He was nobody special. None of us were.
There were seven or eight of us at college, mostly sophomores, some juniors, who kept running into each other in the same places – the bakery near the White House, the cheese shop, the ice cream stores -- pretending we weren’t there for the free samples.
After Labor Day when I went down to the blood donation center I saw him coming out, sipping the telltale orange juice, the money safe in his pocket. It was 1981, and his hair was unfashionably short, his blue jeans not faded enough, his button downs worn at the elbows. His sleeves were rolled up, as if he’d been hard at work at something, and his forearms shone with golden hair. He held the door for me with his free hand, and said, “Hello, Robin,” in a way that made my name sound prettier than it was. I still don’t know how he knew my name.
I saw him again in late September. It was still hot in Washington and there was a line at Baskin-Robbins but I went in anyway, wincing when the door jingled, trying to look nonchalant. My hair pulled up because it was nearly ninety degrees -- and because I didn’t want to look like the same girl who had been there yesterday, pretending I’d never tasted butterscotch ripple. He made no such attempts at subterfuge. He was already at the counter, greeting the staff by name. He asked Rebecca for spoonful after spoonful of different flavors, and she deftly obliged him while taking orders from other people. I was fifth in line, and had no money in my pocket. Not a dime.
Finally the manager came out and took a long glance at the cluster of spent pink spoons in his hand.
Great, I thought. Now he’s going to ruin it for the rest of us.
“Jesus, Brian, why don’t we just give you a free pint?”
“Well, Gary,” he said, handing the spoons back to Rebecca to throw away, modulating his voice down to a practiced whisper, “if you have any pints that are close to their sell-by date, I’d be happy to take them off your hands.”
The manager motioned him into the back room. My stomach gurgled with hunger and my face burned with envy.
I couldn’t ask for anything when I was nineteen.
* * *
The mint-chocolate-chip was still lingering on my tongue when I walked outside. He stood near the curb, the pint in one hand, two full-sized spoons in the other. He stepped forward and handed me a spoon. Up close I saw his eyes weren’t completely blue, but held a little green, and there was a boyish scattering of tiny freckles on the bridge of his nose, but nowhere else. His teeth were good but not great; like me, he hadn’t had braces.
“Free ice cream,” he said.
“Free expired ice cream.”
“It expires tomorrow.” He opened the lid.
“What flavor is it?”
I wrinkled my nose. “Nuts?”
“What’s wrong with nuts? An excellent source of protein.”
“I don’t like embellishments. I don’t want to stop and chew.”
“Ah, but there are chips in mint chocolate chip. Which is your favorite.”
“How do you know that?”
“I’m a journalism major. Being observant is part of the job.”
“Being accurate is a bigger part of the job.”
“Are you saying mint chocolate chip is not your favorite?”
“No,” I said. “I’m saying the chips melt in your mouth, and require no chewing.”
“Not if you’re in a hurry,” he said.
“Are you in a hurry?”
“Yes,” he said. “Always. Perpetually. Now . . . have some Baseball Nut before it melts.”
* * *
We were both on part scholarship. We both had loans. I worked in the library ten hours a week, and he worked at a pancake house, where at least one free meal was guaranteed. He took me there and the waitress slipped us cokes and orders of hash browns. He used the pancakes like bread, sandwiching his eggs and sausage and peppers in between them. Like so many adolescent boys, he was hungry all the time. Hungry all the time, and broke most of the time, was a terrible combination. At least I didn’t have his hunger.
Washington in the eighties was a great place to live if you had no money. There were always festivals, free concerts on the Mall, and beautiful places to walk. We walked everywhere that autumn, watching the colors change in the trees down at the Tidal Basin. He loved traipsing over the bridge to Georgetown and sitting on the lawn as if we went to school there instead of GW. He told me simple stories about his hometown in New Jersey, about walking through backyards with his dog, passing beneath the trestles wrapped with lilacs and honeysuckle. It seemed like the most restful and charming place you could ever imagine. I was stunned, years later, to pass through it on the way to New York and find a rusty city clinging to the edge of the train tracks as if it didn’t want to be there.
We didn’t hold hands. We didn’t kiss. That first month, we walked, and I wasn’t sure if I was there to listen, or learn, or wait for more. Was I an audience? I didn’t know which of us was auditioning, or for what. All I knew was that I fell asleep remembering the stories he’d told me, and carried the memory of his blue-green eyes like a pair of lucky marbles.
He found an old theatre that showed classic black and white movies in Dupont Circle for a few dollars. He knew all the bars that had free appetizers, and we’d split a beer and eat eggroll after eggroll, mini hot dog after mini hot dog. He seemed to know all the hidden places, and shared them with me. He noticed details and when he spoke, he used evocative words like ‘fragrant’ and ‘lush’ and warmed them further with the whisky of his voice.
When I think of him now, that’s what I remember most, not his earnest eyes or strong forearms but his voice. I think of how things spilled out of him, his willingness to share, to share just a little too much.
I told my roommate Talia I couldn’t tell if we were friends, or heading toward something else. She did not approve. “He’s just using you until something better comes along, something he’s more sure of.”
“How do you know that?”
“He’s like a penny that’s too shiny,” she said. “Sooner or later, he’s going to tarnish.”
* * *
My dorm was planning a marathon dance for charity, and everyone signed up for shifts. The more popular girls had boyfriends, and the rest of us scrambled to find someone willing.
On one of our nightly walks, I ask him if he’d be my partner, and he said yes, then asked for the date and time. It’s two weeks from Friday, I told him, and he nodded.
“Good, I’ll still be here then.”
“Where are you going?”
“I’ve been meaning to tell you – I’m leaving after this semester.”
I blinked. I told him he was being short-sighted, foolish. That if he needed help with his homework, I’d help him. If he needed another job, I could vouch for him at the library.
He smiled at me without showing his teeth. It’s how I knew he was being serious. A boy who is trying to get everyone to like him always smiles, but there are different smiles.
He said that with or without a degree, he knows he’ll end up on radio, or who knows, maybe on television. You don’t need a degree for that, he said, just an audition tape. “Plus I already have an internship at The White House in January.”
“How can you have an internship if you’re not in school?”
He said that he didn’t get it through the career center, but through someone he met at the cheese shop.
“But -- where will you live?”
“I’m still working on that.”
I thought of my narrow bed, my small closet, Talia who was never there at night. I wanted to offer, but didn’t. That is the one thing I didn’t do.
“You can’t leave school without kissing me,” I said suddenly.
“What?” His smile was wider, and I wondered if that was his plan all along – make me ask. Make me want it.
“You heard me.”
He leaned in without using his hands. His lips were soft but thin. I could feel everything behind them, the ridges of his teeth, his tongue, every word he had ever said to me.
* * *
At the dance marathon, I had an enviable shift -- 8pm until 11. Not too early, not too late. I laced up my sneakers and walked to the gym, wondering if he was a good dancer. I imagined he was -- he walked lightly and quickly. I think about whether he knows any specific skills: how to moonwalk, how to two-step. I picture his mother teaching him the waltz in their narrow ranch home, the two of them smiling matching smiles.
In the gym I watched the other dancers shuffle through disco songs that were beyond the reaches of their ability. The twirling silver lights cast long shadows across their exposed skin and I realized they were probably tired. I glanced at my watch. I’d told him to meet me at 7:45, and it was two minutes to eight. He’d never been late before.
At eight o’clock a chime went off and the dancers came off the floor. The coordinator asked where my partner was and I said he was running late. She told me to let her know when he gets there. I waited an hour, pacing at the gym entrance, my mind speeding through the scenarios, before I decided to walk to his dorm a few blocks away.
I buzzed his door and his roommate answered, sounding muffled, and said Brian wasn’t there.
As I walked back down the block I heard him call my name behind me.
“Robin, wait,” he said.
I turned, frowned. “You were home? He said you--”
“I can explain.”
I let him. It came out in a swirl, a paragraph of phrases tumbling over each other. I had to meet a professor for a recommendation and he was running late and then he suggested a drink and I couldn’t say no and I had no way to reach you and then.
“And then what?” I said.
“And then,” he said, taking a deep breath, “then the White House chief of staff came in the bar and of course I had to introduce myself.”
I blinked at him. This was my fault, I realized later. I had asked for it, the embellishment, the thing neither of us needed to make it more wrong or more right.
I turned on my heel and went home, knowing he wouldn’t follow me, knowing he wouldn’t call, knowing I wouldn’t run into him again.
His days of free samples were officially over.