A little history is in order...
Adam and I were best friends in college. In some ways, it was a friendship of convenience. Our dorm situation was a configuration our school referred to as “suites”: six two-person rooms hinged together by a common bathroom and study room, presumably given the suite title because the shared space split the rooms down the middle, essentially connecting two sets of three. Adam lived on one side of the suite, I lived on the other. We despised the other ten boys who lived with us. Most of all, we despised our roommates. Mine was a guy named Mike who rarely disconnected himself from his bong. So all-consuming was his need, he once bought a block of oregano because he believed it was hash. On discovering his mistake, he smoked it anyway.
I would often flee from my room to the building’s TV room, which was usually empty later in the evening. Except for Adam, who would be there, too. We could both study through the guy from the second floor watching Letterman, but we could not study through our suitemates and their incessant partying, which came with lots of howling and Led Zeppelin. I once heard one of the other guys ask Adam, “How can you hate Led Zeppelin?”
“Hey, man, it’s surprisingly easy,” Adam responded.
That was an answer I could respect.
Even so, I am not sure we would have been friends if not for our common woe. Led Zeppelin aside, our musical tastes were not very well aligned. I could handle his rap music fine, since I liked some of the less mainstream hiphop, and he could get behind my soul music because a lot of rap had its roots in the stuff, but we weren’t likely to borrow from one another’s CD rack unprompted. Ditto for movies and just about every other kind of entertainment. Food was one of the few things we totally agreed on. But then, what college student doesn’t like pizza?
Then again, I suppose Adam and I also made a weird kind of sense. Particularly when it came to the ladies. Since we rarely went after the same girls, we ended up complementing each other well.
Adam was more of a sexual predator than I was. Not in the sense that there was ever any threat of legal action against him, but if he set his sights on a girl, you could be sure he was after something in specific. He was looking to score, whereas I was looking to date. I wanted a relationship, he wanted a conquest. Needless to say, I spent five Friday nights home alone to his every one.
We had a pretty good system going, too, when it came to parties. I would play the decoy for any friends of girls he was pursuing, with the strict understanding that if she wasn’t someone I was actually interested in, I could withdraw at any time. For his part, Adam would not pursue a young lady whom I had shown prior interest in. Sadly, the second part of that understanding was one that had to be revisited more than I would have liked, since the girls themselves weren’t aware of any such agreement. Then again, if a girl I was chatting up began whining to me about how she really wished Adam would notice her, I’d lose interest pretty quick and toss her to the shark like so much chum. Our contract was no longer binding.
The first day this became a problem was the day Adam met Brianne.
I met her first--which is something I feel should be made clear. To me, this is important. Remember what I said earlier about playground rules? In the parlance of the jungle gym, I had dibs on Brianne.
When Brianne and I first met, it wasn’t exactly a stellar moment for me. I had a philosophy instructor, Professor Patel, who I wasn’t getting on very well with. He and I really weren’t meant to be. He had started the semester by telling us how his class was about ideas, and that we should all feel free to express ourselves and challenge him; philosophy wasn’t about a set way of thinking, and so even though he was the teacher, he could be wrong. A mouth the size of mine, of course I couldn’t resist taking him up on his offer, and it became clear pretty quick that he didn’t practice what he preached. He didn’t like me for constantly trying to contradict him, and I didn’t like the old hypocrite contradicting himself.
Our relationship would have been a perfect object lesson when it came time to discuss codes of personal ethics in existentialism, and the belief in one’s personal responsibility, how our choices affect the world. My actions in class had the direct effect of him giving me crappy grades on all of my papers. I took it as a challenge to write a paper so good, he couldn’t possibly give me anything less than the ‘A’ I deserved. My efforts, however, brought a converse return, and though I saw each performance as stronger, he gave me an even lower mark, until we landed on Immanuel Kant as sponsored by the letter ‘F’ and the number ‘Ø.’ That was the final straw for me. I made an appointment to see him and talk about it.
“This isn’t an ‘F’ paper,” I said.
“You don’t think so?”
“No, I don’t.”
“You don’t think that you’re an un-objective judge of your own work?”
“That’s not the issue. The issue is that you’re not an objective judge of my work.”
The professor took my paper in hand and then proceeded to go through it point by point, tearing apart my arguments, pointing out faulty logic, even questioning the writing and basic punctuation. As he went through it bit by bit, he also tore me down bit by bit. I could feel myself shrinking under the weight of his words. By the time he was done, I was totally crushed. I wasn’t sure I could ever trust my own way of thinking again.
As I left his office, Brianne was coming down the hallway. She worked for the department and was pushing the mail cart, delivering outside letters and interoffice memos to the various teachers’ offices. It was a rather large cart, a big wooden square, and even if I had some valid excuse for not seeing it, I should have heard its squeaky wheels grinding against the tiled floor. Neither registered with me, however, and I stepped through the door and directly into it, banging my knee and almost tumbling into the mail itself. Brianne reached out and put her hand on my shoulder, steadying me. “Oh my God,” she said, “are you all right?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said, trying to cover.
“I didn’t see you.” She looked a little panicked.
I felt like a real idiot. There was an expression of genuine concern on her face, and I thought it was sweet. No sooner had I registered that thought, though, then I really looked at her face, and I realized she was beautiful. I felt my breath catch, I may have even gasped. She had gorgeous blue eyes that were both piercing and enveloping, and a little stripe of freckles over the bridge of her nose. Her skin was pale, but her lips were a soft pink, and they were sort of pursed, like she was always on the verge of saying something witty. Perhaps my skepticism was a side-effect of brain damage from the collision, I don’t know, but it seemed impossible that I had met a girl like that in the corridors of the philosophy building.
“It’s okay,” I replied, “I kind of came out of nowhere.” I was trying to joke. I felt like a gawky teenager who had snuck onto campus when he was supposed to be in P.E. at the high school, and I wondered if I could make myself sound like an adult, like someone who belonged, like anyone but the dork that I was. I was so busy worrying about how I was coming off, I didn’t really hear what she had said to me in response. “I, well, that is...” I stammered, attempting to recover, but then I just packed it in. “Wait a minute, what?”
“I asked if you had been drinking.”
“No, why? Is Professor Patel holding?”
She laughed, which I took as a good sign. “Not that I’m aware of. I was actually trying to set myself up for a punch line. ‘Because I was.’” By way of punctuation, she stuck out her tongue, and held up her hands, as if to say, “Ta-dah!”
I returned her gesture and laughed, too, but immediately thought it sounded fake, and almost asked her out loud, “Did that sound fake?” Thankfully, I caught myself. I was unnerved. It was now definitely more than the clumsiness, it was her. She unnerved me.
There was a pause, like a vacuum. Not like the expanse of space, but a suction vacuum, and it was sucking out the last of my self-esteem. I didn’t know what to say, and I was praying my nerves weren’t showing.
Brianne had taken one step back. She stood with her hands down at her waist, her feet heel to heel. “Well, anyway,” she said finally, “these memos aren’t going to deliver themselves.”
“Right,” I said, but I didn’t move out of the way. “I’m Lance.”
It was a horrible transition.
This was it. Now or never.
“All this talk about drinks has made me thirsty? You wanna go get one?”
Brianne smiled. It’s a smile I would never forget, not even in the long years apart. “I don’t know. How good’s your fake ID?”
“Can you wait half an hour?”
“I can wait even longer.”
It appeared that Brianne and I had a date.
I took the time I had to wait for her to get off her shift to compose myself. I didn’t want to be the same gibbering idiot the next time she saw me. If I was going to sound like a drunk who was trying to choose each and every word carefully, then I should at least be drunk. Until then, I needed to sound natural, needed to just be myself and hope that didn’t have the reverse effect than what I wanted. Like I was dating Professor Patel, and the more charming I thought I was becoming, I was really sinking deeper into a morass. My recuperative efforts seemed to have worked, too...or, at least, I thought they did until Brianne emerged from the building, and seeing her put me on tilt once again.
Rather than let it bother me, I just sucked it up and soldiered on. She either wasn’t really noticing, or she didn’t really care, so I wasn’t going to let my being a doofus get in the way.
At the bar, we became fast friends. She dished a ton of dirt on Professor Patel, and we talked about the general college things like majors and such. Hers was obviously philosophy, and mine was the quite useless creative writing. She even joked about it. “Finally! Someone with an education that will yield less job prospects than mine!”
Funny thing was, rather than the alcohol lining up with my speech patterns as I had expected, it unhooked me from the obstacles that were tripping me up. I got more confident, more comfortable with being around Brianne, and by the time the night was through, I was convinced I had to somehow make her mine. Walking her back to her dorm room, I imagined the million different ways I could propose this to her. The most direct approach seemed to just lean in and kiss her, and let it be known that such a thing was on my mind in a language more plain than words.
Only it was not to be. On the way, we ran into one of her gal friends, who had a night of romance all her own. She ran up and hooked her arm in Brianne’s, squealing, “Oh, my God! You’re not going to believe what happened! I have to tell you everything!”
Which she did. All the way home. Both of us got to hear all about her entanglement with some boy named Brad. Or, at least, as much as she could cram into the distance remaining. She wasn’t quite done, and she was tugging on Brianne and pulling her up the building steps. “Get inside! I haven’t even told you the best part!”
Brianne was helpless. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“No sweat. Can I see you again?”
“Can I get your number?”
“I’m in the student directory.”
This rudely mysterious girl, who never did tell me her name, gave one last irresistible pull, and Brianne was gone and I was on my own again.
At least until next time.
Next time came a couple of days later. I suggested she and I get some afternoon coffee. It was on campus after classes, and we spent the afternoon talking. I was excited to discover that the sparks of the first night were not a fluke, that the rapport we had was real and lasting, not contrived. It was even working with caffeine standing in for alcohol.
Maybe if we hadn’t been getting on so well, we might not have lingered so long. If there was a lull in the conversation, we would have gotten out of the coffee shop, Adam would not have run into us, and everything would have progressed as it should have. When I introduced him, he was strangely short with Brianne, exiting as soon as their handshake had concluded. Later, he would tell me it was because she made him nervous the way she did me, and that freaked him out. He liked her right away, and he knew I did, too, so he got out of there as swiftly as he could.
Brianne became friends with both of us. I couldn’t read her interest in me. There were some fumbling flirtations that nearly led to a kiss, but she was stand-offish in ways that made it seem like she wasn’t digging me. I would have accepted that if weren’t for the fact that she was sometimes the one who unlocked the gate to that particular garden path. If she was interested, I couldn’t divine what the hang-up was.
Adam’s contact with her--as far as I knew--was primarily with us as a trio, but there was also the occasional meeting between them when I was not around. They also had their moments of near liplock, but apparently Adam was playing by the rules and kept backing off.
This was what made Brianne stand-offish. She knew we both liked her, and she liked us back. She didn’t want to split us up, and she found it impossible to choose without causing one to hate the other.
That meant the decision came down to us.
“I really like her,” Adam told me.
“You like them all.”
“No, I mean really.”
“Man, I can’t let you screw her over just because you want her especially bad.”
“It’s not like that, Lance. I’m being dead serious. I think this girl is the one for me. I’m not going to be the dick here. I really want to be with her.”
“You’re not joking?”
“No, dude. I’m not. Please, you’ve got to tell me you’re okay with this. I’ll lose my mind if you don’t let me go with her.”
I had never seen him like that before. Those were words I never would have expected out of Adam’s mouth. So, I demurred.
“Fine,” I told him, “but don’t make a sucker out of me. If you get bored in a week, I’ll kill you.”
“Hey, man, thank you. You totally won’t regret this.”
Well, Adam was wrong. I did regret it, even if wasn’t for the reason he was referring to. Things worked out incredibly well with Brianne and Adam as a couple. I quickly became the third wheel and started seeing them less and less, until by the time I dropped out of school--for completely unrelated reasons--I wasn’t really talking to them at all. When I received the invitation to their wedding, I RSVP’d that I wouldn’t be attending. I hate weddings anyway.