In college, my love life could have gone one of two ways: downstairs and across the lawn, with the dark and handsome bicycle and gangster rap enthusiast sporting spellbinding tattoos of snowflakes on his calves; or across the hall, with the pale, small, bespectacled older (sophomore) man who taped a plastic bag over his fire alarm so he could sit in a red velvet chair from Goodwill, read Kant, and chain smoke cigarettes.
I was immediately drawn to The Former, with his deeply dark eyes and his furry eyebrows and those tattoos, perfectly centered on perfectly sculpted calves, his body brown and lithe. He arrived on campus before the boxes he shipped did, and so he wore the same t-shirt and shorts for a week, walking around barefoot. He smiled a bashful, pursed lip smile, but when you got him going, he opened his mouth to reveal clean white teeth, with pointed incisors centered below his dimples (his whole body was a study in well-proportioned symmetry). He was a working man’s intellectual who took a year between high school and college to work at a bakery. We happened upon each other our first day on campus, grouped together in some sort of friendship-building scavenger hunt: him in his t-shirt bearing days of late summer sweat, me in some top that was trying way too hard not to try at all. He was awkward and shy. So was I.
The Latter, as I was later informed, decided he would have me the minute he saw me struggling with some new shelves for my new room. His single was located across the hall from the double I shared with my roommate. That evening, our second on campus, he installed a small keg of a Pacific Northwest microbrew into his room, and encouraged (actually, pulled) me to join him and his friends, where the Grateful Dead played loudly and portraits of Viennese thinkers intermixed with tapestries and ironic crucifixes. Bespectacled boys in Birkenstocks hunched over a chess game and girls smoking cigarettes perused his bookshelves sagging under the weight of philosophy and burgeoning pretension. The Latter watched me as I tried in vain to make myself comfortable in his room – I learned later that he’d informed his leering friends I was off-limits to them. After a brief and futile attempt to make conversation with a girl paging through The Little Prince in its original French (turns out she was The Latter’s jealous ex-girlfriend), I retreated back to the safety of my half-decorated dorm room. But I left the door open, warmed by his friendliness and the half cup of beer I’d consumed. After the party dissipated, The Latter took the three steps across the hall and leaned on my doorframe, asking if I’d like to join him for a cigarette. When I told him I didn’t smoke, he suggested I come over and watch him.
The Latter played the game so well, maneuvering between desperately in love and vaguely indifferent. The Former, a strong, simple, shy young man, did not. The Former participated in no games, and The Latter delighted in them – in fact, he was the man who taught me how to play. Whereas The Latter drew me in with late night callings, leaning comfortably against my doorframe, The Former would stand there awkwardly, smile his jagged smile, linger a little too long while doing a little too little.
So, I chose The Latter. Or rather, he chose for me, intimidating me into infatuation with his quirky charm and his scholar’s searching gaze. He pursued me doggedly until he had me, teased me with attention till I expected it, and then he cooled off, which only made me want him more. Together we shunned The Former, whose trips down my hallway became more infrequent until finally, he disappeared silently like a snowflake under the sun.
A relationship with The Latter that should have been a three week fling followed by a month or so of awkward encounters in the co-ed bathrooms ended up spanning three-and-a-half years. My first serious relationship, I devoted myself to him, agonized over him. I doubt he was born a tortured soul, but by the time I met The Latter, he’d made himself one, convinced that true academics were ones who refused to empathize, who turned writing a paper into silent library performance art, who cried when they couldn’t parse Althusser, and, most importantly, who were always hungry for gin, cigarettes, and coffee. He inspired a cohort of like-minded sophomores with similar tastes for Derrida and de Man and spliffs and Europe ‘72, cultural hegemony and the semiotics of being and Heidegger’s hermeneutics. Their intellectual stamina far outlasted my own, especially on the weekends. The whole thing made me tired. At 2AM, I’d whisper a goodbye from these Saturday night discourses, throat hoarse from the smoke and my own timid silence, and drift into my own room, where I’d fall asleep to the sounds of more spirited debate, more John Prine or Jerry or Yonder Mountain. I’d wake up again as he slipped through the door, his face still wet from vigorous face scrubbing, a ritual he maintained no matter how drunk he was. He’d pull off his uniform white t-shirt and crawl into bed with me, shivering momentarily before I rolled over and threw my arms around him.
The Former and I maintained friendly, if distant contact. Smiling across the vegan (him) and carnivore (me) dinner selections in the dining hall. Catching each other’s eyes as we trudged through the patter of Portland rain to 9am Humanities lectures. Finding we were standing side-by-side, looking on as a group of kids spun fire from rags drenched with gasoline on the front lawn. He was known for being handsome, good with bikes, and, eventually, an opinionated member of the student body. The Former gained recognition for his own achievements; I gained recognition for dating a man who liked to walk around campus naked whenever he could. In my efforts to wholly ingratiate myself into The Latter’s life, I took up his hobbies and forgot my own. Because he liked John Waters’ films and Phillip Glass and microbrews, I did too, neglecting my sketch pad and my adoration of romantic comedies and the hip hop that had been an inspiration to me in high school. Months after we started dating, the realization that I’d forgotten how to draw would come too late and breed resentment. And yet always I persisted, too scared to walk through the small campus without him, always falling back into a love that made me feel guilty yet safe in its comfort and dysfunction.
Throughout my freshman year, I happily incubated in The Latter’s room. My own dorm room was simply a waiting room. I’d sit there, lights on, door open, idly staring at my reading, listening for The Latter’s signature shuffle down the hall. As he passed, banging his Nalgene against the wall, I’d quickly gather up my books and slip in next to him before he even turned the knob, forgetting to turn off my own lights, kicking the door shut on my way out. I rarely returned until it was time to get dressed for lecture the next morning.
When we weren’t together, The Latter and I emailed constantly. Sometimes, our exchanges were single lines of nonsensical flirtations, jokes that only made sense to us. Other times, they were charged and lengthy tirades, like when I felt as though I was losing him to someone smarter or older, or when he felt as though I wasn’t taking seriously the syllabus he’d put together for me in order to augment my freshman curriculum. Then there were the pleading, desperate emails of apology (mainly from him), begging for a second chance. Those I read through red and puffy eyes, and while I always accepted them, they never bore the type of raw love and passion I’d always hoped to inspire in a boyfriend.
I received one email from The Former, timestamped at 2:30AM, early one Friday morning. I read it six hours later before leaving for my Humanities lecture. He wrote it on a rare night when I remembered to turn off my own lights before hunkering down with The Latter for the evening. The email was short, lucid, direct. In it, The Former said that every night, as he walked to his dorm from the library after it had closed at 2, he’d look up and see the light on in my bedroom, and he’d know that I was up too, that I was toiling over Herodotus or Thucydides or Dickens too. But early that Friday morning, after he’d finished his reading and headed home, he looked up and discovered that my lights were off. He and I were usually the last people he knew to be awake on campus – but this time, he’d beaten me. He said it just like that, but I understood – and was flattered by – the implications far beyond competition.
It was the sweetest love letter that wasn’t one at all, subscribing to that simple romantic notion that however far apart they are, lovers are under the same sky, the same moon. The Former and I were never lovers; we never confessed even our superficial attraction to each other. I was always with The Latter, and The Former let me be, without question. The sad and ironic truth is that while he was studying and thought I was too, I was sitting in a room waiting for The Latter to come to bed with me. But the falseness of The Former’s assumptions didn’t matter. He had offered me a glimpse – exposed a vulnerability – into the type of idiosyncratic ritual that I thought only I performed. He was thinking of me without me asking him to. It was an act of consideration, a distanced connection, that was more intense than any amount of emotionless yet consistent spooning. He wasn’t emailing to tell me that he’d won the battle of the academic will. He was writing me to say that he knew I was still under his moon.