I never fully understood what happened. Had I somehow unnerved him? Shaken his confidence in himself? In me? Did I simply not need him enough?
It’s true that I was focused on other things. On my syllabi and my student planner filled with color-coded post-it notes. On my clipboard and my rough drafts and my red and purple editing pens. On my flurry of index cards. On my sheet music. My Diet Peach Snapple and my monogrammed L.L. Bean briefcase and my favorite hooded sweatshirt and the Gore-tex Nikes that were the only thing I ever wore in the snow. My head was full of Baudelaire and Savonarola and Neruda and Benjamin and Virgil and Machiavelli and Erasmus and Borges. They kept me company, they required my undivided attention, and they were greedy, devouring most of my energy, so whenever I came home to an answering machine full of hang-ups and terse, accusatory messages, all I could do was shrug.
For a long time afterward I wondered if I’d done the right thing. I wondered if I was crazy for giving up love for a trip to Europe. But in the end I realized that there always would have been something. That if he was jealous of books and theoretical men, I could never win. And that if he were that insecure I’d expend unfathomable energy just to break even.
My heart stayed empty for years. I remained self-contained. Became more so. I threw myself into my work. I rode that wave of determination all through my last year of college and well into grad school. I buried myself in academic success. I worked so hard I almost never had time to think about anything else. Very rarely I’d wonder, Am I cursed to be good at everything I do? Every single thing? Except love? I tested that idea, tested it with my tongue like I was poking at a toothache. And then I moved on, busied myself with something, anything, and managed to never answer that question.
I still remember. I still savor the little details. Like how he’d get manicures to combat the grease under his nails from working on his truck. How in spite of this girly indulgence he was the most masculine man I’ve ever known. The tiny mole on the side of his nose, the inky color of his hair and the way he carelessly tucked it behind his ear, where it curled under his earlobe like punctuation. How the skin on his face was impossibly smooth and deliciously pale. How he called me “honey” and made it sound like my name. The way he insisted on holding my hand while he drove. How if I fell asleep in the car he’d wake me up by driving over the rumble strips. That he adored candied peaches. How he’d sit me between his knees and run his fingers through my hair, never hurting me even as he worked tangles out of the mane I rarely brushed. That he always smelled like dryer sheets.
Best of all? How we could be anywhere - at a frat party teeming with people, in a crowded bar, or even mired in a sea of elementary school kids in the dinosaur room at the Museum of Natural History - yet when he caught my eye and grazed my elbow with his fingertips, I felt like we were the only two creatures in the universe.
And for a while? For a while we were.