tagMatureGoing Back

Going Back

byJayDavid©

A last minute entry into the Summer Lovin' contest, and my first entry in the Mature category. Not much sex, but lots of love. Enjoy, and please vote.

Thursday Night

That goddamn suitcase lying open on my bed. It looked like I had opened the door to some dark tunnel, and I couldn't imagine there would be any light at the end. I stood there, paralyzed. Why did I take it out, put it on my bed and open the damned thing? And now I'm staring at it and pacing around my bedroom. Unable to put anything into it, but unable to close it and put it back into the attic. Unable to decide to skip my 30th college reunion, but also incapable of preparing to go. I turned and looked at the jacket, hanging from my closet door. Its garish orange, black and white design had always made me smile. Now, it made me feel sick to my stomach. It would be easy to simply put the cursed thing back in the closet, toss the suitcase on the floor and retreat into my bed.

Only five years before, at the 25th, Maggie and the kids and I had a blast. Princeton Reunions are nothing like any other. Unlike most schools where alumni return every five years, at Princeton people come back every year, and the major reunion classes host massive parties with live bands and free-flowing beer. Everyone wears some crazy orange and black costume all weekend, and after a few minutes, your brain adjusts and the colors actually seem normal. There are events going on all weekend, and it is an opportunity to reconnect with old friends, make new ones, and leave the outside world on the other side of the college gates. We had taken the kids to all of the major reunions, and even many of the off-year ones, and they had grown from getting their faces painted like tigers to trying to sneak beers. The kids loved to joke that they didn't recognize me at Reunions because I was friendlier and happier there than usual. And even though Maggie hadn't gone to Princeton, she jumped right in and connected with my classmates and friends, in some ways better than I did. It was one of the things that made her so special.

It is a physically tough weekend, especially as we got older, and it is usually pretty hot, so it didn't particularly concern either of us when Maggie complained that she was tired. She rested during the day and partied with me at night, dancing and drinking and talking. But when the fatigue continued through the following weeks, she saw the doctor. And got the diagnosis. She fought valiantly, strongly and bravely, and through every indignity, she retained her dignity. As her body wasted away, her spirit grew stronger. But after avoiding the inevitable for almost four years, I found myself burying my best friend and the love of my life.

I was devastated. Thanks to my family and friends, and an understanding group of colleagues at work, I survived my initial grief, and for the past year or so had resumed something of my prior functioning, but without any joy. Of course, I hadn't returned to Reunions. But over the past year, as we geared up for a major reunion, I had begun to feel the excitement on Facebook and in the e-mails I received from the class. My kids pushed me to register for the 30th and I convinced myself that it was a good idea. Unfortunately, they wouldn't be able to join me—Alex was in California, working, and Hayley was spending the summer in Spain studying the language—but they persuaded me that I could and should go.

As recently as last night, I started to sense a smidgen of the old anticipation. I pulled the suitcase out of the attic and let it air out. I found the jacket, the crazy shirts and the straw hat. I rounded up a few more Princeton shirts and some college paraphernalia and laid them out on the chair in our—my—bedroom. But at the moment of truth, I couldn't pack any of it.

I looked at the picture of Maggie on my bedside table and thought about how I still stayed on my side of the king sized bed, even though I always slept alone. I stared at the picture and thought about how much we had enjoyed Reunions as a couple and a family. Well-meaning friends and family constantly told me that Maggie would want me to get on with my life, stop moping, even start dating, and I nodded politely, smiled falsely and ignored the advice. But today, for whatever reason, I decided that they were right. Maggie would not want me to miss my 30th reunion.

I grabbed a pile of clothing and began to throw things into the suitcase until it was filled up, my vision blurred by the tears that were pouring down my face. I went into the bathroom and splashed water on my face, brushed my teeth, put on my night shirt and slipped under the covers. Somehow, I fell asleep, dreaming of past Reunions, in an orange and black haze.

Friday Morning

My eyes popped open and the clock mocked me—it was more than an hour before the alarm—and I tried to fall back, hoping, maybe, that I would oversleep and it would be too late to go. But there was no more slumber for me. I lay there, unable to sleep, unable to get up, until I looked at her picture again. I knew that she really would want me to go, and I knew that I had to do it.

Before I could think too hard about it, I was in my shorts, an orange golf shirt with the school crest and that crazy jacket, and my class baseball cap covering my bald spot. I ate breakfast and loaded the car. Although it technically wasn't summer yet, I could tell that it was going to be a hot weekend. I started the car, turned on the AC, cranked up my iPod and headed south. After all these years, I can still drive to Princeton on autopilot. I let my mind wander, focusing on the music and not on how I was going to make it through the weekend without Maggie.

The car turned itself on to the Turnpike and eventually through the series of turns and merges that led to Route 1. As always, I couldn't help but notice all of the development that had sprung up since I graduated, but many of the landmarks were still there. One Dental Plaza. Burrito Royale (now renamed). The Courtyard hotel where we stayed at Reunions when the kids were little. The Plasma Physics lab. I turned right onto Washington Road, through the lane of trees that Maggie loved, over Lake Carnegie and turned left onto Faculty Road and right onto campus. The guard directed me to a parking lot, already pretty full, despite the fact that Reunions were only really starting in earnest today. I parked, locked the car, grabbed my suitcase and rolled it to the shuttle stop.

As expected, it was turning into a warm day, humid like it usually was in New Jersey this time of year, and I found a bit of shade. I wasn't the only one waiting, and I smiled absently at an older couple in their costumes. I had always assumed that we would be one of those couples, or that I would be the one to go first, like men usually do, and had to turn away to hide my discomfort. Coming toward the shuttle stop was a couple, maybe here for the Tenth, with one kid in a stroller, wearing a Princeton T-shirt, and another little girl, in a different Princeton shirt. And it brought me back to my Tenth, when I walked the P-Rade with Alex on my shoulders and Maggie at my side.

My mind was screaming "ABORT, ABORT," and I was about to flee to the air-conditioned coolness of the car and head home, when the bus pulled in. I followed the older couple on, and watched the young parents struggle with their stuff, their kids and the stroller. But finally we were on the way up campus, past a number of newer buildings that I only knew from my Reunions visits, until I got off in front of our headquarters. The green of the grass and the trees was almost overwhelming, but the wood fence and the orange and black class numbers, with their bulbs off waiting for darkness, were comforting, and I rolled my bag into the courtyard.

There were, already a good number of my classmates there, and a few members of the satellite classes, conspicuous by their different ugly orange and black outfits, sitting, standing, milling around. Doing what you do. I saw some familiar faces and nodded greetings. And then, walking in my direction, staring into the screen of her phone, I saw Vanessa.

September 9, 1981

I pretended that living on the fourth floor of Witherspoon Hall, an old building recently renovated without an elevator, was going to be a good thing. My father, however, was decidedly displeased. Luckily, I didn't have all that much stuff—we had packed it all into our boat-like Pontiac and schlepped it up the stairs ourselves. The worst part was the boxes of records, which were my most prized possession. My roommate wasn't around, so I hadn't met anyone yet. After some awkward moments in the room, I offered to walk my father back to his car.

As we crossed Witherspoon Green, I saw a vision. Tall, slim but with noticeable curves, blond hair flying behind her. She was almost exactly the stereotype of the preppie Princeton girl. Only more beautiful. I knew going in that the 2 men to 1 woman ratio was not in my favor, especially as a freshman. Not to mention the fact that my high school girlfriend turned out to be, let us say, less than faithful, breaking up with me right before prom, destroying any bit of confidence I had.

My dad, on the other hand, as usual had no reservations. He strode up to this Aryan vision and said, "Hi, are you a freshman?"

"Um yes, I am," she replied, appearing confused at being questioned by this swarthy older man.

"My son, here, is a freshman, too." He looked at me, expecting something.

"Uh, yeah." I stuck out my hand awkwardly. My father looked at me expectantly. "I'm Dave."

"Vanessa," she said, gave my hand a quick shake and said, "I have to go. I'm late." And she was gone.

When she was a reasonable distance away, my father said, "If that is what the women here look like, you'll do fine."

I nodded. Of course, most of them didn't, and I didn't do particularly well.

Friday Morning

As she approached, I was transfixed. She hadn't come to the 25th, and, in fact, I don't think that I had seen her since graduation. She wasn't on Facebook, although I admit I had tried to find her. And she had barely aged. Many of my classmates, including myself, showed our ages pretty clearly. Our features had broadened, as had our bellies and butts. Our hair had thinned or turned gray. But genetics and good care, and maybe plastic surgery or makeup or hair dye, had left some of our cohort looking like no time had passed since that day 30 years before when we left Old Nassau for real life.

Vanessa appeared to be one of the lucky ones. As she came closer, I could see a few lines around her blue eyes, but still, she looked incredible. She looked up, saw me, smiled briefly as if vaguely recognizing me, then looked back at her phone and walked on. I noticed that her name pin had the same last name that she had in college, but I had no idea whether she was married, divorced, widowed, or if she simply kept her name, like Maggie had. And I got angry with myself for even thinking about another woman, even if it was Vanessa, as if she was even a possibility.

I forced myself to the registration table, and the eager and friendly undergraduate workers checked me off, gave me my meal tickets, drink bracelet, room key, bedding and bag of Reunions swag. I took a schedule and a button, wrote my name and class number on it, pinned it to my jacket and signed the book, scanning for, and finding, recognizable names. I began to feel that exhilaration that I used to feel at Reunions again. Gathering my stuff, I struggled along, sweating, nodding and greeting people on the way, to the dorm room that was assigned to me, on the second floor of an older dorm. I wasn't lucky enough to get an air conditioned room in a new dorm, but that was one of the risks I took for deciding to save money—and not have to drive under the influence—by staying on campus. In the past, Maggie always held back a little so she could drive us back to the hotel. Luckily, I had brought a small fan and an extension cord which would make the room, I hoped, habitable.

After moving in, making the bed, so that I wouldn't have to after a night of drinking, and turning on the fan, I ventured back into the headquarters. I scanned the crowd and saw a few friends. Most of them knew about Maggie, and made the kind of uncomfortable sympathetic comments that I had become used to. When the conversation flagged, as it always did, I decided that 11:30 a.m. was not too early to start drinking, and made my way to the taps. Then, it was back for more conversations, most of which in some way included references to Maggie and well-meaning condolences.

When it was time for lunch, I joined some of my closest old friends around a table, some with kids; most, however, were there with their spouses. After a few minutes, the tent was pretty crowded, and the din was pretty loud. And there she was again, holding a plate of food and looking for a place to land. I was surprised that she didn't seem to have many options—I thought that she was a popular girl back in the day—one of those who the class seemed to revolve around. But whether she had lost touch with too many people, or was crowded out, or something, she looked at a loss. Then, her eyes alit on the empty chair at our table, and she asked, "Is anyone sitting here?"

Mary, Al's wife, said, "No, please join us," and she sat down, scanning our faces and buttons. As we had gotten older, it seemed less awkward at these things to sit down with people you didn't know in college. The divisions of class, club, team, dorm and background seemed to fade over time and be replaced by the commonality of our life experiences—working, raising families, dealing with sick parents, and like me, spouses.

"Vanessa Carson," she said, smiling. We all introduced ourselves, including Al, who reminded Vanessa that they had been lab partners during junior year, and she said, unconvincingly, that she remembered. There was a pause, as we old friends tried to figure out the dynamics of having this newcomer at the table, but then the conversation resumed, and Vanessa participated as she ate.

She was, in fact, married, with two kids, about the same ages as mine, and a doctor. It was clear that she had no knowledge of my loss, and was appropriately sympathetic when it was disclosed. After lunch, we cleared our debris and people headed off, some to rest, some to programs, and others to buy even more school paraphernalia. I went off to an interesting panel on foreign policy, and as I left the lecture hall, I found myself walking next to Vanessa. She nodded in recognition, and we walked together back toward the Reunions headquarters.

"I'm terribly sorry about your wife."

"Thanks, it has been hard. She was my best friend."

Vanessa didn't respond right away. "That must have been nice," she replied. I looked at her. "I mean, being married to your best friend." We then had a brief medical discussion about Maggie's condition, after which Vanessa said, with professional detachment, "It sounds like they did everything they could have under the circumstances."

I nodded, and she put her hand on my arm, in sympathy.

If you had told me back in college that I would ever had ended up having a conversation with Vanessa Carson, and that she would have actually touched me, I would have told you that you were crazy.

April 11, 1982, 3:00 a.m.

In my time at college I learned a lot in class, but one thing that I had truly mastered was the ability to find my way back to my dorm, at any hour, no matter how drunk I was. And this was a night that tested my skills. There was a big party at my club, with a great band. As so often happened, I wasn't successful in any of my clumsy attempts to attract women, so I found myself playing beer pong with my roommate and some of the upperclassmen. Their experience at the game usually meant that we got pretty drunk, pretty fast, but Walt and I were getting better, and began to give as good as we got.

But as we played it, the goal of the game was not to win, but to get trashed, and based on that standard, I was quite successful. I looked at my watch and realized that I wanted to go back to the dorm and pass out in my bed. I scanned the room for Walt, and he was nowhere to be found. I staggered up the stairs and checked in the bathroom, but he wasn't there. After a serious piss, I went to the living room, and Walt was asleep on one of the leather couches. I tried waking him, but to no avail. So I headed out into the cool spring morning. It was still dark, of course, and the Street was pretty quiet.

I shuffled toward campus, getting my legs working properly, and headed across Washington Road, through the 1879 Arch and onto campus. As I passed between the Architecture Building and McCosh, I heard the unmistakable sound of vomiting. I tried to focus my eyes, and saw what clearly was a woman, bent over and hurling. With the bravado of the inebriated, I decided to help. As I approached, the girl stood up, and I could see that it was Vanessa Carson, her hair a mess.

Since the day I moved in, I never exchanged a single word with her, but I had, of course, admired her from afar. It was, I believed, my secret, and I never told anyone about my occasional stalking of her as she walked to class, or that she was one of my primary masturbatory fantasies. But she looked like she needed help, and in my impaired state, I thought that I was just the guy. I staggered closer, and got a whiff of the distinctive smell of Saturday night on campus, beer and vomit.

Emboldened by my drinking, I said, "Hey, do you need a hand" probably louder than I should have.

She stood, unsteadily on her slim legs, and stared at me. I could see her eyes narrow in the light from the streetlamp, and there was no glimmer of any sort of recognition, not that I expected any. I moved closer.

"No, I'm fine," she slurred, unconvincingly, then turned and retched up something on the wall of McCosh. I stepped closer and put my hand on her arm.

Vanessa turned quickly, pulled away and snarled, "Get the fuck away from me you fucking creep. Or I'll yell rape." It sounded like her tongue was a little too big in her mouth.

I pulled my hand away and stepped back, unsteadily. My swagger was gone. "I was just trying to help," I said, plaintively.

"I don't need your fucking help. Get the fuck out of here," she yelled, and I decided that I should go, before the proctors showed up and made things difficult. As I scurried away, I heard a sound that might have been sobbing, or might have been more vomiting.

A few days later, I walked past Vanessa on the way to my American History class, and I tried to make eye contact, but she didn't even notice me.

Friday Evening

At the class dinner, I sat with Al and a few of my other old friends, all of whom made the appropriate condolence comments, but then the conversation turned, as it usually did, to old times, and old stories. I tried to participate, but my heart wasn't really into it. When Benji started telling a story that I had heard more times than I could count, I began to scan the tent, looking at all of my classmates and their families, and the cacophony of orange and black. I noticed Vanessa was sitting a few tables away, sitting with her friends, I assumed from Cap & Gown, looking down at her phone and furiously texting away. She was far from the only person engrossed in a phone, but I wasn't really paying attention to anyone else.

"Right, Dave?" I heard Benji say, and I snapped out of my reverie. I must have looked confused, and Benji prompted, "We set fire to the couch and ran?"

I smiled in memory, and nodded. "And about 20 minutes later, we came back, and the proctors were putting out the fire, so we asked them what happened—"

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byJayDavid© 16 comments/ 21882 views/ 7 favorites

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