Long Distance Relationship Tip #1 Absence makes the heart grow fonder...if by “fonder” you mean crazy.
My roommate was a mermaid in her previous life.
I learned this nifty little fact as I slipped the elastic corners of my brand new cushioned mattress pad onto the barren twin bed set against the wall. The fresh bedding still smelled like fabric softener. My mother believed that everything was better with fabric softener, as if the scent of cotton meadow was a magic elixir against the unpleasantness of everyday life. Her next book was going to contain an entire chapter on scent etiquette – What Your Nose Knows.
The only thing my nose knew right then was that, if the musty, stagnant aroma of my new dorm room was any indication, the college facilities manager could benefit from the olfactory etiquette tips in the next installment of my mother’s bestselling series of books.
The girl who I would share the next nine months waking up to had already unpacked and was in the process of decorating her side of the room. Her mother obviously subscribed to the motto fend for yourself because while I stretched my freshly laundered, meadow-scented linens across my bed my new roommate pounded nails into the wall with an improvised hammer – the heel of a faded black combat boot.
My mom could have suggested a less destructive hanging method, as well as the correct tools and ergonomic technique. But my parents were already on the highway heading home, and in an hour and forty minutes they’d walk into our house and probably find TJ had already turned my old bedroom into a game room for his friends.
“Why don’t you try something in here?” I offered, handing her a small box of various supplies my mom had packed and slipped into one of my three duffle bags. “I think there are tacks or hooks or something that might be easier.”
She took the box and started rummaging through the various sheets of Sticky Tack and plastic hooks with easy to remove adhesive backing.
“What do you think you were?” my new roommate asked me after selecting a few plastic coated push pins.
“When?” I asked her, focused more on making my bed than the voice coming from across the room, which, thankfully, was no longer punctuated by the sound of crumbling plaster.
“In your previous life,” she explained. “My boyfriend, Mark, was a dolphin.”
My mermaid roommate was dating a dolphin. How perfectly nautical.
“I’m not sure I ever thought about reincarnation before,” I told Kaitlin, although I was sure that I had started to think, in this life, my roommate might be a whack job. Kaitlin had seemed normal enough when we texted over the summer. And she looked normal enough, no fish scales or tail hidden in her jeans as far as I could tell. With her long dark hair and smoky almond-shaped eyes she was almost exotic looking, nothing like the pale red-head I’d always come to think of as the quintessential mermaid, thanks to Disney.
When I found out my roommate would be Kaitlin Fleur from New Jersey there was no mention of her previous aquatic existence or that of her marine mammal boyfriend. Still, Kaitlin seemed nice enough, which was more than I could say for Josie’s roommate at Skidmore, a militant vegan who wore Lobsters Have Feelings Too and Cows Love Vegans t-shirts and attempted to vegucate Josie on the finer points of slaughter house injustices. I gave their living situation no more than a month before they each requested a new roommate.
The push pins must have worked because when I turned around Kaitlin’s entire wall was covered with purple, turquoise and gold jewel-toned tapestries that looked like they belonged in a subtitled movie with belly dancers and snake charmers coaxing pythons out of wicker baskets, not a dorm room in Western Massachusetts. Kaitlin stood back and admired her handiwork before turning to me.
“Want to see him?” She reached for a silver filigreed picture frame that had been propped on the night table she’d constructed from a stack of plastic milk crates. “This is Mark.”
She came over to my side of the room and held out the photograph of Kaitlin and her boyfriend sitting on a beach, her head resting on his shoulder.
I stared longer than I should have.
“We were at St. Germain’s together,” she told me, although I already knew that she’d gone to boarding school, it was one of the first things she’d told me when we were texting. “He’s a year younger, so he’s a senior now.”
“He’s really cute,” I offered, because he was and because I figured if I kept the conversation on Mark she wouldn’t ask why my voice suddenly sounded funny.
“Yeah, he is.” Kaitlin ran a finger slowly across frame’s glass as if attempting to brush away the sand in the photo. “We were on the Jersey Shore, in Stone Harbor, ever been there?” she asked.
I shook my head, not trusting myself to speak. I’d had my own photograph a few weeks ago. My own sandy beach with an orange and pink sunset melting behind me and my boyfriend. Only instead of resting my head on the shoulder beside me I had been wrapped inside arms that were pulling me against his chest as he kissed my head.
I looked away. “A dolphin, huh?”
“Yeah, what about you? Do you have a boyfriend?”
I slipped my pillow into the crisp cotton case my mom had neatly folded around a lavender-scented sachet, a little aromatherapy to help me relax and sleep soundly in my new bed.
I shook my head. “My fish got away.”
Kaitlin looked truly crestfallen. “That’s okay, there’s someone out there for everyone.”
“There’s more fish in the sea?” My attempt to make her laugh only seemed to escalate her concern for my lackluster love life.
Kaitlin set the picture frame down on the milk crate nightstand and angled it toward her bed. “Look, Emily, I’m not interested in anyone new because I have Mark, but this is college. There are a billion guys out there for you to meet.” She emphasized the B in billions, as if I’d be disappointed by mere millions. “There are four other colleges within 15 square miles of us, and they’re all a twenty-minute bus ride away. And the bus is free!” Kaitlin continued, reciting ouro college’s website with startling accuracy.
She was right. Even though we’d chosen an all-women’s college it wasn’t like we’d be hurting for guys. And Malcolm was nearby at UMass. His number was in my phone. And Luke’s wasn’t.
Add one, subtract one. My mom would call that symmetry. Josie called it good riddance. Lucy just called it moving on.
“It’s not a big deal, really,” I assured Kaitlin. “A guy is the last thing I need right now.”
Kaitlin nodded her agreement and then changed the subject, moving on to a topic that was safer and as far from this summer as we could get. “Do you know what classes you’re going to take?”
There had to be at least two hundred different courses listed in the catalog, how could I possibly pick four? Unlike those people who know exactly what they want to study and precisely what they’ll do the day they graduate, I was a classic undecided. As well as a procrastinator. At least that’s what I’d been telling myself, because I figured procrastinating was acceptable for a first year college student. What wasn’t acceptable? Thinking about your ex-boyfriend every time you tried to read the course description for Introduction to Psychology 101.
“I haven’t narrowed it down yet,” I told Kaitlin, and then, in an attempt to once again divert my thoughts to a totally innocuous topic, added. “What about you?”
I figured someone who believed she spent her previous life with a single finned tail instead of two human legs would be into studio art or philosophy, maybe even dance (she had to be almost six feet tall and was definitely thin enough to be mistaken for a ballerina, although after our brief conversation I could already tell she was more likely an improvised, tribal dance kind of girl).
“Here’s what I was thinking.” Kaitlin showed me a page she’d obviously printed from a spreadsheet. It turned out my mermaid roommate was an engineering major. And she had already planned out her entire course load for the next four years – computer science and math classes with East Asian Languages and Literature thrown in for good measure. She may have been a mermaid, but Kaitlin was also organized. And obviously brilliant. Despite the lack of a portable toolkit, with an assortment of tapestery-hanging accessories, my mom would love her.
“I’m going to head over to the campus center, want to come?” Kaitlin set the page down on her desk
Her side of the room looked like she’d already been there for days, but my side remained pretty bleak, more prison cell chic than dorm hangout. My duffle bags still sat in lumps on the floor, their seams bulging as they waited for me to pull the zippers and let them spew my clothes out in a piles of wrinkles. Kaitlin had already put her personal touch on her half of our room décor and plotted out her college career in neat, evenly-spaced spreadsheet cells that probably had some sort of sophisticated algorithm behind them to ensure her classes didn’t conflict with visits from her dolphin boyfriend. I was already way behind the curve.
“I think I’m going to finish unpacking.”
Katilin grabbed a ten-dollar bill from the top of her dresser and stuffed it into her jeans pocket before heading out the door and leaving me alone in my new room.
I was alone for the first time all day. Just me, a tired and scuffed hardwood floor that had already impaled a splinter into my big toe (lesson learned, socks from now on), a blank wall pleading with me to do something as cool as Kaitlin’s exotic tapestry, and stale dorm air that was starting to make me feel claustrophobic.
I went over to Kaitlin’s side of the room to open the window but paused when I reached the silver frame on her night table. Mark was really cute. I could see why she didn’t care if he was a senior in high school.
Still, Kaitlin was smart. She had to know that the odds of the mermaid and the dolphin living happily ever after were zero. Zilch. My mother would tell me not to be such a cynic, but after this summer I felt like I earned the right to crap on the fairy tale garbage I’d been delusional enough to believe. Absence did not make the heart grow fonder. Sometimes it just made the heart forget.
Kaitlin and Mark probably had another three months tops before their long distance relationship hit the skids. Everything would change now that Kaitlin was away at college. High school was a lifetime ago. Even this summer already felt long gone.
August. A Saturday. I squeezed my eyes shut and shook my head as I erased the mental image of a calendar and that day circled in red, a vivid reminder of what happened. That night. The image of Luke’s shadowy figure as he turned his back to me and left me standing on the ferry dock alone.
The picture of us on the beach on Martha’s Vineyard was still in one of my duffle bags, I knew that. It was face down at the bottom, beneath my socks and sweatpants and all the new underwear my mom insisted on buying me, because who starts college with the same underwear they wore in high school? Not the daughter of an etiquette guru, apparently.
My breath caught in my throat, and as much as I wanted to believe that the lack of a well-oxygenated environment was to blame, I knew that wasn’t true.
That photograph in my bag, I didn’t know why I even brought it to school with me. I should have left it at home with everything else I’d decided to leave behind. That was my plan. My mom had been downstairs with my dad, both of them yelling to me that it was time to go, it was move-in day and I couldn’t start my college career being late! But, after glancing around my bedroom one last time to make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything important, I spotted the blue glossy triangle of color poking out from beneath my desk lamp. A corner of the ocean. I couldn’t see us, the rest of the photograph was hidden under the lamp base, but I knew we were there. Me and Luke. I grabbed the photo from under the lamp and stuffed it into the bottom of my bag before flipping off the light switch on the wall and heading downstairs to say goodbye to TJ one last time.
I shouldn’t have taken the picture with me, but I couldn’t leave it behind. And the reason made my eyes sting and my chest constrict, like my heart was breaking open inside me and every muscle, every bone was trying to keep it from shattering into a million pieces.
Breathe, I reminded myself, just keep breathing.
I reached over and cracked open the window to let in some air. September had barely begun but already the breeze was different, more unsympathetic. Summer was definitely over.
And so were me and Luke.
Long Distance Relationship Tip #:3
When you’re apart do similar things, such as reading the same book,
watching the same movies or listening to the same music.
This way you’ll have something to talk about when you run out of things to talk about.
Which, I guarantee, you will.
The reincarnation theory notwithstanding, Kaitlin did turn out to be normal.
We’d been roommates for three weeks and so far we actually liked one another (as predicted, Josie and her vegan roommate, who preferred to go by the name Fern even though her real name is Doreen, lasted ten days before requesting that the director of housing step in and remove one of them – Josie threatened to hurl a vegan-friendly imitation leather boot at Fern’s head if she forced her to listen to one more grotesque fact about the exploitation at factory farms). Lucy had texted that her triple at UNC was huge and her roommates seemed fine, except for the fact that they were twins and Lucy could never tell them apart (apparently one of them had a distinctive birth mark on her left butt cheek but Lucy was willing to guess at who was who without asking for dermatologic verification).
So as far as roommates went, Kaitlin seemed to be as good as they get. Her nightly phone calls from Mark, who wasn’t supposed to be on the phone after 11:00 because St. Germain’s had a strict lights-out policy, even for seniors, were tolerable for the most part. Sometimes when the calls were winding down her voice would get all low and soft and I’d conveniently find a reason to go to the bathroom or down the hall to the kitchenette. Listening to all the I love you’s and miss you’s was bad enough, but hearing Kaitlin profess her undying love was downright unbearable when the only miss you’s I was getting came from my mom and were accompanied by reminders to separate my white and colored laundry before washing.
I tried not to think about Luke but there were times, mostly at night, when I was laying on my bed studying, and something I’d read would trigger a memory or a thought and suddenly it was as if I’d stumbled down a path and couldn’t find a way to turn around. My mind started backing up, like those scenes in movies where the film seems to run in reverse, the characters walking backwards as dry, brown leaves lift from the ground until they’re pinned back to their branches and brilliantly green. Going back in time. Here I was reading Plato’s Republic for my Gov 100 class, trying to apply ancient Greek ideas about justice and character to the formation of governments, and instead of taking notes on the historical influence I kept imaging what Plato would have to say about our situation. How it could have turned out differently, why it didn’t.
In the days that followed that night on the ferry dock, I kept waiting for my phone to ring, to see Luke’s name appear on my screen. So many times I wanted to pick up the phone and call him, ask if we could just forget what happened, forget who did what and who was wrong. But I couldn’t. It wasn’t that simple, untangling the snarled ball of yarn that had become us, unfurling the knots created by our mistakes. Because as much as I wanted to do that, I couldn’t help toying with those knots, running my fingers over them again and again, until they became so tight I didn’t know how to begin prying them loose.
I could have told Kaitlin the gory details about me and Luke from the start and avoided the seemingly innocuous questions that she’d pepper me with out of the blue, questions that only made me remember what I was trying so hard to forget: What was his last name? (Preston, Luke Preston) What color eyes did he have? (a soft gooey brown, like caramel syrup) How’d you meet? (Umm…) Did your friends like him? (Double umm…)
But I didn’t tell Kaitlin any more than I had to. I’d barely told Josie and Lucy exactly what happened that last night. With all the pre-college preparation, my meager explanation had been good enough for them, they were willing to accept my answers at face value. As long as I was happy, the details didn’t matter, they’d told me. Who said what, who was right or wrong, the answers didn’t change the outcome. Unlike Plato, my friends weren’t interested in theoretical conversations when the answer was so very clear – everyone else was ready to close the book on the story of Emily and Luke and begin the next chapter of their lives. It was time I did the same.
Instead of getting an exhaustive review of the facts, over the first few weeks of school Kaitlin just learned the basics – Luke and I started going out the second half of our senior year, we made it through June and July but by the time August rolled around we were over. I had a boyfriend for a little while and then I didn’t. Not exactly a novel story, nothing unusual about it.
But for all of her proficiency with scientific equations and the indisputable answers they produced, Kaitlin was still a sucker for the unpredictable formula for love. It was already October and our conversations had gone from comparing professors and reading requirements to normal life stuff – toss me a pen, can I borrow a tampon, want to order a pizza for dinner instead of eating in the dining room? I guess it was only a matter of time before she wanted to scratch the surface and uncover what was really underneath my seemingly easy answers to her questions about Luke.
“Seriously, what happened?” Kaitlin finally wanted to know. “There has to be more to it,” she insisted.
Kaitlin and I were lying on our beds attempting to study. It was a Friday night and we probably should have been looking for a party or hanging out downstairs in the lounge but it was the first night of our four-day October break weekend and we’d decided that what we really wanted to do was stay in and enjoy our little vacation. Kaitlin was waiting for Mark’s nightly phone call and I was trying to get a jump start on my upcoming geology paper (I thought a class about rocks and crystals would be fun and interesting, but I had quickly discovered I was not a budding geoscientist).
“What do you mean, what happened?” I repeated Kaitlin’s question. My mom had instilled in me that repeating a question that someone had just asked you showed you were listening. In this case, however, I was just buying myself time to think of an answer.
“There had to be something, a fight?” Kaitlin stared up at the glow-in-the-dark stars she’d stuck to the ceiling over her bed. I thought that an engineering major would make sure that the stars accurately reflected actual constellations but instead the pale yellow bursts haphazardly dotted the ceiling in no particular formation. “Did he lie to you about something huge? Did you get pissed at something he did?”
“It’s history, old news,” I told her. “It doesn’t matter anymore.”
Kaitlin turned onto her side to face me. “But we learn from our experiences. I mean, what’s the point of coming back if we can’t take the lessons from our past lives with us?”
A few weeks ago I would have thought she was a fruit cake, but Kaitlin wasn’t kidding. She really believed all this past life stuff. I’d learned to actually kind of appreciate her offbeat take on life (or afterlife), even if I still couldn’t figure out the mermaid thing. I mean, mermaids don’t actually exist outside of books and Disney movies. So her past life seemed a little convenient and also a little wishful, I mean who wouldn’t want to be a mermaid? They always had great boobs, fabulous hair and even though they spent 99% of their time underwater their skin never shriveled up.
“Not everything can have a lesson, Kaitlin. Some stuff just happens.”
“Nothing just happens. Tell me the story of Emily and Luke and I’ll help you figure out what you were supposed to learn. Then at least you won’t make the same mistake again in the future.”
Mistake? When I thought about me and Luke, about how we started and where we ended seven months later, I couldn’t pinpoint one mistake, a single incident or event that eventually made it impossible for us to stay together. Instead I remembered moments where each of us made a choice. And, finally, those choices led to a moment where one final choice was made, and Luke made it. I wasn’t given a choice at all.
“See these?” I held up the two text books scattered around me on my bed. “I have enough learning to do this semester. I don’t need to revisit Emily and Luke.”
Kaitlin shook her head at me. I could practically hear her tsk, tsking as she lamented my inability to get how the world (or afterworld or reincarnated world) worked. I had a feeling she was beginning to think I was a lost cause. “Then you will be destined to make the same mistakes, over and over and over again.”
“I truly doubt that.” Kaitlin had no idea about The Book of Luke, about how Josie, Lucy and I had decided that Luke would be the subject of a senior year experiment for our class time capsule– to secretly write a how-to book for guys to teach them the right way to treat girls, and then prove it worked by changing the guy who was the worst offender. Only our plan went awry when I didn’t change Luke. I fell in love with him instead. And almost lost my best friends in the process.
So what did I learn from that experience? When you throw a notebook in the trash make sure the subject of said notebook doesn’t get his hands on it. In other words – learn how to use a shredder.
Okay, seriously. I did learn my lesson from that experience. I’d kept the truth from my best friends. I’d lied to, and then lost, my boyfriend (or, more accurately, a guy who thought he was my boyfriend even though I knew he was just supposed to be a test subject). And the whole school got to watch my humiliating demise unfold in real time. Maybe lesson number two is don’t attend all-school assemblies.
“Just tell me,” Kaitlin insisted. “You’ll feel better, I promise.”
I seriously doubted that reliving that night in August would make me feel anything but completely and totally shitty.
Kaitlin sat up and leaned against the wall beside her bed. She pulled her knees into her chest and hugged them. Now I had her complete attention. “I don’t believe you.”
“What don’t you believe?”
“That it’s history, that it’s old news.” Kaitlin frowned at me. “I think you’re still in love with him. Why else haven’t you gone to see that guy you know over at UMass? Malcolm? He’s fifteen minutes away. I know he’s texted you.”
Kaitlin rolled her eyes at me. “Just admit it, you’re not over Luke.”
I didn’t deny it, although I really wanted to. “Talking about it won’t change anything. It doesn’t matter anymore.”
“But it does matter, Emily.”
“Because maybe he’s your dolphin.” She didn’t even crack a smile when she said this. Kaitlin was totally serious.
She was nuts but I loved her and her bizarre beliefs that she never gave up on, no matter how crazy they made her look. I wished I had that ability.
You know what else I wished? That Luke could hear this conversation. That he could meet my whacky roommate and see the wild tapestries on her walls, that we could exchange a look and both know that even if Kaitlin’s ideas were completely out there and totally improbable, she was pretty awesome. And so were we. And that made me miss him even more.
“Did you ever think that maybe it’s not really over?” Kaitlin continued, and when I didn’t answer she made one final attempt. “But we won’t know until I hear the whole story, right? Start to finish. So start.”
“I wouldn’t even know where to begin.” I snapped the cap onto my yellow Highlighter pen. It wasn’t like I was making a tremendous amount of progress on the mineralogic problems associated with crystallography anyway.
“Begin at the beginning,” Kaitlin instructed me.
So that’s what I did.
I told Kaitlin about moving back to Boson my senior year of high school after living in Chicago for three years, and how Josie, Lucy and I came up with the idea to include a guy’s guide to girls in the senior class time capsule (which was really a rectangular Rubbermaid storage container). And I explained how we decided that, having been trained by a mother who, in addition to being the country’s leading etiquette expert, was also someone who prided herself in raising a daughter who knew right from wrong, I would be the least likely person anyone would suspect of doing something so manipulative. That’s why I was the one to put the guide into action on Luke, the worst offender in our class, not to mention someone who’d dated Josie for a few weeks before breaking up with her in an email. I took Kaitlin quickly through the ups and downs, how I totally screwed up and how, eventually, Lucy and Josie forgave me for not telling them I had really fallen for Luke, and how Luke decided to forgive me for, well, everything. Then I stopped where most stories stop, the happy ending. Because isn’t that what everyone wants?
“And then everything was great,” I concluded, much like a librarian closing the last page of a children’s book before looking up at her class of adoring, satisfied listeners. “We were happy.”
“Obviously there’s more,” Kaitlin pointed out. “What’s the rest of the story?”
I sucked in my breath and rolled over onto my stomach, hoping a change of position would keep me from dissolving as I thought back to graduation, to when I thought we really would have a happy ending even if the nagging uncertainty of our situation had started to worm its way into my head. Back to when I didn’t know that when you decided to let yourself love someone it meant you were also setting yourself up to have someone to lose.
I glanced at Kaitlin’s phone, which was sitting on her night table. “You want the whole story or the abridged version,” I asked. It was almost ten o’clock. I figured Mark would be calling her any minute.
“The whole story.” She picked up the phone and flipped the ringer off, setting it face down on the bed. “Chapter by chapter.”
I sucked in a deep breath and prepared to tell Kaitlin the whole story in painstaking detail. “We graduated a month later.”
“And…” she wanted to know.
I fixed my eyes on the covers of my geology text books, the vivid images of purple prismed crystals, craggly silver speckled rocks and golden molten lava blurring together into a kaleidoscope of indecipherable smudges. I forced myself to blink, bringing them back into focus.
“And then it was summer,” I said. “The beginning of the end.”