I laughed easily at his jest, felt his eyes engulf me when we were together, sat steeped in delight on his motorcycle with my arms around him. My body blazed when he was near, not to mention when he touched me. Inhibitions melted. I felt known. My eyes, heart and soul looked only in his direction. I was certain he could see this, feel this, would come to trust my love enough to know I would not betray him; would believe he could give himself to me fully without fear.
He lived in a nearby dorm while he completed the last few credits needed for graduation. We traveled between his room and mine, doing the roommate dance that had become so familiar the year before – but now I was a fully participating member. What I didn’t know was that mine was not the only warm body that visited his bed. We spent every minute we were both free together. My free time seemed more plentiful than his. I waited for the phone to ring, my stomach twisting into knots when the expected call was delayed or did not arrive at all. Sometimes I made the call, but rarely got an answer. But I was not about to let anything interfere with my fairytale of falling in love, or of being loved. I had learned to do what needed to be done without question for most of my life; a message entwined so deeply in my subconscious that my rational brain could not uproot it. Instead I used that rational brain to support my conviction that there must be a perfectly ordinary reason for his absence. But odd feelings captured my attention at strange times – a group of young women looking my way and gesturing in my direction, entire weekends when for some unknown reason we were unable to get together, sightings of his motorcycle in unexpected areas. I skillfully endured and suppressed unacceptable emotions, had taken lessons from a master of keeping the peace for as long as I could remember. But I did not remember; did not notice the behaviors I had vehemently rejected as weak and degrading reflected in my own. It was easier to construct a neat nest of beliefs from the twigs of my own desires.
He graduated in December, then continued his association with the university by taking a job there. He moved into a tiny basement apartment nearby. I helped furnish it with refurbished second hand finds, using skills I had learned from watching my mother’s hands. Now we had a place to land with no need to consult roommates. I was certain his step into the working, apartment dwelling world would provide an avenue for our relationship to branch in new directions, to become more solidly rooted in the new soil of adulthood. I hoped we could flourish there together.
Sophomore year began on the third floor of a low rise that stood in the shadow of the tower I’d lived in the previous year. I hugged my returning roommates – a response they had taught me, one I was just starting to feel comfortable offering and receiving. Hugging was not part of the language I had learned at home. I lingered, letting their smiles and laughter feed my hunger for belonging. There was also a new face, with long dark hair parted in the middle and an eager smile. She would become part of our solid group.
A few other familiar faces floated by, including an unexpected one. He had scanned my meal card in the cafeteria each day, while his blonde fiancée across the way scanned a parallel line. He was half of a well-known couple at this corner of campus. They were always together. He had playfully teased and joked with many of the young women who passed through his line, seemed to have an eye for shyness born from innocence – or maybe innocence born from shyness. His attention towards me had escalated as the year progressed. I always found my way to his line. Unable to control the rush of blood to my cheeks or the fluster of a reply, I often resorted to laughing as a way to respond without words to his comments. I had heard that he was on his way to graduation and then marriage at the end of the previous semester; yet here he was sitting in my new dorm’s lounge area, joking around as usual and sending his glances my way. His return to campus was unexpected, his break-up unbelievable, and his immediate attention aimed at me unmistakable. He made his way to my end of the room. We talked a little then walked outside. He offered a ride on his new motorcycle – the small foreign kind. I donned a helmet for the first time and held on tightly as my life raced into the fast lane, towards what I would believe was love.
It happened very quickly, the initial passion already primed with past flirtations. It was an education I was ready for. He skillfully introduced me to the world I had only dipped my toes into over the past year. At first I thought I might drown, but then learned to swim, and then to dive into the deep end. As the story of unexpected abandonment by his fiancée began to unfold, the cracks in his strong outer shell appeared. My heart opened as it never had before. If I loved him enough, I was sure he would be able to understand how good he was, how strong and complete we could be, how wonderful life would be together. After all, wasn’t this what love was? Supporting someone through the hard times, giving so much of oneself that the other would be healed, unconditionally and without the need to control? That was what I intended to do. I had vowed never to be like my mother, never to be controlled by or dependent on anyone. I was different from her, had taken a different route, was going to have a different kind of relationship. And it all began here, with real love.
Men became an experiment to help discover who I was, who I wanted to be, and what I wanted in a relationship. I was also curious to see what each had to offer. From very tall to very short, some quiet with little to say, some full of what they wanted to say – often about themselves, some physically appealing and others attractive in different ways. The biggest losers were those that seemed to be fixated on my chest, and the biggest winners had humor at their fingertips. Sometimes the attraction was to what they represented – wild-haired and hippie-cultured, guitar playing with an air of detachment, clean cut and straight as an arrow. I may not have known exactly what I wanted, but I did know what I did not want: no meanness or violence, no one more quiet than me, not a country boy, not someone who wanted only what my body had to offer and, most importantly, no one with a need to control me. It was a confusing year. I technically no longer qualified for that ‘V’ upon my chest, but remained inexperienced in anything that resembled a relationship – physical or otherwise.
I watched quietly out the backseat window as my father drove and my mother sputtered out questions to break the long silences. It was May, time to return home for the summer. Concrete and pavement were gradually replaced with stretches of farmland and forests. As the distance between the car and the small house in the woods diminished, so did the glow I had found in my new life. At home mom was more talkative than I remembered, seemed to paste on a smile each time our paths crossed, and went on about how much she had missed me. But it was hard to understand what had been missed. We had rarely discussed personal likes or dislikes, had never shopped together or gone out to lunch, or even just sat at the kitchen table and shared coffee and conversation. I realized I knew very little about my mother and she knew nothing about me. If anything, the distance between our life experiences now far exceeded the miles that had separated us.
Back at home the rural location and lack of a car left few options for employment. Mom drove me the few miles into town to babysit during the week. I picked strawberries, raspberries and blueberries on the weekends to earn what money I could to supplement the grants, student loans and work-study job that financed my education. Almost every week a letter from Mom had also included $5 for spending money – an amount that actually made a difference in those years.
I ached to laugh or be included in a group of familiar faces my age. Barb had remained in New York and I had lost contact with the few friends remaining from high school. There was no extra money to spend on bus fare for trips to see my new friends. The loneliness siphoned away any desire to share my experiences at school, even when mom tried to ask. She wouldn’t understand anyways. At the end of the summer I was relieved to finally repack my towels and sheets and hot pot and notebooks. Resolve that I would do everything in my power to be sure they were never unpacked in this house again slid into my trunk beside them.
Early in the school year I made my virgin venture into New York City to visit Barb. Fear and excitement bounced from my brain to my gut on the bus ride into Port Authority. How would I find her? What if I didn’t? Who would I ask for help? I had her phone number but the convenience of Cell phones was decades away. I exited the bus and was immediately engulfed in a forest of people. There was no clear indication of which direction to head in. But as I turned to leave the unloading area Barb was there to greet me. I felt like grabbing her and never letting go, but restrained a display of relief in the name of coolness. We exited the station onto a sidewalk choked with people. At first I hesitantly wove my way through the oncoming bodies that whipped past me as if I was invisible. It didn’t take long to realize I needed to follow Barb’s lead and charge ahead into the flow to avoid becoming an obstacle! We walked past lane after lane of cars on the streets, past buildings that stretched towards the clouds and past people sleeping on cardboard boxes on the sidewalk. We soon joined the swarm that descended out of the sunlight, into the glare of bright overhead bulbs. After scrambling through a revolving gate we landed on a congested platform. Rumbling and screeching announced the arrival and departure of long sleek trains – without wheels and unlike any I had ever seen. We plunged through sliding doors before they swooshed closed. I couldn’t help wonder if anyone ever got trapped when only part way in. Barb moved without hesitation as she guided me along this strange maze of people, pavement and passages. How had she transformed this foreign terrain into the familiar so quickly?
When we finally arrived at her building we climbed endless stairs to her apartment. The door opened into a room smaller than my dorm bedroom. It was hard to imagine fitting an entire life into such a tiny space. At one end a toilet sat one step up in a separate cubicle with a door. A tub was in the kitchen area along with the only sink and the tiniest stove and refrigerator I had ever seen. At the other end was the cramped living, sleeping, anything else area with a window that framed a view of the brick wall a couple of feet away. I fell onto the couch/bed, relieved to be there. Barb wore a new sense of ease. She seemed at home here, as if her arrival into this life had been as natural as the budding of a new leaf in springtime.
I had just settled when Barb began to move around the room and speak using the increasingly rapid pace and partial sentences I had witnessed many times before. She seemed ready to burst with news she also wanted to serve on a platter of self control. Then she revealed her most important achievement, the education of a more personal sort we had both left home in search of. In a flurry of fragmented details she divulged the where and when and who and how. She made it sound so simple – a plan made and executed. Done. Maybe I really was uptight and undesirable after all! Maybe they would pin a giant scarlet ‘V’ upon my chest to let the world know my disgrace as a modern woman of the 70’s!
There were more visits to ‘the city’ – as I quickly learned to refer to New York – throughout the semester. The boyfriend of one of my roommates lived on campus there and we shared a ride from the ride board. Following my visit with Barb I made my way to the campus. I would spend the night on the couch outside the boyfriend’s door and catch the shared ride back the next morning. A dorm party, with the expected magnitude of alcohol and drugs and whatever else could be bargained for, filled the evening. My roommate’s focus was on her boyfriend so I faded into the farthest corner, trying to emulate the passive pose of the inebriated. I was in a strange place surrounded by strange people in an overwhelming city I knew little about navigating. The invitation of intoxication to ease my nerves was tempting, but fear of losing my way and never finding a path back was enough to dilute my intake. My eyes flicked across the small crowd until I found myself gazing at a young man across the room. His wild, curly red hair and easygoing manner, mixed with the merriment in his eyes, grabbed my focus for a long moment. Glances bounced from him to me and back again. He had a nice smile. My roommate appeared and it ended there. A few days later she mentioned that the man with the curly red hair –a friend of her boyfriend – had asked about me after we left. We arranged to speak the next time my roommate telephoned her boyfriend. Then we arranged to meet on the next trip to NYC. It was unstated but easily understood that the arrangement included sharing a bed if I so desired.
It was not what I had expected. My intended had indulged in multiple inebriants. He talked of silly things and I laughed. There were fumbles and mumbles and I wasn’t quite sure if anything had actually been accomplished. I knew the basic mechanics, or at least thought I did, but began to doubt even that had occurred. Much later I would understand that the indulgence had left him incapacitated for this venture. He slept while I lay quietly, wondering if this was what all the fuss was about. Next morning I was up and out the door before he rose – in any form. My roommate looked at me with questioning eyes as we stood on the subway heading to meet our ride. I returned a non- committal smile. I never saw him again. But I kept a picture of him I had cut from a brochure for decades after. It reminded me of my ‘first time’ – even with all the confusion and disappointment. The first time I had felt a mutual desire to move forward; had opened to intimacy – with not just my body but with a bit of my heart. Sometimes I am still able to conjure a fond memory.