The end of the 80’s, beginning of the 90’s. MTV still played music videos, and the first Gulf War was still in the future. I arrived at college and threw away my curling iron and hairspray. Just a glance through my high school yearbook would reveal how BIG an action that was.
When I was in college, there was hardly a single guy who wouldn’t try to sleep with me given half a chance. Even if he had a girlfriend, even if that girlfriend was a friend of mine, if we happened to be alone together in a room with a door, he’d try his luck. I understand that this is not atypical.
And it will not surprise you to learn that I was the pining sort, my heart hinged on the Unattainable One whose friendly hugs never became more.
So I was by and large unresponsive to these efforts. I, obnoxious Atalanta, proposed impossible tasks. This is absolutely true. J. pursued me (why I could never understand, we were so thoroughly unsuited to each other), so I told him that if he could discover and recite the two opening lines of my favorite poem, I’d go out with him. Seriously. Insufferable, yes, but it was a pointed challenge: see how little we have in common?
J. never did figure it out (“Come live with me and be my love, / and we will all the pleasures prove” — let me remind you I was a very young 18), but he tried surprisingly hard. Sex was the bass line underscoring J.’s every thought and action, but he was willing to work for it. His efforts were endearing. I, however, was unrelenting. I don’t think I even told him the answer. (I know, I know. J. didn’t say it, but I’m sure he thought it: “Bitch.”)
Yet, in the midst of my Unrequited Love, there was one guy I flirted with. He was a little older, with shaggy, weathered good looks: a fledgling poet. P. was on the fringes of our clique, Heathcliff with a sense of humor. Does that capture his appeal well enough? I could have really fallen hard.
What kept me wary was that Heathcliff aspect, the darkness I sensed in him. P. struggled with alcohol, I remember him being quite open about it, which was positive, but I felt a world of pain there. So I kept my distance.
But we hung out, went on walks, smoking cigarettes together (oh how I loved smoking), talking. He gave me a card, with actual handwritten words inside, for my birthday. Do you have any idea how rare that was? I felt wooed, but gently. Sweetly.
One time, on one of our walks, we ran into My Crush, and there was a flash of awkwardness, this charged frisson, as My Crush & I exchanged friendly hugs and chit-chat. Probably all in my overactive imagination, but at the time it seemed momentous.
Another afternoon, late for lunch, I ran into P. as I rushed into the deserted student center. It was early spring, I was flushed, hungry and distracted, and I think we were both caught off-guard. Because I literally ran into P.. He didn’t kiss me or do anything so dramatic — but he put his hands on my head, in an almost tender gesture, and said, “You have the most beautiful hair.”
And that’s the point of this long long story, because it’s a rainy overcast Saturday in late September, and it’s been a difficult week, and now I hear that Paul Newman has died — the sadnesses just seem to accumulate.
But these small moments, these gifts of kindness and care, jewel-toned memories, they gather too, into a beautiful mass of autumn leaves I can fall into on days just like this one.