Playing with Adulthood: My Awkward College Experience (part 2 in a series)

A friend recently said to me: “I can’t talk to you about my problems with my boyfriend. Your relationship is so perfect.” I looked at her and laughed. “Oh honey, if you only knew what I’d been through.” I relayed this story to my mother later via email. She echoed my response, having been there every step of the way. What follows here is a memoir of those relationships, a boy-chapter at a time.

My college experience, as I’ve already more or less described, was weird. It wasn’t the time of my life, filled with frat parties, beer and freedom. It was a struggle for me. I studied very hard, and was obsessed with my grades. I made very few friends. In fact, I don’t have a single friend from college that I still keep in touch with, even with the advent of social media.

I can think of three boys I went on casual dates with, one a real relationship, I think—who also went to school with me. Otherwise, I dated people who didn’t go to college at my school or at all. It’s probably why I was so disconnected from the college experience. My senior year, my friend Mindy and I walked through west campus—I call her my friend at the time, but as I mentioned, we made no lasting connection—talking about our creative advertising class. I was having a difficult time coming up with my concepts each class session, frowning over my ideas late into the night at my desk in my bedroom.

“You need to come up to school and hang out with us,” Mindy told me. She was a tall, elegant girl with classic good looks—dark hair, perfect skin, almond-shaped eyes. She was always perfectly put together, always seemed to have a styrofoam cup of coffee in her hand. I half-wondered if she ever drank it, as her red lipstick was perfect and her teeth even and pearly white. “The reason you’re having trouble is that you don’t come to school and brainstorm with the rest of the class. You’re totally isolated with…Billy.” She said his name—always—with derision. Mindy didn’t think I should be tied down to one guy, I was in college, after all!—and Mindy was extremely concerned with looks, money and popularity. Billy had money, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at him.

One of my mistakes, as I’ve mentioned, was not being strong enough. My other mistake, my big regret, is that I dated people who were friends with my brother. It was sort of a natural fit, because that was my crowd. I had one foot in each of two worlds, really—college being one, and I wasn’t really doing that one right—and his world being the other. My brother Dean didn’t go to college. He tried it, and it wasn’t for him. He had a job and an apartment and a corner store where he could buy beer without getting carded if he walked in wearing a suit from work. So his world seemed to me terribly adult, and it was fun to hang out there. He, of course, had friends who also didn’t go the college route, and they had jobs and money and seemed to already be doing this thing I was trying to figure out. And—bonus!—they thought I was cute.

That’s how Billy and I sort of…fell into a relationship. He and Dean worked together. I didn’t think much of Billy at first. A brutally honest and mean point here: Billy was ugly. It makes me cringe to say it, but it’s quite simply true. Billy was well over 6 feet tall and skinny as a rail. It didn’t help that he had a strange birth defect I’d never heard of before, nor since—his rib cage was backwards, so his chest was concave. He had deep set hazel eyes, a long skinny nose, and thin lips. But Billy was one of the nicest guys I had ever met. He was smart as a whip, and he could make me laugh.

He made up a road trip game (made up? I don’t know—like the birth defect, I had never heard of it before, and haven’t played it with anyone else since) called The Cow Game. The simple rules were as follows: each person counted the cows on their side of the car, if you passed a graveyard, you lost all your cows and had to start over, and the person with the most cows when you arrived at your destination won. Of course much of the game was estimating; it’s pretty tough to count cattle as you’re speeding past them at 70 miles an hour. Billy and I had returned home from a road trip to Dallas, and I got in a fight with Dean. I was feeling down, so I called Billy to talk.

“Hey, what are you doing?” I asked, lying on my daybed in the apartment I shared with a high school friend named Krissy.

“Oh, not much. Been driving circles around the Sirloin Stockade to try and win the cow game since you beat me.”

I laughed out loud.

And so it went. I fell in love with his kindness and his wit, and as I mentioned above, his seeming adulthood. It was my sophomore year in college, and I liked dating a guy a few years older than me who got paid handsomely for his work in computers. I’m not sure what he saw in me. The only thing he seemed to actually care about was computers. He was absolutely lost in that world, and it was that world that ultimately drove us apart. He was a child, not an adult, in that way. Sometimes he stayed up all night playing computer games. He would rather spend his Friday nights in front of a glowing screen, in an alternate universe, than hang out with me.

It was during my relationship with Billy that one of the most formative events of my life happened. In typical fashion, I had no idea it had such an impact on me. I brushed it off, moved on, didn’t think too hard about it—and it wasn’t until years later that I realized it was a big deal. I walked into my therapist’s office for my first appointment. I knew I had to talk to someone because I was unhappy in my latest relationship and I suppose I finally had this inkling that I was indeed broken, because I just couldn’t make these things work. I sat down in the plush purple armchair and looked at the therapist Kat and I announced, “My dad died when I was 19 but he was never around anyway, so I don’t think it’s a really big deal. My problem right now is my boyfriend.” Kat smiled kindly at me and said, “Let’s back up just a bit and talk about your dad, okay?”

Billy and I lived in the same apartment complex at the time. It was a botched situation, since he had asked me to move in with him and I had agreed. But then I panicked a little bit—I was only 19, was he really The One? Was I ready for such an Adult Move?—and I backed out. Billy was terribly disappointed and I had hurt his feelings. I think it was a little bit like turning down a marriage proposal, but one of our issues was that Billy just didn’t talk to me. My decision not to move in with him had, in his mind, meant I had made this huge statement about the State of Our Relationship, but he didn’t tell me. He just quietly withdrew.

Because I had agreed to live with him and then retracted my statement, he took his own apartment and so did I. I was again bridging the gap, a part of me in both worlds. It was a Saturday morning, I had spent the night with Billy, and the phone was ringing. Billy had a stupid Mickey Mouse alarm clock that was in its usual place: facedown on the floor.

After trying to wake Billy several times to pick up his phone (1997, landlines, no cell phones), he tossed himself off the bed and barely made it through the doorway to the living room. I laid back down, closed my eyes. Something was off, like the light was all wrong outside, and Billy didn’t get that many calls.

He entered the room, holding the cordless phone.  “It’s for you.”

I frowned.  “Your mom,” he said, and left abruptly, no doubt to have a cigarette.

I held the phone carefully, looking at it.  There were icy fingers of fear closing around my heart.  My mother could only be calling about something important, most likely bad.

“Hello?” I said cautiously.

“Did I wake you, sweetie?  I’m sorry,” she said hurriedly.

“Yeah, but it’s okay.  We should be up anyway,” I fumbled for words.  It was still a bit awkward for my mother to call me at my boyfriend’s apartment, but it didn’t seem to bother her.

“Honey, I got a call,” she began, and the icy fingers of fear grabbed hold with the strength of claws.  Never is “I got a call,” a good sign. I sat up in bed, letting the sheets fall from me with a sudden clear head. No more cobwebs of sleep.

“It appears that your father is in the hospital in Maryland.  I don’t know how serious it is or how they found us, but I thought you should know right away.  Your brother is making calls now.”

I was silent, unable to speak.  I had known in the back of my mind for so long that it would happen just this way. Automatically I started counting back…how many years since I had seen him? And at least a year since we had had an actual telephone conversation, if you could call our stilted one-way talks something like that.

“….So you should probably call Dean, as soon as you can…” she continued.

“Yeah, okay,” I managed, feeling hot wet tears welling behind my eyes.  “Thanks, Mom.”

I pressed the off button on the phone and sit looking at it for a moment. I wondered what Billy was thinking, probably sitting on the couch, as was customary in the morning, watching soft tendrils of smoke curl from his Camel. He was just as I had pictured him, patiently waiting. He knew, just as I had, that the call wasn’t good news. My mother could have waited for that.

I sank to the couch next to him. He took a long pull on the cigarette and looked at me, waiting. Always waiting.

I set the phone down, finally, carefully, as if it is a bomb that may explode at any moment.  “My dad….my dad is in the hospital, and I don’t know what’s wrong.  He’s…probably dying.”  I broke into bitter, heart-wrenching sobs then, as the full weight of what I was saying hit me, and Billy immediately stubbed out the cigarette and took me into his arms.  He didn’t say anything but “I’m sorry,” very softly, and stroked my hair and let me cry.

I talked with Dean later that morning. Our father was lying in a coma thousands of miles away, in the final stage of cirrhosis of the liver. He was jaundiced, unresponsive, and ready to die. Dean and I made immediate plans to fly out there, if for nothing else than to say goodbye.

An image kept coming to my mind, of an old, broken man—broken by life, by relationships—lying in a sterile white room, alone. No one at his bedside but an efficient nurse who is checking his machines, and tubes, and fluids, making sure he was comfortable and perhaps wondering briefly who was this man? Does he have children? A wife? Where are they? Surely, no one should have to die alone.

That’s what made me cry. I was sure that he had been alone for a long time now, not just in the hospital, but every day, until he no longer had the strength or the will to do it anymore.

“I love you,” Billy kept saying, because there is nothing else.  “I love you so much.  I’m sorry you’re sad, baby.”

How could I explain what really made me sad? I was a girl who missed some vague shadow in her life.  It was him I was sad for, him, who at age 57, had decided his life was over. He missed his ex-wife, he missed his children, he missed the life that he had before and now that life was gone. He replaced all of it with alcohol. He drank and he was lonely, and he waited. He simply waited for his pain to end.

It was not my pain that I shed tears for, but his.

*

Dean and I sat outside the airport in St. Louis, Dean smoking a cigarette thoughtfully.

“Are you sure you want to see him this way?” he asked, as if we could actually turn back at that point.

“Not really,” I replied, watching a man calm his enormous dog, thinking perhaps it was half Great Dane, half Dalmatian. “But I feel like we should be there.”  I don’t want him to die alone, I almost added, as if an hour at my father’s deathbed could make up for so many lost years.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Dean answered, stubbing out his cigarette and shaking a fresh one from the pack.

I looked down at my hands.  “I know he can’t talk or anything, but we can talk to him, can’t we?”

Dean took a long drag.  “Of course.”

*

Baltimore, when we arrived, was cool and humid. I headed to the baggage claim while Dean found a payphone to call our uncle. After I grabbed our bags, I joined him. He was hanging up the phone with a terse expression.

“His condition’s worse.  He could go at any time.” It was already midnight and I was exhausted, but there was such urgency in Dean’s voice that I knew we had to hurry. We grabbed a cab. It’s was a 30 minute drive, and all we could do was wait for the ride to be over. I wished again, for the thousandth time, that we had had more time.  Just a little more time.

At the doors to ICU, Dean and I looked at each other. It was a look that passed between us and was understood without words: This is It. No turning back. We had to face whatever was on the other side of that door. Dean took my hand, and I squeezed.

We walked into the entryway, where a few doctors and nurses were monitoring patients and working on menial tasks. A man approached us with a gentle smile. He seemed happy—maybe relieved—that we were there.  I wondered if this was one of the nursing staff I had imagined, one of whom was hoping this man wouldn’t have to die alone. The doctors had done all they could, and now we needed to take care of the rest.

“Your dad’s been waiting for you,” he said to us.

Behind the curtain, my dad was lying there, hooked up to monitors and tubes: breathing, heart rate, blood pressure. His forehead and ears were covered by a small towel, and the rest of him covered by a hospital blanket. I immediately started crying, and Dean put his arm around me. It shouldn’t be this way, I thought. It shouldn’t be this way after so many years.  More time, dammit.  We need some more time.

We approached his bedside, and I looked into the face I used to know so well; the long, dark lashes under bushy brows, a strong nose and wide lips. He was yellow, jaundiced, and as Dean reached for his hand under the blanket, I noticed that he was puffy. The fluid he was supposed to be getting rid of through his liver was collecting, poisoning him from the inside out.

“Hey, Dad,” Dean said softly, next to his ear, “We’re here. It’s me, Dad, Buster Brown…” My dad’s nickname for him. My heart went out to Dean to hear the way his voice broke as he finished the sentence.

“Hi, Daddy,” I said tentatively, wondering if he could hear us. “Hey, Daddy, your Precious is here.” Precious was my name. There was nothing. No response, no squeeze of the hand, no movement behind closed lids. Somehow I thought maybe we would know, that we would feel his acknowledgement that we were there. We just had to go on blind faith.

We sat at his side, examining every part of him, looking at his face. We pulled back the towel covering his head and touched his hair, as if we could make it more real by putting our hands on something tangible. He never moved; nothing ever changed but the blips and beeps on the monitor. His heart would speed up, slow down, sometimes beat at an amazing speed, and I kept thinking, He’s going to go, right now, right here, with me holding his hand. But he hung on. The breathing, slow and ragged, with the help of a machine, kept going. We talked to him, told him our names over and over. And that we loved him.

I can only hope he heard.

We sat in our vigil until four a.m., when we decided that our job was done. The doctors were  instructed to let him pass when the time came; there was no need to resuscitate him.

We peeled back the towel from his head; we each kissed him in turn and whispered, “Goodbye, I love you.”

He died twelve hours later.

*

I found an old diary entry from this point in my life. There were exactly two mentions of this event. I recall bombing a statistics assignment shortly after my trip to visit my father. I tentatively explained the situation to my professor after class one day—I had been out because of my father’s passing—could I get a redo on my homework assignment? I had been distracted. I actually felt guilty for my excuse.

I honestly and truly thought my situation didn’t warrant any special treatment, and life should go on as though nothing changed.

Billy’s reaction? He picked me up from the airport and there were red roses in a vase on the front seat of his 240SX. He didn’t talk to me about it, didn’t ask me how I felt, and when I asked him, he said he didn’t know what to say. In retrospect, in the relationship I have now, in which my husband is my best friend, my confidante, my entire world—it sounds completely insane to me. My father died and we hardly said a word about it. I didn’t spend nights curled up next to Billy, reminiscing about the good times with my dad, or voicing my worries that I or Dean would end up just like him, crying about how he ultimately died alone. Nothing. We had one brief discussion about it, during which Billy admitted how uncomfortable he was with, you know, feelings, and we moved on with our lives.

We had no idea what we were doing.

I eventually moved in with Billy, despite my earlier misgivings. We lived together for my junior and senior years of college. Billy pushed me to enter the Adult World on more than one occasion. Another time that my inability to be strong, to stand up for myself, to take care of me—was a huge problem. I wanted to study abroad for a semester, but Billy wouldn’t let me. I wanted to take a series of classes that meant I would graduate in the spring, on time, instead of early, in the fall—Billy didn’t like the idea. He wanted me to Grow Up and Get a Real Job.

I think Billy was similar to Alex in this way—Billy didn’t go to college, and had a chip on his shoulder about it. He, of course, wouldn’t say a word about it, but I knew it made up a big part of him. He felt like a failure because he dropped out, and it was hard for him to relate to me. He was a little bit jealous of me. I spent my days walking through campus and looking at the couples, feeling jealous of what they had. I wanted to sit on the lawn between the buildings we called The Six Pack and do nothing in the sunshine, like they did. Again, I was doing both things—college and Adult World—neither of them well.

I was alone during much of my relationship with Billy. Because he was always playing computer games, it was rare that we even went to bed at the same time. Sometimes I felt like we were nothing more than roommates. I had to ask him over and over for something that made me feel special—to take me out on a date, to buy me flowers—these things seemed so important to me at the time. I was looking constantly for signs that I was a good girlfriend, that I was loved. I wanted romance and fun and excitement, and he didn’t, or perhaps he thought we had all of those things. He was satisfied with life, and with our relationship, just as they were. He didn’t put a lot of work into anything—except the computer—and certainly not our relationship. We entered a never-ending cycle of me begging him to do something with me, take me out, go somewhere, hell, have a fucking conversation, and his response would be to get me a stuffed animal or a rose, with a note about how much he loved me and wanted to marry me. Two months later, repeat. At the time, I thought I was completely justified. Now I realize I was trying to change someone’s fundamental being. He just wasn’t that guy. I must have been driving him crazy asking all the time. I wonder why he stayed with me so long. I spent the entire relationship screaming, jumping up and down and waving my arms, “Look at me, Billy! No, really look at me!”

Sometimes while he was gone, working or pretending to work because he was really playing computer games at work, I would sit in our apartment with tears running down my face, splashing the keyboard, and I would type into my journal, “I am so lonely.”

It’s not surprising to me that I had an emotional affair. It’s also not surprising that it was with one of Billy’s friends. I’m not proud of it, but I can see now with clarity how it happened. Isn’t that the reason people cheat? They’re not getting something from their current relationship that the outside one provides. Billy’s friend Jay was definitely in Adult World—ten years older than me, with a failed marriage and a son. He lived in Dallas, and I met him on one of our trips there. I remember what I was wearing the day I met him—a pair of cutoff shorts and a striped midriff-baring top. He couldn’t take his eyes off of me.

We started chatting on the computer. It was 1998 and the underground chat program was called ICQ. It was a play on words, meaning “I Seek You.” It was a fitting theme for the relationship I started with Jay. He gave me everything I wanted from my relationship with Billy. He told me how beautiful and funny I was; he was also a writer. He wrote me poems. I was a hopeless romantic writer, who was afraid my life had passed me by. I felt like I was already married to a boring man who was addicted to computer games and would say that he loved me, but he didn’t really know why.

I was a goner from the first words Jay typed.

Jay came to visit us one weekend in the fall of my senior year. Strangely enough, I had told Billy that we were talking, and that sometimes Jay said things that were, to put it mildly, inappropriate or flirtatious. I’m sure that I told Billy for two reasons—one, I tried to be completely transparent and honest with him, always. It was something my mother instilled in me from an early age. She always said that she would forgive me anything but lies, so I should always tell her the truth, and we would work through whatever truth I had confessed. The second reason is one I’m not proud of, but it makes sense when I think about it now. I wanted him to care. I wanted Billy to be jealous. He had this maddening way of either being completely unfazed by other men—or completely flipping out. I had no way of knowing what would trigger his jealousy. And in my mind, jealousy meant he cared. Yet again, I was waving my arms at him, frantic for him to “get it.”

I don’t think we even left the house when Jay came to visit, except for a drive around the block at 5 a.m. after we’d stayed up all night. The three of us sat around drinking beer, watching football and talking.  We couldn’t stop talking. Well, Jay and I couldn’t. The three of us stayed up all night. Billy might even have been dozing at points during the evening, as the night stretched into morning, but Jay and I couldn’t get enough of each other. He had a brand new Mustang, and I wanted drive it, hence the 5 a.m. cruise. After his visit, it occurred to me that Billy and I had never stayed up all night together. Just…being together.

Our chats became more serious. One night, about a week after his visit, I asked him if I could tell him something and would he please not laugh at me or think that I’m stupid?

“Your mind is beautiful,” he typed to me. “Of course not.”

How could I hesitate after words like those? So I told him that I was having “Jay withdrawal.” He admitted he, too, had been a little bit depressed since the weekend ended. We were both trying to ignore it, given that I was in a relationship with his very good friend. But once we acknowledged it, a torrent of feelings was unleashed. Jay said we had a different connection than most people.

“It doesn’t mean you don’t love the person you’re with – it just means this other connection fills a void in your heart or mind,” Jay typed. We rationalized our relationship, trying to convince ourselves this connection we had wasn’t dangerous. We pretended that it wasn’t going to destroy my relationship with Billy.

We kept talking over ICQ, and after a couple of weeks I realized I had fallen in love with Jay. It sounds insane. Maybe it was. I loved Billy too—or, I thought I did—and it was only then I understood that you can love more than one person at the same time. My relationship with Jay starkly exposed the faults in my relationship with Billy. What I was describing to myself as a “different” connection was really just a connection. Billy and I were just bumbling along together; we just fell into each other as a couple. If someone had asked me why I was with him, I’m not sure I could have answered. I would probably have said, “He’s nice.” That also sounds insane, because I wanted to marry the guy. Because he was nice? Because he didn’t treat me like I was disposable or yell at me like Alex had? I was painfully young and I simply didn’t know any better.

That’s why Jay rocked my world. That’s why I fell so hard. It was practically inevitable.

Billy figured it out. He may not have had a plethora of endearing qualities, but the boy wasn’t stupid. I was acting way too cagey about my ICQ account, hurriedly closing the window on my computer if Billy happened to walk in the room at a bad time. Logging on to ICQ from school in the computer lab, just to get a dose of words from Jay. He was my drug, and I couldn’t quit. I was at a football game with my friends in late November when it happened. The game was amazing. That was the game Ricky Williams broke Earl Campbell’s rushing record, and we were chanting “Run Ricky Run!” at the top of our lungs, high-fiving, hugging each other, shaking the bleachers. It was one of those days that was a college day—a real college day. The sky was overcast and it was deliciously chilly, perfect football weather. As the stadium began emptying out, I called Billy for a ride.

From the moment I heard his voice, I knew what had happened.

The elation from the football game evaporated instantaneously. Billy was stoic, hardly looking at me as I got into his car. He had already called Jay, and Jay told him we’d fallen in love, that we didn’t mean for it to happen, that Jay felt like the biggest asshole on the planet. But it sounded like Jay was willing to fight for me, for us. Billy and I went home, fought, cried, hugged, talked, and cried some more. Billy was furious at me, furious at Jay, and furious with himself for being played a fool. He knew he should leave me, but quite plainly, he loved me and he didn’t want to. He laid down the law—if I wanted to save this relationship, I had to cut Jay out of my life. I told him I couldn’t. Jay had become too important to me. I wanted to see if what we had was real.

I went out that night with my friend Mindy. Before we left her apartment, I called Jay. We talked for nearly an hour. We both felt like heels, but we were giddy hearing each other’s voices. I promised him I would figure out what to do. I decided it was time to take a break from Billy, move out of the apartment we shared and give me and Jay a real try. We had only been in the same room together for a total of 24 hours, ever. Before we got off the phone, Jay said, “I really really love you Christianne,” and my heart melted. I was head over heels for this man, and I had to be with him. Billy was the “logical” choice, the comfortable choice, but he didn’t make my heart sing like Jay.

But by the time I woke up Saturday morning, extremely hungover, Jay had removed himself from the situation. He called the apartment, and the three of us had the most bizarre three way conversation. Jay told us he wanted us to “fall in love again” and that I couldn’t really examine my feelings for Billy with Jay in the way confusing things. I was heartbroken and angry at Jay. In turn, Billy was heartbroken and angry at me.

Saturday night Billy and I grabbed some beers and went to the top of the cliffs at the 360 bridge to talk. Again. It seems all we did that weekend was talk, and rehash, and talk, and talk some more. But we weren’t getting anywhere. Billy knew he should leave me, but he couldn’t. He wanted to fix our relationship, but I was exhausted and unhappy. I’d had a glimpse of something else, and I wanted that. I didn’t want the relationship I already had. Those exposed faults didn’t seem fixable to me. There was no real foundation for us, and even though I was young and bumbling around in the dark when it came to this stuff, I had figured that one out.

By December, we called it quits. I moved in with my parents temporarily. I knew it was the right thing, and I didn’t want my current relationship, but I was so used to Billy. He was a habit I had to break. We didn’t know how not to be with each other. Even thought we’d split up, we went to my office Christmas party. Went back to the apartment and talked about still hanging out even though we had broken up. It was ludicrous.

And so my last semester in college was exactly that—ludicrous. Billy and I tried again. We moved to a new apartment just off campus. He interviewed for a job in New York. Sometimes Jay and I chatted on ICQ, or sent long sappy emails, or sneaked conversations on the phone Sometimes we were silent, trying to stay away from each other. I promised Billy that I wouldn’t talk to him. There were times when I looked at Billy and knew I didn’t love him anymore. Then I would imagine my life without him and not be able to breathe. There were times when I wanted to get in my car and drive to Dallas and knock on Jay’s door. I should have, because I would have forced his hand. Jay was never going to make us happen. He always had an excuse. He slayed me with his gorgeous words. But he didn’t make the effort. And at the time, these two men were my whole world. I couldn’t fathom the idea that neither of them was right for me. They were all I could see.

In May, I graduated college and moved to New York to be with Billy. We were so battered and bruised it was pointless, but we just couldn’t let go of each other. It’s another time in my life that I feel badly for the earlier version of me. I was depressed. I felt directionless, boring, bland. I got a job at a little magazine, made some friends, tried to be an Adult.

It didn’t work. In December, Billy informed me he wasn’t happy and wanted out. New Year’s Day, 2000 – I woke up hungover, our apartment trashed from a party the night before. I switched on the TV to watch the Longhorns. They were losing to Arkansas. The vet called to inform me that my cat, who had been sick and in his care, had just died.

A rather inauspicious start to the new millennium.

I moved back to Austin on a brutally cold day in January. Billy helped with my suitcases, but he wasn’t wearing shoes so we wound up in the vestibule of our apartment building, and he put his hands on both sides of my face, and kissed me. I cried. “Tell me if you want me back,” I whispered. He didn’t seem to hear me.

Share Button