It was my first year of college. I’d chickened out and gone to a nearby state school that was a horrible fit for me: HUGE, known for partying, freshmen living hell and gone from campus, a school known for agriculture and science for pete sakes. Do I look like an Ag major to you? Don’t answer that.
I shouldn’t have been there. I had a full ride to another school, a smaller school, a school I liked and where several of my friends were going — as well as several of my classmates that I didn’t much care for. I think I felt a little snooty about it and wanted to go to a bigger school, prove that I could do well and stand out among the masses. The irony is a very rich alfredo for that one: They graduated, I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t even complete my first year there, but that’s a story for another day.
So it was that I found myself walking out of my 150-person sociology seminar one morning, shocked to see him standing next to the circular railing in the main hall, where one could look down to the floor below. He was waiting for someone who was in a class upstairs, and I was headed to a class across campus. We hadn’t seen each other in over 2 years, since before he had graduated from our high school, and we hadn’t dated since 2 years before that, but our off-and-on history together went all the way back to when I was 12 and he was 14 and was the first boy to put his tongue in my mouth. My God, was that disgusting. It would be a couple of months after our shock at finding each other on the same campus that I’d learn just how much better he’d gotten at that.
Over the next few months, we ran around together some, getting in trouble, meeting each other’s friends, having fun, inviting each other to parties. He’d not been long out of a very long relationship, and I knew him well enough to know that he was going to sow some oats and have a damn good time doing so before he would really settle down again. He was young, in college at a party school, handsome, and charming as hell doesn’t BEGIN to describe him. A nice boy with a mischievous grin, killer smile, the ultimate trust me face, ridiculously smart, no fear, and a smoooooth talker? Yeah, he had places to go and people to do.
In mid to late November, we gave in to years-old desires that had been dormant but not forgotten, and it was like a match to a kerosene-soaked blanket — a wickedly hot, dangerously fast burn. Even for his wild streak, he was still far more grounded in reality than I was; ADD aside, I was also 18 years old, on my own for the first time, and basically a hormone with legs. The fact that we never fell into bed together and tore each other to shreds speaks volumes to the man’s character because he could have had his every which way with me for however long he’d wanted and thrown me to the curb when he got bored; I even knew that it could be that way and still would have ended up tangled in the sheets if he’d given in just once.
But he didn’t. We would stand outside in the rain in the middle of the night, me leaning against his chest, him leaning against the brick wall in the arch between the halls of his dorm, his coat wrapped around me to block out the wind. I would be both smiling and crying because I loved what I had with him and, of course, wanted more, and he would be both smiling and crying because he loved what he had with me and couldn’t give me more. I don’t think I’ve ever respected anyone so much. I remember standing there shivering when the police came by to see what we were doing and if I was okay. I’ve never felt safer with someone who was breaking my heart. I can’t describe just how much I wish those things had been able to keep me from being angry.
It would have been about 4 a.m. or so on December 8, 1991, that I was dropped off at my dorm from a fraternity formal. I’d met someone, a much older someone, who was a little rough around the edges but my God, made me feel like he could actually write a convincing book on his theory that I’d hung the moon. He’d walked away from his friends and taken me onto the dance floor and taught me how to two-step. A man. Taught me a dance step. And wasn’t gay. Hell, it’s no wonder I was temporarily insane. I’m sure that had I looked up, pigs would have been flying overhead.
Unfortunately, in my insanity, I went straight to the computer and wrote a scathing letter to my old friend, the man I actually wanted to be with, who cared about me too much to treat me badly. I was horrible, oh my God, was I horrible. I said wretched things, abominable things — all right, things that I’m sure aren’t nearly as bad as I remember them now, though I know I used phrases like “a real man” and “willing to take a risk” and “something that is worth it” (the latter meaning my own childish, silly self, sigh). Basically, I made a fool of myself and hurt someone that I cared about. For no reason other than my petty anger at not getting my way. Bravo.
Days came and went, and suddenly, it was March – time for Spring Break. I’d had a whole lot of coffee-smelling in the interim and had finally been able to wake up and see what I’d done. I needed to make amends to my friend. I needed to tell him how sorry I was for having been so foolish, so childish, so… ungrateful for his honesty, and I wanted to be his friend if he’d still have me. He had been very centering for me, something I obviously needed, and in hindsight, I can see that is what I missed most. He cared about me, about my life and what I did with it, and did so without judging me for my choices but with honesty about where I was heading.
I finally reached him by phone, I believe it was Friday, the day before Spring Break started. Time had diffused things, but I could tell that he was still upset with me and hurt by the things I’d said. I was amazed that he didn’t hang up on me. I told him that I was incredibly sorry for being such an idiot and asked if we could please sit down and just talk things out, that I understood his decision and could respect it, but I didn’t want to lose his friendship. I wish I could remember more of the conversation, but I know it wasn’t that long. He agreed to talk to me, but we were both leaving for break: He was leaving the next morning for Chicago with his best friend from high school, and I was taking my own road trip to see my cousin and some friends at another college so it would have to wait until we got back.
I wish I’d had the guts to call him earlier in the week or even the week before. I wish I could have sat down and talked with him one last time.
There was an accident. His seat belt may have failed. Maybe they were too close to the tractor-trailer in front of them. Maybe the car behind them was too close. Maybe it was the small car. Maybe. His body lived for 4 days, but as his father so graciously and thoughtfully and sweetly told me when I so brazenly called the ICU and lied to the nurse to say I was a family member, he was never in it.
For some reason, last night, when I laid down to sleep and closed my eyes, he came to me. Every image, every thought, every smell of him stored inside my head over the 7 years I knew him and the 10 years of my own memories of his funeral, visits to his grave, the day I bumped into his best friend there, the self-inflicted wounds I’ve added over the years… they were all there. I was tortured and thought sure that I would have to get up and take something to fall asleep, but I felt paralyzed by them and unable to run for the medicine cabinet, knowing they would follow me. Instead, I tried to will myself to reveal why they had suddenly appeared.
I was able to fall asleep eventually, but they were still there when I woke and still without an answer.