Connective Tissue

I spent the first few weeks of college all alone on the top floor of my dorm.

I’d opted to be in the “First-Year Program” – a specialized group for freshmen, geared toward philosophical interdisciplinary study.  (Which is a fancy way of saying that we were pretentious geeks.  I loved it.)    FYPpers all lived in the same dorm, but I quickly found that I was one of the only athletes in the bunch. And during field hockey pre-season, that meant no one was around.

I felt bizarrely okay with this.  I relished the opportunity to settle into my room; to retreat to solitude after long, terrifying days among my new teammates; to savor the quiet before all of the other students arrived.  Much to my relief, I wasn’t frightened by the dark, quiet halls and the seclusion of the top floor.  (I also hadn’t yet heard the stories about the Fenwick ghost on campus.)  Instead I felt relieved, pensive, independent.

But then, one night, I decided to explore.  I made my way down to the basement in search of the kitchen, the TV, the laundry room.  And that’s where I found Tarah – a confident black girl with a short natural haircut and a friendly smile.  I was startled and pleased.  Did she live in Hanselman, too?  What was she doing here?

She explained that she was in the Odyssey Program – a sort of pre-season for incoming minority students – and they were all housed on Hanselman 2 for now.  All this time, I’d thought I was alone, when in fact there’d been a troop of vibrant incoming freshmen just two floors below me.

Tarah gave me the tour of the rest of the building, introducing me along the way to Ray, Tommy, Jeannine, and then, pivotally, Rusmir.

Rus was NOT what I was expecting to find at Holy Cross.  The whole Odyssey Program, in fact, was a joyful surprise.  My delight and relief was palpable.  Gay, Bosnian, and Muslim, Rusmir far from fit in at our small Catholic college.  But that also meant that he was a fixture on campus.  He was a delightful novelty; a character; a glittering star amongst the cardigan-wearing night sky.  Rusmir squealed by way of introduction, double-kissed my cheeks, clapped his hands, and wrapped me in a hug that included a happy “mmm” as he pulled away.  He had bleach-tipped hair like a refugee from a boy band (although he was almost a real refugee, as it turns out), and I soon learned that his love for Madonna was only matched by his passion for musical theater and student government.

Unlike most of the other Odyssey students, Rusmir was also a FYPper like me.  And as much as I’d relished my privacy upstairs, something in me settled warmly into place when I met him.

 

A few weeks later, I meandered downstairs again in search of Rusmir and Nate, who was a friend-of-a-friend from a neighboring hometown.  I found both of them on Hanselman 2, as well as Katie (also from the 4th floor like me), Colin (Nate’s roommate), and Brian.

Oh-so-Irish, Catholic, tall, lanky, blue-eyed-swimmer Brian.  He was quieter and more patient than the others in the room, who filled the space with their chatter and nervous college energy.  Brian was also clearly less drunk than the others.  He sat comfortably in the dorm room chair against the window, chuckling occasionally, taking in the scene around him.  We all had our first day of classes in the morning, and it was clear to me that both Brian and I intended to go.

 

College flew by, as any adult who went will tell you, in a flurry of wintry dinners at Kimball; unspeakable truths, confessions, and admissions (that we eagerly and not-so-eagerly shared with each other); 21st birthdays and off-campus parties; dances and plays and field hockey games; Cape Cod vacations; break-ups and hook-ups; papers and awards and exams and semester breaks.  Rusmir and Brian were ever-present, if not constant, in my experience.  They were anchors.  They were bookends.  Foundations upon which I layered these memories.

 

How do you encapsulate those years in the boundaries of a friendhship?  How do we punctuate them accurately?  Are they sealed forever between chance meetings on Hanselman 2 and graduation on the lawn?  I remember when Rusmir and I agreed in the Hanselman stairwell that we were both bi.  (I knew even then that it was only a half-truth for both of us.)  Brian and I fought about religion, politics, and gender equality so frequently that I once stormed from the dining hall in protest.  But we also had a ritual of cuddling on my bed watching re-runs of My So-Called Life.

So I ask it again:

Is there a weight to these memories?

A limit to their importance?

Did they close forever when we received our diplomas and went on to “grown-up” lives?

 

Brian and Rusmir now live in D.C.  Though they aren’t a couple, today we looked for houses that they may buy together.  (“Two masters suites, with a third bedroom for a roommate or a baby.”)

My school sent me to the city for a conference, and there was no question where I would stay.  BMac offered me his car as means to attend the sessions each day, after sleeping all night snuggled in with his adorable dogs.

And so I filled the weekend with professional development sandwiched between my old friends.  I went to an early-morning workout with Rusmir at his neon-flushed gym; built fires and ate pumpkin pie; drank too much beer and took a run to the White House.  We went to dive gay bars and a short film festival; we drank strong coffee and recalled old stories.  (“Remember Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Field House?!”)

I soaked it all up carefully, moment to moment.

Because what we were really doing amidst activities and meals was grounding back in.  Hitting “refresh” on the digital back-log of adulthood.  We talked love and weddings and house-hunting and babies.  We challenged Rusmir on his single status and unpacked the nature of my relationship.  We remembered Brian’s tragic lost love(s).  But underneath it all, we resurrected the best (and the hardest, the ugliest, the un-glamorous) parts of ourselves and our histories.

There are friends who truly see you.

They say the things to you that few others would dare, but they say them with love and sincere respect, so that you can actually hear them.  They understand you better than you do yourself, cutting to the core of an issue like wind through an open window on the first day of fall.  They remind you of the you you’d forgotten in the mess of growing up.

They know the thread woven through your story.  They know the old you, the new you, and the connective tissue in between the two.  They embrace the progress, but they’ll never let you forget the specialness that came before – the person who drew them in to begin with; the gem embedded in your spirit.  They won’t let it die, that flame.  And in fact they fan it for you when you’re out of breath.

And if you’re lucky, your threads will continue to weave together over and over again, building a braided cord that pulls tighter as your shared stories unfold.

 

 

Post-script:

Brian and Rusmir closed on the very first place we saw together.  And it has a guest room.  

I can’t wait to visit.


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