Eben was one of the few black students at our college who didn’t hang out solely with the other black students, or really with other students, period. This may have been partly because he was a townie and lived with his mom.
Eben was well-read, well-spoken and frighteningly smart. He wore a leather jacket and a do-rag and could dance like no one’s business. His sole ambition was to enlist in the Army; in fact by the time I met him, which was through Samantha and Sam, he was planning to ship out in six weeks.
We decided to make the most of our time, drinking and dancing and having philosophical discussions all night, sleeping all crammed together in my bed. (We called this a “three-in-a-bed,” which I think Samantha picked up from her time in London.)
Every few days Eben Skyped with a beautiful blonde girl with whom he’d had a months-long fling before she moved back to Sweden. Oh, Elissa, Samantha and I would tease him when he kicked us out of my bedroom to take her calls, and then catch each other’s eye and pretend to stick our fingers down our throats. (We were both jealous of Elissa.)
It was through Elissa that Samantha and I received our first glimpse of who Eben really was.
Eben and Elissa had started seeing each other against the wishes of the parents for whom she worked as an au pair. Elissa was distraught about sneaking around and bearing the weight of the continued disapproval of her employers. Several times she told Eben she had to stop seeing him, but he said he still wanted to see her, and so they continued.
Finally the parents were threatening to forbid her from leaving the house and Elissa was crying all the time, which upset the little girl she was caring for. The parents ended up sending her home.
To me, the way Eben had reacted to Elissa’s dilemma was a bit… cold. He had known he was putting her in a difficult situation and compromising her job. And yet when she’d wanted to stop seeing him, he hadn’t backed off or tried to make things easier for her. He’d effectively said no, he didn’t want to accept her decision. He advocated only for himself, and she had gone along.
She could have stopped at any time, Eben pointed out. She still wanted to see me, too. Yes she WANTED to see you, but it was BETTER for her to leave you, I said. Then it was her responsibility to walk away, Eben said. And she tried to, I said, and you made it even more difficult for her. That’s her problem, Eben said, not mine.
And somehow it became a conversation about Holden, and whether it had been his fault or mine, that whole miserable year I’d spent trying to get away from him but always getting sucked back in, that awful summer when he’d persuaded me to have sex when we both knew it wasn’t good for me and I’d initially told him no.
Yeah that’s on you, Eben said. He was sticking up for him; you should have stuck up for you. If you wanted to walk away, you should have walked away. It’s on you.
I ended up feeling really annoyed with him and shitty about myself, with no way to explain why.
At the same time, I was becoming hyper-aware of him as a strong, smart, confident and good-looking male. It wasn’t the same as my obsession with Alex or my pining after Holden, but it was enough to make me spin my words to impress him, to pay attention to what I wore around him, to act braver and more nonchalant than I really felt.
It was probably also a factor that he was so blunt in his assessments of both me and Samantha. During casual conversation, it came up that he liked “curvy women” and thought Samantha was more attractive than me — he was a bit critical of my small size (and bust). This recalled Holden, and brought back a shadow of the insecurity I’d felt around him, which translated into a determination to prove myself worthy of him.
Toward the end of October, I remember lying in my bed with him on my left side and Samantha on my right, watching the movie Shortbus, which in case you haven’t seen it is about a woman who has never had an orgasm and discovers her sexuality. There’s a scene where she puts an egg vibrator in her underwear and gives the controller to her husband while they’re at a party, and a threesome scene with her and a couple (man and woman), and a scene on a park bench where she’s trying to teach herself how to masturbate.
During the whole movie, I was really aware of Eben pressing against my left side, and the way he smelled, which was very clean and masculine. At some point I started to test things, moving a little closer to him, hoping he’d put his arm around me, trying to detect whether or not he was aware of me too.
I think he was, but he was either not interested or not assertive enough (there’s actually a case to be made for the latter, as you will see coming up), and the movie ended with me frustrated (in more ways than one — at this point in my life I had gotten used to having sex every couple days if not every day, and now it had been two and a half months since the last time).
On Halloween, Eben showed up at my place and hogged the bathroom for nearly an hour — he emerged in a silk shirt, leather jacket, and do-rag. I was dressed as a slutty purple fairy, wearing a discount costume from the local mall — Eben whistled when he saw me. “Very fae,” he said. Samantha was, in typical Samantha fashion, dressed as a hooker, in fishnets and a super tight, low-cut dress.
We went to the campus dance, and before long a dark-haired boy started dancing with me. We started talking, yelling over the music to be heard. He had a heavy Russian accent.
We’d been talking for about an hour by the time he turned to me with a sheepish grin and said, with no hint of an accent, “I’m not really Russian. I was just kidding.”
For some reason, whether it was the Captain Morgan’s we’d consumed in Samantha’s dorm before the dance, or the adrenaline of the dance, this completely floored me. I was flabbergasted. I kept telling him I’d totally believed the accent, he must be really good at accents. I couldn’t stop laughing.
We talked and danced till the campus center closed — by this time Eben and Samantha had backed off and were snickering and shooting me sly looks from across the dance floor — and then the boy asked me to come outside and we sat on the wall in the cold, talking some more. I learned he was a government major (like Holden!) and grew up right outside New York City (like Holden!) and played the drums. He kept asking my name but I wouldn’t tell him. I think he’d put my back up with his pretense at the Russian accent.
I did finally tell him my name as we were leaving, and he asked for my number, and I rejoined Eben and Samantha (who were lurking nearby). I endured quite a lot of teasing from Eben about the way I’d been dancing with Andy, which had apparently been more PG than G, and about how I’d been hanging off him.
The next day, Andy texted while the three of us were walking downtown, and we made plans to meet up that night. I was really nervous — I was pretty experienced at having a boyfriend, but not so much with courtship / first dates. The closest thing I could remember was the aquarium / Friendly’s with Alex nearly five years ago, and that night at the restaurant where Holden had corrected my use of a fork and a wineglass.
When Andy and I met up, I got a look at his phone and saw he put me in as “girl.” “GIRL?” I demanded. “You wouldn’t tell me your name!” he protested. “But I told you my name before I left,” I said. “Er,” he said, and I rounded on him: “WHAT’S MY NAME?” He couldn’t remember. I remember finding this hilarious, but also being slightly miffed.
We walked around campus till it was dark out and talked a lot. But mostly I remember feeling weirdly distant from him. I remember being a little bit cautious and uneasy because it seemed like we were talking past each other, like we were both putting on these social masks and I couldn’t get to the real him — and maybe he wasn’t even interested in getting to the real me. At some point I think I started to get mad. I wanted to grab him and say, Actually say something.
It was relief that I met up with Eben and Samantha later that night. As we analyzed the night, I found myself feeling better about it, like maybe this was normal and I could do it a second time and things would get better.
A couple nights later, Obama won the presidential election. I was doing a shift tutoring in the writing center at the time, and Andy texted me and told me to come outside. When I emerged from the library, a mob that was marching by, chanting, “YES WE CAN! YES WE CAN!”
I found Andy and we grabbed onto each other — we were both out of our minds with excitement. Then I found Sam and Samantha, and promptly abandoned him — he and his friends were marching along behind us most of the way downtown.
So I thought maybe the third time I saw him would be the charm. But as it turned out, before we could even get to the third time, something else happened: Chance.