“This better be the last one, Caitlin.” My dad throws yet another over-stuffed bag onto my new “bed,” if you can call it that. A plastic mattress a few inches thick lying on top of a cheap frame, my “bed” sits next to a window that looks straight down, 20 floors, to a busy street.
“Don’t worry dad, it is.” I’m standing in the middle of a huge mess. Today I am moving into a dorm room for the summer that is directly across the street from the building I’ve been living in all year. Summer housing at Columbia, unfortunately, occurs in a different building than school-year housing, and all of my stuff, unfortunately, had to be moved.
“How did you accumulate so much crap in one year of college?” my dad asks me, surveying the room as sweat bleeds through his plaid button down shirt.
“It isn’t crap, Paul!” my mom says cheerfully as she starts unzipping, hanging, folding, setting things everywhere. “It adds character!”
“Mom, I can do that, really,” I say, watching her furiously tackling the mess.
“I just want to make sure your bed is made before we go, honey,” she says as she rips the sheets out of one of my duffels. I’m frustrated, but I have to admit that she knows me too well. I’d rather sleep on a gross, uncovered college mattress than make my bed later tonight.
“Ok,” I say, “but then I’ve got to get going. Meet the rest of the program. Get all set up, stuff like that.”
“Of course,” she says as my dad lets out an exasperated sigh and takes a seat on the uncomfortable desk chair. The three of us can barely fit in this tiny dorm room, but this is standard for New York City college life, and I’m lucky that I don’t have to share it with anyone. I don’t like to share.
“How’s the unpacking going?” all three of us look to the open doorway to see where the strange voice is coming from. I gasp, taken aback. A tall, lean, handsome boy stands in the door, with tan skin and dark hair and a bright blue shirt that matches his eyes. I don’t think I’ve seen a boy this attractive in my entire first year of college or, maybe, in my life.
“Oh, you know!” my mom says, as if they have met before. I’m about to introduce myself when the charming stranger beats me to it.
“Hi,” he says, “I’m Ben.” He extends a hand to my mother. Oh, he’s good, I think. Showing respect to a new girl’s parents. That seems strategic.
“I’m Caitlin,” I say stepping forward to shake his hand, too. He makes long eye-contact with me as he enters the messy room, brimming with confidence and self-assuredness. I’ve never made this much eye-contact with anyone before and I feel embarrassed.
“Well,” he says, holding my hand in his, “I wasn’t really looking forward to this summer, but now I am.” Shock washes over me as I try to process how he could possibly be interested in me and how he could be brazen enough to say it in front of my parents. But this, too, was strategy. Ben winks at me as he leaves the room. I can feel my heart beating. Boys like this never talk to me. I’m so shy, so self-conscious. Most of them can feel it a mile away. But not Ben!
Oh, to be as naïve as I was at 19.
That night I meet the rest of the program at a restaurant in New York and I’m painfully shy, as always. I barely talk to anyone else unless they approach me out of pity for how awkward I look, sitting all alone. When asked, I have my rote answers to all conceivable questions ready. Yes, I’m a rising sophomore at Columbia. I’m an undecided major yet, but I think I want to study oceanography. I took a class on it last year and just got “swept away” by it, if you will! I applied for this internship to see if it truly was the right life path for me. I am from New Jersey. My parents are just across the river. Yes, I plan to visit them on weekends, it’s very convenient! I’ve never spent a summer in the city before. I look forward to seeing what it’s like.
We are the new summer interns for a research observatory in Palisades, NJ, which is just on the other side of the Hudson, and we are all assigned to different earth-related projects. I find out that I will be interning in the oceanography department. I’ll be analyzing old ocean sediment cores to look for patterns that give us information about climate changes in the Earth’s past. To get to the Palisades, we’ll all be taking a bus every day, reverse commuting out of the city, and I’ll be sitting on it, every day, with Ben.
It starts slowly at first. He asks me to sit with him on the morning bus. At night, he asks me to sit with him again. We talk, we nap, we talk more. Then one day he comes to find me in the oceanography building around lunchtime. He brought more lunch than he can eat, won’t I join him? Where, I ask, the cafeteria? No, he says, I thought we could go outside. I follow Ben to his favorite group of trees where, to my total shock, he has set up a hammock. He hoists me into it and then follows suit. We are lying, side by side, in the hammock when he pulls two huge carrots out of his bag. I feel comfortable with him, but not really. Not really because I like him. This is really nice, I think. This is the nicest thing a guy has ever done for me. I really like this guy. And from then on, we meet for lunch every day.
Sometimes we eat in the grass. Sometimes he brings it, sometimes I bring it. Sometimes we eat on a cliff of rocks or in his hammock. Sometimes we walk down to the Hudson river and look for salamanders and frogs and fish. We try to catch some of them but we aren’t fast enough. We put our feet in the Hudson to see if the pollution will burn them off. It doesn’t. By week three, it is undeniable that I have a painful crush on Ben, and, according to everyone else in the program, he seems to have one on me too.
“You guys are dating, right?” one girl asks me on the bus one night before Ben has gotten on board. “No,” I say, “that’s funny, what made you think that?” “Oh,” she answers, “you’re always together….we all just assumed.” And then I start wondering. Why aren’t we dating? But I’m too shy to say anything to Ben, so this quasi-dating, quasi-love fest continues, just the same, for the rest of the summer.
One night after our internship, Ben walks into my room and sits on my bed with me and we are talking and we start cuddling and this is the closest we have been when it is not lunchtime and we are not in a hammock in broad daylight. We are interrupted when an AIM message pops up on my open laptop. Ben reads it before I have time to close it. It’s from a friend back home and it says, “So have you found any guys that you like? I mean, I bet no one compares to BenJ” I am mortified. I slam the computer closed. Ben smiles uneasily. “Just a joke I have with a friend back home,” I say. But it’s obvious what happened. I have a crush on him, I’ve told everyone, and in case he didn’t know already, now he does. He stops cuddling me on my bed and says he has to go to sleep. He leaves with a sneaky smile, but I have no idea what the smile means.
Before we know it, the summer is over and nothing has happened with me and Ben. I move back in to my college housing and start my sophomore year, expecting to never see him again since he is going abroad this semester. I forget about him entirely until second semester starts. By this time, I’m casually “dating” a guy who I’ve gone on zero dates with outside of my bedroom when I get a text one night at 2am from Ben. I run into the kitchen to tell my friends, who I live with in a suite. “Guys, Ben just texted me! He’s back from abroad and he wants to get a drink!” I shout. Everyone knows how I had a crush on him and nothing happened. Everyone is excited for me. No one points out to me that it is 2am and this text can’t be leading to anything good. Ben texts again to meet him at the sundial on campus, so I get dressed and put make up on and I do. “Let’s get a drink,” he says, “but first I need to grab something in my apartment.” “Ok,” I say, “I’d love to see where you live.” I honestly had no idea that this, too, was strategy.
When we get to his apartment, I realize that he is drunk. He opens his closet and takes out a blazer. “Do you think I should wear this tonight?” he asks, slurring his words just a little. His classic, sneaky smile spreads across his face as he starts to take off my jacket, and my cardigan. “Here,” he says, “you try it on.” He puts the blazer over my shoulders and it is huge on me. He touches my arms, my shoulders, then adjusts my hair, pulling it out from under the blazer, letting it run through his fingers. “You look good in my clothes,” he says as he touches my face for the first time that we have known each other. And then, as I had wished for him to do every single day that summer, Ben leans down and kisses me.
I expected a kiss from Ben to sweep me off my feet, kind of like oceanography had, to be the best thing that has ever happened to me, but all it makes me want to do is laugh. I want to laugh loud, and long and carefree. I know finally and instantly that I don’t really care for Ben, not really. I know because I feel as if I have won a game. I know because I don’t feel anything. I don’t feel anything. I’ve waited for this kiss for almost a year. I don’t feel anything, except success.
Success! A summer of work and flirting and smiling and sitting together and hammocks was not wasted. He liked me all along. Isn’t that what this means? Validation! The game, I’ve won it! But why now? Why did he disappear with no messages for months and then suddenly, now, wants to see me? Who cares, I think to myself. This is fun. I win!
He takes his jacket off of me, and all of my other clothes. “Didn’t you want to get a drink?” I ask, stupidly. “Maybe later,” he says, taking off all of his clothes, too. Now I have realized what he is up to. What his 2am text meant. I realize he thinks he is getting what he wants but it is all so funny to me that I don’t care. Still, I’m surprised. This isn’t like Ben. Ben is thoughtful. He sets up hammocks for girls. He brings them carrots. Ben doesn’t booty call girls. Right? Who is this guy, anyway?
When I leave in the morning, I get myself a bagel and a coffee and I register for classes. I never hear from Ben again. I send him a few texts after a few weeks, but I get no response. I send him an email about how we should go looking for salamanders sometime and he responds back “wish I could find the time. Best, Ben.” Best? Best!? Oh. I see.
I tell the guy I’m casually dating about Ben. I ask him to explain it to me, from a guys’ perspective. “Well,” he said, “he knew that you were interested in him. He wasn’t into you, though. But he knew you were an easy option. He got back from abroad, got drunk one night, and decided to cash in.” Just like that. He said it just like that. Cash in? Part of me tries to be angry, but I just can’t rally any anger. I try to come up with counter-ideas. Excuses for Ben. Reasons he acted the way he did. But they fall away like powdered-sugar from my lips. He didn’t like me. And the truth is, I don’t really care. I guess I didn’t like him either. I thought it was funny when he kissed me. None of it really mattered. It was just a carrot. Just a salamander, just a hammock. Just a sneaky smile and a handshake for my parents. Just a blazer and just a kiss. He didn’t like me, I was just a fish that he trolled along and I let him. And in the end, it wasn’t him I wanted, but the distraction. A part in the game. I’ll change that, I think. I won’t be trolled anymore. From now on, I will do the fishing. I will do the reeling in. I’ll win from the beginning, from the first handshake, from my first sneaky smile. That’s what I think, but that just isn’t me.
I used to fish a lot as a kid. I’d go out early in the morning in the canoe with my dad. But I had a strict condition, even as a five-year-old. I never killed the fish I caught. I’d take them off the line, kiss them right on their gills and throw them back in with a tiny, high-pitched laugh. My dad would try to convince me to keep them, so we could have fish for breakfast. No, that’s not how I did it. I wasn’t interested in keeping them. Just a quick kiss for the creatures of the deep, and back they went.