Here is what I remember.
I got to town that January smarting hard from a breakup. College sweethearts who hadn’t managed the transition to real life, we’d split up in May. Then we ran. First one, then the other. Just dropped everything and ran off, to California, of course. Because this is where you go when you are from New England, and everything has gone right to hell. And it had.
But then whose first year after college isn’t awful?
California was awful. We were both ready to try, but it just wasn’t on. The romance was over, and now we were just very sad friends, made sadder still by the shocking bad luck of being stranded out west. As if we hadn’t been the ones who’d up and sold everything we owned and gone racing hell-bent out there to begin with.
I began to regret throwing away that full scholarship to grad school. This was slowly being revealed to me having been sort of a bad idea.
It had seemed like a good idea at the time. I’d only gone west with the very best of intentions. The Pursuit of True Love and My Destiny and possibly also a Fresh Start and all the other crap we think we’ll find when we get there. When what we actually find is just another boring apartment in some other boring neighborhood, surrounded by trees that look all wrong and hills that turn moldy in the fall. Also, the people out there are weirdly prone to hugging. It’s unsettling.
I called up the school I had spurned for all this. Miraculously, they said that they still had a place for me. I’m telling you, you’ve never seen a person buy a plane ticket so fast. And this was before the internet.
So I got there, as I said, in the middle of January. And how happy was I to see snow? Ice? Barns that looked moments away from toppling, with rooflines you could see the winter sun through? I wanted to hug every inch of Central New York. But of course I refrained, as we easterners are not given to such embarrassing displays.
Not like some I could name.
I loved it. I was so happy, I was rendered absolutely mute with it. Before I even got my own apartment, when I was still being put up by some gracious older grad student out in the frozen, silent hills outside of town, I took to bundling up inside all of the winter clothes I thought I’d put away forever. I’d go walking out into the night, gasping ecstatically into the perfect, cold air.
For hours, I would walk.
I’d been carrying around some excess belly fat that winter, from all the grief and the shock and the geographic cures, but my long midnight rambles were slowly whipping me back into shape. Even after I’d secured myself an apartment near school, sharing four walls with a nervous, spindly young woman who regularly accused me of trying to steal her ferrets’ love from her, I kept up the habit.
I’d sold my car to get my plane ticket west, so walking was pretty much where it was at for me.
I spent that first winter dating a nice, good-natured guy from my department. He was sweet, and shy, and he liked me more than I liked him, which was a relief. My bruised ego was so grateful for that. And by the time the Central New York spring finally staggered through our doors, I was feeling noticeably better about myself. More capable of taking on the rigors of love. Of, dare I say it, aiming higher.
I broke up with him as gently as I could, which wasn’t very. In fact, I was an ass.
He slammed the door on his way out and made his tires squeal all the way down the block. It didn’t really bother me. I was ready to move on. We hadn’t had that much in common, and I secretly thought I could do better.
Winter turned to spring. I’d lost twenty pounds, and to celebrate I spent a few bucks on a cute pair of jeans at the Salvation Army. A classmate said I swaggered when I wore them, which I mistakenly took as a compliment. So it was with a bit of a swagger that I sallied forth to the bookstore at the end of the semester, my newly thin thighs encased in denim that it would soon be too hot to wear. I was off to Vienna come July — on some important grad student business, you know — and I needed a few language tapes to help me overcome my hopelessness at German.
We used things called “language tapes” for such things in those days, if you can believe.
I found what I was looking for and brought them up to the register, where I also found you. And at first — I’ll be honest — it didn’t even occur to me to flirt. As a rule, I’m not the kind of girl who is found irresistible by attractive young men wearing glasses in bookstores. At least, I had never thought of myself as such. But I was pretty sure I sensed you flirting at me. That was unexpected. I assayed a few half-hearted flutters in return. You… didn’t recoil.
I can’t express my surprise. Oh, I’d lost some weight, sure. Gotten a little collarbone back along with my allegedly swaggering hips. But I was never thought pretty; never cute in any canonical sense of the word. Even on my best days I still felt a bit like a drag queen in a sundress, and I’d never once managed to wear a shawl with conviction.
But there you were, acting for all the world like you liked me. So I went with it. It was summer, and I felt up for a challenge.
We went out for dinner. I couldn’t eat, I was so nervous, which was a new thing for me. I waited for it to wear off, either the nervousness or my appeal. But stubbornly, you persisted. You stayed.
I started to feel better.
I mean, things were clearly shaping up. This last year, I decided, had been no more than a blip. An aberration. Because here I was, only recently back from a trip out west that ranked right up there with the Donner Party in terms of lack of forethought, and within six short months I’d found myself a fully funded graduate student, weeks away from taking a free trip to Europe, dating an attractive boy my age with poetical inclinations. Things were looking pretty good.
My roommate still thought I was after her ferrets’ sweet affection, but otherwise things were looking good.
I was still up to my walking-all-night tricks, only now it was to escape the heat of my room as much as to deal with the buckets of unspent energy only a freshly minted 23-year-old can sustain. It wasn’t like I was getting up to anything. No mischief was managed. All I ever did was walk. But it felt so important that I cover that ground. And man, did I ever. I racked up the mileage like it was my job.
Of course sometimes I’d circle around to your house. You only lived a few blocks away. But sometimes not. I tried to refrain. I knew I liked you more than you liked me and that things wouldn’t go on like this forever. There were all these legitimately cute girls around, for one thing. One or another of them would catch your eye eventually. But things were going well fairly well between us now, and I was slowly regaining the ability to nibble on things when you were around. I called it progress.
I went on my trip to Austria. I hadn’t learned much German after all, but it was okay. Everybody there spoke flawless English, and they all sounded adorably like Arnold Schwartzenegger whenever they spoke. Now, I have never found Arnold Schwartzenegger particularly adorable, but hearing his voice coming out of the mouths of young pensione owners in the lake country of Austria did me in. Both charming and vaguely sinister at the same time. All travel should have such frisson.
When we flew back home three weeks later I was tan from the mountains and bursting to see you.
The summer was still hot. You’d put a up a tent behind your house, since your apartment was even more air-starved than mine, and took to sleeping out there at night. Seriously, though, you had an awful apartment. Thick, flithy carpeting, and fake wood panels that were sweaty to the touch. A nice enough roommate, though, who didn’t seem to tax you with rodent-based conspiracy theories the way mine did. So, pros and cons.
I knew things had changed the minute I saw you. It wasn’t surprising. I had been away for three weeks. We were both still so young, and there is only so much you can ask of the young.
Soon the day came. I saw your car pull up outside my house, which was odd. You only lived down the street, after all, and I hadn’t been expecting you to come. But I waited, happily, for the doorbell to ring. Instead, you strolled up the steps of the house next door. And I knew my time had come.
I watched it all happen, of course. A few of the friendlier ferrets and I sat curled up next to each other by the window as we followed your progress from room to room through the unevenly hung blinds. I knew the girl who lived there. She was beautiful. Blond. Willowy. Effortless in a sundress. An absolute knockout in a shawl. It made sense, really. The ferrets — who had always liked me better, it’s true — wrapped themselves lovingly around my feet while we waited for you to leave.
You took a dreadful long time about it.
Then, for a few hot, uncomfortable days, we waited for you to call. Which you did.
We didn’t really have much in common, you explained. And secretly, I knew you thought you could do better.
It was almost fall now, and the students were coming back to the neighborhood. I walked past their houses on my post-midnight strolls, peering in through their windows as I wandered on by.
Such incredible optimism motivates the tricking out of one’s rooms in the fall of a new year. Exercise bikes we still think we’ll use. Books we’re still determined we’ll read.
It rubbed off on me, you know? I’d get by. There were all these new people around to soften the blow, a new forest of trees to wander through, their fluttering branches giving shade to my steps.
And it was okay, in the end. I went home to Cape Cod for a few days before classes resumed, and made out with a boy who liked me more than I liked him. I didn’t have much in common with him. But we both knew we would do better, in time.