I was an undergraduate when he stayed with us twice a year.
He had been my father’s student and would often come over to our house. It was unusual for him to mention any of his students, let alone invite any to have dinner with us. But my father had praised him for his quickness, his work ethic, his intellect. Curious, I would walk to campus and spy on this protégé bent over a microscope, earnestly counting and recounting cells. His skin was ghostly white, from being indoors all the time. With his black hair and topaz eyes, he seemed extraordinarily beautiful to me.
The next year, I matriculate to the same university, as my parents want me close to home. There is talk of him continuing onto grad school there, but, in the end, he decides that a university in Colorado would offer him more opportunities than our small college. My father is visibly disappointed but suggests his home as a layover destination. The airport is but fifteen minutes away. My father offers to pick him up and then drive him the two hours to his parents’ farm the next day. He would do the same thing for the return, thus saving him the expense of renting a car and giving them time to catch up. The former student is in no position to refuse such generosity. It is decided over his farewell dinner of pierogis, and he looks both flattered and relieved.
So, I see him four times a year, two days at Christmas and two days during the summer. When he arrives, I am struck by how drawn he looks, and how, at the end of his two-week vacation, he seems more like himself. My father monopolizes him, talking to no end about his research endeavors and giving him career advice. The former student is jovial, kind, but there is a tension within him, I can sense it. I try to catch his eye, and he occasionally catches mine. He asks about my classes and gives me advice, advice that I relish.
At night, I lay in bed, listening to his every movement. I know that I could go to him any time that I wish. But I am under the Holy Virgin’s spell, which is why my parents have no qualms about his being in our house, in the room next to mine.
In his absence, I look at pictures of Colorado in the library, running my fingers over the red rocks and peaked mountains. I think of it at night, as I listen to the empty room next to mine. He rarely calls, never writes, and I do not even know his exact address.
In this way, four years pass, and I am a doctoral student.
He visits us at Christmas, and this time, he is glowing. He shows us pictures of his fiancée. They had been dating for a year, but he had not told any of us. Last summer, when he had visited, he had had this secret, while I had looked and listened.
In the photographs, the fiancée is much shorter than him, but she looks up at him with worshipping eyes. Ironically, her name is the same as mine. My mother rolls kolaches in celebration, and my father finds a bottle of something non-alcoholic. I am silent, but no one expects me to say anything.
Later, I feel reckless. My parents are rummaging for his Christmas present, so I question him, “Why not me?” I am asking for danger, disaster, hurricanes, floods, furies. He seems startled. But he must have known, he must have known the way my eyes looked at him. He reaches out and smooths my sleeve. It is the first time he has touched me, and his hand burns through my shirt.
“It wouldn’t have been enough for you,” he says, almost mouthing the words so my parents won’t hear. “You deserve more than a part-time boyfriend.”
I nod, and my throat feels thick and numb. Maybe a few happy, secretive days would have made the remaining months intolerable, a misery, a throbbing suspense until the relationship’s final disintegration. Maybe the silent, unrequited love was more nourishing, the impossible hope of it getting me through the worst days. And yet, I have nothing else. Something is always greater than nothing.
That night, my body is wracked in tears, in pain. In anger and sympathy and yearning and hopelessness. I do not leave my room the next morning to say goodbye.
The following Spring, I go on a few dates with some men from church, men that my father met in rosary group. Their sweaty palms and wet kisses do not compare to what I had once felt, so I resign myself to being alone.
They get married the next summer, after graduation. Unexpectedly, my parents decide that we should attend, so we fly to Colorado. This time, we are going to him.
I see his fiancée for the first time in person. She is mousier than she looks in her pictures. She is shorter than I am, but she talks more than I ever did.
I pray that they never visit us together. I could never stand listening to their whisperings, their movements, the soft closing of the door at night, when I would lay aching in my bed.
After the wedding, they move to San Francisco. He works for a start-up while she teaches high school. They have a baby whom he carries on his back as he hikes through Yosemite.
He never visits us again. His disillusionment with academia increases to such an extent that it almost necessitates a complete break with my father.
Now, I am a professor at that same university in Colorado. I look at the places he may have visited and imagine the life he may have lived.
Sarah Daly is an American writer whose work has appeared in Cabinet of Heed, As It Ought to Be Magazine, The Spotlong Reviewand elsewhere.
image: MM Kaufman