Not even a high school gig bagging groceries at the corner store.
She was my big college crush. My only college crush, really—a woman for whom I undertook a sustained four-year campaign of pained pining via reams of AOL IM conversations, hours of long-distance phone calls, and a barrage of mix CDs so leaden with lovelorn balladry that I wouldn’t be surprised if the track lists spelled-out “H-E-A-R-T M-E, P-L-E-A-S-E” in acrostic.
A few months after my college graduation, she came back to D.C. for the weekend. I took a day trip up to Baltimore with her to see a concert and, on the way home, she scooted her hand into mine and we twined our fingers next to the gearbox of her Ford Explorer. Three months later, I unceremoniously dumped her because she had never had a job.
This was a heartless move and I still regret it. But for the benefit of posterity, I’ll attempt to re-construct the decision-making process that lead me to dump the Diane Court to my college-years Lloyd Dobler over the strength of her resume.
First, I wasn’t an obsessive person or a borderline stalker. The only reason I nursed an undergraduate-length crush was because she wasn’t around that much. She dropped out at the end of our freshman year, before I even knew her name.
Back then, she was just somebody I saw milling around in front of our dorm, smoking cigarettes. I was too shy to make any conversation. Actually, I was a 19 year-old wolfboy who wore pajama pants under his jeans when he went to class. I didn’t really have a type, but I was attracted to girls with strong personalities—women who didn’t mind holding down the small talk that I was then incapable of making. At the end of the year, I saw her packing boxes into her parents’ minivan for a one-way trip back to the Midwest and figured that was that.
A few months later, through no guile on my part, I became friends with a few of her remaining buddies. Every once in a while, she’d take a weekend sojourn from her hometown and crash out on their dorm room floor. During our senior year, she stuck it out for a whole semester.
Soon, we were hanging out all the time. She was punky and assertive. She had a sense of adventure, which I appreciated. She was arty and creative, but never tragic and mopey. She was very Ghost World—Thora Birch to my cranky Steve Buscemi. We’d smoke pot and watch B-movies. We’d make impulsive two-hour midnight drives to Annapolis to pick up beach sand for the ashtray at her group house. Beer was the tool of the fraternity-dude oppressor. We’d drink Zima instead. I’d swoon around and trash talk her flunky boyfriends back home. I would talk to her about music and, even though she wasn’t a huge record nerd, she listened, believing that my excitement was more meaningful than fan-boy prattling. During those intervening years she transformed from abstract crush to close friend.
When we finally hooked up, it was a very, very empowering moment. I had dated around in college, but mostly in a blind, disinterested way, crammed into whatever hours I could spare from trolling Napster for out-of-print post punk singles.This was different. When she'd fly out to visit, we’d walk through my sketchy neighborhood together arm in arm. It was all rose-tinted and romantic, if you could overlook that guy chasing his daughter down the street with a dead rat on a stick. And the stoner dude with the Christmas lights on his automatic wheelchair.
But once she became a real, albeit long-distance, commitment, her bad habits got harder to ignore.
She chain-smoked. She was late to everything. On weekends when she came to visit, she declined to get out of bed until two or three in the afternoon. Once, after refusing to rise from a nap, she nearly made me late to the debut of a modern dance piece that I had worked all summer to score the music for. I had terrible anxieties about infidelity and the long distance component of our relationship. Coupled with the fact that, for a while, she insisted on keeping everything secret from our friends, it played on my nerves.
And then there was the job thing. She’d never had one—not even a high school gig bagging groceries at the corner store—and she wasn’t interested in acquiring one.
Meanwhile, I was working seven days a week, holding down employment as a legal temp, the weekend manager at a rat-infested art gallery, and the dance troupe’s composer. I felt deeply guilty for squeaking through a pricey college with only a middling GPA. I had partly imposed the ugly schedule on myself as a form of penance. Her laid back lifestyle didn’t really fit into my worldview. To be fair, I was seeing the world at the time predominantly from my dank basement apartment, wearing out my roommate’s Xbox.
Because I was in my early 20s and didn’t know any better, I allowed myself to think about our relationship in unrealistically long terms. Together, we dreamed up a fantasy-future: I would leave Washington, D.C. and relocate to her hometown where we would get a place. I could have my own side-room, a study alcove devoted to music and writing. Someday, maybe there would be kids. It would be just like that one Wilco song.
For a week or so, I mooned. And then I freaked out. In my mind, our shared idea of domestic bliss soured into a paranoid fantasy vision of bleak rust belt living. Because she didn’t want to work, it would be my task to support us financially—probably by handling breakage at the local mannequin factory. At the end of the day, I’d come home and wake her up from a ten-hour nap, iron her a fresh set of pajamas, light her first cigarette of the day, and help her strap on her oxygen mask. After dinner, I’d retire to the garage, where I would weep over a dusty typewriter and mourn for my crushed dreams.
Clearly, I was being a tad histrionic. I had, and still have, a very active imagination when it comes to possible catastrophe. But her periodic announcements—“I aspire to be a housewife”— didn’t help to salve my anxieties. When she flew out a weekend visit, I went cold and broke things off.
She didn’t deserve it. Looking back, she was making changes all the time. Just to set the record straight: While we were going out, she got her first job working as a barista at a tiny coffee shop. She didn’t do it to please me, either. After we broke up, she went back to school full-time and eventually became a bit of a workaholic.
I don’t regret that we broke up, but I do regret how we broke up. A long distance couple in our early 20s, we were pretty much doomed from the start. Had I been able to see that clearly, our romance might have petered out in a friendlier, more natural way. Maybe one that was more flattering to me.