Thin Ice

The exercise in embarrassing stories of my misspent youth continues today. Look here for Part 1 and Part 2

Part 3

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.

Part 4 – cont.


Squaw Valley – The Forgotten Games

This and all other images, Copyright the IOC

As I’ve said before, I really geek out over the Winter Olympics. Having them in North America again, is wonderful because it allows me to follow the events in real time, even if NBC elects to tape delay the broadcasts. As you may have heard during the US – Canada game, the Sweaters that Team U.S.A were wearing were a 50th anniversary tribute to the gold medal winning US Team from 1960. In fact, there was a documentary recently released that also commemorates that event. It’s called the “Forgotten Miracle” because it has long been overshadowed by the events of 1980, which had the benefit of occurring in the middle of the media age, when there was a certain zeitgeist that imparted the Miracle on Ice with a significance far beyond a sporting event. Which got me to thinking, and wondering about the 1960 Winter Olympics. So I did a little internet research to fill in that blank area in my knowledge, as I like to do. What I found out about the 1960 games, has fascinated me, so I thought I would share it here.

The 1960 Winter Olympics were held in Squaw Valley, California, which was the extent of what I knew about them prior to this week. Squaw Valley is place I had trouble picking out on a map when I first heard about them as a kid. All I knew was that it was in the Sierra Nevada, somewhere in California. Unless you have a detailed map, you’d still be hard pressed to find it. About 5 years ago I was at a conference in Reno (yeah, lucky me) and took an afternoon to drive up into the mountains around Lake Tahoe. When I came upon signs to Squaw Valley I expected that there’d be a town there, or at least a village. I was surprised to find nothing but a ski resort. And therein lies one of the most fascinating things about these Olympic Games. They were held almost entirely on the grounds of a single Ski Resort.

Finish Line of Alpine Ski Races - Ice Arena, and Speed skating oval visible on the right

The story behind it is that the resorts creator, Alexander Cushing, got the wild idea to bid for the winter Olympics after seeing an article that mentioned that Reno, Nevada, and Anchorage, Alaska were considering submitting bids. The fact that Squaw Valley was a town with no mayor, and claimed one ski resort with only one chairlift, two rope tows, and a fifty-room lodge, apparently did not deter him. In fact, Cushing was the only permanent inhabitant and homeowner in the whole area. He must have been quite a salesman because he eventually convinced the USOC to back his bid. How he managed to make the IOC’s list of finalists alongside, Innsbruck, Austria, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, and St. Moritz, Switzerland is beyond me. The fact that he beat them out would lead a cynic would think that bribery had to be involved. Regardless, after winning the bid in 1955, he had 5 years to create a Winter Sports infrastructure to support an Olympic games.

View of the Oval and Ice Arena from top of the Ski Jump

Now, in all fairness, the Winter Games in 1960 were not the extravaganza they are today. There were only 750 athletes from 30 nations, that competed in 15 alpine and ski jumping events, 8 speed skiing contests, 3 figure skating competitions and 28 hockey matches. In fact, he managed to house all of the athletes in the same purpose built hotel. It wasn’t an “Olympic Village”, just an “Olympic Hotel”.

From an infrastructure perspective, he needed to create only a ski jumping hill, the alpine ski runs, a speed skating oval, an ice rink, and cross country ski trails. He managed to build all of these within a one square mile area. The pictures of the site are astounding. It’s as if the Olympic Games were a county fair. It’s interesting to note, that no Bobsled run was built, and that the IOC instead awarded the Olympic medals for Bobsleigh that year to the winner of the St. Moritz, World Cup meet.

View of Alpine Runs from inside of Blythe Arena

As you know, I also get geeked out over old photos. And these pictures which were taken from the IOC website, are amazing.

Hockey Game in Blythe Arena - Showing ropes hanging behind rings

Blythe Arena, the Ice Rink, was an open air arena built under an A-frame roof. The side of the arena facing the ski hill was open to the sunlight, allowing a vista of the Ski Jumps, and Speed Skating Oval, as well as the finish area for the alpine events. The openness caused a bit of a headache in the lead up to the games, as the powerful sunlight began turning the ice on the rink into slush. So workers proceeded to hang strips of heavy ropes, like a bead curtain, to help diffuse the light. It must have worked because the games went on as planned.

Another view from inside of the Arena, Ski Jump Hill visible on the left - before the ropes were hung from the ceiling

The 6,000 ft. altitude caused some difficulties for the athletes, and a few countries took advantage of oxygen tanks, to help their athletes recover after exertion. The story goes that the captain of the Russian team visited the locker room of the US team, in the second intermission of their gold medal game against Czechoslovakia, to tell them of this trick. The US followed his advice, and it helped them to score 6 goals in the 3rd period, and defeat the Czechs (guaranteeing, the Soviets a silver in the process.)

Roger Christian of Warroad, MN scores on the Soviets

The Squaw Valley games were also the first winter games to be televised live in the U.S. The opening and closing ceremonies, and many of the decorations around the site, were provided by none other than Uncle Walt Disney. Hard to get more post-war American than that.

American's celebrate a win

Anyway, enjoy the photos. Sadly, most of the infrastructure of the games has long since been torn down, and replaced with parking lots for the Squaw Valley Ski Resort.

The Girl from the North Country

The following post is the second part of a four part story. Click here for Part 1. I have been waffling over posting this one. It’s a bit different from other posts in that the bulk of it was written several years back in an aborted attempt at semi-autobiographical fiction. As I have alluded to in the past, this period of my life is know as “The Great American Novel” for the ridiculous convolution of it. I confess, what follows has been fictionalized quite a bit, and “artistic” license has been taken (if a blogging hack can refer to his scrabbling as “artistic”). I’ve done a bit of editing in the past few days to “bloggify” the post, and insert a little anonymity. To be honest, it’s a story that I find highly embarrasing, and am extremely self conscious about. So naturally I am putting it on the internet.

Enough disclaimers…on with the story.

Part 2

My friends, I swear to you, it was not my intention that night to start a new relationship. I hadn’t even known she would be at our apartment. Returning home from a few hours playing basketball at the gym, I was soaked in sweat, and couldn’t have smelled much better than the horses that pastured in the field outside. But there she was, unforeseen, unwanted, and irresistible. As we stood in the doorway saying goodnight, I was afraid to ask her out and go down in flames with Scott and Kristine listening from behind his bedroom door. So I let it go at goodnight. Not content with a simple goodbye, she said “Well, have fun doing whatever it is you do.” and blushed.

When she left I laughed out loud. She was nervous! This beautiful, engaging girl was nervous over me. How could that be? When I saw Kristine the next morning she came running over to me jumping up and down, “She likes you, she likes you! When are you going to call her?” I hesitated. I wanted to run right home and pick up the phone and ask her out that very night, but I didn’t want to seem desperate. I decided to wait one more day, and ask her out for next weekend. That night I walked around like I held a winning lottery ticket in my pocket.

On Sunday evening I called her, and after a half hour conversation that held all of the electricity and tension of our first, we decided on dinner. She chose a little family diner in her hometown of Canton, just ten miles away. I picked her up the following Friday and drove her to dinner. We took turns telling stories, more hungry for knowledge about each other’s past than we were for supper. She was a North Country girl, and had grown up on a dairy farm outside Canton. Her Dad was president of the local milk cooperative, and her mother came from a moneyed family down in Cortland.

The more we spoke, the more I felt like I had always known her. After dinner I offered her anywhere she wanted to go. She chose my apartment. Sitting in our drafty apartment in the dark of a winter night, talking until well past midnight I felt my grip beginning to slip. I hadn’t planned on a relationship. With graduation looming just three months away I didn’t want to find a girl I couldn’t leave behind, but here she was, and how could I say no?

I wanted to see her again the next night, but she had plans and I would have to wait. I couldn’t sleep. I lay awake looking up, as the headlights of passing cars projected shadowy figures on the ceiling. I was falling for her, and as much as I wanted to hold back I knew I couldn’t. So I fell. On Tuesday I went to the florist to get her a rose for Valentine’s Day. When I knocked on her door her roommate answered. She was at class, so I left my rose on her desk next to a bouquet of carnations, and I worried.

I could see it coming, but it was already too late. Like a car accelerating towards an intersection as the light turned yellow, I had already committed. There was nothing to do now, but press the pedal down further and hope the cross traffic would brake.

When she called to thank me for the flowers her voice dripped like honey from the receiver. We would see each other soon, next Friday. No dinner or movie, she just wanted to come over and play. It was just as well. I could hardly eat anyway.

She showed up at the door with a school bag over her arm. It held a pack of construction paper, scissors, and four cans of modeling clay. She said I made her feel like a little kid. So we sat on the floor in my room, making cutouts of animals, and clay figurines. She’d finish hers and set it on the desk next to mine, then squint as she cast a critical eye on them. “Yours looks more lifelike.” she’d decide, and her brow would furrow.

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.

Part 3 – cont.

Please, pull up a chair. Can I get you some coffee?

photo from Library of Congress

A bit of a late start here at 20 Prospect this morning. I’m still busy cleaning up after all the company that dropped by yesterday. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed all the visitors, I’m just not used to them. I felt a little bit like Bilbo Baggins scurrying back and forth from the pantry to the front door to entertain his unexpected company.

For no earthly reason I can determine, WordPress put my blog up on their home page yesterday morning. I figured something was up when comments started coming in about 15 minutes after I posted. By the end of the night 20 Prospect had hosted over 800 visitors, about ten times the normal traffic. I have to say, people were very good natured, not an internet troll among the bunch. So, if you are a new visitor to 20 Prospect, please have a seat, and let me get you some coffee. I stepped out this morning and picked up some donuts, so please help yourself. If you are one of my neighbors to the North, I have to apologize, they are Dunkin’ Donuts. Timmy’s has yet to come to Minnesota.

Oh, who am I kidding. Most of the visitors here just followed an off ramp from the Information Superhighway, looked left, and right, then pulled back up the on ramp spraying gravel behind them as they left. So it’s back to normal today sitting in a chair by the window lost in daydreams.

Winter has returned this morning, after our achingly beautiful February thaw. There is some lovely snow falling lightly in the light of the streetlamps outside. Nothing much, just a sprinkling to freshen things up a bit. We still have over a foot of it in the yard, and on the porch. After a few thaws, and freezes, it’s formed into a glacial consistency that will last us into April. The Indomitable Moxie has worn a path into the crust, as she patrols her kingdom against intrusions by squirrels, rabbits, and other menaces to Dogdom.

April. Only 37 days away. We can make it. I know we can. The sunshine of the last week has given me hope. You would think after 42 years in a northern climate a person would get used to the interminable, bleak expanse of February and March, but you just never do. It makes springtime all the more anticlimactic when it does come. Oh, but May and June. Those haunted evenings of late spring when you hear the trilling of the catbirds through the open windows, and smell the scent of lilacs in the darkness. Those are the days that make it all worthwhile.

U.S.A. 5 – Canada 3

Oh, did that feel good.

I mean, really good

It’s been 30 years to the day since the Miracle on Ice. Make no mistake, last night’s game was not of the same cultural, or even sporting significance. For one thing, Olympic hockey is pretty much an NHL all star tournament and not the amateur athletic event is used to be. For another, this was Canada, not quite the Evil Empire. More like the Milquetoast  Empire.

Really, it’s hard to demonize Canadians. It’s like having a hatred for vanilla ice cream. There’s nothing there to hate. Except for how insufferable they are about hockey. So beating them on their own turf, in their own Olympics, in front of 19,000 red clad Canadian fans is especially satisfying.

If it’s any consolation for them (and I am sure it’s not) I still like Tom Horton’s Donuts.

A thaw in the North Country

The temperature soared to 40 degrees yesterday afternoon. While that may not sound warm to many people, anyone that has spent time in the North Country can tell you that 40 degrees in February is shirtsleeve weather. When the clouds clear out, and the sky sparkles crystalline blue, and that February sunshine pours down on you, it is so easy to let go of everything, and just live in the moment.

The winter of 89′ and 90′ had been a cold one. I can remember shivering in the drafty farmhouse apartment as the wind blowing through the walls was strong enough to part your hair. One night it was so cold I dumped my dirty laundry on top of the bed to try to add more insulation between me and the arctic air. And when that February sunshine finally hit the North Country that year, I was ready to explode with joy.

The last semester of my senior year of college had begun with an omen that should have convinced me right then to take six months off and finish my degree in the fall. Over the Christmas holiday I contracted the chicken pox while visiting my brother on Long Island. I arrived at school a week late from the break, still weak and feverish, and covered with red spots that made me resemble an acne riddled teenager.

The lead up to the holidays had been promising enough. After a three year drought I was involved in the first real relationship of my college career. No small feat at an engineering school where the men outnumbered the woman six to one. Her name was Kate and she was a friend of my roommate’s fiancée Kristine. Kate was a sophomore with a single room in an on campus dorm that promised convenient trysting. Like Kristine, she was a member of the drama club, and carried with her all the stereotypes associated with it. I knew the drama queens. I’d been to their parties. The ones where someone opens a wine cooler, and the mere smell of alcohol is enough to get them to take turns locking themselves in the bathroom over one perceived crisis or another. Then when everyone has had their chance to play the victim the party ends with everyone linked arm in arm singing along to Bette Midler’s “The Rose”. “Some say love it is a flower…” If I was lucky I’d be inebriated enough by that point it would be more amusing than embarrassing.

But the fact was I was lonely and desperate, and she was warm and inviting. At the start of my senior year I had moved into an off campus apartment in an old farmhouse six miles outside of Potsdam with my friend Scott. Living upstairs of an herbal soap shop run by a nice hippie couple had two main effects on my life. My clothes, and indeed my very skin, had taken on the smell of patchouli that permeated everything in that house. I had also become something of a hermit, so having a real flesh and blood girlfriend was a welcome addition to my sweet smelling monastic life. Scott’s fiancée Kristine had set us up on a date to the drama club fall banquet. As October ended and winter began in the North Country we had started dating.

It wasn’t love no matter which script you read, hers or mine, but it was entertaining. Our dates that fall were like a made for TV movie. She was self conscious and deliberate with every movement, as if the film was rolling. Tilt head, flip hair, forced laugh, pan out and camera fade to black. It was great theater until the night I returned from Thanksgiving break and stopped by her room. When I entered and tried to kiss her, she turned her head and offered me her cheek. She was quite an actress. That one gesture told me everything that the following month of negotiations was yet to reveal. The network had canceled us after a six week run. There would be no Emmy for Best Male Actor in a drama series.

So when I returned to school that January I had made up my mind. College was just 4 months away from ending forever and I wasn’t going to waste my time starting any more relationships that I wouldn’t be around to finish. I turned my attentions to finding a job, and enjoying what was sure to be the best semester of my 4 years at Clarkson.

Despite my plans, (and as anyone who has read my stories would suspect) my weakness for cold beer, and pretty girls would once more be my downfall. In a way it doesn’t really surprise me that as soon as I swore off women, I would stumble across one that I couldn’t resist.

The first two weeks were uneventful as I tried to catch up with the course work I had missed, and secure interviews with on campus recruiters. Then one Friday evening in early February I returned from playing basketball at the gym and noticed a blue “K” car parked next to Scott’s in the parking lot outside our apartment. It was odd to see a strange car parked outside at night. The soap shop downstairs had closed hours before, and it was unusual to have visitors to our place unless there was a party planned.  Walking into the apartment I was surprised to find a petite, brown eyed brunette sitting at the kitchen table with Scott and Kristine.

Kristine introduced us. She was a friend of hers that was transferring to Clarkson after spending the fall semester at SUNY Geneseo. So I opened a beer, and pulled up a chair.  She was quiet at first, but as Kristine began to work me into the conversation, she started to open up. She had been Kristine’s roommate the previous year, when they were both members of the Clarkson School, a program run by the University where high school students combined their senior year of high school with their freshman year of college. Before too long Kristine had left the room, and taken Scott with her, and I began to realize that Kristine was up to her tricks again. I didn’t mind. We were getting along quite well. She fired question after question at me, unafraid to look me straight in the eye, as if I were in a job interview. In a way I guess I was.

When she left to go home an hour later we were still alone. She lingered in the doorway and we searched for words.

“So, do I get the job” I asked her, and she smiled, her eyes looking up and to the side, as if the answer were written on the wall behind me.

“We’ll see how you score on the written test.” she answered.

Oh, if only I had just laughed it off, and let her drive away and out of my life I could have saved myself a lot of trouble, and heartache. I was 4 months shy of graduation. What would be the point of getting tangled up in a relationship? But I never did the sensible thing. No, despite my better judgment I started something that I knew I wouldn’t be able to finish.

The story of the next 4 months of my life, is embarrassing, and convoluted, and not one that I am ready to share with the world. Oh, I will eventually. But right now the sun is shining, it is 40 degrees outside, and somewhere I know there is more trouble to get into. Live and learn, live and learn 😉

(OK, I lied. The story continues here Part 2)

Look Homeward Angel

. . . a stone, a leaf, an unfound door; of a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces.

Naked and alone we came into exile. In her dark womb we did not know our mother’s face; from the prison of her flesh have we come into the unspeakable and incommunicable prison of this earth.

Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father’s heart? Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent? Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?

O waste of loss, in the hot mazes, lost, among bright stars on this most weary unbright cinder, lost! Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When? O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.

– Thomas Wolfe

As the date stamp in the picture says, Christmas Eve 1990. I was home for the first time since leaving college to start working on the road. After summer in the South, and autumn in the Midwest, I was home again.

I’ve said before, I had always felt that bittersweet longing to leave Batavia behind and get out into fresh air. A place where no one would know me, or have me fixed and pinned to the wall like a bug in a museum case.

"Twentus Prospectus" - A Melancholy Species of mop haired, over achieving, shyness.

Home had become a prison that I longed to escape. The previous six years of my life had been focused on achieving just that. The sole purpose of my final two years at N.D. and my time at Clarkson, had been to get a degree and secure a job that would get me out. I had wanted it so long, I had forgotten why. Perhaps because in the world that I inhabited, leaving home behind for somewhere else was the definition of success.

So here I was, Christmas Eve 1990, the conquering hero returned. Yet I felt no joy. No victory had been won. No, the town, and life there had moved on without me. In fact, it didn’t even seem to notice that I was gone. This is perhaps the greatest irony that faces all of those who work their whole young lives to leave their small town behind. The town was bigger than them all along.

It’s been a long time since I read Thomas Wolfe. I can remember reading “You Can’t Go Home Again” during the long hot summer of 1988, as I spent countless hours riding the back roads of WNY in a Niagara Mohawk pickup truck. Sweaty, dirty, bored, sitting in the shade of a tree at some remote electrical substation during my lunch break reading. At the time I felt the truth that Wolfe was trying to communicate was that once you have grown beyond the provincial, and expanded your self in new and different ways, ways impossible without leaving home behind, that you could never fit back into that home. It was a theme that was no stranger to fiction, and has been mined for ever, dating back at least to the Greek Tragedies. The hero leaves home on a journey. The hero grows. The hero returns to find that he no longer belongs.

But coming home myself that Christmas of 1990, something felt different. It wasn’t that I no longer fit through the door, it was that the door had closed behind me. Whether I wanted to return or not, there was no way back in. The door was locked, and the keys lost. Poised there on that doorstep as a stranger for the first time, I realized that the door that led out, was not the same as the door that would lead back in.