We set a date for the next weekend. Nothing fancy, just dinner and a movie. All week I felt a pain deep down in my gut, like a hunger I couldn’t feed. I survived on coffee and beer.
When I picked her up, I knew something was wrong. She was subdued in the car on the way to the theater, and when we parked downtown and crossed the street she cast furtive glances all around. Before the movie began I asked her what was wrong. She told me she wasn’t feeling well. I offered to take her home, but she insisted on staying for the movie. I put my arm around her as the lights went out.
After the movie she was full of questions about the plot. At some point she had fallen asleep. A fact she steadfastly denied, and only became upset with me as I teased her about it. Midwinter break was beginning, and my roommates had left for home already. When we got to my apartment, it was obvious that she was still in pain. I made her sit down, and gave her a glass of water. She insisted that she was fine, and did not want to leave. Looking up at me from the couch she said “I’m seeing someone else”, and I started hurting too.
She told me she hadn’t intended for it to happen. The night after we met she was at a party and had met another guy. He called her the night after I did to ask her out. What could she say? We hadn’t yet had our first date, so she was under no obligation to me. She consented and they had their first date the night after ours. The problem for her was she liked us both.
She hadn’t told him yet, and wouldn’t tell me who he was except to say that he was a classmate of mine. I was devastated. “What do we do next?” I asked. She had no answer. We sat in silence for what seemed like an eternity. She needed time to think, and told me to go home for the weekend. That she didn’t want to see either one of us until she knew which one she wanted. I got up and left the room.
I drove her home, and then I packed my bags. Hidden in my dresser drawer was a note. On a neatly folded piece of tablet paper in red ink letters it read “I think I like you.” I was more confused than ever. I lay down in bed and turned off the light. Laying there in the dark I looked up at the shadowy silhouettes hoping that if I could decipher them I’d make sense of the pain.
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.