We sat in the bed of someone’s dad’s truck, parked in a field in Middleburg, Virginia. Up the hill at the house, Uncle Tupelo played loud from the windows, open to let out the burnt turkey smell, the cigarette smoke. We shivered. No matter how I twisted my head, J. would not look at my face.
I was twenty-two, six months out from college graduation, and J. had, the week before, finished a fourteen-month jail sentence. Jail, that first time, we would say, as opposed to prison, later. He was eating raw potatoes and carrots from a burlap bag.
A girl who had never met him told me the year before that he’d had $34,000 hidden in a closet at his parents’ house when he was arrested, but by that point we were no longer close enough for me to ask him if it was true.
I wanted to tell him that I still slept in the gray sweatpants he gave me, and that I’d run into his sister a few months earlier, and that I sometimes thought about that time when I was seventeen and he was sixteen, and we spent a Wednesday afternoon drinking whiskey from my parents’ untouched-for-years liquor cabinet when we should have been taking a chemistry exam. But instead I put my cold hand up to his head and ran my fingers through his hair the way I used to, when we were kids learning how to put our hands on other people. He pulled back and then leaned in, sighed, and I watched his shoulders drop.
He said, “I like your hair cut short.”
When it was time for him to leave, I stood too. As I finished the last sip of wine from my coffee mug, I lost my footing, and in the dark, J.’s hand reached out from the pocket of his sweatshirt and gave me the lightest touch on my elbow, steadying me. I thought about lights on all night, squeaky bedsprings under a bare mattress, though surely he had sheets in there. I thought about how he must have just missed raw vegetables. I thought about next Thanksgiving, how by then he would almost certainly be able to look us in the eyes again.
Jessica McCaughey’s work has appeared in Gulf Coast, The Colorado Review, The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Best American Travel Essays, and The Rumpus, among other publications. She teaches academic and professional writing at The George Washington University in Washington, DC, and earned her MA in English and MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University in Virginia.