During my last winter in Michigan, I hated people, with a passion. I wanted to be left alone. Until I didn’t want to be alone, and then I visited my friends, joined in their parties, posed in pictures looking happy. One house I visited often was in the student ghetto of downtown Kalamazoo. My friend Ollie lived there, and his moods often matched mine. He had an extensive collection of empty Boones Farm wine bottles lining the walls of his bedroom, which he added to often. I was still learning how to drink then, so I rarely helped him empty his bottles. I preferred the box of wine in my fridge.
Ollie was in love with me. He’d told me on New Year’s Eve, sitting at the base of the stairs at his house during a party – to this date the sweetest and most painfully presented declaration of love I’ve ever received. I felt terrible rejecting him, but I was too mentally unstable to think of him in any other way than what we already had.
Because I did nothing but analyze my feelings during that time through terrible poetry, I wrote him this poem two weeks later, after we’d hung out for the first time since his confession:
We stalled into his driveway,
my car shutting itself off as if to say –
But I knew what I was,
I had the passion but not the heart,
and I left him that night,
started my car and the
weak engine inside of me stumbled away.
a smile on my lips I threw my
tattered mittened clutch into the air,
he saw the wool and not the reach,
and he shuffled his feet on the ice
and walked inside.
As was the case in college, we pretended New Year’s Eve had never happened. But one night, Ollie invited me to see a Sing-a-Long version of The Messiah. I’d never been to the symphony before (in fact didn’t know it involved the symphony, but pretended otherwise). He suggested that I dress nicely.
When Ollie picked me up, I was in a smart black dress, my hair twisted up, delicate earrings and makeup. I wore small heels because it was winter, though there was no snow or ice at the moment. He wore a handsome suit and tie, his curled black hair was smoothed back, away from his face.
He walked me to his car, a 1972 Dodge Dart painted a glittery black. We drove downtown – the walk would have taken less than 10 minutes, but again, it was winter in Michigan, and I was in heels and a dress. Ollie took me to C.W. Michael’s for dinner, a dark, narrow, brick-walled restaurant where I’d discovered that the bartenders didn’t ask me for ID several months earlier. I’d never eaten there before, had just met friends for drinks or sat alone at the bar, nursing my Bailey’s on the rocks and watching whatever was playing silently on TV, before bundling up and walking back home.
During dinner Ollie and I talked warmly. There was an electricity in the air, a properness, we sat up tall and used our napkins correctly. A woman from another table who I’d observed glancing in our direction several times came over to us as she was leaving, and said “I just wanted to tell you that you make such a sophisticated couple. You look like you just stepped off the cover of Esquire magazine.” I blushed and beamed at Ollie, who said thank you, and the woman walked away. I didn’t know what Esquire magazine was, either, but I took it as a complement.
When we left the restaurant we saw that snow had begun to fall. It was a quiet night and we were alone on the sidewalk, the flakes drifting fat and slow to the ground as we walked toward the car. When we came around a corner we saw it there, alone under a street lamp, sparkling under the snow, the beautiful old car with so much of Ollie in it, I felt faint with the perfection of the moment.
Ollie opened my door for me and tucked me into the bench seat, leaning over me to start it so that it could begin to warm. He then cleared the windshield and windows easily and almost comically – the snow was so plentiful but lightweight that he probably could have blown it off, like flames on a cake.
The symphony itself was overwhelming. I was introduced to Ollie’s mother and aunt, who sat in front of us and whispered to themselves after they’d said hello. I sat dumbfounded by the rise and fall of the instruments, holding Ollie’s hand and feeling him tense whenever he felt something in the music, whenever the time came to sing, and he would, in his pained, clear voice. I noticed this more than the piece itself, and felt grateful to be so welcomed into such an intimate experience.
That night was our last Great Night. It ended with us learnedly predicting the timing of the traffic lights on the way home, and Ollie dropping me at my doorstep. A goodnight, a hug, my listening to his car pull away outside my bedroom window.
Such nights propel a friendship through the years. It never gets as deep and warm as it could have, but there are bursts of advice and visits and sometimes, a telling glance. A memory.