The International Writers Magazine: Love at First Sight
That’s what I called him. I met him in the cafeteria line during my first week at Sarah Lawrence College. Five minutes later, I was in love.
Maybe it’s because I was eighteen and my hormones were raging and up to this point I’d never had a boyfriend. Maybe I just was looking for some excitement, or else I was just terrified of all this newness, of going away from home for the first time with no idea as to what I was going to find. Or maybe it’s because I was a Catholic girl who had frizzy hair and glasses and wore oversized green sweatshirts with little cats on them and a big hooded coat- my mother’s coat- which according to my roommate made me look like Kenny from South Park. I knew I was pathetic. What I didn’t know was that I was about to become a lot more pathetic.
“I want to study new religious movements", I mentioned to a new classmate who was standing in front of me as we prepared to receive our servings of stir-fried tofu. I had just enrolled in an anthropology class entitled “Religion, Power and Social Change,” one of three courses I would be taking during my first semester. I’d signed up for it because I wanted to study religion objectively- not as doctrine but as a social, political force in the world. This was what I was trying to explain to the pink-haired, nose-pierced girl standing in front of me when suddenly there came a low, intrusive voice from behind. “If you want to study new religions, don’t even bother learning about Anton LaVey. Read Alistair Crowley instead.”
I turned around and saw myself faced with a thin Goth kid with pale skin, slightly unkempt long black hair and black clothes. I’d noticed him during registration. He had his face buried in a book even while moving through the line. “But even before you have to do that, you really have to ask yourself if there is even any such thing as a truly new religious movement. Just what do you mean by the term?”
Apparently, these were the kinds of conversations that started up in the cafeteria line at Sarah Lawrence. I stared at him dumbly for a long moment, then muttered some noncommittal response. “I’ll have to give it some thought.” The standard way of saying, “I have no idea what you’re talking about” without making oneself look like too much of an ignorant fool. It rarely works, but with him it must have, for he smiled and held out his hand.
“My name is Tim,” he said. The name echoed in my ears as I shook his hand. It was a name too holy to speak out loud, and even in that moment, he was already Smart Ass Boy.
“Rachel,” I replied. I didn’t know what to do. My heart was racing as it hadn’t since I was fourteen and secretly infatuated with my 22-year-old algebra teacher and would shiver every time he approached my desk to collect an assignment or hand back a test. Within seconds, Smart Ass Boy was returning to his table and I was walking back to mine, my head spinning. I went back to my dorm and dug out a copy of the Facebook- not the infamous all-consuming Internet site that at this time had not yet been created, but the paper booklet of pictures we’d all been asked to send in to the Committee on Student Life. I had not sent a picture, but he had, and I spent a few good moments staring at it. To my surprise, he wore a tuxedo, and his hair was neatly combed… But he still had that same cocky know-it-all grin stuck on his face.
I immediately knew that he was off-limits. A guy this gorgeous had to have a girlfriend. There was no way it could be otherwise. And so, the next day when I passed him on the path leading from one building to another, I glared at him. He gave me a startled look, then continued on without saying anything, probably wondering why I was such a bitch. That did it. For him, my sudden rudeness marked the immediate end of our relationship. For me, it marked the end of the beginning.
“Only those who love without hope can love forever, and with the same intensity,” writes German writer Unica Zurn. Replace the world “love” with “obsess,” and that quote fit me like my mother’s baggy old South Park coat. While my next door neighbor Rosanna made her three a.m. orgasmic screams audible to the entire hallway and my own roommate put a sock on the door to “sexile” me, I spent my evenings sitting on the stairs and indulging for hours in my own world of wretched fancy. Much too naïve and idealistic for explicit sexual fantasies, I barely allowed myself to sit on his sofa sipping red wine (which, by the way, up to this point I’d only tasted at a few isolated family parties). In my dreamy stupor we talked for hours about Plato and Shakespeare and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; we laughed uproariously at The Big Lebowski (I’d often caught it on late-night cable while still in high school and had almost the whole film memorized) and he introduced me to a whole array of other films, noir films which I’d never seen but which a black-clad freak like him would surely know very well. But my life was completely G-rated; in my dreams we never did anything except kiss. Even that was enough to send me reeling.
Meanwhile, my “real” life was progressing slowly. “Religion, Power and Social Change” did prove interesting, and I did indeed write a paper on American neo-paganism. But on the social front things were rough. After three weeks of hearing nothing but conversations that began with such phrases as “When I lived in Madrid” or “As Albert Camus says,” I began to feel like an inhabitant of a new country whose language was beyond my capacity to learn.
However, I soon found that I had one friend, Gale, who was an outcast like me (imagine being an outcast in a school filled with outcasts!) and she soon proved a worthy distraction. She was a pro-Palestinian political activist whose outspoken nature left her a bit marginalized on campus, but she found a decent listener in me. Together we explored New York City; she took me to see an exhibit on pearls at the Natural History museum and to get cheap tickets for Broadway shows in Times Square and to eat lunch in a restaurant that served twenty different kinds of peanut butter sandwiches. It was good, clean, wholesome fun, but it wasn’t enough to drive that sleek dark hair and wry grin from my mind.
Of course I wasn’t foolish enough to confuse my desire for Smart Ass Boy with love in any classical sense. I knew that this was nothing but vacuous desire, I’d taken everything I wished for in a boyfriend and projected it onto the first person I’d seen after breaking out of my sheltered all-girl Catholic world. Sometimes, as I stared at him in silence from across the cafeteria, I felt certain that he knew everything about how I felt. How could he not know? Wasn’t it obvious? From my solipsistic haze it seemed perfectly sensible that he should know everything about me needing to even talk to him.
Yes, it was getting pathological. I wrote bad poetry and at times, late at night, walked along the road of dorms where I knew he lived. But soon, freshman year drew to a close, and after my Dad came to help me pack up my room and drive me back to Buffalo, I had a trip to Poland (my first time traveling outside North America) to distract me. But even in gorgeous Krakow, as I studied art history while wandering amid the city’s medieval streets, I only had to catch sight of some random long-haired Polish Goth guy to send my thoughts running back to my chosen monomania.
However, when I returned and started my sophomore year, I found that something had changed. At the start of the year I wrote an article for the school paper on divergent political views; on my ultra-liberal campus I decided to dig up as many conservatives and anarchists and libertarians as I could find and give them their chance to speak. I noticed that more people seemed to be taking note of me, and he seemed to be among them; I’d catch him looking at me from across the cafeteria, this time certain that it wasn’t just my own wishful thinking. That year we were in a lecture together on Milton’s Paradise Lost, and one day I left the lecture hall found him waiting for me outside, cigarette in hand. For the first time in over a year, he spoke to me. “So how did you like the lecture?” he asked.
“It’s not bad,” I said, my heart pounding, my hands trembling as my brain lurched into survival mode of simple fight or flight. I didn’t have to guts to fight. I turned around and fled. “Look, I’ve got to run. Have a good weekend!” I said stupidly. I ran to the library, knowing that I’d wrecked my last and only chance. I had to wonder why on earth I was still so fumbling and bumbling even though my teenage years were rapidly drawing to a close, why I could spend hours and hours constructing elaborate but not impossible fantasies but didn’t have the guts to try to turn them into reality, why I was just too scared to break out of my shell and live a little for once.
The following year I went away. My school had an exchange program in Oxford, where I went and studied literature and philosophy, stayed late at random friends of friends’ parties, and decided that I wasn’t going to let my inhibitions hold me back any longer. I fell in love with this city of domes and spires, with its bicycles and sandwich shops, its parks and rivers. I fell in love with John Donne and George Herbert, Aristotle and Nietzsche. I also fell in love with a real, flesh-and-blood mathematics student, who soon became my first real-life boyfriend. But that’s another story.
I saw Smart Ass Boy one more time after that. It was my senior year, I was back from my time abroad, and he’d transferred to another school. But, one week in late fall I heard he was back at Sarah Lawrence, visiting his old friends. I didn’t particularly want to run into him, so of course it happened. I was coming out of my “Studies in the Nineteenth Century Novel” class, and there he was, walking right toward me. We passed each other, and he gave me a knowing smile. It almost seemed that somewhere, perhaps in a parallel universe, we’d managed to break out of the ego-ice that had kept us from ever getting to know each other in real life, that now we really did live in an apartment filled with modern art and books, that we listened to opera and had great sex. Of course this other universe had little bearing on the real one, but that didn’t matter too much anymore. It still existed, and that was all that mattered. Anyway, this was the last time I saw him, and then we both went on our way with that same wry, know-it-all grin.
© Rachel Cross Feb 2009
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