Off and on I’ve started to write single essays about this person. But no single essay could capture on paper what played out in front of bemused witnesses: all our conversations had something in them worth reading, worth writing about. Even when trading barbs in anger, with one another we had wit, depth, and an intuitive understanding of each other I have never experienced before or since. When we started arguing, bemused witnesses, professors included, usually just stopped and watched us. We were entertainment. Television writers are only now coming close to our matched scathing wits. Heaving bosoms and bare chests were nothing compared to our intellectual chemistry.
But perhaps that’s perception – the view from twenty years ago, as a 18 year old. 18 year olds always think their own world is deeply involved and clever.
For awhile I thought we were enemies, and I viewed his appearances in my life with resignation and a degree of exhaustion. Usually when I spoke back the way I spoke back to someone like him, some sort of punishing behavior followed. Instead, as we walked away from class, he said “I really enjoy talking to you.” This was after one of our more vituperative exchanges during a discussion based class. At the time I didn’t believe him. Every boy I’d met prior found me sharp-tongued, tiresome, someone to punish. His persistent friendliness I saw as the slow, sure buildup to eventual abuse.
At the end of our freshman year, he informed all of his friends that he had a girlfriend and had fallen in love/found God at the same time. That worried me. Many of our conversations involved his atheism and my deism. No, I wasn’t happy about the girlfriend – the pressure on my inner emotional footlocker wasn’t that tight, even if I was also sincerely happy to see him so happy – but I worried more that this changed friend might change our conversation quality.
To my relief, it didn’t. His habits were just as bad, his sense of humor just as quick, and the only real change I noticed when he expressed embarrassment/apologies when I overheard him making love to his girlfriend one weekend as I walked past his dorm room. The year before he bragged to me about every conquest he had, so the change startled me but not so much I initiated a conversation about that. (There was a later, hilarious incident where he forgot that I knew about his girly magazines and was mortified that his friends dug them up when I asked for them in his absence.)
This was the year I went through as “one of the guys.” For me this made a frustrating yet beneficial label, as it meant I enjoyed safety around young men my age that other girls on campus did not. It did, however, not so much create as force to the surface issues I had regarding my attractiveness, and whether I had to sacrifice all sexual enjoyment to experience a relationship of equals with men. Despite our verbal acuity, neither my conversation partner nor I had fully developed language centers yet, and so in this one area of intellectual meeting we failed each other.
I tried to express my mixed feelings. “So basically I’m not ever going to be a girl to them,” I said one day, as, over beer some of his buddies went “let’s get some girls in here!” At this I had glanced down at my breasts, then shrugged.
“When they get older they’ll get it,” he said. “When it counts, men want a woman they can really talk to.”
I already knew that all men did not exist at all, the same as all women did not. There is no what men want. There is no what women want. Trending tastes are one part miracle to two parts brainwashing. I decided not to take the bait on his unusually weak semantics because right then, with what he said, I really just wanted another beer and a chance to stop thinking about a life beside some guy who could “really talk to me” while I floated out, alone, intellectually dissatisfied and sexually ignoerd. By that time, I’d become the unwilling repository for everyone’s secrets. Everyone could really talk to me, but I wasn’t getting anything I needed in return for that. When it came to men, he was the only one I’d met that I could really talk to – the rest of his friends just weren’t smart enough to have conversations I found genuinely satisfying.
His tacit implication I was on some backburner also displeased me to a greater degree than I let myself feel.
By the second semester of sophomore year, a drift, conscious and unconscious, inevitable and sad, occurred. I started spending more time with other friends in our circle – still men, but men that saw me more as a “girl” even if they weren’t romantically interested. I began the process of transferring schools. It had leaked to my conscious mind over that winter break that I was actually rather desperately in love with him, my actual romantic prospects, illusory as they were, had more promise for me, and continuing as I had was just making me sadder and more withdrawn.
When I mentioned moving, my conversation partner became cantankerous about it, and implied he thought I was bluffing, so I stopped telling him what was going on with me and just went about the difficult process of restarting my life where my degree might serve a purpose. It wasn’t conscious, but at some point I just sort of stopped talking to him about anything real, or intellectual, or unreal. I stopped even bothering to correct him on subjects I had actually changed my mind about, like the value of Greek life, or my now dropped “six month” rule before sex. If the phone rang in his room, I simply withdrew, twice as fast if it was his girlfriend. I had begun the process of rolling up in myself what I had given of myself to him, which was everything except my emotional self. There was one moment, where he was on his bunk bed above me and I sat in a chair below, where he drunkenly demanded I promise to return for our junior year. I had just received my acceptance letter to Mankato State that morning. I had just converted to Wicca, during a time where promise keeping and personal honor was an enormous part of the practice. “I won’t make you a promise I can’t keep,” I told him. He pressed, and pressed, but I did not relent. He fell silent, jaw set, dissatisfied. I forgot about this. I continued hanging out with other people, often with him nearby, included but no longer close. I didn’t think whether he noticed the change between us.
Apparently he did notice, and it hurt him – it didn’t even occur to me that my quiet withdrawal, mostly as unconscious as it was, could hurt him, let along be noticed by him. There was one warm spring day where I laid out next to a pond by our dormitory, napping in the warmth of early spring. He happened to come by on his bicycle and asked me to walk with him. I got up right away, happy for a little company. He asked me my life philosophy. Such questions were old, argument-starting fodder with us: I thought being asked for such a thing when still this young was obscene and absurd, as he insisted that everyone has a philosophy, and that he had totally expected me to answer as I had. I hadn’t been so engaged in a conversation of such good quality in months – since the last time we’d have a conversation like it.
Out of the blue, he said, “I’ve really missed talking to you.”
I pretended I hadn’t thought about it. “Yeah, I guess we don’t as much since we have different classes this semester.”
I think we both know I was full of it. I’d been avoiding him, shutting him out of my experience. I needed to leave and leaving him was the hardest part. The less engaged and connected I felt, the more easily that could happen – and he was the only thing that made me feel engaged and connected.
I suggested we talk more, maybe make it a point to go for walks, especially since my lack of exercise at times visibly disturbed him. I stopped by to ask him to go for a walk once after that, and he was busy. I immediately quit trying – I was tired of putting in effort without getting reciprocity. My conversations with most people covered that.
It was our tiny college’s idiotic and persistent politics that brought to the fore exactly how hurt he really was by my intellectual desertion. He was in a fraternity; the previous year I had loud and frequent objections to the Greek system because I disagreed with any system that separated people by gender. (The co-ed fraternities were professional associations only, to my chagrin.) I don’t even remember all the details of it, but his fraternity somehow ended up in hot water over an alcohol violation committed the year before that somehow did not become a problem until almost a year later. At the time, I worked for the campus newspaper. When the story rolled around, we had just experienced a huge staff walkout and I was the remaining “hard” news reporter. My attempts to beg conflict of interest were over-ruled and I was told to pursue the story about my friend’s fraternity. I remember constructing the question over and over in my head- I wanted…needed my friend to say no to my interview request. I foolishly assumed he would know I was on his side, and not the side of the Greek system, and not the side of the newspaper, and sure as hell not in the side of the idiotic school administration but his.
The words used, exactly, escaped me. “They’re making me ask…” from there, I wanted it clear this wasn’t something I wanted to do at all. I tried to structure room for him to say “no comment,” as fully as possible, or to refuse to talk to me on the record about that or something that would let us walk away from the subject.
His response, however, held far more hurt and confusion than I expected. At first, I thought he was joking. “So what, you’re just friends with us so you can get a stupid story?”
I said something flippant, and he glared. Then I looked in his eyes and I could see none of the smile in them that he had always had for me. “Oh my God, you’re serious.”
I can’t remember what he said. All I remember is holding on to his door frame as every piece of every fear I had ever had about losing him, about him hating me, about him, came loose from that deep-down footlocker I buried my emotions in. I managed to keep from crying in front of him, which was good since he never handled the sight of me crying with sympathy. Once his onslaught stopped, I told him “No,” in answer to his accusations. With all the control I could muster, I said, “OK, that’s fine. You don’t have to do it. Thanks for letting me know.”
I remember thinking I can’t lose him before I have to leave. He means too much to me.
Just having that thought terrified me.
I then went upstairs, and my roommate saw the look on my face, and just as she asked me what was wrong the tears exploded.
My beloved conversation partner had actually made me cry – and I was not one of those girls that cried. I remember stopping my roommate from marching down the stairs and kicking my friend’s ass.
The course of events right after that are something of a blur. There was a phone call and a meeting set up. It was all very cryptic.We need to talk, he said. On some level I registered that he used none of the language used when you talk to a reporter. I figured we would talk about our friendship, the time we had left. I thought of this, but didn’t know what to say. I was so tired of the politics that he pursued. It was after class, and still light out – it was around 6, maybe 7 at night. It was our first time alone together since sometime Freshman year.
I remember him pulling whiskey out of the fridge, chilled the way he knew I liked it (and that he insisted, was whiskey that was mine/that I had purchased); for some incongruous reason he had wine glasses. I remember telling him how horrified I was by that fight, that it seemed like he’d forgotten who I was, and that I had changed my mind about a lot of things since knowing him; we talked about the trouble the fraternity was in and I masked my disappointment that this was all about politics yet again. Then the president of his fraternity happened to knock on the door- there was NO WAY his appearance was coincidental. The president looking down at the glasses between us and asked if he was “interrupting something” and I got the sense he wanted to know if he was interrupting our date. When my friend said nothing, giving me no leads on how he wanted to handle this or what he wanted kept secret about our politicized conversation, I spoke up and assured the guy that no, there was nothing “interrupted” with us, that it wasn’t like that.
From there, my friend fessed up the news story angle. The pres then pulled up a chair and filled me in on everything, while I felt deep irritation that my friend needed to establish such a manipulative scene instead of being honest with me, something he had always done in the past. So, despite my best efforts not to get it, I got the goddamned story anyway – a story I would have traded for my friend in a heartbeat, since it was an especially banal and stupid story involving college politics and fraternal rivalries.
I’m not sure why, but from there I was invited to go to the frat president’s apartment and play cards. I could tell there was something still up with my friend – we were playing Asshole, and I lost, and he offered to drink the punitive pitcher of beer for me. This was not a type of chivalry he had ever displayed towards me before. I insisted on taking the penalty – I was one of the guys, right? But when I lost the next round, the pres took the penalty after I explained I’d lost weight and couldn’t hold my liquor anymore. At that point, I needed to go back to my dorm room as the emotional roller coaster plus the alcohol really wore me out.
My conversation partner insisted on walking me home. That winter alone he had witnessed me drink that much before a party, drink at the party, and I always stumbled home alone (and unmolested.) The distance between our dorm and his frat suite was at least half a mile. The distance between the apartment buildings and our dorm was that of a small parking lot. Still, he insisted on walking me home despite my protests. I assumed it was about covering up another potential alcohol violation. I wanted that time alone. I needed some time to process, and to set aside the frustration of all the things I had hoped to say that there just wasn’t room to say. I was happy to be numb, even if it did take an entire pitcher of beer.
I got to my door and tried to send him away. He refused. I started to kick off a shoe and tried to send him away. He still refused. He would not leave until he had removed both my shoes and gotten me to crawl underneath the quilt on my bed. This was all done in silence, and I could see his jaw working, see that something was happening with me that had him upset in a new way. Alcohol plus all that fresh fear in my blood kept me silent. He kissed my forehead, he left, and I fell asleep. I knew he’d done this for another female friend of his, but she had been far more fucked up than I was. I assumed he was just overcompensating after our fight.
The arguably dangerous part is when I woke up. What my conversation partner had missed, ignored, or just didn’t see is that, in my time away from him, a sexual relationship with another of his frat brothers had developed. Neither one of us was serious about it (though I think that my fuckbuddy assumed me far more serious than I was) and it had gone on long enough that sex while inebriated was part of our language of consent. I did try to reach my conversation partner first – although for what is unclear. He wasn’t in any haunt where I could reach him, so I went across the hall and knocked on my fuck buddy’s door, to whom I announced, “I’m drunk!”
I remember that night well, even now. It’s one of the curses/blessings of my neurology – I remember everything I do and say while I’m drunk. This knowledge is what kept me so quiet as I was tucked away in my bed. On the wake up round, with alcohol now coursing through my system unchecked, however, I was able to use my numbed skin to tolerate things we both enjoyed that were pretty transgressive and kinky for not having any toys available.
My only regret for this incident is that I did not own foundation or cover up – and I had bruises going down most of my body the next day. I had to wear a turtleneck in eighty three degree weather. I even asked my conversation partner if his girlfriend or one of his roommates’ sleepover friends left any makeup in the room. They did not. When he saw the bruises, the terror in his eyes was almost gratifying. “I didn’t –“
“I know it wasn’t you.”
“You were alone when I left you – “
“I remember everything when I’m drunk, you know that. We were both culpable for this.”
He looked down at the floor. “What does that mean?”
Shit, he still thinks I’m talking about him. “The guy I did this with. It was consenting.” I was too hung over to quite get the world consensual together.
I didn’t want to tell him who it was, but something about the way he looked out the window, something about the expression on his face, I needed to reassure him. “I know you’d never hurt me on purpose,” I told him.
Something about my saying that didn’t process well, either.
I cursed myself for the indiscretion but I told him who it was. This started a new round of processing. He finished with, “Interesting.”
I didn’t ask why.
If we had another real conversation after that, I don’t remember. He told me he hated that I was leaving as I hugged him goodbye. I did try calling a few times, after I transferred schools. The call stopped after I told him I was getting married. I never saw him again. We never had a real conversation again.
I don’t think I have ever had a conversation as good as the conversations I’ve had with him since.
I’ve wondered – if I turned a corner in Atlanta, or maybe around here in San Francisco, if I’d run into him. If, upon seeing each other and going through the ritual of trading baby pictures and wedding photos and overly-informational health updates, if we’d move into a coffee shop and then continue a conversation from twenty years ago, or better yet, have an updated one now. Can there be spirituality without a religion? What IS my life philosophy, now that I’m not young? Explain all this Kirrkegard bullshit, motherfucker. Now that there are women’s professional sports, now what?
Most recently I enjoyed a poetry group filled with people brilliant and unpretentious. We shared experiences with a depth that I hadn’t felt since those first two years of college. There was a Catholic, a mythopoetic male, a young woman working as a stringer journalist for a local micro newspaper, a former teacher. I was the only witch. I loved them. They fed my soul, collectively, the way my old conversation partner did single handedly.
Conversations that good, that deep, that satisfying are very hard to find. I hope they find me again. I hope he finds me again. Even now, I feel like we have worlds more to say to each other, even though I know our lives have no parallels whatsoever.