerations — which made me feel so small — with the realization that love from the right person can make you almost certain that you’re the most powerful being on earth. “Fuck everything,” I would think. “Because if this loves me, this immaculate, strong, enlightened, precious, perfect thing, then I am invincible. In fact, I feel sorry for you, because it is one of earth’s true tragedies that there is only one of these people to go around.”

There was a swagger in my step when I walked with her. She made me feel purposeful. Once, she kept her cowboy boots on when we ducked out of a block party to make love in my darkened bedroom. When we were done, I told her to go ahead while I washed my face. Actually, I sat on my bed and wept; I could still smell the leather and dust on my shoulders.

A few weeks ago, I thought I saw her in a YouTube video of a sunny, packed Dolores Park. Same nose, but it wasn’t her.

Cord Jefferson also writes at The Root.

Photo by snackfight, from Flickr.