The image of the first girl I fell in love with seared into my memory a minute after I met her. I was in a college-town bar, where a belly full of 7-and-7’s gave me gumption enough to ask her to dance. Under the ultraviolet lights, the contrast between her black hair and white sweater proved unforgettable.
Throughout high school and up until then, I had struck out with girls. I was shy and assumed girls didn’t like me, so I acted like a jerk. In college, I was still shy but didn’t know any girls well enough to be a jerk.
So here I was, an immature 19-year-old college sophomore, and a nice-looking girl was dancing with me. Dancing turned to dating that fall, and I fell in love. How could I not? Kathy was smart, funny, and an artist who was studying to become a schoolteacher. I was a smoker, drinker, pothead and slacker. She was none of those but went out with me anyway.
I would walk across campus to meet her to go to supper in the dining hall near her dormitory. I still see her leaning out of her second-floor window as I approached one bright day, calling out something funny and laughing. Another time, I walked into her dorm and she was waiting for me, playing the piano in the lobby. I’ll never forget that, either.
Then a second girl hijacked my heart the following semester, although to be fair to her, I didn’t resist. Then I did what you’d expect a jerk to do: I quit calling Kathy. I avoided a face-to-face breakup or other kind of goodbye. Forty years later, this still shames me.
The summer after I left her, she mailed me a drawing she had made showing a cloaked, Gandalf-like figure standing atop a bluff, holding a lantern at arm’s length, shedding light on two figures far below. Her note said it was her message for me, but I never could decode it. I moved off campus that fall, drank too much, got high way too much, quit going to classes and then dropped out, a human Hindenburg on final approach. Predictably, the second girl dropped me within weeks the same way I’d dropped Kathy. I was too distraught to recognize karma.
It took two years before I straightened myself out and was ready to go back to college. Just before I left, I met the woman I later married. Our life has blessed me. I look at her every day and am thankful to have been so lucky and to still be so much in love. She has given my life focus and meaning, and I wouldn’t trade my circumstances today for anything.
One night more than three years ago, though, even though Kathy had been absent from my thoughts for years, she came to me in a dream. She had the same black hair, wore the same white sweater. I had never dreamed about her. I felt as if someone had reached between my ribs and squeezed my heart. I have awakened from dreams feeling vividly moved, but the feeling has had a half-life of about an hour. Inexplicably, dreams of Kathy have haunted my sleep since then.
In our search-engine society, it was easy to find traces of her. The searching made me uneasy, though, and I soon stopped. It was as if I were peering through the keyhole of a door long closed to me. But I’m often tempted to contact her to say that after all this time, I’m sorry for being such a lout. Others have encouraged me to reach out.
This temptation is powerful, but then I think: How would I feel if my wife heard from a long-ago boyfriend? I’d have to reach Kathy through her husband (long story), and I wonder how I’d feel as a spouse to get a note to pass along to my wife. And finally, how would my wife feel if she knew I was contacting an old girlfriend?
I doubt Kathy has thought about me. I doubt such a note would have any meaning for her. I’m the one who’s troubled by the memories, not her. Contacting her now would be as selfish as walking away from our relationship was. And it’s not as if our story would have had a happy ending. She was beautiful in many different ways; I was flawed in just as many.
Still, I wish I’d had the grace to properly say goodbye. Maybe I would be able to sleep better.