This story begins with a phone call.
That should make it easy enough to tell. We all make phone calls. Right? Happens every day.
But some phone calls are different. Some change our lives in ways we just can’t expect.
This is one of them.
I’ve spent nearly 20 years trying to tell this story in a way that doesn’t make me come off as the victim — or her a demon. The heart that believes it’s been wronged is a clever beast. It can come up with all sorts of ways to avoid the truth.
It’s March 1990. I’m 19, a sophomore in college. If this were a movie script, we’d read a stage direction like this one:
“Int: A college dorm room at a small, northeastern college. The floor is littered with clothes. Books are stacked on the desk, and the walls are covered in posters, clumsily attached with scotch tape. We pan and see a small bedside table. On top of the table is an old, black rotary telephone. Next to the table is a bed. Someone is asleep. It is very early in the morning. The phone rings — loudly, insistently.”
I roll over in bed and push my hair out of my eyes. I fumble for the phone. It slips out of my grasp and then I catch it.
“Hello?” I mutter.
“It’s me,” she says. “I don’t have much time.”
I’m bolt upright and awake now. It’s The Girl.
She’s calling from the Eastern Bloc country where she’s been spending a junior semester abroad. We have not seen each other in three months. In January, there was a curt and angry goodbye. I complained about being abandoned. She wanted to know why I couldn’t wish her well on her trip, why I couldn’t understand what a great opportunity it was for her.
“How are you?” I ask.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “This is so hard.”
I feel my stomach tighten. I know what’s coming.
“I’ve met someone else,” she said. “I’m so, so sorry.”
I should probably add here, before you start feeling too sorry for me, that I have been a far from perfect boyfriend.
In the nearly two years that The Girl and I have been together, there have been at least two prior (though temporary) break-ups, a few drunken clinches, and at least one outright act of wanton groping. I justify these offenses by telling myself that I am 19, and that I am just beginning to understand who I am, that there will be plenty of women along the way.
This does not change the fact that I love her with the reckless abandon that only comes with first love. Nor does it change the fact that I feel the air go out of me in a rush.
“Wait! Don’t!” I say, making up some lame attempt at keeping her. I probably tell her we can see other people while she’s away. Any desperate ploy will do.
We’re talking. But it’s noise.
We go back and forth a couple more times. I can feel tears, hot and angry, on my cheeks. I am trying to keep control of myself, but there is a pain that starts deep in the center of me, and works its way up to the top of my throat. I fear it may tear me open as it leaves.
Then, the punch-line: Thanks to the archaic infrastructure in this Eastern Bloc country where The Girl is studying, we only have 15 minutes to talk. Fifteen minutes to dispense with two years. Fifteen minutes to part.
There is no goodbye.
The line goes dead. My knees go next, and I slide to the floor. There’s nothing left in me. An hour, maybe two, probably more, later, my friends come to collect me. They’re worried because they haven’t seen me all day. I tell them what happened.
And because they are my friends, and because we are in college, they take me out that night and get me blind, falling down drunk.
I have not been that drunk since. I hope I never am again.
The next day, I have an exam. I am in no condition to take it. (In an added dose of irony, it is a Russian language class.) The professor takes pity on me — probably because I smell like a distillery, mostly because I tell her what happened. She allows me to postpone the exam.
The Second Phone Call:
It’s 10 months later. And The Girl and I are arguing. After all this time, I can’t even remember what we were fighting about.
It’s the January after a fruitless summer spent trying to win her back, even as I tried to forget her with other girls.
About five months before this call, I had left for Oxford for my own semester abroad. And then I finally understood why she had been so mad at me for not being excited about her own trip.
I had the time of my life. I had a rebound crush that made my heart ache in exactly the same way, but just a bit differently, that The Girl made my heart ache. I wandered the streets of Paris alone, retracing Hemingway’s steps from the 1920s. I wandered through Stonehenge and ancient Roman ruins. I looked for evidence of King Arthur. I came home, only reluctantly, feeling like a different person than I had been before I left.
But we’re still arguing. I think I say something mean. I probably say something mean. It is more than likely about her new boyfriend.
She says: “I’m so glad I broke up with you.”
She hangs up.
Later, with my father’s help, I destroy all her letters and throw away her pictures. There is something cathartic in this act. But these days, I wish I had reacted differently.
Save for one exchange of letters during my senior year of college, we have not seen or spoken to each other since. Viewed through the prism of nearly 20 years, that seems very silly indeed.
That horrific spring and heartbreaking summer, now two decades gone, are remembered much differently. Yes, I still recall that terrible ache, the one that took nearly three years to shake off. But I remember other things now, too — other truths.
When I hear the song “Messages,” by the English synth-pop band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, I feel the warmth of the early June sun that shone on my face as I drove over mountainous New England back roads to pick her up, in that first summer we knew each other.
When it rains in October, and a damp cold sets in, I am transported back to long, fall afternoons we spent wandering the streets of New Haven, Connecticut. I can feel the chill in my bones. And I remember the warm and friendly café, redolent with Fryalator grease, and run by an elderly Greek couple named Gus and Mina, where we often had lunch.
The smell of diesel exhaust inevitably reminds me of the commuter rail station where I’d wait on Friday afternoons for the train that took me to her.
I bring all this up because a new spring is upon us. And I’ve lost enough friends over the years — sometimes through attrition and inattention, and, once, horribly, to a tragic illness — to know that there’s little to be gained by dwelling on perceived wrongs.
The fact that we even find each other at all in a vast and random universe is a minor miracle. And as I think about my own wife and daughter, I am also reminded that we can never take blessings for granted. The price of loss is far, far too high to trifle with them.
As I look out my window at a world once again on the cusp of renewal, it’s the only truth that makes any sense.