Mary Elizabeth Williams is the host of Table Talk, Salon.com’s community hub.
Even in the most platonic of relationships, it’s common courtesy to throw each other the bone of mild flirtation now and then. A little wink or a nudge to say, “It’s not going to happen in this lifetime, but we’re a male and a female here, and in another reality, we’d be smoking hot.”
I should have stayed away. I should have fled into the arms of the nearest fraternity brother the moment he mentioned his undying devotion to his girlfriend back home. Does anybody ever do that, especially at 19, when they could instead torture themselves breathing the same air as their unattainable object of desire?
I met Patrick the day he bounded into one of my college classes, looking more cheerful than is generally acceptable before 10 a.m. I had a history of falling for troubled artist types; his sunniness was an intoxicating change of pace. We quickly became friends. Friends, in this case, meaning that I drained away a portion of my academic career trying to seduce him, while he treated me with all the ardor of a noogie-wielding big brother.
I might have been able to get past his devastating good looks-the broad shoulders, the big smile, the unjustly beautiful eyes. But the clincher was that he was genuinely sweet-generous, friendly, and profoundly goofy. He never cheated on a test, never cheated on the girlfriend, and steadfastly rebuffed the temptations of all but the mildest vices. Needed somebody to quiz you for an upcoming exam, let you rant about a tyrannical professor, or buy you a consoling Friday night beer? He’d never let you down. Needed an outlet for your wildly overblown lust? You were on your own.
I never doubted for a moment that he enjoyed my company. I also never got the merest signal he entertained even a mildly dirty thought about me either. I’ve had male friends my whole life. Even in the most platonic of relationships, it’s common courtesy to throw each other the bone of mild flirtation now and then. A little wink or a nudge to say, “It’s not going to happen in this lifetime, but we’re a male and a female here, and in another reality, we’d be smoking hot.” I gave him every possible opening. He gave me bupkis.
Eventually, he headed to another university. At an end of the semester party, I watched him from afar as he dazzled the assembled group with amusing banter and talk of his next big plans. It dawned on me then that he was destined for greatness, while I was a working class chump from New Jersey. I must have been delusional to think he’d ever noticed that I’d been throwing myself at him all this time. He was, simply, too good for me.
I considered that this would be a fine time to get roaring drunk and openly declare my worship, but something held me back. Game over. So in one of my first moments of true maturity, I put on a brave smile and gave him a big, chaste kiss on the cheek. “Good luck,” I told him. Then I ran out of the party and didn’t stop running until I got home. I never saw him again.
In time, I got over it. I flirted, I dated, I had flings and real relationships. I even had the good sense to eventually fall in love with a guy who loved me back. And marry him. Years went by without a thought of Patrick. Then a few months ago, I got an email from fellow alumni, about a proposed reunion for a group of us who’d spent a semester abroad together. Patrick hadn’t even been part of the group. Yet when I opened that note, the college memories came rushing on back. And his face was the first thing that popped into my mind. I pulled out an old photo album, and there he was, smiling right at me. He really had been that handsome, that authentically warm and charismatic. What had happened to him, I wondered? What corner of the world was he ruling, in his inevitably benevolent way?
Such questions are what Google was made for.
I typed in his name and instantly got several hits, including one for the company he now works for. I clicked on it, and a moment later, heard the sound of myself gasping. There was a photo. The thick, wavy hair that I once fantasized about burying my face in was all gone. The smile was replaced with a stern, businesslike grimace. The eyes were still piercingly beautiful, but the spark behind them was gone. I couldn’t tell if this was a moment of victory or tragedy. True, any hold he may have ever had over me was loosened the moment I saw that picture. And there’s some bitter comfort knowing that the hottie who rejected you has morphed into a shlub. Yet I mourned the loss of him too, that lovely, happy man who’d disappeared into a scowling drone.
It probably wasn’t really that awful. This was a corporate photo, not Glamour Shots. And I’m not exactly the same miniskirt-wearing Bangles wannabe I once was myself.
Then I read the bio. It got worse. Apparently, he appears frequently on MSNBC, CNN, and the evil suckage of bandwidth that is the onanistic variety hour of a particularly facts-challenged, right-wing blowhard. Prior to assuming his current position, he worked in the office of one of the most morally inept, taxpayer-dollar-wasting, conservative gasbags of the past decade. Oh, and he’d married his college sweetheart.
I’d gone searching for Cary Grant, and found Dick Cheney. Had this buttoned up tight-ass always been lurking within the affable lummox I’d once adored? Or had he been the victim of some soul-scarring accident somewhere around the Clinton era? Would he be different now, if he’d ever once kissed my liberal lips? I felt like I was in my own private version of Star Wars. One day you’re besotted with a handsome Jedi knight. The next thing you know, he’s a mouth breather in a black cape.
I had to know just how bad it was. I clicked around a little longer, reading transcripts of his television appearances. Amazingly, even though he had some seriously dubious affiliations, he didn’t come off extremist or scary, and he definitely didn’t appear to be another cynical obfuscator for the regime. He even had, on more than one occasion, come down quite firmly, ass-kickingly on the team of righteousness. He was just a guy whose ideals had put him in a particular place, very different from my own. He hadn’t gone completely over to the dark side. He just wasn’t my Prince Charming anymore either.
I could look at him now and see him as he was, an imperfect middle-aged man with a receding hairline, still living, as he had all those years ago, according to his own firm ethical code. If he so desires, he will no doubt one day bowl over the red states as easily as he once did me. I believe in his life he’s made some questionable decisions. He was right about one thing, though. We really never were cut out for each other.
As I caught up on his life today and the things he’s accomplished, it was clear that whatever his choices and however unflatteringly he may have aged, he’s undeniably a smart man. Smarter than I’d given him credit for. Though I’d always believed he was completely clueless about my feelings, he’d probably known all along exactly what they were. This was, after all, a time in my life when I had all the subtlety of a horny, frequently inebriated college student. He’d just been decent enough to let me think he’d remember me as his pal, not the love-struck obsessive I really was. Decent enough not to use my infatuation to feed his ego. It was I who’d been the clueless one. No matter what he’s done in the intervening years, he really was a good guy. But he hadn’t, it’d turned out, been too good for me.