The three months leading up to my junior year of college were lonely and emotionally draining. I was living in Atlanta, working in a ministry that helped feed people, find shelter space for those between homes, and track down money with which to pay overdue electric and gas bills.
It was good work. But in between the moments of feeling like I was helping to make a difference – a real difference, even if it was only temporary – I felt sad and hopeless and overwhelmingly guilty. I had so much and others had so little.
On top of that, I was alone in a city that didn’t know me, didn’t want to know me. My heart, already bruised after a string of breakups, was being torn to shreds by the men and women who sat at my intake desk day after day and told me that they couldn’t pay their rent or feed their babies.
On the long weekends when I didn’t have work and I didn’t have anyone to talk to, I’d lace up my sneakers and grab my walkman and run. I ran for hours, miles, matching my gait to the beat of “Yellow” and “I’m Like a Bird” and “Drive” (a mix CD my roommate burned me off of Napster) (A walkman! NAPSTER!).
The summer ended and I went on a family trip that began with a mini-reunion of the family on my dad’s side. My grandfather was so ill, he couldn’t lift the oxygen tank that accompanied him everywhere. I remember marveling at how strong my tiny grandmother must have been to lug that thing in and out of the car. (I marvel now at how strong she must have been in so many other ways.) It was so good to see him, for my last memories of him to be set in a beautiful place filled with much laugher and family togetherness.
After the reunion, my parents and my brother and I went up to Canada. We walked on a glacier and ate a lavish, four-course meal attended by a fleet of servers in a restaurant that looked like a castle. I remember my father tripping on a flight of stairs somewhere, cutting his shin. And as the little river of blood snaked down his leg, the dreadful realization bobbed to the surface of my consciousness – maybe for the first time – that he wouldn’t be around forever.
My mother flew with me back east to school, as she’d done every year; got me set up in my dorm room. She left the morning of September 11 (a morning I mostly slept through, by the way. Thank goodness for instant messenger or I never would have turned on the TV.) and was sitting in an airplane at Newark airport waiting to take off when her pilot saw the first plane hit. We spent days watching the coverage – the plumes of smoke billowing upward and upward as though it was happening fresh every minute; the scenes of people tacking up missing person signs near ground zero; the footage of American flags blossoming from homes and businesses and car windows all across the country – our hearts swollen with pain and hope and terror and pride. Classes started on time a few days later and I said goodbye to my mom. My uncle drove up from South Carolina to pick her up and drive her west. My father started driving east and they met somewhere in the middle.
That was me the fall of 2001: heartsick, panicked, grief-stricken, lonely.
I wasn’t looking for love.
So when I met the cute boy at a concert that October and shared a Wa sandwich with him in a friend’s dorm room, I didn’t think much of it. He was one of dozens of cute boys I’d met in college (albeit one of the few who’d looked at me with anything like interest). And I wasn’t looking for a boy. My heart was battening down the hatches, closing the storm shutters against the possibility of more feeling.
We all tried to be normal. I can’t recall if I went home for fall break that year – but I know my choir trip to Spain was cancelled. I took a statistics class that was surprisingly interesting. I tried valiantly to attend a class on Chaucer but when I didn’t forget I had it, I could never find the classroom. (I still have stress dreams about that class.) I started work on the first of two junior projects – this one about the poetry of Elizabeth I.
In between classes, I was aware of the cute boy. I piled into his SUV one day after dinner with a group of his friends. He had the Linkin Park album in his CD player and I remember giving him mental bonus points for knowing the words to “In the End.” He drove us back to his side of campus, and I stood awkwardly in his dorm room, trying to come up with the proper amount of impressed enthusiasm for the number of beer bottles he and his roommates had amassed on the mantle of their common room. His eyes were so blue.
We first kissed at a fancy gala. I still remember the dress I was wearing – knee-length black tulle over hot pink tulle with a slit up the side where the pink came through in ruffles – my flamenco dress, I called it. I’d had a choir concert that night, so I was late to the party. The cute boy was there. He was 21 (and I was not) and he sneaked me sips of a fancy drink that tasted like cake batter. We stood outside in the November cold and smoked cigars. (Neither of us likes cigars.) In the basement tap room later, our heads swirling with loud music and tobacco and too much Frangelico, we kissed for the first time. I remember thinking he was the best kisser in all the lands.
But that was just harmless fun, my heart insisted, drawing its fragile armour tight around it.
Several weekends we spent flirting and – made bold by bad beer – kissing. Many week days, we’d blush in each other’s presence, afraid to admit to anything blooming between us.
He’d come over to my dorm room on school nights, sit next to me on the little loveseat set up in the common space, and watch reruns of Seinfeld. (Much later, I learned he hates Seinfeld.) He never held my hand, never touched my hair, never kissed me good night. Just watched Seinfeld with me then trudged back to his own dorm.
We went to the winter formal together. I wore the same red gown I’d worn to my high school prom.
We emailed over Christmas. He was in Europe with his family; I was back home, hanging out with old high school friends and boyfriends, flagrantly NOT serious about anyone anywhere, in the US or overseas. Two weeks is a long time to be away from someone you’ve only known for three months. And the empty planes and heightened security, my father’s pallor of grief from losing his father, the high school sweetheart who’d found someone else to love… it all reminded me of just how fragile everything is, how destined for ending.
Back at school, we had to study for exams. An English major who knew how to work the system, I had arranged it so I only had papers to write. (I hated exams, but I loved writing papers. Still do.) The reading and exam period encompassed all of January, if I remember correctly. Once my papers were filed neatly in my professors’ inboxes, I had nothing to do.
The cute boy needed new tires on his car. He would sit for his last final and still have a full week left in the exam period. So he was going to drive home – here, in fact; this city where we live now – to get new ones. His mother and his sister would be visiting from Europe, so he could see them at the same time.
Somehow, we came to the agreement that I would come with him.
How did we arrive at that conclusion, I wonder? And why were my parents okay with me driving eight hours in a car with a boy they didn’t know – a boy I’d only known for three months – to stay with his family in a strange city?
Sitting in the car, the feeling that this was a horrible mistake settled around my shoulders. What would we possibly talk about for eight hours? Instead of thinking up topics on my own, I read him tidbits from Cosmo magazine. (There was a little fact about yawning in that issue. It said people yawn when others yawn as a means of communicating with each other. We still say, “I’m trying to communicate with you!” whenever one of us yawns after the other.)
We got to his house and I met his mother and his aunt and his sister. I would be sleeping in his sister’s room, on a trundle bed.
I went upstairs to call my mom, to let her know we’d arrived safely.
I don’t know if I told her straight out; no, I think I held onto it like a secret for many months. But I remember talking to her in his bedroom in the dark, laughter and chatter floating up the stairs from the kitchen, and knowing with such clarity: I could marry this man.
Something about the calm, confident way he drove, the easy way we’d been able to talk for eight hours straight… Something about the family photos on the wall or the comfortable warmth of the kitchen or the way that his mother assumed (as mine would have) that of course I would sleep in his sister’s room… Something about how welcoming these women were, how much they clearly, deeply loved this boy…
That’s when I knew. I knew he was a man I could love, a man I could walk beside into forever.
I hid that knowledge deep inside myself, kept it under lock and key, for several months. It wasn’t until spring break, when I was sitting in a closet in a Puerto Rico hotel room, straining over bad cell reception to hear him talk about St. Patrick’s day in New York City, that I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I DID love him, and I wanted so badly to tell him so. I did a week or so later, I think, under cover of darkness. Turns out he loved me too.
But that first moment… the moment I said to hell with wounded hearts and the possibility of pain and opened myself up to a future with him? Was that night in his childhood bedroom, talking to my mother on the phone.
Our love story isn’t particularly cute or special, but it’s ours. Thinking of it still forms a little mountain of happiness in the back of my throat. Remembering that time still makes the room sparkle. I still think this city is a magical place.
Now. I’d love to know when YOU first knew that you were standing face to face with the person you’d love for the rest of your life.
Was it love at first sight? Was it friendship that deepened into love? Was it a wild and crazy romance? Did you meet in a bar, in a class, at work, online? Was it unexpected? Was it a long time in the making?
Please do tell. I could use some love stories to get me through the weekend – sappy, silly, strange or whatever yours may be.
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