It was only yesterday when one of my students arrived for class looking like he’d just suffered an emotional punch to the face by someone who had never allowed a gym membership to lapse. As usual, he was the second student to arrive, but this time everything was different. He usually drops off his stuff on his desk, collects the handouts needed for the day, and then heads back into the hallway so he can coo and cuddle with his girlfriend before the bell rings. Then they all but dramatically scream, “Fare thee well!” at one another and reluctantly part ways for the next thirty-eight minutes.
I never say anything to kids who are making out in the hallway. I sort of just avert my eyes so I won’t see tongues flying about because I’m pretty certain that kind of image would scar me. And I rarely to never ask students about how their romantic relationships are going because I used to have this odd and rather terrible habit of inquiring about the status of things on the very day one of them was broken up with by the other via text. I’ve never said a word to this particular student about his girlfriend before and I don’t even know her name, but the absolute light that shines from his eyes when she is anywhere in his line of vision is obvious. As an adult who knows how rare it is for high school love to last forever, I wish I could hold a hand up in front of my face the way I did the first time I saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre because I just know the certain carnage that lies ahead.
“You okay?” I asked the kid who was so clearly not okay that my question almost seemed cruel.
He shook his head in response.
“Want to talk?”
He shook his head again and asked if he could go to the bathroom.
“Of course,” I told him and then I looked up at the clock so I would know if he was gone for too long and I should send another student to check on him. You’d think that was just me being overly cautious, but I’ve already had to peel a hysterical eighteen year old off the floor of the bathroom this year when his girlfriend announced that she never wanted to speak to him again and he was sure that he’d never get over the feeling of searing pain shooting through his insides on that rainy morning in February.
Yesterday’s student did not require me to call for social workers and security guards – who were needed the last time because I can’t just walk into the boy’s bathroom, you see – and he did return to class quickly, but he did not utter a word all period long. The day before, he’d asked me to write a college recommendation for him. Using that as an excuse to make sure he would be somewhat okay after leaving my room, I called him up to my desk right before class ended. His eyes were hooded over; he’d obviously cried at some point in the very recent past. His skin looked sallow, as though life was literally draining out of him. I kept it casual at first, asked him if he was planning to apply anywhere early next year and what his major might be. After we had a little light banter, I decided to just come out with it. I’ve found that being completely direct with teenagers is actually the only thing to which most of them respond.
“Is this right here because of a girl?” I asked him and pointed at the miserable expression covering every single centimeter of his face.
“Yeah,” he said.
“If she told you she needs some space, you have to give her some. Don’t text her, don’t call her, and don’t try to tell her right now how miserable you feel. She has to decide on her own that she misses you.”
“Wow,” he replied, “that’s exactly what’s going on. How did you know?”
“Because certain problems in relationships are pretty consistent, no matter what age you are. Keep yourself busy. Try to look like you’re doing just fine. Talk to friends about your feelings and know I’m always around if you need someone. But give her the space she asked for now, okay?”
“I really appreciate that advice,” he said – and then he smiled for the first time and looked a little bit lighter as he walked out of the room.
God, how amazing would life be if we always found it in us to follow the advice we so eloquently hand out to others? How much different might life be if every single present moment could be viewed through the crystal clear lens of retrospect?
I felt dead – like, rotting-carcass-dead – the afternoon I checked my email a bunch of years ago and saw that my boyfriend broke up with me through Yahoo. We’d been together for a year and talked frequently about living together. He told his family that he expected he’d marry me one day. I told my family the very same thing. Unfortunately, he’d neglected to figure his still-rampant obsession with his ex-girlfriend into the proposal plan and I was the well-intentioned moron who believed him when he directly and clearly told me that the two of them were just friends and I was his future. The email he sent me over a year later destroyed plans that I finally realized were just sponsored fantasies. I read what he sent me and, with each line, something new hardened inside of me and it might have been my blood because I swiftly grew colder. My hands were like ice but my eyes felt like they were on fire. I didn’t cry. I didn’t yell. I read the email again and grew more and more stunned. He was breaking up with me? He thought it was okay to emotionally annihilate me in a fucking email? He closed his message by telling me how much he loves me? How was he okay with hurting me like this?
Here’s what I should have done: nothing. I should have deleted his email and chosen to never speak to him again. I should have iced him out completely for his staggering levels of cowardice and assholery. I should have felt slightly flattered that I was such a clear threat that the ex-girlfriend who had kept him dangling on the fringes of her life for many years took one look at me and came running back.
(I also should have maybe hired a hitman. Get me one person on that jury who found out her life was being scrambled and destroyed via technology and I’d walk away a free woman. At the most, maybe I’d get house arrest and then I could finally have the time to watch Sons of Anarchy.)
I’m quite humiliated to report that I did none of those things, though I am happy I never hired the hitman. My reactions on that afternoon were fully governed by emotion and most of that emotion felt like panic. I had to save it! I had to fix it! I had to let him know what he was missing! I had to destroy the very last shred of dignity that was fraying inside of me like the ends of the blanket my grandmother made me when I was born, the one that would never sit at the foot of the bed in a home he and I shared.
The phone call that went down after I got the email was so devastating that I think most of it has been repressed in my mind. He was too scared to tell me that he was going back to his ex – a girl he’d shoved me into a room with countless times while I smiled and tried to make the best of an odd dynamic and she glared and considered if she should cut all my hair off before or after she set me ablaze – so he danced around the problem and gave me no reason for his decision and I hung up blaming myself because it took a few months to finally hear a version of the truth. It would take a while to realize that I had played the whole thing wrong, that he never deserved to hear any sort of reaction from me and that the closure I thought would bring me peace didn’t actually exist. I thought having answers to questions would quell my confusion, but they often only caused more questions. I wish I’d used the energy I spent playing Romance Detective on different pursuits, like finding random men and revenge banging them into oblivion.
He and I are friendly today and the reason we can be is directly tied to the fact that I don’t care about him anymore. I don’t wish we’d ended up together; I know what the woman in his life has to deal with and I hope she wants to deal with it forever because it takes far too much energy to wish anyone ill. Still, if my life could just become part of an X-Box console – just for one single day – I’d press “reset” on that day and a few others.
There was the moment in college, for example, I wish I could take back. I was a sophomore and I’d been with my boyfriend for about two years. We were in the heightened throes of a long-distance relationship and that choice alone is one I wish I could reset. I loved him for sure, but no nineteen year old should be tied down, a fact that’s only clear when I look back on the days I should have been a happy college whore. I was not a whore. I was faithful. And being faithful then was way harder than being faithful now because then I lived in a setting where every single person around me was between the ages of seventeen and twenty-two and the guys were scruffy and cute in the way that I love and every room I hung out in had a bed. That I didn’t toss my boyfriend aside by night two of freshman year is the kind of thing that stuns me still.
He was a good guy, that boyfriend, but that’s not to say he didn’t make some grave mistakes. Looking back now, how could he not have made those mistakes as a teenager who was away from home and surrounded by emotionally vulnerable girls all the time? Turns out, though, it was a girl he’d met at home while I’d been away that caused some problems. He actually told me a little bit about that girl over the phone. He’d met her while working as a ref. She was in charge of timing the games. They’d become friends. No, he said, I had nothing to worry about.
He mentioned her sometimes but it was always done in a casual manner. I never met her – I never even thought about meeting her – until the night he and I stood on line to buy tickets for a movie and then I heard some girl call his name and we both looked over and there was a stranger with a weird lopsided smile on her face. My boyfriend introduced us and the girl made some comment about how it had been a long time since they’d seen one another. He just shrugged. Then she looked right at me and told me she’d been accepted at Delaware and she was going next year. “That’s great,” I said with a smile. “Get my number from him and call me if you need anything. It’s a really fun school. You’ll love it.”
I didn’t see her again – I didn’t think about her again – until Homecoming. It was pouring rain and the mudsliding was about to start as the fraternities and sororities hung out on the field behind the football stadium. In all of my years at that school, I never once actually walked into the stadium for a game. I regret that now, but my boyfriend went to the University of Michigan and I saw those games so maybe that somehow balances everything out. On that particular Homecoming of my sophomore year, I was having a great time. I’d moved out of the dorms and I lived with some friends. In a few months, I’d be elected President of my sorority. My hair had never looked better. And I’d recently made a new guy friend who lived with my roommate’s boyfriend and I really liked him. We hung out all the time and we’d flirt madly, but I was very upfront with him about having a serious boyfriend and he never crossed that line, though perhaps we cuddled too closely a few times when we watched a movie. I’d told my boyfriend about this guy and I also told him there was absolutely no reason for him to be concerned.
It’s funny how you can lie to yourself, isn’t it? It’s even funnier how easily you can believe your own set of lies.
While most days I’d rather do anything than stand in the pouring rain drinking cheap beer, Homecoming was a big deal at college so I met up with some of my best friends at someone’s house and ate a ton of starch before guzzling mimosas made out of the cheapest champagne on the market. From there, we headed as a group to the place behind the stadium and prepared to spend the rest of the day in the quickly-developing monsoon. There were no cell phones then – which is fucking crazy and sometimes I wonder how I was able to get in touch with anybody – so you’d sort of hang out with whoever you ran into. I wasn’t in that muddy field for more than ten minutes before I saw Mike. He and I had lived on the same floor freshman year and we had become incredibly close. Not only that, but we lived ten minutes from one another at home, so I saw him during the summer, too. He’d become like a hot brother to me, but neither of us even considered crossing that line because it was way harder to find funny, cute, smart platonic friends at school than either of us had expected and we just always chose to stay firm friends. He knew my boyfriend. They’d met many times and Mike was maybe the only guy I knew at college who didn’t scoff and tell me to break up with a person who resided several states away.
I was a little bit tipsy, but even on days like Homecoming, I never got too drunk. I just always liked knowing that I was in control, that I could get myself home, that there was no danger of me falling asleep behind a goalpost. Mike was right at that spot, too, though he’d get drunker as the day went on. I didn’t see that other guy I’d become so friendly with recently. He wasn’t in a fraternity and, for that day, people who were not Greek kind of did their own thing. Truth be told, I hadn’t even given that other guy a second thought. I was having way too much fun dancing in the rain well before noon, my hair plastered down and my makeup running and my shoes – which were probably either Timberlands or Doc Martens – filling with water. And then everything changed.
“Hey, Mike,” trilled a girl who came up beside us. She was holding a water bottle and she had her hood up so her hair wouldn’t get wet.
“Hey,” he said back.
There was something about the girl’s face – especially her chin – and her husky voice that seemed familiar. I turned to her with a smile on my face.
“You look so familiar,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“Lori,” she said – and the name rang no bells of recognition. But then she stopped and pointed in my face. “Wait a second!” she said almost triumphantly. “You’re Craig’s ex-girlfriend!”
“Actually, I’m Craig’s girlfriend,” I said steadily, my gaze meeting her gaze, my smile freezing into a line of ice.
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “We met at the movies. Tell him I said hi.” Then she hightailed it away from us and didn’t stop walking until she was clear across the field.
“She hooked up with my boyfriend,” I said suddenly and simply to Mike.
“What? Why do you think that?” he asked.
“I don’t think that. I know that. I just know,” I answered and then I started to drink the warm beer in my hand for real.
Mike did what any normal person would do in that kind of situation. First he told me I was crazy and then he told me I should just ask Craig. And I did ask Craig and he admitted that they’d kissed a bunch of months ago, but I didn’t believe that’s all that had happened and I couldn’t fathom why he hadn’t been honest with me when he knew full well that this chick and I would be at the same school and I really had a tough time with the fact that she’d called me his ex-girlfriend because that couldn’t have come from nowhere. He started to promise and swear that he had never said we’d broken up and this girl must have been experiencing some waves of wishful thinking, but I wasn’t in the mood to be lied to and I definitely wasn’t in the mood to be reasoned with. No, I was in the mood to hurt him just like I had been hurt at Homecoming when I felt like I’d been ambushed on a muddy field.
It wasn’t a thought-out thing, but when I got home from standing in a field, that other guy called and asked me if I wanted to come over to his house where they were having a party. Ordinarily, I might have stopped by and then left because I’d been up for what felt like a zillion hours and I was cold and terribly sad. But I could feel betrayal stabbing me every single time I breathed in, and I told him I’d come over after I changed into something dry. I arrived at his house and two keg stands and three smoked bowls later, he and I ended up in his room cuddling the way we often did, except this time we cuddled naked and then we had sex. I would love to say that I felt terribly about it in the very moment, but more superficial thoughts took over. That guy is the hottest person I have ever slept with to this very day – and I’m pleased to report that I’ve been with some rather handsome men. This one, though? I think I remember describing the moment to my friend Traci and telling her, “There was one moment when I was on top and I looked down at him and he looked so gorgeous that I almost stopped and just patted myself on the back.” I refrained from self-congratulations, however, and I spent the night sleeping with his arms wrapped tightly around me.
I told my boyfriend about it the next day after confronting him about the Lori girl who he kept claiming he’d only kissed. When I let him know that I cheated on him in response, he hung up on me. I was devastated – but I perked up a bit when the new guy stopped by and asked me if I wanted to go for a drive and pick pumpkins and get lunch and I hopped in his car and hoped maybe the day would come when I stopped seeing my boyfriend’s face every time I blinked.
Craig and I ended up getting back together and Lori and I ended up becoming friendly after we both landed in a Spanish class that met four days a week. On the second day, I turned to her and said, “I know you hooked up with Craig while he and I were together. I don’t blame you. You didn’t know me. I blame him because he’s the one who promised to be faithful. We worked through it and we’re together and I really have nothing against you so we might as well just be friends.” I can still see the expression on her face in the recesses of my mind when I think hard. She looked shocked. She looked humiliated. She briefly turned an alarming shade of crimson before the color drained and she appeared fully white. Tears flooded her eyes as the professor walked to the front of the room to begin class and I quickly leaned over and handed her a tissue and said, “Seriously. It’s in the past.”
It was in the past, too. Craig and I were together and happy and (I think) faithful to one another for several more years until it fully dawned on me that it was fucking moronic to be so tied down at my age. But back then we moved forward. I spent a few weeks after finding out about Lori fully broken up with him and the other guy and I started seriously dating. He was really fun and he had his own bedroom and a car and, when you’re at college, that’s sort of all someone needs to be a total catch. Add his perfectly symmetrical face and sculpted body on top of all that, and I briefly wondered if I should maybe just go ahead and pretend that he was my soul mate. It might have worked had I not missed Craig so badly and had the other guy’s response to me telling him that I thought I might run for President of my sorority not have been, “There will be a Jewish President?” Yes, you smoking hot anti-Semite, I thought. There will be a Jewish fucking President.
Looking back, I regret sleeping with that other guy at that particular time. I’m not a cheater. Doing it made me feel like shit afterwards. I could see a film almost pass over Craig’s eyes sometimes and I know he was thinking about me writhing beneath some other guy. I recognized the look on his face because I had those moments, too. I wish I’d better resolved the issue. I wish I hadn’t had revenge sex. I wish I still had a photo of that other guy because, religious bigotry aside, he was absolutely beautiful. I wish that girl Lori never ended up going to my school. I wish I hadn’t run into her on the muddy field that day. I wish I hadn’t been able to tell in one single instant that my boyfriend had chosen her as a way to destroy something inside of me I could never get back.
I wish I hadn’t destroyed something inside of him in foolish retaliation.
But when I think about pressing reset on certain days in my life, it is that last day I spent with my father I’d want to do over the most. I’m actually very lucky; he knew full well how much I loved and valued him. If I could do the day over, I wouldn’t say much. I would listen to everything he had to say and soak in his wisdom about life and music and men. I would have asked to hear more stories about his childhood and the good times he’d spent with my mother because I remember very few of them. I would have asked him to tell me his funniest stories one last time. I would have asked him to break down the most important lessons I should know about life because so much of it loomed in front of me and he wouldn’t be there to offer me a barometer of caution anymore.
I would do over the phone call that set in motion the permanent breakup my childhood best friend and I never managed to repair. I would have packed all of my stuff and moved to where I live now years earlier than I did. I would have tried sushi in high school. I never would have gone on a second date with three different men. I would have stopped trying to make certain relationships with family members make sense because I’ve since learned that there was no sense to be found. I wouldn’t have slept clear through certain days. I would have laughed away more of the bullshit I encountered so often. I would have lived some nights far more recklessly than I did.
When it comes down to it, there’s actually not a massive mess of moments from my past I wish I could completely alter. I suppose I could get all Zen for a second and pretend that I fully believe that everything happens for a reason, that it’s a good thing I experienced some really trying times, but I’m just not that kind of girl. I think the bad moments happened precisely because I made bad choices and I sometimes gambled on the wrong people and I sometimes behaved selfishly. Maybe life would have been easier if I didn’t have this rumbling inner desire to ride so closely to the edge, but a good portion of my soul truly believes that the most fascinating people live and work near that edge and I’m just not sure I’ll ever fully move away from it and go live in some kind of emotional valley. But should I get to that place and find I miss the bumpiness that once was, I’ll attempt to start over like I’m Mario or Luigi, like I’m out to save the princess, like everything is just a game I can reset and start over.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle.