Sarah Hepola

Max, who lived upstairs

On the perils — and joys — of a three-day relationship

In my last year of college, I lived on the lower level of a condo on a side street so quiet it was almost spooky. My two roommates and I spent a lot of our time on the front patio chain-smoking and drinking beer and wine at a bistro table placed there for that purpose. I suppose that’s how I started chatting with Max, who lived in the condo upstairs with two women, neither of whom he was dating, which happened to be the gender configuration of our downstairs apartment as well.

Max was not his name, but I like that name, so that’s what I’ll call him. The not-actually Max was exceedingly cute imho. He had sparkling dark eyes, brown hair he kept at a relatively short crop, and a medium build. He was not going to beat up anyone, but nor was he going to get pummeled. In the movie version of this blog post (which is definitely going to happen), he would be played by Chris Messina.

Max and I used to banter as he maneuvered his key into the deadbolt of his condo. We had screwball-comedy friction. He made an appearance at one of our many parties that fall, and he and I were loosened by booze to the point that our sizzling back-and-forth ventured into double-dare territory. We so clearly liked each other, I said. What was he going to do about that?

We went on a date. An actual date. One evening near the end of December, he showed up at my door in a crisp button-down and khakis and made a joke about being exhausted by the long drive. I was running late. I was still ironing the blouse I planned to wear. Crisp button-downs? Ironed blouses? Who are these drunk college kids? It seems unfathomable to me that I was ironing to go on a date, but I remember the detail clearly. How he walked around the long narrow apartment, inspecting posters on the wall with his hands in his pockets as I completed my oddly domestic task. He mentioned the artist Sandra Bernhard. Did I know her?

“Without her, I’m nothing,” I said. Actually, I only knew Sandra Bernhard because my best friend kept a DVD of her one-woman show on the shelf: Without You I’m Nothing. I’d never seen it, and in fact, I found Sandra Bernhard abrasive and kind of frightening in a way I could not articulate. But I wanted to prove to Max that I was down, and it worked.

He dropped to one knee and clasped his hands under his chin. “Will you marry me now?” he said. I laughed and adjusted my shirt over the silver tongue of the ironing board. He continued, “I know most people do this after the date, but let’s just do it before.”

I was charmed. I was skeptical. Was he like this with other women, or just me? I liked the idea of Max being my next boyfriend. For more than a year, I’d been dragging around my broken heart after the swaggering chef I’d been living with turned to me one night and said — and it really was this fast, this without warning — he didn’t love me anymore. That guy was like a thresher I kept stepping inside. He would drop by, and I’d let him back in. He would call me late at night, and I’d pick up. He’d pop back into my life only to disappear again. Over and over, the same rejection, like Groundhog Day for the lovelorn. I liked the twist that Max represented. All this time, I’d been searching far and wide for love. It was upstairs from me.

Max and I went to an all-night diner and sat in a white booth beside a dark window. He ordered noodles, or soup, I can’t remember. I thought he ate them weird, though how you eat noodles or soup WEIRD I’m not sure. But I had this nagging thought: Is he always going to eat like this? Will I ever tell him it’s embarrassing? Is this my future — staring at a smart and adorable man who nonetheless eats his noodles the wrong way?

But I was having a good time. We were natural companions: We watched the same movies, read the same books, made the same pop-culture references (Quentin Tarantino, Monty Python, John Hughes). We headed to a dimly lit underground bar near the Capitol. I was getting pretty sauced, beer upgraded to martinis, the next cigarette lit on the cherry end of the previous one. We were singing to songs on the jukebox and slapping high fives. Afterward, we came back to my place and had sex. I don’t remember much about it. Mostly that it happened.

As we lay alongside each other on the double bed afterward, he told me he was headed out of town for a week, a work trip, but he wanted to take me out as soon as he got back. I liked this plan. I was feeling good about our prospects. But about three days later, I was placing something in the trash can behind our house when I caught him tip-toeing up the back staircase.

“I know this looks bad,” he said, holding his hands up as I stood there staring. “My trip got canceled, and I ended up being really busy, and I knew you thought I was out of town, so I … “

“… started sneaking in to your own house,” I said.

He scrunched his nose. “Can I see you next week?”

I think we screwed up — having sex that fast. Bodies weren’t meant to go from zero to ninety overnight. One minute, bantering on the porch, and the next minute, syncing the parts of our genitalia that make babies. I was twenty-one, the dawn of my casual sex phase, a period that lasted well into my 30s, and the notion that sex couldn’t or shouldn’t be fast would have confused me. What better way to have sex? I thought it was a sign of our passion and bravado. Look at how much he wants me. Look at our blistering connection. We couldn’t keep our hands off each other.

Our next date was in the daytime. Demure, reserved, sober. We sat on the futon of my condo, and I showed him an op-ed I’d written for the daily paper, and he pointed out phrases he liked, and he gently pushed back on an idea he wanted to question, which delighted me. I liked being worshipped, but I preferred being challenged.

And then, we disappeared from each other’s lives. It couldn’t have been easy, because he literally lived on top of me, but anyone can ghost anyone else if they try hard enough. I suspect he started timing his entrances and exits, using those back stairs more often. My ex sauntered back to my doorstep again, and I placed myself in the thresher, certain it would be different this time.

For years after college, I thought about Max. I was in quite a dry spell by then. The years of 22-26 were like the Sahara Desert for me. I drank a lot. I gained a lot of weight. And neither of those got me out of the desert any faster; they probably extended my stay. Whenever I looked back on the men I’d drunkenly collided with, Max was the one who had the most boyfriend potential. Did I mention he volunteered at a hospital? He used to come home wearing these blue scrubs, which gave him this adorable George-Clooney-on-ER vibe. Max had “good dad” written all over him. I imagined the two of us watching HBO shows and cracking jokes about minor characters. On Sundays, I would fold laundry as he rolled the trash can out to the curb.

Where was he now? What was he doing? Back in the pre-cell phone, pre-social media age, people just: Disappeared. I was in my mid-20s when a friend ran into him at a bar. She said: Hey, didn’t you used to live above Sarah Hepola? He said: Oh my God, do you know her? How can I get in touch with her? I was not the only one, apparently, who considered our time together a little too short.

Max and I went on a third date. I was 27, and recently back from four months traveling around South America, which had given me a glow and a newfound confidence in my own body, and I was about to leave on a five-month road trip around the country by myself. Having spent so much of my life feeling stuck in one place, I was turning into something like the opposite. A woman who never stood still.

We went to a Tex-Mex restaurant and shoveled chips and salsa into our mouths. He looked just as I remembered him: Cute, slightly formal in his dress, eyes that gave me a zap. After dinner, we sat in the front seat of his car, and he slid a CD into the player with a slightly overlong and self-conscious explanation about how he had gotten into trance lately and that was probably uncool and I would probably hate this song, but OK, just listen.

Austin was a music snob’s town. You couldn’t like a band without someone telling you why it sucked, and I hated that. Everyone deserved to love whatever music stirred their soul, but let me tell you, I didn’t like that CD. It wasn’t terrible, just — not my jam. I sat there nodding slowly, but my mind started to wander: Is he always going to listen to trance? Will I ever tell him I don’t like it? Is this our future together — the two of us stuck in a car listening to DJ Tiesto?

We drank too much. Again. We had sex at his house. Again. Wouldn’t you think I might have learned my lesson? But I didn’t know there were lessons to learn. We bumble through the corridors of our own history. We do our best. The most vivid memory I have from that night is how I left near midnight, and drove back to the place I was staying, and I called to let him know I’d made it home safely, and we wound up on the phone with each other for another hour. We just couldn’t stop talking. I sat on the carpeted floor of the bedroom I was renting, the black telephone receiver cradled against my ear and mouth, his familiar voice entering my body. I find this memory so warm and sad at once. How close the two of us could be, but only at a distance.

And that’s the end of our story. That phone call was the last time we ever spoke to each other. I did hear about him from time to time. After I returned from that long and luxurious road trip, I met a woman who had gone on a few dates with him. They’d met on an online dating site, which had only just become a thing. She described him as hard to pin down. I said that sounded right. It’s been fifteen years since I saw him, and I don’t remember his last name, so I’ve never been able to look him up, but I like to think he’s someone’s dad, someone’s husband. I like to imagine him rolling out the trash to the corner on Sunday night in one of those laundered button-downs.

For a long time after I stopped drinking, I blamed alcohol for these thwarted romances. Alcohol blasted me into bed with people, and then it blasted me right back out. If only I hadn’t been drinking! And it’s certainly true that booze rocketed us toward sex when we probably would have been better served by a gentle nudge. But the more sober I get, the more I can see that alcohol was only my cover story for the fears and ambivalences and furious switch-streams that underlie so many complicated human attachments. If I hadn’t been drinking so much — would we have ruined it another way? If I hadn’t been drinking so much — would I have known him at all?

I could see this story as a tale about two people who should have played a larger role in each other’s lives. Then again, I could also see this story as a tale about two people who were meant to be together for exactly three dates — and nailed it.