Thursday, December 07, 2006

First Impression

I found myself in grad school city two months after receiving my precious gray sweatshirt. It was the official open house weekend. Three days of lab tours, social engagements and absolute nervous exhaustion. There was palpable tension as 22 people – each about 22 years old and taking time from senior year of undergrad to visit graduate programs, name tags proudly displayed – formed 2 groups and were herded like well-dressed cattle around labs and through presentations.

I looked around the table when, at about 10:00 and nearly 3 hours after beginning our day, we all sat in a single group around a conference table. I recognized all the names and most of the faces. After learning of my acceptance in January, I quickly nailed down my advisors and labs. Then I embraced my new department with all the passion and devotion I possessed in my egotistical little heart. I had arranged a social gathering the night before our official morning meetings and had met most of the students who might study with me.

I smiled as I my gaze found its way around the table on our first morning, ever so pleased with my prospective classmates. Impressive students, they were also funny and interesting. I wondered which of them would decide to fall madly in love with me. I hope it was that one – I’d spend most of the upcoming summer flirting with him. I continued looking around the table, being as subtle as possible. The presentation was mind-numbingly boring and running rather long. I was growing tense with moving off the pretty schedules that were printed - I'd memorized mine already.

I would go out with him, I decided, settling on a short guy who I’d eventually dislike strongly. He seemed funny, I decided about another prospective student. He was a bit older than the rest of us, but we’d walked to the bars together the night before. He brought a light jacket, deciding it was springtime in the upper Midwest. But we were suffering from a brief but intense cold snap and he froze, complaining with a good nature that was inherent to his personality. I liked him. I liked all of them, actually.

Except him. I frowned across the table with the utmost disapproval. He was sleeping over there. How disrespectful! How lame! How hungover.

He’d arrived at my carefully planned gathering late the night before. He’d gone out with students from the research group he hoped to join prior to our evening outing. Arriving to meet us, he was nearly stumbling. I moved closer to the guy on my left, making room for my crush to move closer on my right. Dave pulled a chair up the table, proclaiming loudly that wasn’t going to eat – he’d eaten with the lab group he’d just joined.

“Drank some too.” Crush said softly, and I smiled at him. I liked him. But not this new guy.

Dave dominated the remainder of the conversation. There was no topic on which he could not pontificate. At length. Telling stories, trying for jokes that fell flat, demanding all available attention. He was ruining everything! I preferred quiet conversation among smaller groups. Not a captive audience for Dave’s lame stories!

I fumed quietly until the presentation ended. Someone nudged Dave awake and he blinked as the lights switched on in the conference room. Then we all moved toward our next labs.

“Let’s switch groups!” Suggested the graduate coordinator as we were gathering coats, bags and papers to leave the room.

Let’s not. I thought crossly. I had Crush in my group! And a girl who seemed very nice. Cute Canadian (whose name I still use for email passwords) and Guy Without Coat. I was content with my current friends and had no desire to meet Dave. I didn’t like him at all - that decision had been made.

He ended up in my group, of course, and he smiled at me a bit blearily.

“What did you write on your nametag?” I asked, squinting at his sloppy block letters under the pre-printed name on the badges that were clipped to our button down shirts or sweaters.

“The lab I picked.” He stated, puffing out his chest so I could see more clearly. “That way nobody tries to get me to sign up with them. I’m already taken!”

“Oh.” I said, blatantly unimpressed. Who would want him? Egotistical, drunk/hungover and kind of a twit. I had picked a lab already too, but I was attentive and trying hard to impress with every single faculty member we met! He was taking my exquisite little weekend - my perfect outfit, shoes, jewelry and list of considerate questions, and making a mockery of it. I was less than amused.

“I didn’t like you very much when I first met you.” I later told him, comfortably tucked in the corner of his sofa, cuddling one of his throw pillows – he had both green and burgundy because “girls like pillows.” I was likely in pajamas. There has been no man other than Dave with whom I was so completely comfortable. I can't remember ever trying to impress him since I had been so underwhelmed by his initial impression. I’m sure we were watching some sporting event – baseball, football, basketball, hockey. He was insane about any and all of the above.

I was likely washing clothes in his apartment – I was insane about the idea of having your own washer and dryer. No quarters needed! I just brought over dirty clothes and hung out with Dave. He was quite the homemaker – always had a clean apartment, food, sometimes even baked goods! He gave me a look.

“Oh, I knew.” He shook his head. “You’re less subtle than you think.” I nodded and laughed softly. I also learned that I was a bit dramatic and emotional that first year in grad school - that came from Crush. Dave went to fetch another local beer from his mini fridge purchased to hold only yeasty alcohol (Yes, I rolled my eyes at it.), and offered me another drink. He’d mix something fruity in his blender or buy diet soda. M and I usually came together, but when her boyfriend was in town, I’d arrive at Dave’s alone. It was fine either way.

“Sorry.” I offered sheepishly. “But you were so…” He glanced toward the couch from the kitchen and raised an eyebrow. I wrinkled my nose. “Loud! Drunk! On the very first night! Then you slept during a presentation! And you wrote on your nametag. Not cool, my friend. Not cool.”

“I know.” He shook his head, pausing to yell something at the TV as he took his seat on the other end of the couch, offering me another pillow he’d tossed to the floor. “The drinking wasn’t really my fault though. The lab forced those margaritas on me! And I couldn’t admit weakness on the first night out with them.”

“Uh huh.” I smiled. “I love you now though.” I offered because I did. I wasn’t easily swayed, completely convinced that he wasn’t worth my time. But as classes started, I found him to be consistently prepared and completely bright. He was also one of the most generous people I’d ever met. He’d always host parties and study groups. I spent many nights before exams around his dining room table. He and his roommate carefully placing books and drinks on the glass tabletop his aunt had provided to him upon moving to grad school city. We’d work problems, review old exams, analyze our corrected homework. Passed around study guides, made sure our notes matched. Drew graphs and wrote lists.

We drew strength from each other – M, Dave and I. Complained over the workload, then traded phone calls to figure out labs. Laughed over some silly mistake, then went for lunch after difficult exams. Told each other how smart we were then bemoaned the fact that our grades might not reflect that.

It wasn’t such a big deal eventually – his fondness for talking too much, his insistence upon drinking a lot, the beard it took M and me a year to convince him to shave. What became important – and what changed my opinion of my ability to judge people instantly – were his kindness, generosity and humor.

Dave left grad school when M did and the loss was enormous. I still miss them both dearly. But I emailed M today – she’s such a sweet presence. Like a pink ball of fluff, chattering away in her sweet little voice and cute personality until you finally realize that she’s incredibly smart and strong. Dave was more bumbling and loud – it took a great deal of time to truly appreciate him. I continued to be profoundly grateful – in random moments – that he allowed me the opportunity to move past disdain and into affectionate acceptance.

I had a dream the other night. Upon waking I realized that life is fascinating. Some people disappoint me terribly. They can behave more badly than I could have predicted. Lie, cheat, offer blatantly hypocritical advice, be judgmental, ugly or otherwise offensive. But there are others that surprise me in the good way.

I can’t remember what the dream was about, but I was busy doing something – completely involved and focused. But I turned around, saw Dave and was filled with joy. The same feeling flows effortlessly each time I see him - when he'd come back to grad school to visit, on one of my weekends to see him (he's always allowed Chienne to come with and has this amazing guest suite), or when he paid for a trip to Las Vegas (and went with me to get massages when M backed out). The happy feelings are the same each time. Someone who loves me! Someone I love! So, in my dream, I raced toward him – throwing my arms around him and squeezing tight, wondering for the thousandth time why I couldn’t feel that elusive tingle of attraction for him rather than the pure love of friendship.

Regardless, when I take an instant dislike to someone – which happens more rarely than the opposite – I think of Dave. And try to leave myself open to gaining a treasured friend, even when I wince over a first impression. When I'm prone to writing people off at the slightest provocation lately, it's a good story for me to write.


StyleyGeek said...

I love your stories. This one especially because it reminds me of my own first-impressions experience.

I got shortlisted for a scholarship in my final year of high-school, along with 8 other people from all over the country. We all spent the whole day together having a series of interviews, going for lunch and dinner, and so on. There was this one girl who I just didn't click with. She was bratty and snobbish and arrogant and I really was not impressed. She made it clear she disliked me too.

In the end, I got the scholarship and she didn't.

The following year when I moved into my new dormitory in the city where I went for undergrad, she was in the room next to me. And when she saw me, her face fell. She didn't talk to me for a full two weeks.

Later, of course, we became the closest friends and shared a house (and for a while, a room) for the rest of our time in that city.

She hadn't been snobby and arrogant, just nervous. And she had only been pissed off with me because I had got the scholarship that she desperately wanted (and needed more than I did, I discovered, which was awkward).

Funny how these things work...

The Contessa said...

What a wonderful reflection on your soul Katie!

I love stories like this because it always shows me that first impressions though accurate at the time are usually incorrect for the long haul.

Anonymous said...

another wonderful story! though i gotta say, the romantic in me thought the end would be with you and dave... though this is much better.

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