The Art Student
I had plans with an ex last night — The Ex — but she cancelled.
She — let’s call her Anna — and I dated for three years in college. In a lot of ways, ours was the last relationship I got right. It’s been ten years.
Anna and I met at my first performance with my college band. It was the spring of 1991. The band had been rehearsing covers of The Pixies, REM, The Alarm, U2, and a few originals in the basement of the performing arts dorm all winter. We were performing at a house party. We were set up in the kitchen. I sang just in front of the dishwasher.
I noticed her right away. She had wildly blonde hair, and was wearing a tasseled leather jacket over a diaphanous white top. With her pale skin and high cheekbones, she looked like something out of a Botticelli painting. She looked like an angel.
She was a freshman art student from rural Massachusetts. I was a sophomore English major from suburban Philadelphia. I started the full court press immediately.
I spent the summer driving across America in a red Nissan Sentra. I lived out of the trunk, cooking over a propane stove, and strumming my guitar as the sun set over South Dakota, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, and California. I spent two months traveling from Philadelphia to San Diego and back, always pausing at least long enough to send her a postcard.
I was nineteen-years-old. I had a pony tail, and three strands around my neck: a leather band with a sterling silver Native American traveler totem; blue and yellow beads my cousin had strung together for me; and Santa Fe turquoise. I had three earrings in my left ear.
Once east, I made a beeline for her. Anna and I spent our afternoons hiking mountaintops, riffling through odds and ends at swap meets, and wandering her adolescent haunts.
Our worlds collided back at Syracuse. I attended her openings. She attended my shows. We starred in our friend’s film shorts. We went to the library, the bars, the park. We made macaroni and cheese. We spent every moment together. She was sweet, dreamy, and free. She had strong opinions. She acted on belief. And she said she loved me.
I was a kid. I didn’t know what I didn’t. My descent into drug addiction had begun in earnest, but I didn’t know it yet. I was experimenting with acid, mushrooms, and lots of pot. I rode an aqua blue Cannondale with a purple seat. I walked with a swagger.
I loved college. I loved the Socratic dialogue. I loved the reading: Carver, Anderson, Fowles, Atwood. And I loved writing. I was a good student. I felt my brain growing. I felt my soul stretching. I may have been in my element more than any time before, or since.
Erin, er, Anna, was my partner through it all. She was a seeker, too. She carried with her a similar sense of pervasive melancholy. Like me, her parents were divorced. She had a strong mother, and a distant but loving father. She was wide-eyed. She needed me.
I spent the summer of my junior year in Telluride, Colorado. I pumped gas at the local Texaco, reported for the local radio station, and tackled mountaintops on the weekends. I relished the fifty-mile drive to the grocery store. I paused every night to watch the sun dip below the mountains. I hung out with a local social worker, her pilot boyfriend, and the town sheriff.
When she visited me there, we stood below the thundering Bridal Veil Falls, hiked Bear Creek trail, and four wheeled over Imogene Pass in six feet of snow. A photo she took sits framed on my shelves today. I am six thousand feet above Telluride, arms splayed wide, smiling. A thunderstorm rages over my shoulder. My hair is standing up on end. Our very presence invites a lightening strikes; we are the highest objects for miles.
She spent the spring of her junior year in Florence, Italy. My band was at its apex. We opened for The Samples, The Bosstones, and Dada, and performed in Boston, New York City, and college campuses beyond. At nearly every show, some drunken co-ed would proposition me. At one, a 24-year-old blonde grabbed my package and said, “Take me home.” I said, “No thanks. I’m in a terrific relationship. I don’t want to mess it up.”
I went to see her for spring break of my senior year. She and I spent ten days in Italy, drinking wine, eating cheese, and kissing on every cobble stoned street corner. In my mind’s eye, I see us there, her in her Greek fisherman’s cap and Cheshire grin, me in my flannel shirts and wool sport coat.
It’s nostalgia, I know. We had our rows. I can’t remember them now. I’m sure she didn’t appreciate my drugging. I know I resisted being cast in the father role. But I always wanted to be with her. I never wanted to leave.
She and I dated well after I graduated. I lived in nearby Saratoga Springs, and commuted two hours on I-90 on weekends. But a strain developed. One spring morning, as she herself approached graduation, it came crashing down. I was playing guitar on the patio. She was sketching in the park. She walked home in tears and told me: “I’ve been with someone else. I need to know what it’s like to not be with you. I need to know what it’s like to stand on my own.”
We talked, and wept, and divvied up our belonging. I put her into blue Honda, and sent her back to Syracuse. When I stepped back into my apartment, my brother handed me the bong and said, “I’m sorry, dude.” I didn’t put it down for five years.
I moved to New York City. She moved to Boston. We spoke. In some way, despite all of our attempted and failed relationship, no one knew us better than the other. I consistently encouraged her to move to New York, confident that her painting career would flourish. She finally moved to Brooklyn Labor Day Weekend 2001. A few days later, the Twin Towers fell. September 12th was her 30th birthday.
We’ve seen each other a few times since. She remains idealistic. She marches for animal rights. She paints fantastical canvases ripped from her sometimes bloody, sometimes beautiful dreams. Her blonde curls are bobbed. Her skin is still soft, sweet, and fair. But she keeps her distance. She’s dating an aspiring filmmaker, and has a fierce — and honorable — sense of loyalty. Yesterday she emailed:
I have been thinking about getting drinks and I just don’t think it is a good idea. As much as you and I attempt a friendship, it inevitably comes back to the same thing. It seems like such a silly thing, I know, because I enjoy our time together and naturally I wish the best for you and would like to maintain a connection but the reality is that each time we do this it always seems to end up becoming complicated.
I responded with a pledge of agenda-less innocence. I told her it bugs me that she works thirty blocks from me, but that I never see her. But the truth is otherwise. She’s the one that got away. Part of me that believes that we were meant for each other all along. Part of me never let go of that vision of us in some house by the seaside: her painting, me writing, us together.
It’s me. I have to create a clear line for myself. I shouldn’t put it all on you. I feel very sentimental about our relationship. It’s so hard to have to be this way. I’m probably over-reacting.
I told her I understood. I told her I wouldn’t call. I told her I wouldn’t write. I told her she was free.
And so, I guess, am I.