When I returned to school the following week, I had to speak with her. I had made up my mind that we were meant for each other and decided that I had to let her know it. I called, but she didn’t want to talk. She had told “the other guy” about us and he’d told her she had to choose. It could be one or the other of us but not both. She didn’t want to speak to either one of us until she had made up her mind. I tried to protest, but she hung up.
I went out of my mind. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I thought about her every minute replaying the events of the past two weeks over and over in my mind. Our dates together had always been in out of the way places, she had obviously been trying to hide from him. If only I had called her right away. If only I had taken her out the night after we met she’d have never met him.
I interrogated Kristine. She admitted that she had known since the first week, but had hoped that she would see that I was the better guy. I pressed her. She gave in. His name was Steve, and not only was he a senior, but he was in my major. In fact, we were in the same classes. I did not know him, but he apparently knew me. Kristine told me that he was the captain of the swim team and president of his Fraternity. I was torn with jealousy. I hated him, and I couldn’t even pick his face out of a police line up. I had to talk to her. I had to tell her that she would be nothing more to him than another swim medal.
So I wrote her a letter, and told her all of the reasons why she should be with me instead of him. In my letter I painted a picture of him as a shallow man, more in love with the idea of himself than he could ever be with any woman. On my way out of town to a job interview in Connecticut I slid it under her door.
When I got home from Connecticut the next day I had a phone message to call her. It was after ten when I called her, and she told me she was driving right over because we had to talk and it had to be face to face. I feared the worst. She covered the six miles out of town to our little apartment above the soap shop in what must have been record time. I felt a lump in my chest as I opened the door and saw the raging fire that was burning in her eyes. Scott and Kristine must have seen it too because they cleared the room in an instant.
She had my letter in her hand and had highlighted it like it was an assignment in Relationships 101. “How could I write such a thing? What did I mean by this?” she screamed. I apologized, I tried to explain how I felt. Since I couldn’t see her or talk to her, I had decided to write her a letter to show her the difference between him and me.
She didn’t understand, and I doubted she ever would. Hell, I don’t think I understood what was going on inside my head either. We had been dating less than three weeks and I had managed to lose almost ten pounds. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep. Like a mad monk I was fasting in the hopes of a revelation, or a vision, anything that might tell me how to put the pieces of my rapidly spiraling life back together.
She calmed down, and I told her that I knew that what I felt between us was genuine and real. “Don’t tell me you don’t feel it too.” I pleaded, “I can see it in your eyes.”
“That’s not the point.” She argued. “How dare you tell me how I feel. How dare you try to manipulate my feelings.”
I begged and pleaded for her to forgive me. Like a scene from a daytime soap opera, she tried to leave, but I caught her in my arms. She sobbed. I felt her warm breath, and tears moisten my shirt.
“I came here to tell you one thing” she said, “but now I want to tell you something else”.
And then she cried some more.
We sat down on the couch in silence. After a half hour she told me that her Dad was having heart surgery that Friday. She was worried sick about the chance that she might not ever see him again. I had no idea what to say, except the usual empty assurances. After a few more minutes of silence, she stood up, put on her coat, and left. She told me as she walked out the door that she was meeting Steve for breakfast the next morning. Her honesty killed me.
In the following days I tried to focus on my class work. I ate food for the first time in what seemed like weeks. I slept. I thought that if I could just focus on the details the pain would go away. It didn’t. Every time a car crested the hill I looked to see if it was her. Every time the phone rang I held my breath.
On Sunday she called. We talked about her Dad’s heart surgery. He was doing better. If all went well he’d be home in a few days. I told her about the job interview in Connecticut. I was in consideration for two positions, one on the engineering staff in their Hartford headquarters, and another in the field service department. The field service job paid a little more, but it meant that I would be living on the road all the time. I probably wouldn’t have an apartment for at least a year, and even then it could be in any one of the fifty states. If I took the job in Hartford I’d only be five hours away.
It helped to talk about nothing. I knew that after spending the weekend at the hospital with her Dad she didn’t have the strength to talk about the one thing we couldn’t stop thinking about. I asked if we could see each other during the week. She hesitated. “I’m not sure I’m ready yet.”
“When will you be ready?” I asked.
She couldn’t say.
“Are you seeing him?” I asked.
I didn’t know what to say. I felt like I had just wandered out on a frozen lake, and heard the ice beginning to crack. Should I stand still? Should I try to run?
“Call me when you’re ready” I said, and I hung up.
Winter was ending. It rained the whole week. Water pooled up in the still frozen fields, and flooded out onto the highway. Passing cars left plumes of water behind them like comets. I wrote poetry, awful poetry. I wrote poems about love and death, the worst kind of bad poetry. It didn’t make me feel any better. It just made me feel like a sap.
I wished I was a hero from a Hemmingway novel. I wished I could hang up on her, then drink scotch and shoot animals without feeling remorse. Instead I sat in my fetid little room, drinking cheap beer and listening to the most morose music I could find. Graduation was just 10 weeks away. I should be dancing with coeds in the neon lit bars downtown, and spending my nights in wild Bacchanalian carnival. Instead I was lying on the floor of my bedroom staring at constellations of shadows on the ceiling, holding my aching stomach and drowning in self pity.
I asked around to find out who he was. It didn’t take long for me to find someone that could point him out in class. He sat in front of me everyday and I didn’t know it. Six foot two, with his receding blond hair cut so close to his scalp that he looked bald from a distance. He definitely was more physically imposing than my ever shrinking 155 pound frame would ever be. “My god, he must just tower over her” I thought. I pictured them together. I wanted to stand up and make a scene.
Instead I just sat there taking notes as the professor scrawled formulas across the blackboard, and spoke of the laws of thermodynamics. Letters, numbers, symbols, that created a language only scientists and engineers could understand. I thought about how absurd we must all look scratching hieroglyphics into our notepads. Little pencil and paper machines for calculating the flow of heat from one body to another, as if our little calculations could control it. “No”, I thought, “We can’t control it. We can only measure it.” I wondered how she measured it. The movement, the heat, a clinical detachment as she compared us in her mind. What formulas did she have scrawled in her notepads that could take such things and assign a value, calculate a number, raise it to the nth power, and divide it all down again into love.
I drank until I threw up. And then I drank some more. When the world finally went dark I didn’t dream. Daylight just brought more pain, real and imagined. Kristine told Scott she was worried about me. Scott just wondered what my problem was. “Love.” I told him. He nodded and took another sip of his beer. What could he say? It was a problem without a solution. He had his own concerns with graduation looming, no job offers, and a fiancée with two years of college left before they could be married. I didn’t blame him. I envied him.
The job offer from ABB arrived in the mail on Wednesday. I had been accepted for the field service job, but turned down for the one in Connecticut. I was thrilled and terrified at the same time.
I stopped by her room, hoping she wouldn’t refuse to see me. Standing outside her door I swore I could hear the sound of my heartbeat echoing down the hall. What if Steve was in her room at that very moment? What if she slammed the door in my face? I swallowed hard and knocked. She said “Come in”. She was alone thank God. Sitting at her desk with her reading glasses on typing on the computer, she instinctively took her glasses off and tried to hide them in the top drawer. I smiled.
“Didn’t know I wore glasses did you?” she asked.
I shook my head.
“I bet you thought I was perfect in every way.” She said and smiled, looking up and to the side in that way of hers that drove me crazy.
“Oh well” I said, “The secret is out, you’re human after all.”
“Damn. Will you ever be able to look at me the same way again?”
I laughed relieved to see she didn’t hate me. Not openly anyway.
“I’m sorry I hung up on you.” I told her.
“Let’s not talk about it.” She replied. “I’m over it.”
“OK, That’s not why I came here anyway” I said. “I got the field service job.”
She was happy for me, and the smile on her face was genuine. She wanted to know details. I sat down in the chair opposite her desk, and drank in the attention in her eyes. Sitting there in that crowded little room talking beneath the yellow cone of light from her desk lamp I felt relieved. Whatever had happened between us could be put in the past. When the time came to leave, I stood up. She didn’t move from her chair. “When can I see you again?” I asked.
“What if I just want to be friends with you?” she answered.
I didn’t know what to say. Surely I didn’t need any more friends. I wanted her in ways far beyond that.
“I’m not sure I could be happy just being friends.” I answered.
She frowned, and said, “Well, to be honest, I’m not sure I can either.”
“Have you made a decision yet?” I asked.
She looked away, and I could see she was crying. I wanted to go to her, I wanted to comfort her, but I was frozen with indecision.
“I can’t stand to see you hurting like this” I told her. “I’d rather give you up than cause you pain.”
I don’t know what made me say that. Perhaps it was the mushy love songs I had been marinating in for days. Maybe it was the old cliché about loving someone and setting them free. But whatever the reason, I said it.
“I think you better go now” she told me. And I turned for the door.
It took another two weeks of discussion and negotiation before the end. During that time Kristine continued to feed me inside information about what she was doing, and how things were going between her and Steve. Every mention of them made me sicker, but I couldn’t control myselfI just had to know. Knowing only made me feel hollow and empty inside. So I proceeded to fill in that emptiness with alcohol and self loathing.
Spring break was coming. From Kristine I had learned that Steve was going to Daytona, and had gone so far as to tell her that he couldn’t guarantee that he would be faithful on the trip. Surely this would convince her I was the better guy. I would be going back to Batavia for the week, and I asked her to come with me. Then to my surprise and everlasting hope, she agreed. She would spend a few days, meet my family and friends, and then I would bring her back to Canton.
The day before break began, I had planned to pick her up and bring her over to my apartment for dinner. She was going to spend the night, and leave for Batavia with me the next morning. But when she walked out of the dorm, and climbed inside of my car she wasn’t carrying a suitcase. “I’ve changed my mind.” She said. “I’ve made a commitment to Steve, and I don’t think it would be right to go home with you.”
Outside the rain drummed down upon the roof. The windows began to fog up, closing out the world outside. We sat in silence. She made no move to open the door, or leave. Finally, I started the car and put it into gear. I went on a long, aimless drive into the countryside south of town. On the back roads down near Hannawa Falls, she asked me to turn into the beach.
“I used to lifeguard here during the summer” she said.
The beach was desolate, and ringed with a crust of melting snow. The pines crowded in behind us, ringing the beach with gloomy shadows. Out on the river, the ice was already wormy and dark from the rain and the slow approach of spring. I parked the car, and we got out. She walked to the edge of the river, it was so gray in the slanting rain.
“It looks so different this time of year”, she said.
I tried to imagine how it must have looked in the summer time, with boats out on the water, and kids building sand castles on the beach. I realized that summer was coming again, but I wouldn’t be here to see it. By the time the ice was out, and the beach was open I would be far beyond the wilderness of the North Country, but she would still be here. There was no escaping it.
Eventually we got back into the car, and I drove her home.
“I don’t think we should see each other anymore.” She said. “It doesn’t seem like it’s making either one of us happy.”
I couldn’t argue with her about that. I hadn’t been happy since we had first met. The last few months I had been alternating from despair to mania, but nowhere would I say that I was happy.