Thomas G. Fiffer remembers Julia: “Fingers that penned intense love poems … Fingers that were skilled in other arts as well.”
Thomas G. Fiffer originally told this story live for MouseMuse, Ina Chadwick’s group.
Do you remember your first love? I bet you do. Mine was Julia, and she was hot. She had long legs, a runner’s build that stretched all the way down to these long, elegant toes with nails painted red like cherry lollipops. She had long, luscious black hair … mmm … I can still smell it, and long, sophisticated fingers. Fingers that stroked the strings of her violin when she played Beethoven for me. Fingers that painted the most beautiful watercolors that she sent to me on special occasions. Fingers that penned intense love poems that she bound into illustrated books and sent to me for birthdays and anniversaries. Fingers that were skilled in other arts as well.
We met in the summer of 1985 on the lawn in front of the library at Yale, when her Frisbee landed at my feet. I reached down to pick it up, she ran over, and as I rose, with the Frisbee in my hand, I fell into these enormous, beautiful blue eyes, the color of the Caribbean. And I just stood there. And she said, “Hey, are you going to give me my Frisbee?” And I said, “I’ll give you your Frisbee if you tell me your name.” You may laugh and think that’s not the greatest pickup line in the world, but it worked, and we dated for about three years. We had a lot in common. We were both juniors. I was between my junior and senior year of college, and Julia was between her junior and senior year of high school—yes, you heard me, high school—in a Yale summer program. But being two mature adults, we didn’t let four years of age difference get in the way.
I remember the first time she came to the apartment I was sharing with my roommates, and we fooled around. You know, the funny thing about memories of fooling around is you never actually remember the fooling around; you remember everything around the fooling around. So what I remember is the beige-green carpet in my bedroom that we rolled onto off the mattress on the floor. I remember the late afternoon light filtering in through the window as it started to get dark, and Julia saying, I have to go now, and then not going. And I remember the sheer curtain a previous tenant had left, fluttering, in the perfect summer breeze, the way our hearts were fluttering as we pressed against each other. I also remember the first time that she stayed over in that apartment. We hadn’t planned on it, and she didn’t have any contact lens solution with her. So we put her contacts in a pot of water on the stove to boil, went back into the bedroom, and just as things were starting to get hot—annhhh, annhhh, anhhh—the smoke alarm went off, and we ran out half-naked to find the contacts melted into the bottom of the pot. She put on her reading glasses, and we went back into the bedroom, and I found myself dreaming, of a different bedroom, a bedroom we would share together in a house, lying side by side, surrounded by all our favorite books.
Now for the next part of the story you have to fast forward about two and a half years, because we lived those two and a half years on fast forward. This was a long distance relationship, and it was before Facebook chat and Skype and texting and unlimited cell phone minutes. We rarely saw each other for more than about 48 hours, and there’s only so much you can do—and so many times you can do it—in 48 hours, even when you’re in your twenties. So we savored the magical moments. Talking late at night in the basement bedroom of her parents’ house, before I sneaked up the creaky stairs, tiptoeing back to the room I was supposedly sleeping in. An out-of-body experience on the couch in my mother’s family room. And reading Rilke on the bottom bunk of her parents’ vacation home on Martha’s Vineyard. But like all magical moments, they ended too quickly, and we always had to put the rabbit back in the hat too soon. So we longed for an uninterrupted, unsupervised stretch of time together, and we finally got it in the summer of 1988, when we convinced Julia’s father, a college professor, that the best thing for her education would be to spend the whole summer living with me in my apartment in Chicago. And I remember driving to the airport to pick her up, my heart racing, then getting back into the car with her, driving into the city, not even talking, just staring at each other. And finally getting back to my apartment, going back to the bedroom, sinking down onto the bed, the bed with the reversible purple and green comforter, and just saying, ahhhhhhhhh.
The summer of 1988 was just about the hottest summer on record in Chicago. There were 40 straight days over 80 degrees. I swear that first week we took it up to 100—we did not get out of bed. The only time I got out was to take the sheets and put them in the freezer for a few minutes, so we could feel something cool against our cheeks. And we talked about all the things we were going to do that summer, walks in the park, outdoor jazz concerts, making meals together, and even collaborating on a short film. And then one night the phone rang, and it was her father calling with shocking news. Julia’s best friend Michelle, from high school, had been killed in a car accident at the age of 20. And suddenly we were back at the airport and I was putting Julia on a plane to go back to New York to attend her friend’s funeral. And I remember wrapping my arms around her, giving her a big hug, and saying, “I already miss you. I can’t wait ‘til you come back.”
When she came back, everything was different. The girl who was always bubbly and talkative was sad and silent. The girl who was always all over me was shy and withdrawn. I tried to comfort her, but it was an immature kind of comfort, the kind you offer to make the problem go away and for which you expect something in return. I was frustrated. This was supposed to be our time in the sun. And I was damned if I was going to let Julia or her dead friend or anything get in the way of that. But as the hot summer wore on, things started to cool between us, and my resentment fused with her grief to form an icicle that went right through the heart of the relationship. As our time drew to a close, we agreed that she could date other people when she went back to college. I hoped she wouldn’t take me up on it, but she did. And I remember later that fall calling her and asking her if she could choose, between the other guys she was dating and me, and spending the next two days, morning to night, in the Biograph Theater, across the street from my apartment, watching movies, unable to think about what her answer might be, unable to fathom how another heart could have more love for her than mine.
She did choose eventually, and the next thing I knew I was at an engagement party, dressed in my white pants, blue blazer, striped tie, and penny loafers polished to a high shine, shaking hands with the man who was going to be her husband. Her art teacher came over, leaned in, and whispered conspiratorially to me, “I was always rooting for you. I don’t know what happened.” Then I got married to a jealous woman, who demanded that I have no more contact with Julia, and sadly, I agreed. Twenty years later she broke the ice with a comment on my blog, which I learned she’d been reading for a couple of years, and since then we’ve become friends—good friends. You might even say like Louis and Rick at the end of Casablanca: This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. But unlike Rick at the end of that movie, and unlike the young boy who wrapped his arms around her and said “I miss you and can’t wait ‘til you get back,” the man I am now … would have gotten on that plane.
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—Photo credit: Bien Stephenson/Flickr