Early in her sophomore year they had almost had sex. These days the definition of sex is looser, more forgiving, and she imagines that in today’s world what they had would probably count as sex. In the end it comes down to semantics, as most things do. But at the time, sex felt like an all-or-nothing proposition, and this was — well, it was not “all,” else she would not have felt so foolish, so like a tease when all of a sudden she bolted upright, nauseated, though they had not drunk much wine. He flinched and drew the flimsy sheet protectively over his legs. “What is it?,” he asked. And she stammered, “This isn’t right. I can’t do this.”
He thought she was being dramatic. “Sure you can,” he said softly. “You know you can.” And he tried to guide her body back to him, but she was having none of it. As she stood up, she knocked some of his books and papers off of his nightstand. “I’m sorry,” she pleaded, gesturing helplessly toward the books, “but I need to go now.”
He said nothing. She dressed as quickly as she could and, having nothing else to say, she opened his door. She was shaking. In the hall was one of his roommates. What had he been doing there? He looked smug, satisfied, even smirky. What did he know? She shot him a disgusted look and made her way down the poorly lit stairs.
This was bad, she knew it as she walked out onto the sidewalk. The sign advertising the gas station next to his house was too bright; it hurt her eyes. She turned from the awful glare back to his window. All fall he had been lighting a candle in his window for her. He lived on the second floor of what had once been a beautiful, even stately, home, but which had been ruined, really, like so many others around it, by the university’s decision to parcel it into awkward and oddly shaped little bedrooms. His was the bedroom at the front of the house with the dormer window. The candle had been his idea, so she’d know when he was home. Her dorm was only half a block away, and in the evening when her comparative literature class was finished, she’d walk down the leafy, frequently wet streets wondering if the candle would be lit. She always giggled a little if she spotted its flame.
But every time she caught her giggle, swallowed it, before it became audible. Because there was someone else, and she could never forget it for long. Two men at once, after a lifetime of no men at all. Was there something in the air that fall? When she reached her dorm room she’d lie on her bed and stare at the stucco ceiling. She didn’t know how to solve her problem. She was usually a quick and confident problem-solver, but this one stumped her. Here she had two men, and she felt a little in love with both of them, but really, what did she know from love? She had no idea what she was feeling, that was one problem. She had not yet learned to read her heart; only her head spoke to her in a language she understood.
In the end she was forced to make a choice (being with both men was simply inconceivable to her, and to them), but she made it doubtfully. There was no epiphany. Years later she’d know she had made the wrong choice. The candle in the window should have illuminated more than those thick and warped panes of glass, it should have illuminated the person who waited within. But it didn’t, not then.
For two years she tried to hold on to the idea of a friendship with the suitor she had jilted, in large part because she hated the thought of someone hating her. They had an occasional lunch, but each time it wasn’t only the fancy lettuce in their sandwiches that was bitter. She’d ask how he was. She really did want to know how he was. But there’d be a flash of anger in his eyes, and he’d say something like, “Why are you talking to me as if you’re my therapist and I’m your client?” She’d respond indignantly that she was doing no such thing.
Of course she was. She didn’t know how to navigate such strange terrain, so she was treating him with kid gloves. Her posturing was insulting and demeaning. He knew it. Why didn’t she?
She had so much to learn. Eventually, embarrassingly late, she learned it, but it was then well past the time she might have patched whatever was left of their connection.
Now she knows: you’ve got to choose the boy who’s lighting your way home. The boy who strikes such a hopeful match. He’s the one. He’s always the one.
written in June, 2007