Part 3, Chapter 16
I only spent a few nights up in Art School Girl’s cozy, strange bedroom at the top of the ancient house just off campus that she shared with three other people. It was Dumbledore’s office if he had been an art student, full of dark colors and smelling like home.
“What is this?” I said the first time I took a tour of her bedroom, pointing at spilled sand on the wood floor beneath a window.
“Don’t step in it! That’s a bird.” A bird? Oh. I noticed the tracks. “After I spilled sand one day, the bird got in and walked on it. I figured I’d just leave the tracks here.”
Or, a few nights later:
“Why is there a cloth over the television?”
“It just has a weird energy. My mom gave it to me, but I felt awkward with this gray gleaming eye staring at me all night. So I covered it up. I haven’t used it yet. I don’t know if I will. You remember my mom.”
I learned about her mother the morning that she (the mother) showed up early on a Saturday to take her daughter (ASG) to lunch, when I was just leaving from the previous night’s date. It wasn’t as awkward as you might think, because we were all adults. “Mom thinks you’re cute,” she said later, on the phone.
But just as I started spending significant time with someone else, things started falling apart between HCE and her boyfriend.
“It’s not the same anymore,” HCE would say, walking me home from class. “We’re going through the motions.”
“I can think of some fantastic motions you could try going through, if it would help things.”
“Hush. But then, I’ll wake up in the middle of the night, and he’ll be reading in bed and playing with my hair, and then I just remember how much I feel for him.”
“What? That’s it? That’s all it takes to win your heart? Hang on, I’ve got a book in my bag somewhere. Slow down! I can’t reach your hair when you’re walking so fast.”
And she would laugh and run, and I’d chase her like a little kid. But we weren’t spending time together anymore, because I had dates to go on.
HCE even started to get that subtle, pained look that Harry got when Sally finally started dating again, just before he insisted it was great and told her to wear a skirt on her date. She (HCE) only acknowledged it once, on a weeknight in an instant message.
“I think I’m getting a crush on you,” she said.
I didn’t believe it for a second. “Sure you are,” I responded.
“I just can’t get you out of my head. Is the timing ever going to work out for us?”
“Maybe someday. But what about that guy you spend all of your time with? You know, the other guy you spend all of your time with who is not me.”
“I don’t know. I just don’t know what’s going to happen.”
One Sunday morning in March of ’03, I woke up late with a funny feeling in my stomach.
Today, HCE was going to break up with her boyfriend. I could feel it.
It was smelling snow before you open your eyes when it’s still dark. Sometimes you know these things before you know them. I decided that, if she was going to become single today, I’d better be single too.
I met ASG in the middle of campus and did it outside. She asked why I was breaking up with her, so I told her the truth.
“You’re in love with another girl.”
“Yes.” It was oddly dispassionate, like a layoff. I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to let you go. It’s nothing personal. We just need to make some cuts.
“But you haven’t been cheating on me, have you?”
“No. I am not sure she even would want to date me. I think so, but I’m not sure.”
“Well, I just have to trust you on that. Regardless, I’m disappointed, Justin. I thought we could be really good.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m convinced that this is what I have to do.”
“Okay. Good night.” And she walked away.
I had a brief lurching moment of vertigo for what I’d just lost. It was gone immediately, replaced by a certainty that I was doing the right thing. This is all I’d wanted for almost a year. It was time to go talk to HCE. I was completely calm when I walked into her dorm, then her suite. I let myself in just like I had done a hundred times before.
She had put a cardboard box outside of her room, and was throwing things into it. That’s all I could see: things flying out of her room and into a box. A picture, then a few CDs. A scarf.
One of her suitemates jumped up from the couch. “Justin!” she yelped. “Oh geez, did you hear?”
She came over to me so she could whisper. “She broke up with him. Just now. She got home and started throwing his things into a box.”
This wasn’t the dim fuzzy candlelight of romantic hunch, this was the Chicago Fire of Truth. My heart turned to lightning.
I stepped over the box and into her room. I looked into her deep velvety brown eyes, and, for a moment, nobody said anything.