by Ari Weiss
It was my freshman year of college and I was on the phone with my girlfriend, Ella.
“While I was in class today, I was thinking of you practically the entire time!”
Ella lived upstate, a good five hours from NYU, and I was real good at getting sappy with her about that.
There was silence on the other end.
“Well, what about you?” I provoked.
“I enjoyed a nice lecture on the evolution of the wombat.”
Silence on my end.
Then: “You didn’t think about me at all today?”
“Ummm… I didn’t say that.”
“Well did you?”
“We’re not going to talk about this now.”
“I have an idea!”
“What?” I growled.
“Why don’t you listen to how cool wombats are?”
“I don’t think that’s appropriate…”
And we’d be shouting again.
I wish I could say that it was all in good fun. The messier truth is that, regardless of how it may come off in retrospect, it wasn’t all that much fun back then.
Sitting at the foot of the dorm-room door, the only relief came when the surgeon knocked. Her name was Jesse and she was also a freshman. Jesse had dark brown hair and a kind face that begged for sympathy, though she could attract more friends than anyone else on our floor.
Jesse liked to knock. She didn’t mind that I was sitting with my arms hugging my thighs outside the very door she knocked on.
“Hey Ari. How’s it going?”
Cellular phone clutched in my right hand, the LCD screen glistening with sweat beads, Jesse didn’t really have to ask.
“Okay,” I said with a little mustered cheer.
“I brought you some CDs.”
“Oh, no way!”
From beneath a violet cloth, she unsheathed six Tori Amos albums and a Talking Heads album which I hadn’t yet snagged for my collection.
“Nice!” I shouted. “Hold on, one second,” I said, scrambling to my feet.
I reemerged from my dorm room with a fistful of discs that doubled hers, all meticulously labeled with multi-colored markers.
Her face lit up.
And we’d proceed to talk about Ella, Bowie, and our hopes and dreams that night until the dawn threatened to creep up on us. Jesse sewed up my wounded ego every time I needed it. She had a superb sense of timing. There was nothing romantic about our relationship, except that it fit precisely my romanticized ideal for what a deep and sincere friendship should be. I loved Jesse as my ideal friend and I loved Ella as my ideal beloved.
Then one day, each of them vanished. Spontaneously, as if they’d never been there in the first place, they entered into the boundless realm of memory. I often drove myself to distraction. ‘How could this be?!’ I could apply no sound logic to placate the mind or coax the heart out of its existence. One day, these ladies appeared both so real, as was the affection I wielded in their direction. Then the next, they were gone and I had to redirect my feelings elsewhere, or render my heart more callous.
In the months that followed, I alone went up against the whole of New York, simply searching for a good friend. And somehow, as a starry-eyed student, I’d managed to find myself “bonding deeply” with a new best friend… every week.
The indigestible fact was that even with all of the unlimited possibility that lay vibrantly in wait, there was only limited outcome. What I wanted, very matter-of-factly, and what I believed, deep down, every NYU student who’d enrolled alongside me in the fall of 2002 really wanted, were meaningful relationships saturated with warmth, trust, humor, and identity.
Either, we’d all gotten on the same train, then gotten off at different stops along the way, or I’d brilliantly gotten myself onto the wrong train altogether. Nevertheless, there I was, freshly on the cusp of living 18 years, ardently seeking hominess in a gaping city that overflowed with individual potential pursuit, and ever so subtly, forcing myself into the recognition that we were all, the whole lot of us, dancing around, bouncing off one another like atoms inside a molecule. There were no actual bonds formed, only intersections of time and place, surcharged with emotion.
No one stopped to tell us that in the midst of all the wondrous madness, we human beings could scarcely see one another, what to speak of getting to know one another. Not that we’d have heard it. We presumed “getting to know someone” meant spilling our guts when drunk or stripping our clothes in bed. At best, it meant simply doing the same things together… There was no real heart. The soul was a formidable myth. Taste defined life.
Aesthetics were not just valued, they were worshiped. But no one wanted to admit the sheer religiosity of their aesthetic ideology, least of all my own self. And yet, I did feel something, even if most notably in retrospect. Neo’s “splinter in the mind” had struck me – something was off - and I’d not simply allow it to fester.
In course of time I came to befriend, casually at first, a humble group of lively monks. I gradually began to appreciate that their relationships had little to do with the style one wishes to project or ambition one wishes to achieve. Instead, they achieved a depth by putting themselves second to others. They valued performing tasks that reduced pride by serving each other in menial ways without expectation of returns. Cooking, cleaning, taking out the trash. Done without self-interest. Without entitlement. And most difficult of all, with affection. When I began to see that this was indeed possible, and even pleasurable, my life’s pursuit of romantic ideals became more about becoming the ideal, for the benefit of others, than receiving it for the gratification of my own self.
Ella graduated from school without my seeing her again face to face. She moved back to her hometown in California with a replacement college sweetheart. It seems, by her Facebook profile, that they broke up within a month of settling in together.
I never found out why Jesse stopped knocking on my door. But I ran into her a couple of times throughout my NYU career. Once on West 4th Street overlooking Washington Square Park. Once in the science building, while hastening myself to get to an environmentalism class. And once while tipsy at a party. Each time I’d meet Jesse, I I’d scan her eyes, desperate to detect anything mysterious. Then she’d twirl her dyed-brown locks of hair. And I’d wonder if she’d listened to my R.E.M. CD yet, or if she ever planned on giving it back. The “how are you’s” were brutal. The “good’s” were worse. Before I could ask what classes she was taking, she’d lightly smile and walk away.