It was only a matter of time.
Searching for something in my Facebook messages, I tried the dread Other Inbox. And amidst all of the messages from men in distant lands seeking friendship and help with their spelling, whatever I was looking for…was not there.
But there was a message from him. It stood out as the only one that didn’t start with “Hey…” and because it was from R.S. Putin. He has changed his screen name a hundred times. I always know him when I see him. It was three months old.
I haven’t seen him in twenty-five years. But I will always know him.
Sociology class, Fall, 1989. First day of class, everyone finding seats. I am a middle of the room, middle of the row person. I am sure that this says something very important about my mental health. As I put down my books in the middle of the middle, the row behind me broke up, sniggering quietly, three girls and a boy, the kind of boy every normal girl wants to meet and one day marry. Clean cut. Pretty. Respectable. Boring. And of course I thought they were laughing at me. But no.
The source of the commotion had just walked in the door like freakin’ Evel Knievel. And I laughed, too because how could I not? Full- on leather motorcycle suit, black and red. Leather boots, no helmet, long dirty blonde hair and a scruffy little beard. He made straight for my row, the seat next to me and asked to borrow some paper and a pencil, as he hadn’t brought any (IN HIS RIDICULOUS LEATHER SUIT!) and he smiled. He glanced behind us and chuckled, then looked at me for a very long time as I handed him paper with as much dismissive scorn as I could.
The next class, he was there again, unapologetically, and every class after that until eventually the silence got old or I stopped caring because I started to talk to him. To me, the obeyer of rules and non-maker of waves, he was fascinating. And odd. And irresistible. During class we would exchange one-liners on a notebook on the desk between us, leaving us choking on our own hilarity. We were so clever, then. And then one day:
I ignore him. He persists. Finally, I respond.
“Funny. Yes. Now.”
“Don’t you think the prof would object?”
“Not here. Follow me.”
“You think I’m bluffing.”
And he got up, from the middle of the middle in the middle of lecture and walked out.
And all eyes were on him. When Evel Knievel walks out of the room, everybody looks.
I was mortified. A few continued to look at me, and a voice in my head said “GO.” and I took a deep breath and made my way to the door.
He got an A in the class, and a perfect score on the final. I got a C. This should have been a red flag.
And so began the strangest period of my life. It’s hard to reconcile, this willingness to abandon what I thought were my values. He demanded an open relationship. He would see whomever he chose, and I could do the same. But he would publicly ridicule any budding relationship, and heaven help you if you tried to see someone from the outside. He had a group, friends, a culture, to offer someone who had never fit, but it was not an easy mix. We were all smart and clever and outcasts and we would turn on each other as quickly as we would wake up next to each other.
It just became easier to stay. At one point we were sleeping four and five to a room – floors covered with sleeping bags and pillows and books and clothes. Picture a house full of bitterly sarcastic young people, mostly women, varying levels of education. Big hair and torn jeans, thick, dark eyeliner and then Doc Martens and cutoffs and overalls; or plain nondescript baggy jeans and sneakers and oversized tee-shirts. Some of us friends, some bitter enemies. In retrospect, the only constant was that our curiosity was stronger than our self-esteem. We cooked and cleaned and studied and hung out. We learned how to change our own oil, change a tire, a thermostat. We gorged ourselves on fresh baked bread and fruits and vegetables when we had it and starved when everyone was broke. We shared cars and clothes and each other. I always kept my own place, some lived only there. He would disappear for days and return with someone new and expect us to welcome her without resistance. Sometimes we did. Most of the time, it was a peaceful existence. Not always.
I can’t explain why I accepted this.
I once took a gun from his hand and locked it and myself in the bathroom to keep him from firing out the windows at the enemies he believed were hiding in the dark. We wrote poems and played music by artists I had never heard of. We fought viciously, and I stormed out. He replaced me. He had me escorted off the property by a friend that he fancied his “security.” I kept the friend for a week. Then a lonely windy night he left roses on the doormat and I came home.
I can’t explain.
Long discussions of philosophy and religion. Group excursions to antique malls and all-you-can-eat buffets. Road trips with my feet hanging out the passenger window, my head in his lap.
I once drove across two states to spend a weekend at his parent’s cabin, a chance to spend time alone together – before the days of cellphones and GPS and when I left for home he wrote me detailed directions with a personal observation about every town I would pass through: “I know you. You will want to turn here. Don’t turn here. Don’t. You’ll get lost and refuse to ask for directions. I’ll never see you again.”
One night I huddled in the corner in the darkened bedroom as he held a zippo lighter to another woman’s face, holding her down, while she sobbed and apologized, in an effort to teach her about “reciprocity.” She had stumbled over a warmer with scented oil in the well. Walking in the dark, the oil had spilled on him as he slept. She was so calm, through her tears. An experienced target. She kept telling me “He won’t burn me, just go.” And he did not burn her. I am no less a coward. I stayed long enough to make sure he had shut down his crazy for the night, and I ran. I never came back.
I can’t explain why it took so long.
“I don’t know if you will ever see this.” the message reads. I can hear his voice. “I wanted you to know I am engaged. I finally found someone who will put up with me. I hope you are well. You can friend this profile if you wish. I would love to catch up.”
And I stalk his profile for an hour, scrolling through post after post and I laugh and I remember. He is as witty and smart and irreverent as ever. There are things about him I miss. He has also found a self-centered theology, a paranoid political stance. Those things I do not miss.
My life, now. I have grown beyond him and built something with someone who will never hurt me, never tell me that I lack intellectual depth, or I’m too tall and or too big to be very pretty, and then bring me white roses in the middle of the night with a sonnet, by way of apology. I do not miss those things, either.
I see that time of my life through a cliché – I’m older and hopefully wiser. More forgiving of the choices of a girl. I think that is the best thing that hindsight grants us, the ability to forgive ourselves. Look backward too long, and you miss what’s ahead. But sometimes seeing where you’ve been makes you appreciate where you are. Nothing to catch up to.. .