The certainty of death and taxes accepts a new recruit this week: the certainty of a college freshman breaking up with her long-distance boyfriend.
_I should have seen it coming. _So goes the refrain of the dumped, in this case my 21 year-old self living in a basement apartment in Buffalo, NY. We met at summer camp—of course—and she was 18 and loping through her final summer before leaving town for the ivy-shrouded confines of Cornell.
What was I doing that fall? Working at a boxing gym and finishing college part-time at University of Buffalo. I played it light and breezy that summer, knowing I had enough older guy-clout to act cooler than I normally would. She was nervous about school and I assured her everything would be fine. Better than fine. I assured her it would be awesome because she was going to Cornell. My entire family had gone to Cornell but I’d been turned down back in the day. Cornell still held the allure of unrequited love, a final shred of high school longing.
She wasn’t so bad either. There was no love between us (though she may have said _I love you _and I may have whispered it back, knowing I wasn’t telling the truth even if it felt true). Love was unnecessary. Summer flings don’t need love. They need to remain light, breezy, and inequitable, so they can end horribly—which they must—and so they can become nostalgic even before the end.
[caption id=”attachment_1788” align=”aligncenter” width=”565” caption=”Cornell in the Spring by Zach Stern”][/caption]
When she left for college I followed her. Two weekends a month I drove from Buffalo to Ithaca, down Rt. 16 where farm stands sold fresh honey and autumn flowers and sometimes I brought her those gifts in an attempt to prove my spontaneity and connection with more adult things. I figured it would stand in stark contrast to the idiot boys in her freshman dorm. It did, of course, but not in the way I had hoped.
Anyway. We lasted an awkward month or so with every phone call weighed and measured against an impossible standard. _Is something wrong? Are you sure? Well you don’t sound fine. _Blech. I should have cut my losses and not played that desperate role, the long-distance boyfriend ignoring the obvious and clinging to a girl trying to pull away. I violated the terms of the summer fling. She tried to keep it light and breezy but I refused. And then when I discovered the inequity had shifted—my older guy clout became a liability, my gifts of fresh honey and autumn flowers seemed dowdy—I flew into a panic. I drove to see her one last time, on a rainy Thursday night in early October. The song playing on the radio of my rusted 1977 Pontiac Parisienne:
I like when circumstance turns random songs into the perfect soundtrack. It makes you feel as though the universe is paying attention.
We broke up later that night and I slept in my car in the parking lot of her dorm. The next morning I went back into her dorm, showered in the communal bathroom, and dried myself with paper towels. Then I got a course catalogue from the student union, picked a few classes, and went to class. And so it went for the next three months. I’d drive to Cornell, attend class, and hang out on campus until dinner. I’d sleep in my car, shower in random dorms, and do it all again. I soon realized it was never about my 18 year-old girlfriend. It was about Cornell. I was dating Cornell.
Another song playing on the radio of my rusted 1977 Pontiac Parisienne:
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The fun lasted until winter, when I decided it was time to show my hand. I was exhausted from leading two lives, working at a Buffalo boxing gym and finishing the few final credits needed for my BA while attending classes at Cornell (only lecture hall classes where profs didn’t take attendance). So I submitted a paper on lucid dreaming for my Psychology of Sleep class. The next week the professor asked me see him after class. Our exchange went something like this:
Professor: You need to see the registrar.
Me: Was there a problem with my paper?
Professor: No, but there seems to be a mix-up with your registration. I don’t have you on my roster and we’re halfway into the semester—
Me: That’s because I don’t go here.
Professor: [confused pause] What?
I explained my situation and I thought the professor would get it. That he would see the romanticism of my pursuit and be impressed by this young man studying at this ivy-shrouded school for the sake of learning, dissatisfied with his hometown college, driving five hours roundtrip every week, sleeping in his car…
Get out, the professor said. So I got out and drove back to Buffalo. It snowed on the way home and once again the universe gave a nod in the form of this song playing on the radio of my rusted 1977 Pontiac Parisienne: