Grad student housing is glorious: the camaraderie of being far too old for student housing and simultaneously far too poor for private renting; the reliability of beer o'clock for the writers'-blocked and the freedom from the insecurities and what-ifs that plagued us as undergrads. It was those insecurities that I enjoyed being free from the most.
My apartment was an all-female one through bureaucratic accident, a second-floor six-bedroom thrown together because we were non-smokers who worked late into the night. Our first communal purchase was a coffee machine. We were inveterate inciters of parties and yet rarely threw parties in our apartment; cleanup was really not our thing. Fortunately, there was a mostly-male apartment a couple of floors up who were only too happy to throw parties and didn't take much inciting. They held a regular Sunday afternoon open-house where hungover ex-revellers could come to collect whichever of their belongings they might have left behind the night before (for me almost always my shoes although I never remembered taking them off). I was sleeping with one of the guys, let's call him Tim, because we were friends and I'd only just discovered that it was possible to sleep with someone openly and repeatedly without the need for relationship talks and worrying about my reputation, and I felt liberated and modern and relieved.
Across the hall from them was another all-female group who were apparently the best of friends, but since one of them was a clinical psychopath there was always going to be tension. It all kicked off one night at the bar; one of the girls turned up looking just a bit too good and caught the eye of the guy the odd one was attempting to ensnare. Apparently the odd one tripped and her glass just happened to smash into the spine of the pretty one. I have my doubts, but after that their apartment wasn't even putting up a show of cohesion. By that time, mine had also collapsed into acrimony (I forget exactly why, some innocent remark misheard and embellished and turned into fact) and so I had a little chat with the clinical psychopath and before more than a day or two had passed we'd started organising the official paperwork to switch rooms. It was a very studenty move when it finally happened, I found an abandoned shopping trolley, filled it with my stuff and moved it in the lift.
By this stage, Tim and I were becoming much closer. I didn't care that he was sleeping with other people, although it did make for a few awkward moments while he and my new flatmate were having a fling; he was never sure what to do if the wrong one of us answered the door. We took to leaving it wedged open with a spoon, the RA who lived between our apartments took our breaches of fire safety very seriously and removed any spoon he happened to see there until we had to ring his doorbell and beg for all our spoons back. But the closeness between us wasn't really about sex, it was about having learned to be good friends in spite of the complications that everyone told us were coming because we dared enjoy each other's bodies as well as company and not eschew either one from others. So Tim paid romantic court to my lovely Texan debutante flatmate, fell hopelessly in unrequited love with a coursemate and played overly-successful wingman with his best friend. I slept with the best friend every now and then; we didn't like each other but God the sex was good, and my on-again-off-again was always looming large in the background in a way I loved and wished I knew how to stop. And while we were enjoying having learned about each other's bodies, Tim and I were also good friends enjoying this unconventional relationship. Because it was accidentally becoming one, this close friendship between two people who had good sex and didn't make excessive demands of each other. I said nothing and hoped Tim wouldn't notice, but one morning as his alarm went off at 6am and I mumbled incoherently and refused to budge while he went for a run and showered and then made some coffee in an attempt to shoehorn some sense out of me, he dropped a gentle kiss on my hair and it all started to go wrong.
It was maybe only a couple of weeks after that that I went away for my birthday. I preferred to be alone to think about the past year and the one coming without fear of cakes and singing and calls from my mother reminding me that I was ever closer to thirty, which is apparently the magic cut-off point; if I was unmarried after thirty I'd remain so forever and would die old and alone and eaten by cats. I walked through ancient Roman ruins, sat in a ruined house on the Palatine watching a thunderstorm over the Forum, went to dinner on the night of my birthday with one of my hostel roommates who bought me a plastic rose and suggested we share his bunk so he could give me a more private birthday gift.
And then I came home on a sunny midafternoon, and no one was home. And in the evening I sent Tim an SMS suggesting a beer, to no reply. I thought nothing of it until the following morning, when I saw Tim through my window, obviously coming home from a night elsewhere. He looked dazed and strangely ethereal for a football (American) player who weighed easily two and a half times what I did. I assumed he'd had fun and got back to my work, only to receive a message an hour or so later inviting me out to lunch. I shared my holiday adventures as we walked down to the Mexican place, cheap and good and notorious for being unable to successfully deliver a takeaway order in its entirety, and once we'd ordered and sat down at a sunny, metal-topped window table he turned to me and said, So I've been seeing someone. Initially I was a bit confused, why would he be telling me this like this when we weren't a couple? And then I realised that he'd noticed it too, and then I realised what he was saying. And as I was realising he was telling me about this wonderful woman who was so beautiful and smart and fun and how he was already falling in love with her. I didn't object to his falling in love with her, but I was furious that I had to deal with the breakup without ever having articulated the relationship and perhaps a little hurt that she was more beautiful and smart and fun than I was, so I maintained our tradition of inarticulacy. I dumped my lunch over him and walked out.
Things recovered, to a point. We still walked to and from campus together, we still shared the same jokes, the same friends, the same system of buying beer (one pays, the other walks the 4km to the shop and back for it; when it was my turn I paid their €3 delivery charge and thought it was a bargain, but he liked the walk). I still stopped by every Sunday afternoon to see friends stopping by to collect abandoned property although I'd long since been coming to parties barefoot.
It was never love, unless love is something I don't believe it is. But it is only now that I've seen that dazed, otherworld look on the face of someone who has it because I put it there that I really understand. And I'm glad he understood the difference because if he hadn't things might have been very different and I wouldn't change them for the world.
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