We used to stay up late, sitting on the campus quad and talking about friendship, the direction of America, or film. We’d sit there for hours, talking and listening until her feet felt numb from the cold.
We first met at orchestra auditions. She wore glasses she didn’t need and her hair was long and curly, something she always complained about to curly-haired friends like my floormate Fanny. I sat on my saxophone case. She asked, “Why are you auditioning for orchestra on the saxophone?” She doesn’t remember that this was the first time we met.
We met again later freshman year, and she was Fanny’s cool friend. My only friends were my roommates and some people who lived on my floor like Fanny, so Fanny bringing a girl from the outside conferred some sort of status upon them both. Well, at least to me it did.
She and Fanny would come back from orchestra rehearsals together and talk on Fanny’s bed. I’d come by the room to say hi to Fanny and there she was. I recognized her by those cool, transparent, circular glasses.
And then she was part of our floormate group. She started as a novelty. Somebody that everybody tried to lay claim to so that they had friends from another dorm. She fueled it, organically, by always showing funny videos to different people or talking about that cover she’d heard. Then I’d hear my floormate, one of the random ones, blasting it in the shower after I’d just stopped listening to it.
Soon she wasn’t just a novelty but our friend. All of us knew her, and she made us all laugh. I started listening to her music and making her jokes.
“I just assumed that everyone’s high school English teachers were Canadian because mine was,” she said.
Nothing made sense except for that feeling that she made you feel. But that didn’t make sense either. She had us watch The Talented Mr. Ripley and I thought that movie nailed it until Matt Damon killed Jude Law and then I knew I still couldn’t explain it. Magnetism? Longing? Obsession? MPDG?
I decided to name the feeling a crush. She made out with other guys at parties and hid her hickies with turtlenecks.
We made out. We were drunk. I grabbed her ass on the dance floor. A redhead girl grumbled next to us. The night ended with everyone in the girls’ bathroom on my floor, holding back our Other Film Friend’s hair as Other Film Friend thought she might vomit. Her floormate Chuck–she was bringing her external friends into our insular, floormate group– was there too, texting.
“I had a lot of fun,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said.
“Do you want me to walk you home?”
We said we’d go on a date but we didn’t. She disappeared for a bit and I made out with someone else, and I thought she got jealous and weird. Now I know when she said, “I’m happy for you,” she’d been looking for an undamaging way out. The other girl and I ended the next weekend. I realized I couldn’t be into another girl if I was still after her even though that door had been closed.
Summer came. The last night of the semester we all went to a concert. Iron & Wine. Burlington. We called for him to play “Upward Over the Mountain,” but he didn’t. When Other Film Friend and I were leaving to drive back to campus for the night and she was staying in the city, she chased after the car like in the movies. But it was a quiet neighborhood, so it was different. Other Film Friend and I laughed and she laughed and we didn’t see her until the fall.
That summer I told her how I’d gotten really into Iron & Wine.
“That’s a really intense thing to get really into.”
I started talking about film as art. Philly, where she was from, was suddenly a cool city I wanted to live in after graduating.
We saw her back at school. She lived with Fanny and Other Film Friend, and I lived with Chuck. Chuck and I would walk from campus through the cemetery to their apartment, drinking coffee brandy I’d gotten older friends to buy us.
She made out with my old roommate. Other Film Friend’s semi-boyfriend from the year before. We all stopped seeing her, and she felt alone. I forgave her quickly but decided to let my old roommate fall away. He’d been my best friend, and he knew how I felt. How I didn’t know how to feel about her.
She went abroad for a year alone in Copenhagen. We all met up. A weekend in Barcelona to do a college-friends-in-Europe weekend. She told stories about the summer program she did in Cape Town making movies and the Italian friend that she’d met there. She played with a bouncy ball and took pictures, asking Other Film Friend if she wanted to use her camera. Other Film Friend still felt weird about her since last fall’s makeout incident, but Other Film Friend also had the same kind of feelings about her as I did, so I watched as she explained all she learned in South Africa while Other Film Friend had been working at an ice cream shop in Burlington.
We meant to go out to a club our last night in Barcelona, but Chuck had to Skype his mom because his dog died, and she and Other Film Friend disappeared for an hour or two in the bedroom to talk. I talked to Fanny who was studying biology at the Budapest program. Fanny laughed and played bad music and told me stories about times she got drunk. I did the same. Other Film Friend came out of the room, eyebrows high and eyes big. Then she followed behind, one of her subdued moods, eyes looking kind of high and cheeks blotchy. “Hi,” she exhaled.
Our group tried to go to the club but we couldn’t get in because not everyone was twenty-one. Were those the rules? Wasn’t that why college juniors went abroad? We went back to our rented apartment but missed the first subway back because she got crepes from a drunk-food stand with a tall Spanish girl. We didn’t get back until five in the morning, and I told her to wake me before she left for her eight o’clock flight.
I was back at school in the spring. She wasn’t. I got over her. I got over the girl I was seeing while I was studying in Italy. When I got drunk, I’d say I missed either of them. The name I said depended on the night.
She came back. She came out. She’d been dating a Danish girl since September, since before I saw her in Barcelona. She talked about all her bad experiences with men. We talked about Hitchcock in our American Film class together.
American Film was good. It was just the two of us again for or the first time since it was just the two of us on the dance floor. But it was different. We were less distant, better, and older. And there was no grumbling redhead next to us.
I’d never been in love, but what did this feeling count for? Isn’t yearning a kind of love? Doesn’t longing count?
She got a new girlfriend after the Danish girl cheated on her. They were always together. I lost her again and watched through the library window as they studied. I shared the dinner table with her and her girlfriend, and I watched as they talked and said things without talking. She was in love. We didn’t see her, and she saw her girlfriend’s friends.
But one day the rest of us saw her girlfriend and her girlfriend’s friends. We were all in her apartment, all ready to go to a concert. We were on the couch as the girlfriend’s friends whirled through. They laughed at things, cards she had kept from her mom, found when a dark-haired friend looked for clothes to “style” her for the concert. She came out, sleek and cool and vintage and sad.
The dark-haired girl opened a jar next to a picture of her with her late dog. She was in high school then and looked like she did when I first met her, except without the glasses. She was an only child, and I understood dog mourning.
“What are these?” The dark-haired girl asked.
I’d never seen them, but I knew she shouldn’t have asked.
“Her dog’s ashes,” her girlfriend said. She took a shot of tequila and went into the bathroom to adjust her backwards hat.
“Oh my God.”
“Why do you have these?”
“And we were going to play with that Ouija board here?”
“I feel so gross now.”
“Are you coming?”
“I’ll meet you outside.”
They were gone. They didn’t come looking for her. The five of us from the hotel in Barcelona, Other Film Friend, Fanny, Chuck, she, and I sat. We all felt the need to say something to her but didn’t. Her face was blotchy and her eyebrows high but eyes tired. We’d later fantasize confrontations with the Dog Ashes Asshole, but those never went through.
But we sat, we five and her dog’s ashes. She got up and left to find her girlfriend and her girlfriend’s friends at the concert.
In the last weeks of school, how much did she think about the dog ashes? Did her girlfriend’s friends make fun of her for them? Was she still thinking about them as much as I was? Were there even dog ashes in there? I sneaked into their apartment to see for myself. She surprised me there. I’d opened the jar when she came out of the bathroom.
“It’s not what it looks like. I just had to know.”
The lid was in my hand.
“You take them,” she said.
“But I never knew your dog.”
“You did in spirit.”
“Have I met his ghost?”
“Don’t be dumb.”
“But I couldn’t,” I said.
“Now they’re yours.”
I imagined the ashes in my house. I’d put the pieces of her I’d collected into the jar. The keychain she gave me for my birthday and the Iron and Wine CD I bought after freshman year would crumble into the jar. Dog soot would fill the crevices until they were unrecognizable, and they too became ashes.
Neither of us did anything. We just stood there, she and I and her dog’s ashes.
Born and raised in Westborough, Massachusetts, Michael is a recent graduate of Bowdoin College, where he studied Italian and Spanish. He’s written his own travel blog, Misadventures with Michael, for over three years. Currently, he is teaching English at a high school in Japan.
Photo credit: Otto F.T. von Moeller, This Kiss.. Photo. Britannica ImageQuest. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 25 May 2016. http://quest.eb.com/search/109_227958/1/109_227958/cite. Accessed 11 Aug 2016.