University of Baltimore Asst. Prof. and Bohemian Rhapsody Columnist Marion Winik discovers a new ending to her oldest love story, which causes her to question her entire theory of the universe.
What if you were 22 and there was a boy at your office, a Jewish Studies major from Harvard who did a Big Bird impression? After you got through ignoring him because he was such a nerd, stooping over your carrel in his white button-down shirt, you realized he was the love of your life. Who can say what kind of tarty get-ups you would wear to work, what enthusiasm you would develop for Milan Kundera, what vistas of eternity would open up between rumpled sheets in a narrow bed on the Upper West Side?
What if three months later that boy suddenly startled and bolted and not one word you could say, not one hook you could unhook, not one self-destructive melodramatic crisis you could stage would bring him back? You could lie down in the hallway outside his apartment all night and he would not open the door.
Something like this might really mess you up, you know? You could spend quite a while feeling bad and acting worse. You could hitch up a train of bad poems and lost weekends and therapy sessions and, whoosh, there goes 1982.
But let’s say you eventually get off your personal locomotive of doom, move to Texas, marry, have children. The mystery of how this boy could stop loving you remains a cold case for more than 10 years. To regain your balance, you develop the essential ironic distance. You tell the story with scorn and pity for yourself, apologies for him. Tell it often.
So get this. What if one day Big Bird is on a cross-country trip and he stops to see you in your pink granite office building at 811 Barton Springs Road in Austin, Texas, where you now write manuals for a software company. You talk to him standing in the parking lot out front because he only has a minute. He just wants to say, after all this time, that you were right.
He loved you, of course he loved you, and he should have kept loving you but you were too scary back then. You and your friends were doing hard drugs for God’s sake, and he was a Jewish Studies major who was seeing a psychiatrist three times a week. It felt like electricity but also like electrocution. Now at last he can say this.
Which is why he stopped by.
This conversation permanently qualifies as one of the best things that has ever happened. It actually changes you. Some part of you that has been sitting on Death Row for a decade hears that there were mistakes in the trial procedure and is let out of jail. She walks the streets again. You were scary, yes. But you were not totally mistaken. The missing piece is in place, and it’s not that he was gay, or in love with another girl, or suffering from a secret, terrible illness, or even that he never loved you at all. At last the story has an end: a godsend.
So you can finally get over him.
More or less.
Sometimes you put so much of yourself at stake that you can’t easily get it back. It’s like a part of your theory of the universe is wrong. The part where you trust your heart, and other people’s hearts.
But what if you were right? Not that you can be right every time. Sometimes things you can’t stand are done and can never be undone, or they could, but they won’t be. These things are both littler and much, much bigger than a story like this.
If your life is a research project on what you can expect from this world, any piece of new evidence makes a difference.
What if you were right?
There is little doubt that I have a heavily loaded relationship to this question. I can tell because of the things people say when I bring it up. A male friend talks about the plot of an episode of a 1990s television show, “Mad about You.” A married couple experiments with a virtual reality system designed to let people experience their deepest desires. The guy makes out with Christie Brinkley. When the wife puts on the headset she encounters not a movie star but her husband, who has invested their money without asking and virtually cheated on her to boot. “I was wrong,” he is saying earnestly. “Just so wrong. And to not be able to admit that I was wrong was even more wrong.”
A female friend shifts into a different key, remembering a number of good decisions she doubted at the time. If she was right then, maybe she can trust her intuition now. Perhaps her children will grow up okay, despite having watched inappropriate TV shows. Perhaps that infallibly cheerful coworker is secretly miserable. Perhaps guys are still checking out her ass.
But there are others who are in as deep as I am. Just last week a young woman in my memoir class handed in a story of a high school crush that broke my heart. It was filled with the self-derision I remember well. She met up with the boy in a bar more recently and to her surprise he said he was sorry. He hadn’t known how to deal with all the emotion, he admitted; she was not the only one he had hurt this way. So she forgave him. She seemed to think the point was forgiving him.
I thought, no, this is not the end of the story.
Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.
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