We returned after the Christmas holidays and Tim and I officially moved into our dorm room together the day before the first day of second semester. I saw Alex right away and she had a gift for me. She’d worked on it during Christmas break. I opened the box and pulled out a knitted scarf. It was a Doctor Who scarf. For those not familiar, Doctor Who is a BBC sci-fi show that’s been on and off and on forever. In one incarnation of the Doctor (and he’s had several), the Doctor wore a floppy hat and a rather long multi-coloured scarf. Alex had spent her holiday knitting me this amazing scarf which was extraordinary to me because 1) it was a cool scarf and 2) she didn’t particularly like Doctor Who but humoured my interest. What was really strange was that instead of falling for her even more, which would have been my normal response, all I could think about was the fact that she’d spent a break knitting a scarf and I hadn’t thought of her more than a couple times during my whole break. This didn’t keep me from wearing the scarf. I mean come on, it was an 10 foot long Doctor Who scarf.
The tension continued to grow now that Tim and I were roommates. Alex wanted more time with me now that I spent all night in the room with Tim. I tried argue that 6 hours of sleep weren’t the same as 6 hours of hanging out but she wasn’t hearing it. And to be fair, minus the kissing, I was having way more fun with Tim and preferred to have a long talk with him about the ramifications of Wolverine’s admantium skeleton and the comparison of the artistic style of this new Frank Miller guy versus the tried and true John Byrne. Don’t know what I’m talking about? That’s exactly how Alex started feeling whenever we tried to all do something together. I was being a very bad boyfriend.
At this point she really should have broken up with me. Looking back I think the whole ‘need to get married’ thing was a huge pressure that I admit I was completely unaware and insensitive to. It was at this moment, early in the second semester when things took a very, very bad turn.
Our campus was built on a hill. At the top of the hill was the library, chapel, admin and classrooms. Coming down the slope were girl’s dorms. At the bottom of a very steep part of the hill, from the girl’s dorms, was the cafeteria. One winter’s day in late January, a guy had taken a tray from the cafeteria and gone to the top of the hill by the dorms. He then used the tray as a sled and rocketed down the hill. It worked a little too well. The fiberglass tray, with him sitting cross-legged on it, hit a bump and became air born. He bounced off a stone wall and then landed on snow covered concrete and then slid into the front of the cafeteria which finally stopped him.
I got a call to go visit the guy at the hospital and went with Alex and another friend. This was on a Saturday. When I got in the car I made small talk, we chatted, got to the hospital and prayed for the guy, his ruptured spleen and other broken bits and then we went back to our dorms. My conversation with Alex during all of this was fairly brief but I was very conscious that all through this visit she kept looking at me with an expression that alternated between pained and pissed. I knew things had been tense between us but I couldn’t read what was going on through all this at all. What I was very sure of, after our trip to the hospital was over, was that she would be breaking up with me very soon. As we parted that night she gave me a look that, when translated, meant “you jerk, I hate you!”
And I had no idea why. But I was a little freaked out and definitely done.
On Sunday we didn’t speak.
On Monday the mail arrived. Any day with mail was usually a pretty good day because an envelope from home or from a friend always made it like a mini-Chritmas. A letter with money in it was like winning the lottery. That Monday I got a note from Alex. Inner-campus mail. All you had to do was right the name on the envelope, the dorm they were in and it got delivered free of charge.
I went back to my room to open the note; pretty sure this was it. The break up. I realized I felt a sense of relief, not hurt or rejection or any of the things I’d felt before. I knew this wouldn’t lead to pining.
As I began to read the letter I kept stopping and looking around the room to figure out if the universe had just turned upside down. This wasn’t a break up letter, it was an, “I love you and I’m pouring out my heart to you” letter. It was a letter that said all kind of personal things, a letter that shared deep things that Alex had been feeling and fearing, wanting to say but been cautious, not wanting to be so vulnerable that she could get completely crushed. It was the kind of letter that I wrote to girls before they broke up with me and after we broke up I begged for them to give it back or burn it up.
I couldn’t reconcile the experience I’d had with her on Saturday with what I was reading from the letter in my hands on Monday. I looked at the envelope for a date and it hit me like Captain Marvel’s lightning bolt. It was written on Friday, mailed on Friday, 24 hours before the hospital visit and the “you jerk! I hate you!” look.
At precisely that moment the pay phone in the hall outside my dorm room rang. I went out and answered it. “Hello, 2nd floor.” “Is Brian there?” “Hey,” I said, recognizing Alex’s voice. “This is Brian.”
“Um, can we talk? I, uh, I just realized that campus mail doesn’t get delivered the same day you put it in. I, uh, um, thought it did.”
“Yeah,” I said feeling very conflicted. “We should talk.”
“I’ll walk over to your dorm in 5 minutes, o.k.?”
“Yeah, o.k., I’ll meet you outside by the steps.”
5 minutes later I was sitting on the steps, letter in hand, next to Alex, in the cold with my Doctor Who scarf wrapped around my neck.
She started, “I really thought you got that letter on Friday and I expected you to call or come over or something but…nothing…” I interrupted, “I didn’t get it until just a little bit ago…” “I know, I know,” she said, looking down at her knees and her hands tearing a Kleenex up into tiny bits, “and I feel so stupid.” Normally I would’ve tried to say something comforting but I was too confused about how I was feeling and I didn’t want to just put my arm around her and make it seem like it was all good when it wasn’t.
“When you got in the car on Saturday and you were just joking around and being goofy and didn’t say anything about my note, didn’t acknowledge it any way I was…hurt.”
“But I didn’t GET your note…” I protested, wanting to make sure I wasn’t the jerk I was starting to feel like I was the more we talked.
“Stop saying that.” Alex said, “I know that you didn’t get the stupid note! But I didn’t know it then and I was really hurt. And then I got mad. And the longer I was with you the more angry I got and by the time we drove back to your dorm, I’m not sure if you could tell but I think I pretty much hated you.”
“I could tell.”
“But the note was so personal and you weren’t saying anything about it and I just thought you didn’t care…”
“I never got the note!”
Then she finally looked at me and her eyes were red with black all mooshed around the outsides from wiping away tears with her shredded Kleenex. “I know. I know, o.k., I know you didn’t get the note until today. I know that!”
And I knew she knew I didn’t get the note but somehow it didn’t change anything and at the same time I knew that everything had changed between us. I knew because I wasn’t putting my arm around her, I wasn’t wiping the tears off her cheeks or even trying to make her feel better. And I didn’t have anything funny to say.
And I knew at that moment that I was the one who would be the dumper this time.
“Alex,” I started, “I, uh, geez, I really like you, but…” And with that little, three letter word she really started to cry. “I don’t think we can go out anymore. It’s just too intense for me and I want time to not be going out with someone and just have time to do stuff with Tim and the guys and not feel like I’m letting you down every time I want to do something with them.”
“This note you wrote me is incredible.” She was still crying hard when my arm finally went around her. I had to get her to stop crying. “It’s the kind of note I’d always wanted to get from a girl but I just, we just…” and then at a loss and in a moment of weakness I said something to comfort which I never, ever should have said, “I thought we were perfect for each other too.” And then she really, really started crying and I knew that didn’t work quite the way I meant it to.
“I don’t want to hurt you.” And I didn’t. I really didn’t. Know matter what had happened or how freaked out I’d gotten. “I just don’t want to be dating anyone right now. Please don’t cry.”
“How can I not cry for what might have been?” she asked.
I think I rolled my eyes. O.K., I know I rolled my eyes, I couldn’t help it. “…what might have been” gave me that last push over the break up edge. I referred back to the line I’d heard a few times before, “Let’s be friends but take a little break from hanging out, o.k.?”
And she got up and she walked away. And that was it.
Dumping felt worse to me than being dumped had ever felt.
Then it got better and worse all at once.
Two weeks later I met a girl from Cincinnati and decided that two weeks of not dating anybody had been all I really needed to see what that was like. I found Someone when I wasn’t looking for anyone for the first time in my life. We started dating which involved eating meals together at the campus cafeteria, taking walks and sitting in th lobby of her dorm because that was all I could afford.
At some point, early on, Alex spotted us sitting together at a meal. Later I saw her looking at us as we crossed the campus holding hands. As our eyes met, hers narrowed like Clint Eastwood’s in Dirty Harry and I didn’t need to be telepathic or spiritually gifted to read her thoughts.
A couple weeks later I was driving a friend’s car with my new friend Stew riding shotgun. He was just getting to know me and he had never even met Alex or heard the story when we happened to drive by her walking across the parking lot. She recognized me and did the thing with her eyes and Stew laughed as we drove by and said, “I don’t know why but that girl definitely hates you man! Definitely.”
“Yeah, it’s a long story.”
And the girl from Cincinnati that I started dating? I haven’t stopped.