I went to grad school a new person. I’d lost weight, felt more confident, was absolutely ready to spend two years studying, then face a future full of high income, moving home, starting a family. Stability. Love.
Yeah, that all went to hell.
But that first summer – when I always had messages on my answering machine, when I was full of hope, when I went running (yes, running. For miles.) every morning by the lake – I felt beautiful, strong, smart and completely thrilled with all that life held for me. I went to bars. Drank. Talked to M for hours – our very first meeting, after months of email, we sat at the Union for eight hours and drank soda. Told secrets. Started cementing a friendship that continues to leave me profoundly grateful.
I had a crush – a really good one, actually. I’d shiver when he’d talk into directly into my ear at concerts. Then would get to lean close so he could hear my reply. We shared a stool at my least favorite bar in grad school city, and drank from the same glass (I know – it’s all quite sexy. Trust me when I tell you it was fantastic at the time.) one night. I remember visiting his tiny office and flirting shamelessly. He called one night before I went out with a different guy (Me! I know! It was a long time ago.) and told me I should blow Dave off to come over. Nothing ever happened, but it was so different. To do some mutual flirting. To see a genuine smile of greeting. To sit a bit too close and have him scoot even closer.
That summer before classes started – May to August, 2001 – was doubtless my peak of social activity. I would stop to stare at myself when I walked by mirrored surfaces – I just felt so new and different.
I got a phone call from Mom – one where she was appropriately pleased with all my newly discovered social tendencies – and was told that Mandy would be coming to campus. She was going to do another undergraduate degree since she didn’t want to work in childhood education. So her parents had taken out loans and she wondered if I’d like to share an apartment. I emphatically refused, then waited with dread for her to arrive.
“She doesn’t know anyone.” Mom said. “But don’t spend too much time with her.”
“I can’t.” I said softly. “I don’t want to do that anymore. Be that person.”
Mandy was, of course, the pretty one. Popular. I embarrassed her in high school – clinging to our childhood friendship that she wanted desperately to forget in favor of befriending other girls. I realized it one day, and, miserably embarrassed, cut off most contact with her. By senior year, we barely spoke. I did quite well for myself. National Merit Scholar, Best Student in English, Science and Spanish. American Legion Award. Some honor for editing the school newspaper. President of the National Honor Society. Student Council all four years. Peer counselor. Salutatorian (Trust me when I tell you of the quality of my speech too. Really.)
Right before graduation, I looked at her seated in the bleachers from my chair on the floor. We were gathering our awards for various honors and with absolutely no modesty, it was pretty much my day. In a class of 200, I was able to shine brightly. Mandy smiled at me, seated next to her boyfriend, and I thought it was strangely appropriate. She was happy – had her friends and boyfriend. I was successful – had a pile of awards I placed neatly beneath my seat as my parents watched proudly from the second row. It was a good day, and that was basically how I remembered her since we talked maybe twice through undergrad. She was pretty, sweet and social. I was smart, driven and successful.
But who wants to play that character in the novel? So, thrilled with my new role in my grad school city, I didn’t want to slip back into those characters upon her arrival. We did, of course. Habits are hard to break, and I think I am that person – smart, driven, successful – much more than I was pretty and social. And that’s fine. I had fun trying it on, and lost it in a miserable fit of failure once classes started.
We didn’t live together – I refused with no regrets and she found an adorable place in an old mansion. We saw each other quite a bit at first – she developed a crush on my crush (nothing happened with either of us – smart guy.), found a few other friends, and called me when things were bad. That’s a role I play well – sympathetic, comforting, nurturing. So I held her hand when she was in the ER for migraines. I sat in her apartment and listened to how she missed HighSchoolBoy1. Then wept over HighSchoolBoy2. Then started seeing 1. Dumped him for 2. Wanted to quit school to be with 1. No, 2. Dated other guys, but couldn’t stop thinking about 1. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
After some initial contact, I got busy with classes and I guess she did the same. Other than a couple evenings when she needed help, we didn’t speak until the end of my second year. We met for dinner after M had graduated. Mandy had started online dating and had delightful stories. I opened up and shared some of my own. We talked – neither of us feeling very smart or capable at school or dating – and laughed and had a fabulous time. We did OK, meeting a few times, having dinners on the west side of town where I had my apartment. She met my dog and laughed when noting that she had every coloring possible somewhere on her.
“Look!” Mandy laughed while fending off kisses and jumps. “She’s spotted on her tummy, white nose and paws, black, and brindle. This dog is a mutt, Katie.” And I nodded proudly and tried to make Chienne sit.
The last time I remember seeing her – years ago – we met at Mandy’s favorite place for dinner. Downtown – I always ended up driving past it before finding parking because I’d get lost on the one way streets I rarely drove. We had dinner and talked and everything was fine.
Until she insisted we had across the streets for drinks. She frowned over my wrinkled nose.
“It’s not loud or too dark or overwhelming. It’s very subtle. Classy. You’ll like it. I promise.”
After continued prodding, I agreed to one drink, and we headed across the street. I remember sitting next to her at the bar drinking something with cranberry juice. It was bitter. As was the feeling of yet again being the not-so-pretty one. I had gained weight. Was firmly in my casually dressed phase of grad school. I felt plain next to Mandy in her skimpy little outfit and bouncing blonde curls. It was awkward and I let her know I was leaving after one drink.
She walked with me to our cars in the parking structure, and I tensed when she started to lecture. About how I presented myself. Clothes, hair, makeup, attitude.
“You need to get out there!” She said passionately. “Meet men. Date. I know you don’t want to end up alone. So you need to try. Just try.”
I turned to face her after reaching my car, unlocked the door, and narrowed my eyes. Then, trying mightily to stifle the venom I so desperately wanted to spew, I said something like, “I see it this way. I could try – make myself into something I’m not. Be uncomfortable and wonder if the man saw me or this person I was trying to create for him. Force myself into situations where I’d be watching the clock like I was in the bar. Do what you did – date, fall in love, hope that a man would eventually love me enough to keep me. And more power to you.” Then I shrugged, showing I didn’t believe it.
“But, Mandy? We’re both going home alone. I don’t envy you the dates – I don’t want them. I want to work, do research, figure out my professional future. I know you’re going a different direction, but for now? We’re in the same spot. All those broken hearts haven’t landed you ahead. So I’m out. I’ll do it my way.”
Years and maybe three emails later, she lives on the west coast and I’m here in the south. Neither of us married, both of us trying to figure out what to do to earn money. I suspect she’ll find someone. She does, after all, try. And my efforts have been marked by fear. This terrible certainty that once he knows enough, he'll certainly opt out.
But I remember driving home that night – hurt, angry and somehow hopeless. So, as I’m fond of doing, I talked to myself. Said firmly that I wouldn’t settle – I’d rather be alone than with someone who doesn’t think I’m wonderful. Then quietly found my way through a city I now find myself missing dearly to my first floor apartment and puppy. I cuddled next to her on the couch that night and somehow knew that I wasn’t going to find anyone there. That apartment would belong to us alone. And while there were visitors, there was nobody I wanted to stay.
I had higher hopes for this house. A bed that’s certainly big enough to share. Plenty of space to co-exist with someone peacefully, I thought hopefully as I moved in and put things away. Had this really good fantasy set in my guest room. Could picture someone here in my living room while we watched TV. That mental image has been gently pushed away. It’s not happening here. I don’t go in my guest room anymore – the door is kept closed and I didn’t realize exactly why until I refused to sleep there last time my parents visited. I just know. And age and hope and optimism have nothing to do with it somehow.
Then – poor, younger Katie in grad school – and now. It feels remarkably similar. And each time I feel this way, I see how my future will be. Wondering why I feel sad and realizing that it’s because I’m alone. The hope hurts and the mental image slipped away. I’d like very much to be wrong. I just don’t think I am.