Thursday, July 13, 2006

I like a challenge

An interesting experience I had in college recently came to mind. These events unfolded over at least a year and did not occupy the forefront of my mind. I searched my "source material" (old journals) for entertaining details, but I could only find one off-hand reference to James, the main character in this story. Nevertheless, I will proceed.

My senior year in college, I became friends with James. James always sat at the same table at the HUB (Husky Union Building, aka Student Union, where our cafeteria, bookstore and student groups were housed). I took to stopping by to talk to him around the same time every day. I usually had him alone for an hour before his other friends stopped by. Sometimes, I'd stick around and talk to those friends too. Once, we all left campus for lunch. With that one exception, I never saw James outside the HUB during that time.

James was a philosophy major, slightly older than me and I was impressed by his knowledge. I poured out my romantic and family troubles to James across a tiny window table. I was troubled by the heartbreak of losing my first love and my unhappy teenage summers in Berkeley with my father. I had plenty to wonder and worry about. Even though I was only 20, I felt a failure at relationships and wanted someone to help me figure it out (some things don't change). And James was there to help me. He played armchair therapist to my very willing pseudo-patient.

You might ask, did I have a crush on James? Not at first. But, as we grew closer, as I opened up to him, I grew curious about the possibility of a relationship with James. My feelings were mixed, I didn't find him terribly attractive, but if he'd asked me, I probably would have gone out with him. But there was a problem—isn't there always?

James had a girlfriend. A girlfriend whose name he never mentioned. But I knew he had a girlfriend. But he didn't know that I knew. I started to play a game with James. I would hint, allude, ask leading questions—to try and get James to mention his girlfriend. Over several months, he never bit. Never. When his friends would show up, I stopped the game. His friend, Eric, might in passing mention her name (Barb) and James would quickly change the subject. Eric didn't get it, but he followed James' lead and would change the subject.

How did I know James had a girlfriend? I'd met her—and him—together, some months before we began our friendship.

I was living in an apartment above a Japanese restaurant (sadly, before I knew I liked sushi or had enough money to buy it). I had a date with the young lawyer from the office where I worked as a file clerk. When he found I was Jewish, he actually said, "some of my best friends are Jewish." I laughed but he wasn't joking. I was waiting for him to pick me up, but he was terribly late and I knew I was being stood up. I sat alone, feeling sorry for myself. Then, after a short call to find out if I were free, a group of Amanda's friends (and Amanda) showed up at my doorstep (it was actually Amanda's former apartment, so she directed them there). And Barb was part of the group—so was James, her boyfriend. They scooped me up and we all went to the College Inn. It was fun and cheered me up. I never did go out with the cute, bigoted lawyer.

Somehow, James didn't remember this incident. Or he didn't think that I knew Barb was his girlfriend.

But, from the beginning, I knew that James had a girlfriend.

When the school year ended, I didn't see James as frequently, and we no longer had the same, intense conversations. I know that we met up in San Francisco once, where he was from, when we were both there to visit family. It was awkward because we'd never been away from the protective HUB cocoon and we didn't know what to make of each other, standing up, outdoors, in the plain light of day.

When I was close to graduating, and I had moved into a new apartment, I bumped into James on the Ave, in the University District. We were very happy to see each other and talked about graduating and taking the GRE. I'd decided to take it right away, rather than wait until I knew what I wanted to study in grad school. James also wanted to take the test. I said, "Why don't we study together?"

"Great!" He said.

"Hey, want to see my new place?" I asked. "I just moved in right around the corner."


He followed me up to my apartment. There weren't any chairs. He sat on the edge of the futon bed and I sat on the rolled up single futon. We discussed study strategies and he admired my place. He said, "There's something I want to tell you about."


"I have a girlfriend. Barb."

"Right. I know."

"You know?"

"Sure, of course I know."

"Oh. Well, we're having some problems. I think we're going to break up."

"Oh. I'm sorry…"

"Well, I wondered…if we break up, would you want to go out with me?"

I wasn't sure if I'd heard him correctly. He'd finally told me about the girlfriend and the next step was to line me up to be his future girlfriend? Did I miss something? What was happening?


"Did you not understand?"

"Um, I think I understand. I think, um, maybe you could, you know, break up with Barb first. And then we can see what happens."

"Are you sure?"

"Am I sure?"

"That you want to wait?"

"Yes, I think we should wait until you actually break up."

"Ok. Can we still study together?"

"Sure. Why not?" Why not? I can think of a few reasons.

We made plans to study together. We did meet, but we didn't study (or have any physical contact). Once, I he helped me move my scooter from one garage to another. The last time we had a study "date," we ended up back at my apartment, talking. I was annoyed and said, "You have to stop flirting with me. I can't study like this."

"I'm not flirting with you!"

In truth, he wasn't that afternoon, but he had at our other meetings.

For example, he'd said, "Did you know that you have green in your eyes? You have these little crescents of green. It's very cool."

"Um, thanks."

I did know about the green crescents—I had only recently discovered them after staring at my face in the mirror (I was 20, remember?). I don't know if they'd always been there or if they were new, but to see them, the light had to be shining in my eyes. I thought they were cool too, but I also knew that you had to be looking at me very closely to notice the green in my dark brown eyes.

The day I told him to stop flirting I said, "You can't say that stuff about my eyes. That's flirting."

"Ok, you're right."

After that, we called off the GRE studying. Maybe a week later, James called me, "Do you want to go to the movies with me and Eric?"


Then Eric called, which was a first. He said, "Why don't we go over to James' together?"

"Ok." And we did. When we got there, I met a pretty young woman named Cassie. (How young could she have been?). I wondered how she fit into the group because I hadn't met her before. Eric seemed to know her and she was quite cozy with James.

Then it hit me. I was on a double date with James and his new girlfriend. Eric was my date. I was furious. How could he! First, he couldn't wait another week and ask me out again? How had he moved on so quickly? How many new girlfriend candidates were lined up? How did I end up out with Eric, who I had never found attractive? What the hell was going on? Everything was upside down and backwards.

That night, I took a deep breath and plastered a smile on my face. As much as I wanted to, I couldn't hate Cassie. She was too real, funny and interesting. I tried to remind myself that I'd never made up my mind about James the whole time I'd known him. I'd only ever been curious. It didn't keep me from feeling rejected, though.

And then, there was Eric. Who proceeded to: ask me out on a date (I said yes, then made him take me to a screening of West Side Story (one of my top two favorite musicals of all time)); drop by my apartment to give me a bottle of champagne (we did not open it) and a copy of the magazine he co-edited; volunteer to drive me to the airport (not accepted); leave a gift with a note on a postcard of West Side Story and some very nice chocolate truffles by my door (I ate the truffles and felt guilty since I already knew I wasn't interested); and generally give every indication that he wanted to be my boyfriend.

Poor Eric. What a sweet, smart, thoughtful guy. Too bad I was never going to like him. Instead, I was going to hurt his feelings. (I eventually sat down and told him, "I like you, but I think we should just be friends." He never spoke to me again.) I blamed James. Eric's feelings were sacrificed to James' need to sluff me off on someone else.

At the next opportunity, I sought out James at the HUB. I found him, alone, and I let him have it. I said, "What were you thinking?"


"I don't know what you said to Eric. But you put me in a terrible position."

"What do you mean?"

"You encouraged him. You gave him some wrong idea about me."

"You said…you said you liked him."

"No I did not! I like him, sure, but not that way. I mean, I like him, he's a good guy. But I don't want to go out with him."


"And you gave him the impression I did. Or you said something. I don't know."

"Do you want me to talk to him? I can talk to him?"

"No. What I want you to do is never talk to Eric about me again. Stay out of my business. This is a big mess now. I have to hurt his feelings. This wouldn't have happened if you hadn't gotten in the way."

"I…I didn't know. I'm sorry."

"Fine. Just…don't do it again."

"Ok. I'm sorry."

That wasn't the last time I saw James. There were drinks after his graduation many months later. There was the exchange/return of a futon I'd loaned him. But after I moved away to for grad school, we didn't keep in touch. I didn't try, I didn't wonder, I didn't care. Today, telling this story, I'm curious, but I don't think James and I would be friends again. Last I knew, he was still with Cassie. If she married him, I hope she's happy. She deserved it.

Grateful for: having some sense.

Drop me a line.

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