Ocean responded right away.
i didn’t think you’d notice i was gone
can you get online?
riversandoceans04: Sorry for bailing on you in bio
riversandoceans04: No one should have to slice into a dead cat by themselves
jujehpolo: It really is, like, the worst school assignment I’ve ever had
riversandoceans04: Same here
I wasn’t sure why, exactly, but I had this sudden, strange feeling that something was wrong. It was hard to tell from a few typed words, but I felt it in my gut. Ocean seemed off, somehow, and I couldn’t shake it.
jujehpolo: Hey, is everything okay?
riversandoceans04: Sort of
I waited and nothing happened. He wrote nothing else.
jujehpolo: You don’t want to talk about it?
riversandoceans04: Not really
jujehpolo: Did you get in trouble for ditching class?
jujehpolo: Are you in trouble for something else?
riversandoceans04: You do realize this is the exact opposite of not talking about it, right
riversandoceans04: But we’re still talking about it
jujehpolo: I’m worried I got you in trouble
And then, our messages crossed paths in the ether:
I wrote my brother didn’t bother you, did he? and Ocean wrote don’t worry, it has nothing to do with you
riversandoceans04: Why would your brother bother me?
riversandoceans04: I didn’t even know you had a brother
riversandoceans04: You told your brother about me?
jujehpolo: Apparently Mr. Jordan is supervising our breakdancing club
jujehpolo: He told my brother I ditched class with a guy today
jujehpolo: And my brother was mad
jujehpolo: It’s fine now. I told him what happened.
riversandoceans04: So what does that have to do with your brother bothering me
jujehpolo: He just thought we’d ditched class together
riversandoceans04: But we did
jujehpolo: I know
riversandoceans04: So your brother hates me now?
jujehpolo: He doesn’t even know you
jujehpolo: He was just being overprotective
riversandoceans04: Wait a second, who’s your brother again? He goes to our school?
jujehpolo: Yeah. He’s a senior. His name is Navid.
riversandoceans04: I don’t think I know him.
jujehpolo: You probably wouldn’t
riversandoceans04: So should I be worried?
riversandoceans04: About your brother?
jujehpolo: Listen, I’m not trying to freak you out, I’m sorry
riversandoceans04: I’m not freaked out
Sure he wasn’t.
I waited a few seconds to see if he’d say anything else, but he didn’t. Finally, I wrote:
jujehpolo: So you’re really not going to tell me what happened to you today?
riversandoceans04: That depends
riversandoceans04: A lot of things happened to me today
My stomach did a little flip. I couldn’t help but wonder if he was talking about us. Our earlier conversations. The lack of physical distance between our bodies as we stood on an unimportant sidewalk in the middle of an unimportant town. I didn’t know what any of it meant—or if it would ever mean anything. Maybe I was the only one experiencing these little stomach flips. Maybe I was projecting my own feelings onto his words.
Maybe I was nuts.
I hadn’t yet decided what to say when he sent another message.
riversandoceans04: Can you get on the phone?
jujehpolo: You want to talk on the phone?
riversandoceans04: I want to hear your voice
A weird, not exactly unwelcome nervousness flooded through me. My brain felt suddenly warm and like maybe someone had filled my head with fizzy water. I would’ve vastly preferred to have disappeared in that moment; instead of getting on the phone I wanted to dissect this conversation somewhere else, somewhere by myself. I wanted to pick the whole thing apart and put it back together again. I wanted to understand what seemed inexplicable to me. In fact, I would’ve been happy if I want to hear your voice had been the last thing Ocean ever said to me.
Instead, I wrote, okay
Ocean’s voice pressed up against my ear might’ve been one of the most intense physical experiences I’d ever had. It was strange. It made me surprisingly nervous. I’d talked to him so many times—he was my lab partner, after all—but somehow, this was different. The two of us on the phone felt so private. Like our voices had met in outer space.
He said, “Hey,” and I felt the sound wash over me.
“Hi,” I said. “This is weird.”
He laughed. “I think it’s nice. You seem real, like this.”
I’d never noticed it in person, with so much else to distract me, but he had a really attractive voice. It sounded different—good, really good—in stereo.
“Oh.” My heart was racing. “I guess so.”
“So your brother wants to kick my ass, huh?”
“What? No.” I hesitated. “I mean, I don’t think so. Not really.”
He laughed again.
“Do you have any brothers or sisters?” I asked.
“Oh. Well. That’s probably for the best.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “It sounds nice.”
“Sometimes it really is nice,” I said, considering it. “My brother and I are pretty close. But we also went through a period where we would literally beat the shit out of each other.”
“Okay, that sounds bad.”
“Yeah.” I paused. “But he also taught me how to fight, which was an unexpected fringe benefit.”
“Really?” He sounded surprised. “You can fight?”
He said, “Huh,” in a thoughtful way, and then went quiet.
I waited a couple of seconds before I said,
“So what happened to you today?”
“If you really, really don’t want to talk about it,” I said, “we don’t have to talk about it. But if you want to talk about it even a little bit, I’m happy to listen.”
“I want to tell you,” he said, but his voice sounded suddenly far away. “I just also don’t want to tell you.”
“Oh,” I said. Confused. “Okay.”
“It’s too heavy, too soon.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Maybe we can talk about my messed-up parental issues after I’ve learned your middle name, for example.”
“I don’t have a middle name.”
“Huh. Okay, how about—”
“You ask me a lot of questions.”
“Is that bad?”
“No,” I said. “I just—can I ask you some questions?”
He said nothing for a second. And then, quietly, “Okay.”
He told me why his parents named him Ocean, that the story wasn’t that exciting, he said his mom was obsessed with the water and that it was ironic, actually, because he’d always had this strange fear of drowning and was a lousy swimmer and had never really cared for the ocean, actually, and that his middle name was Desmond, so he had not two, but three first names, and I told him I really liked the name Desmond, and he said it had been his grandfather’s name, there was nothing special about it, and I asked him if he’d known his grandfather and he said no, he said that his parents had split up when he was five and he’d lost touch with that side of his family, that he’d only seen his dad occasionally since then. I wanted to ask more questions about his parents but I didn’t, because I knew he didn’t want to talk about it, so instead I asked him where he wanted to go to college and he said he was torn between Columbia and Berkeley, because Berkeley sounded perfect but wasn’t in a big city, and he said he really wanted to live in a big city, and I said yes, you said that before, and he said, “Yeah. Sometimes I just feel like I was born into the wrong family.”