If you’ve never shown up to someone’s door with a fresh 1.63-kilogram whole octopus, a bottle of Portuguese red, and a shaker of Vietnamese cinnamon, you’re really missing out.
Aaron* and I met online. No, this wasn’t Tinder or Hinge, but a good, old-fashioned email sent by him to me about a piece I’d written for our college newspaper at the end of my senior fall. I replied, we exchanged numbers, and the rest was history. Over the winter holiday, our “You’ve Got Mail” romance played out through a complex series of Instagram DMs and exchanged New Yorker articles until we agreed to cook dinner one snowy day at the start of the spring semester. After being granted jurisdiction of the menu, I tried to impress him by suggesting the most gourmandesque recipe I could muster with my newfound quarantine cooking skills. He took the bait and I, unwilling to disappoint his interest in the prospects of octopus stew, ended up at his apartment, mollusc, and company in tow.
Let me be the first to say that gutting an octopus is no easy task. The eyes, beak, and spine must be removed, the internal organs drained, and the tentacles and body meticulously quartered before the cooking process even begins. Despite this, within five minutes of meeting in person, Aaron willingly watched me carry out the equivalent of a lab dissection on his once sparkling kitchen counters, the smell of brine and red wine reduction filling the air of his apartment despite our best attempts at ventilation. As I watched him pace nervously around the living room, trying to maintain a relaxed façade, I knew it was an utter disaster.
However, the absolute chaos of the evening parlayed into a comfortable flow of conversation catalysed by the remains of our bottle of wine. We compared favourite writers, vented about campus culture, and made it through eleven sides of his enormous record collection until I, worried about overstaying my welcome, asked him to walk me back home.
There was no follow-up text the next day. Only a request:
“Please tell me we’re making something that smells better next time.”
That we did. Our second date was salmon, zucchini, and strawberry shortcake – his signature recipes. We spoke until the early hours of the morning, bonding over shared commentary on several episodes of The Twilight Zone and all of Alien. He proceeded to sleep through our third date, then drove to my apartment at 4:15am to drive us an hour away to the beach to catch the sunrise. By midterms, Aaron and I had developed a routine of camping out all day in his apartment, with me typing essays furiously on his couch, and him coding from his desk. Each trip between our apartments brought new discoveries. Hemingway’s novels and Springsteen’s albums were introduced to my repertoire, in exchange for Quentin Tarantino films and Estonian rap. “Wibe” (cooler cousin of “vibe”) entered his vocabulary as half of my store of frozen blueberries slowly migrated to his freezer. It felt so easy.
For a good month, in between trips to Boston and afternoon forays onto random terraces within our campus, it really did seem like we’d achieved that clichéd, “perfectly-imperfect” equilibrium that makes the stuff of rom-coms. However, the realities of the interstitial period we were living in soon caught up with us. With our plans in place to be on different continents and opposite sides of the world, we agreed to take a step back from our existing situation-ship, choosing the ambiguity of occupying the murky grey-zone between ‘friends’ and ‘more-than-friends’.
The night before he left, I helped him take the records down from his walls – as friends, of course. We shared a bottle of the same Portuguese red wine I’d brought over on octopus night, months prior. Wine and tears both flowed freely that night, and no resolution was achieved. On my graduation day, he sent me chocolate mousse and a bouquet of red roses, unsigned, accompanied by a note reading, “fuck social norms”, in reminiscence of my semi-ironic catchphrase of the weeks prior. The following weeks passed in a haze of trying to figure things out, boundaries blurred by our virtual environment until our entanglement came gradually and gracefully to a close over the natural progression of summer.
For now, our story ends on “maybe” – a fitting choice, considering the liminal stage at which we met. Maybe our current steady state of being decidedly ‘not-friends’ for the time being will win out. Maybe memories of octopus and red wine are and will be the only relics of a wonderfully intricate entanglement. Or maybe there’s a world in which the entropies of our lives will collide to reignite the “what-could-have-beens” of our dynamic. It goes without saying that no one can predict or shape the future, but I’m going to have to agree with Hemingway on this one. It is pretty to think so.