Into the deep end
On the fourth day of my freshman year of college, I stood on a dock overlooking a lake and tried to explain to a very cute boy why I didn’t want to jump in.
“I have this thing about water,” I said. “I worry about how deep it is.”
He nodded, grinned, and peeled off his shirt. Lit from behind, red hair haloed his face. “It’s totally safe,” he said.
J.T. was a sophomore, a transfer student, and though we’d only met a few days before, he felt incredibly familiar. As though our first conversation had been a
formality and the crazy joy I felt in his presence was completely natural.
But watching his plaid shorts billow in the breeze, I told him I might pass.
“Really?” He looked surprised. “I’ve got to do it. Otherwise what am I going to tell my grandkids? That I discovered a lake with a beautiful woman and didn’t make the most of it?”
He winked at me, jumped, and disappeared with a splash.
I was alone with green water for all of two seconds before I changed my mind. My heart hammered as I pulled off my shirt and J.T.’s head emerged from the deep. We made eye contact.
Then I pinched my nose and dove in.
J.T. told me early on he wasn’t ready for a new relationship. I said I wasn’t either. But we lived in side-by-side dormitories and ran into each other constantly, each meeting electric, hilarious, somehow inevitable. We developed a language of raised eyebrows and glances and began finishing each other’s sentences. The first time he kissed me—a few days before Christmas—I thought we were two fools in love.
Fools, maybe. Even as we spent more time together, J.T. avoided the relationship talk. He corrected his friends when they called me his girlfriend, and I refused to admit how I felt.
One night at the end of freshman year, J.T. asked if I thought we should tell people we were dating. “It might be easier for you,” he said, “and you and I would know how things really are.”
I bristled. You make the choice, he seemed to be saying. Go out on a limb, and when this doesn’t work, I’ll still have my ambivalence.
“No.” I was furious. Too little too late. “We’re about to leave for the summer,” I said. “We’ll be living seven hours apart.”
I wanted so badly for him to argue, to convince me he felt something too. Instead he shrugged, and I pretended it didn’t bother me.
At home in New Jersey, I tried to ignore how terribly I missed him. A few weeks before we came back to school, he asked if I remembered our conversation. I figured he was prepping me for news of a new girlfriend—someone he took more seriously than me. “Sure I remember,” I said with false cheer. “And I’ve been making out with other people.”
I lied because I wanted to hurt him, to prove somehow that I had control. How was I supposed to know that he’d finally changed his mind? He didn’t say it, just hung up the phone and didn’t call again. After a week of scant sleep, I called to ask how he was, but he barely said a word. I heard ice in his voice and knew we were finished. Over before we could start.
On a gray day in February, a year and a half after we met, I saw him in a campus coffee shop. He smiled and stood, offered me his chair. “How are you?” he asked, gray eyes looking elsewhere.
I felt my mouth fill with the bones of what might have been. “I can’t talk to you anymore,” I said. “This thing that we’re doing—whatever it is—doesn’t feel like friendship to me. It hurts. I can’t do it.”
I put on headphones and left the building, swallowing bile under a sky slowly turning to rain.
Everywhere I went on campus, I imagined myself with the redheaded boy. So I did what any surf-loving English major would do: I studied abroad in Sydney.
I expected golden beaches and boxing kangaroos, enough magical newness to dispel my sorrows. I didn’t expect to fall in love, but it happened anyway. First with Australia, with its red earth and wide skies, then with a tender man who lived there. In the waves and his arms I felt my pieces assemble, a new girl built at the end of the world.
When I came back to the U.S. and got my degree, the Australian and I took turns flying across the Pacific. We negotiated our 14-hour time difference with airmail and prepaid calling cards.
After graduation, I moved back to New Jersey. For three years I wavered—should I stay or go?—until he said he couldn’t wait any more. Unable to decide, I cried into the phone, curling on the floor while he left my life as gently as he’d entered it.
At homecoming that year, I saw J.T. in a group of freshman friends. He’d apologized several times over the years, but now I found my anger mollified. Six years had passed, we’d moved on with our lives, and we were able to laugh like we used to.
After that, he called sometimes. We traded stories about weddings and road trips and romance. I dated wonderful men but held my sorrow closer. J.T.’s girlfriend moved out after their painful breakup. We continued on our parallel paths.
Several months later, on a Friday after work, J.T. said he was on his way.
“Wait, what?” A few weeks earlier he’d said he wanted to visit New Jersey, to finally experience the Garden State. Yeah, right. I invited him thinking he’d never come, remembering how our plans in college inevitably dissolved when J.T. cancelled for one reason or another. Only when he called from a Maryland rest stop did I realize things might be different now.
At midnight I took a shower. I made up the couch, relieved to remember that we were finally friends.
At 2am, I heard a quiet knock. I wiped my hands on my thighs and exhaled as if a trans-oceanic flight had touched ground.
When I opened the door, J.T. stood in the hallway with suitcase in hand. I saw again how much time had passed. His laugh lines had multiplied, the freckles across his nose had faded.
But when we made eye contact, it felt as though dark curtains drew aside. We each saw someone incredibly familiar, a person we thought we’d lost. And suddenly love was everywhere, flooding the air like the sun.
“I can’t believe you made it,” I said.
His gray eyes held mine as he smiled. “Sorry it took me so long to get here.”—Elizabeth Derby
Elizabeth is a freelance writer and an editorial assistant at C-VILLE.