21st Century Woman

A Brief History of Before

It’s 7:30 AM and I have an 8:00 AM class across campus. I trudge to the bus stop, rubbing my eyes. Last night had been long—I’d counseled a homesick student late into the evening.

As I’m standing at the stop, I look past all the other tired bodies and notice one of my residents, also waiting. He has on giant over-the-ear headphones and is lightly nodding his head to some unknown beat. I try to recall his name, but nothing comes to me.

Please don’t talk to me. I can’t be your RA right now. Please.

As if I’d said it out loud, he turned his head slightly to look at me. We share a glance of recognition, shared sympathy even, and then we both look away.

I’m grateful.

“You know, you should really talk to my friend David Allen. He’s a writer, like you.”

“David Allen? He has two names?”

“No, that’s just what everyone calls him.”

A few nights later, I find myself in his residence hall. I nervously walk to his room, the door is open.

“Hi, I’m Ashley.”

“Yeah, I know. You were my RA.”

“Oh, sure. Right.” (I don’t recognize him)

“Chris said we should meet—that we have a lot in common.”

“Oh yeah, he mentioned that.”

“Okay, well, um, let’s keep in touch. Maybe send me some of your writing?”

“Yeah, okay, cool.”

We’ve been talking a lot over AIM. He read my plays. I read his poetry. But I have a boyfriend and so we’re just friends.

Even so, he invites me to his residence hall on Valentine’s Day. He makes the sweeping romantic gestures my boyfriend had not proffered—tries to be the salve to my tear-stained day. There is cookie dough spelled out in my name, lovingly baked in the communal kitchen. There is Donnie Darko. There is a bean bag pillow.

I know he means it to be romantic, but I’m already in a roller coaster of a college romance. I have nothing left to offer him. I fall asleep in the middle of his beautifully planned date.

And then suddenly he has a girlfriend, and she doesn’t like how often we talk. He disappears from my AIM list and we awkwardly ignore each other at the dining hall.

The loss is immediate.

The next year, he has been selected to be an RA in the building next door.

During orientation, I play a pregnant student in need of advice as he uncomfortably shifts in his wooden standard issue seat, struggling to find the right words.

I’m aware of the kindly way he listens, knowing the right moments to insert advice or offer support. I dig in, stretch my dramatic muscle, and yet he persists so evenly I’m forced to concede to his response.

After that, we see each other one more time. He comes to visit me in my new apartment. I leave the door open so there can be no suspicion. We commit nervously to small talk, and then he’s gone.

There will be another year of awkward glances in the parking lot before I graduate without ever having said goodbye.

Another year passes. I’m in my second year of grad school in South Carolina. I hate it there. I’m struggling with my thesis. My college boyfriend and I break up. My student dies suddenly. I feel the deepest and most intense loneliness.

It’s Christmas break, and it will be days before my roommates return. I discover that my hometown feels foreign to me—I am an island, after all—so I’ve returned to grad school early.

It’s late and the silence of our apartment is deafening.

I scroll through my AIM list, but not many people are online. Then suddenly, I see a name I haven’t seen in awhile. It’s him.

His away message says, “I wish it would snow.”

My hands go to the keys and pause.

I type, “Me too.”

I hit enter.

We spend hours on the phone. We blow through phone plans. We watch movies together hundreds of miles away. There are mixed CDs and giggly wake up calls.

His assurances bring me confidence. I’m not lonely anymore. His voice is always in my head.

And then there comes a visit. The sudden suspension of distance has made things very real. Our timing is all wrong.

We push off in separate directions, again.

Somehow we end up in the same city, without planning to, without meaning to.

We are shy at first, conscious of all that came before.

Yet, there is no going back, there is only the thing that must be done.

Soon, we no longer remember “before.”

Looking back, there was no reason for us to find each other again, but the universe continued to insist on our collision, so we collided and collided until there was nothing else to do but open our eyes and see it for ourselves.

My best friend