Every now and then, a time comes that forces a young man in love to switch off his mind before it blows a fuse or six.You can always tell when moments like these arrive because suddenly, for no apparent reason, Life starts using you as target practice—and I don’t mean “of the Robin Hood variety.”After all, arrows are pretty easy to dodge, especially when they come at you one at a time, and especially if you’re on your toes.A young man—who uses Reason to discipline himself—can do this.But once the “girl you’ve been dating” becomes the “love of your life,” Robin-Hood-with-bow turns into Tony-Soprano-with-pistol—faster than you can say “hullo,” I might add.In other words, you’re up Shit Creek without a paddle.You’re fucked.Not just literally.
I should clarify.Girlfriends aren’t supposed to be hindrances.Mine was a blessing, a constant reminder of just how lucky I was, especially since it was she, and not I, who initiated our getting together.She helped me deflect any hardship that came at me, and I did the same for her.This is what relationships are for, after all.But she reached the “love” phase a lot faster than I did (I am, after all, male); by the time I arrived there myself…let’s just say I was having trouble sorting myself out and keeping her happy at the same time.Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have had much of a problem.And neither would you.
About a year ago, the number of difficulties I was facing increased beyond my control.My carefully constructed college experience was being destroyed: Boston University was hardly my first choice, but it was either that or the University of Illinois.Between a fun city on the East Coast and a cornfield somewhere downstate, which would you choose?Yeah, that’s what I thought.As it turned out, Boston was actually a pretty good situation.I was reading the Great Books, my dorm (the Community Service House) had fifteen people in it (most of them female), the Hillel was fantastic, I had a few friends and family members at other nearby universities (Boston has many), and, best of all, I didn’t even have to take math.High school was finally over.
My first three semesters of college were a charm.Never before had I kicked so much academic ass in so short a span.Imagine my surprise when everything went to shit in semester number four: an emotional whirlwind set in and, as the Scorpions would say, I was getting rocked.Like a hurricane.Moving on.
The Boston winter was gracious enough to melt away, and by mid-April, the spring weather seemed almost apologetic for what I’d been enduring since late October; but on this particular Friday night, the refreshingly warm breeze wasn’t much of a consolation.
I usually made it to Hillel around 6:20 PM, always wearing my best suit out of respect for the Sabbath-Eve services (I’m not even religious), an event I always looked forward to and which I still look forward to.What can I say?I’m a man who enjoys his Fridays.This week, my girlfriend’s roommate was out of town, and I don’t think I need to elaborate on what we had planned for the evening.Let’s just say I packed a hanging bag, showered and dressed in her room (which, conveniently, was right across from Hillel), and was approximately fifteen minutes late for the 6:30 service.
I’ll say it again.I’m not religious.However, I do look forward to Friday night services, if not for the religiosity than for the community and the melodies we usually sing over the course of the services.I am, however, particularly musical, thanks to about eleven years of clarinet playing, most of which I did in various concert bands and symphony orchestras, including the ones at BU. Being exposed to organized music for such an extended period of time usually comes with a number of benefits.
Typically, when a person spends enough time attuning himself to musical subtlety, he (by which I mean “I”) will start interpreting the world as one big musical composition: the wind speaks through a percussionist’s wind chimes, inclement weather finds perfect expression in the later movements of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, a car horn is really just a pair of notes whose frequencies are slightly out of sync.That’s why car horns are so effective.They’re atonal.Their noise grates against a person’s physical (and emotional) eardrums.Nothing says “pay attention!” like jarring noise, and nothing evokes a stronger emotional response than jarring situations.Everyone knows that good things “sound” nice, but musicians are the only ones who could explain that “niceness” results when chords progress with pleasant predictability from the “perfect fourth” to the “perfect fifth” to the “minor seventh,” reaching their expected cadence point on the “tonic,” with all chords having been in root position1.
Services at Hillel usually “sounded” nice.Then suddenly, without rhyme or reason, I found myself experiencing the most atonal, dissonant, car horn-like Sabbath-Eve of my life.And therein lies the problem.The burden of musical training is that the mind associates harmonic dissonance with social discord.Expecting my weeklong turmoil to culminate in something more peaceful, or pastoral, I found myself growing anxious when I realized that I was one of only a few people actually trying to engage in the ritual.Most people were whispering, a wasted effort if everyone in the room is doing it, as well.A few weren’t even trying to be discreet.Occasionally, a whoosh of air and a slam would punch through all the ambient noise as the door opened, shut, and admitted yet another tardy student who didn’t care enough about divine worship to merit being on time. The dissonant chords created by their voices clashed unpleasantly with the ritual’s consonant chords. They were talking, I was praying.They were religious, I was not.Try listening to Mozart and Metallica at the same time and you might get a sense of what I’m talking about.Metaphorically speaking, they were the Mozart-experts.I was not.
If you think my logic is flawed, you’re absolutely right.Services were never quite the experience of communal rapture that I would’ve liked.They weren’t at BU; they aren’t anywhere.I’ve always been too much the idealist.People talked all the time, week after week.The anxiety I felt was really just an outward expression of my inward frustrations—most of which disappeared when I did.Moving on.
The next thing I remember is running out of Hillel and back to my girlfriend’s room.Her woman’s instincts must have alerted her that something was wrong, because she was right behind me the whole time, scrambling to keep up as I flew down eight flights of stairs and across Bay State Road.
I don’t remember what was said back in her room.It was probably important at the time, but it hasn’t been important in the long run.I’ll never know one way or the other.
But I do remember storming out the back door and saying something like, “I just need to go for a walk.No, you can’t come with me.No!”I do remember the tremors in her voice and the fear in her greenish-blue eyes as she tried—but failed—to hold onto my arm.
The next thing I remember is walking, or rather stumbling, completely sober, down Bay State, a pretty street lined with trees and former brownstone apartment buildings that BU had bought and converted into student housing.I stumbled across the Storrow Drive footbridge and found myself on the esplanade that runs along the shore of the Charles River.I stumbled across the bridge at Beacon Street, leaving Boston and entering Cambridge, and was soon on the MIT campus.It was dark out, and the city’s lights, including the light from the obnoxiously large Citgo sign, reflected off the surface of the river and refracted through my teardrops.
I know, I know.Why all the fuss?Why don’t you grow a pair?Were you really that bothered by the unpleasant services?Were you really having girlfriend issues?
No, I wasn’t that bothered by the services, and no, I wasn’t really having girlfriend issues.It was everything else.The steady and carefully constructed table of my college experience was losing its legs one by one, collapsing unpleasantly into a pile of wood scraps.Circling the Charles, soothingly alone, I breathed again, and slowed my heartbeat down again, and let my frustrations play out in my mind, one by one, which is how I prefer to deal with anything.
You don’t need to know what those frustrations were.Sorry.I’m moving on…
An hour or two later, I was back at her door.While before my mind was way over-stimulated, now it was completely numb.My brain simply couldn’t feel.Apparently, neither could my hands, because I almost didn’t realize that my dress shoes were each dangling from one of my index fingers.I had removed them somewhere between the pyramid-shaped Hyatt Regency and the BU Bridge.I’d even rolled up my pant legs.My socks were nowhere to be found.I still don’t remember where I lost them.
Only the Lord remembers what mental anguish I’d put my girlfriend through in my absence.Bless her.She opened the door and caught me as I tripped over the threshold.She took my shoes in one hand, me in the other, and led me into the bathroom, where she sat me down on the edge of the bathtub and started washing my feet.Seriously.In a very “frankincense and myrrh” kind of way.
Then she spread a blanket across her bedroom floor and guided me down onto it with a firm and steady hand.I complied.I didn’t have a choice.She then proceeded to feed me.What was it?Pasta (Angel Hair, appropriately).She cooked the pasta with water boiled in the microwave and the French press that was usually just for her morning espresso.
I don’t remember the taste very well, but that doesn’t really matter.What matters is that that poor girl—whose intentions were only ever good; who would soon suffer the pain of abandonment when her boyfriend transferred elsewhere; whose soft and sensitive nature had won him over like sunlight melting an ice cube; who deserved much better—that girl showed me the meaning of kindness.
There is a moral here, and it’s not that I think with my stomach.
1Don’t get distracted by the musical terminology. It doesn’t matter.