I’ve always been a sucker for new beginnings.
There’s nothing as satisfying as ripping out a sheet that has grown messy, crumpling it, and flipping to a blank page to start anew.
As you stare at the clean sheet, previous shortcomings fade, hope is renewed, and that intoxicating siren song calls your name, whispering that—despite all prior evidence to the contrary—your time has come, that this page is the one where you get it right.
On that first Saturday of my junior year, I was abuzz with excitement for what lay ahead. Freshman and sophomore year had been riddled with boneheaded moves—I’d rarely wasted a good opportunity to embarrass myself—but, in the spirit of new beginnings, I was ready to turn the page and call those countless mistakes by a more noble name—experience.
The theme for the year, as it had been since my first day on campus, now two years past, was girls. Standing at the halfway mark of my college years, staring back at the barren past and forward to the foggy future, I was beginning to worry my time was running out.
Now more than ever, I felt ready to get tossed around in the tempestuous waters of college romance. I wanted to feel things worth remembering; to be consumed by thoughts that kept me up late at night and filled me with desire and expectation; to feel my heart contract and expand with longing; to walk around town in the dead of night, hands in my pockets, thinking of her; and to look up at the night sky and feel like I knew something others didn’t.
I needed to feel alive, to feel like my life had some sort of purpose, and to this end, I built up in my head a romanticized idea of an earth angel who would descend upon me and save me from myself.
There was another reason for my high spirits. Ben’s sister had moved in that weekend to start her freshman year, and she had a roommate. Though we’d all gone to the same high school, I’d never met the roommate, and yet, for some reason—blind hope, maybe—I had a good feeling about her.
Under the pretense of saying hello, I’d passed by their dorm earlier in the day to get a glimpse of her. But it had been for naught, for as Ben and I stood outside their door talking to Cece—the door was ajar, and I could see her roommate’s shadow inside gliding about—a panic seized me, and I made a hasty retreat. I wasn’t ready to have my hopes dashed.
By six, we—Ben and I and others—were barhopping around midtown. By seven, I was tipsy, and by nine, I was fantastically drunk at an impromptu party at Reggie’s apartment, texting Cece to come over.
It was around eleven when Cece called me, saying she was downstairs. Her roommate was with her, and as we rode up the elevator, I turned to Cece and told her that her roommate was pretty and that she should hook us up. Cece would tell me about this the next morning, as my forthcoming blackout would erase much of the night.
Dalia—I heard her name for the first time that night—pretended not to hear and didn’t stay long at the party, which was just as well for me as I ended the night sprawled on the bathroom floor.
The next morning Cece showed up at my apartment to drop off something for Ben. I walked her out, hoping to hear about Dalia, and without my prompting, she told me that Dalia had thought I was funny but that she had a boyfriend.
“If they break up,” she said, “you’ll be the first to know.”
I didn’t hear from Cece for a couple weeks.
Then one night in early September, I ran into her and Dalia studying at the library and ended up staying some long hours with them. They were visibly stressed, cramming for a test, and I could tell they were in the throes of one of those first pangs of college fear in which you manage to convince yourself that your whole future is at stake.
Panic had long ago sunk in for them. Now nothing was sticking, and the clock taunted them, refusing to halt its merciless march. All they’d wanted was to study for this damned test.
Instead, they found themselves mired in a full-blown existential crisis: Who am I? Why are we here? What is the point of this test anyway? When will I ever need this?
I played the role of court jester, making them laugh and providing calm reassurances—as if I was no longer subject to these all-too-familiar panics—and from that night on, we began to get together a couple nights a week with the professed goal of studying, though we mostly just hung out.
It didn’t take long for me to fall for Dalia. We had a shared background—among other things, we’d grown up in the same suburb and were both immigrants and close with our families—and I found her easy to talk to.
I liked the way her eyes smiled, lighting up and growing wide, when I teased her, and anytime I was with her, my brain was in overdrive thinking of ways to make her laugh.
One Thursday night, the three of us stayed talking in my apartment until late, and when Dalia and Cece went to check the buses, they found they were no longer running. I offered to walk them home. After some polite refusals, they took me up on my offer, and we walked together through the night, laughing and joking.
We parted on the front lawn of their dorm. I waited for them to go inside, and when they’d covered half the distance between where I stood and the door, Dalia turned her head and looked at me for the briefest of moments as if with something to say.
I waited… but she turned back around and kept walking, disappearing into the building without even a wave.
Yet in that moment, her eyes had said it all—or so I told myself—and I knew then she was falling for me too.
I met Dalia’s boyfriend at the football game on Saturday, two days after that meaningful look. He’d driven up for the weekend to see her.
The game had already started when they arrived, and they had to pass by me to get to their seats. I shook his hand as he walked past. She pressed close to him and scooted on through. Her gaze remained welded to the ground as she passed by, but not even if she’d closed her eyes could she have hidden the mortification they held.
The game was a blowout win for the Gators, but we didn’t once talk or even look at each other.
After the game, we all gathered for a burger. Noah—that was his name—was tall, confident, immediately likable. He was the type who drew people in and felt comfortable being the center of attention. It was easy to see he’d been the high school hero, a guy who could deliver quick knockout blows—a smile, a wink, a bicep flex—leaving behind a trail of swooning girls.
I, meanwhile, was a late bloomer, a textbook introvert. Crowds overwhelmed me, and so I rarely impressed on first encounters. I needed time and exposure, like beer or coffee or olives, and I’d grow on people—or so I liked to think.
The whole time, Dalia hung on to Noah’s arm. Her head rested on his shoulder as if there was no place she’d rather be. He smiled down on her with pride.
The more I watched them, the dumber and slimier I felt. I’d shaken Noah’s hand with a straight face and joked with him over a burger as if I hadn’t spent the previous weeks praying for his dismissal.
But the joke was on me because here they were, looking as close as close could be. This, I knew, was a just punishment for my careless flouting of the tenth commandment. “Thou shalt not covet” had once been written by the finger of God on those stone tablets. And by God, did I covet her.
Even so, I couldn’t complain—I was getting what I’d wished for. My nights were now restless and filled with longing, my stomach turning at the thought of them together.
I didn’t see Dalia the rest of that weekend, and we didn’t get together as we usually did the next week, though I did one night catch a glimpse of her at the library.
She was with Cece, and I waved from afar and headed to another floor. Her boyfriend had gone back home, but his ghost had stayed behind to keep tabs on us—it was no longer possible to pretend he didn’t exist, and I did my best to avoid her.
Despite these efforts, I ran into Dalia at a pregame at Reggie’s on Friday night. I hadn’t been expecting to see her. She arrived, alone and sober, as Reggie was trying to herd everyone out the door.
I saw she wanted to get in a couple drinks before heading out, and I took advantage of the commotion to get Reggie to give me his keys so I could stay back with her.
We took a couple shots, then sat together on the balcony floor, our backs resting against the sliding glass door, drinking beer. My feet reached the railing, and I teased her since hers dangled far short—she pushed me on the shoulder and laughed.
I could feel her eyes looking up at me, burning a hole in my left cheek. I stared straight ahead, not daring to look at her. My skin was on fire. Her short black dress drove me nearly mad, and I drank to avoid having to think.
We sat in silence, looking out at the night sky over the roof of the neighboring building. It was a warm night, and all was quiet as the time for pregaming had passed and the gaiety had shifted to midtown.
In the stillness of the night, my hand begged for hers, gravitated toward it under the command of a strange force beyond my control, but my arm, frozen with fear, stayed put.
Planes flew by, red and green lights flashing far off in the dark. I pretended I was on them, looking out the window and spotting a boy sitting with a girl on a faraway balcony, watching them for the brief second before the plane whizzed by and they disappeared. From the plane, I wished him luck.
I finished a beer and grabbed another. Any semblance of inhibition long gone, I now teased Dalia with little restraint. She was feeling good too—she pushed me, punched me on the arm, and laughed freely, grabbing the beer from my hand at will and sipping from it.
With all the alcohol in me, I was no longer in control. I was walking a fine line, teetering along the edge of a precipice, at the mercy of an ill-timed gust. Then a sudden gale blew—a momentary lapse in concentration—and I stumbled and fell, hurtling down the cliff.
“I’ve never had a girlfriend,” I said. The words were out of my mouth before I could process what I’d said, let alone why.
Silence followed her question as the wake follows the boat—a creeping, expanding silence that slowly enveloped us. Through the silence, her eyes remained fixed on me, but I looked away, unable to control the incessant blushing of my traitorous cheeks.
“I wouldn’t have guessed,” she finally said. “I can see you being the girlfriend type.”
Dalia smiled and nodded. Her face glowed from the alcohol. “How come?”
“How come I’ve never had a girlfriend?”
Dalia nodded again, blinking gently, her mouth serious. The way her eyelashes fluttered, I wanted to tell her whatever she wanted to hear.
“I don’t know, I mean, I never—” I opened and closed my mouth, but words escaped me. Without meaning to, I thought briefly about all the girls I’d ever liked—starting with Sofia Altuna in the first grade—and the myriad ways those relationships had ended or never started. “It just never happened, I guess.”
Dalia’s eyes never shifted from my face. She looked to be forming new opinions of me, seeing me in a different way than before.
Brushing some strands of hair that had fallen onto her forehead behind her ear, she said, “You’re sweet.” Her eyes sparkled as if her thoughts had aligned and she’d reached a conclusion.
“You too,” came my unconscious reply, and in that second of confusion, I reached out and put my hand on top of hers. Dalia opened up her palm and entwined her fingers with mine.
Finally able to meet her stare, I turned to her and pressed my lips to hers. She pulled away first, and we locked eyes for a second, then stared straight ahead as if nothing had happened.
A long silence followed as stars shaped themselves into constellations, as clouds came to life and reformed into wondrous shapes. The moon brightened her glow and showered me in all her approbation.
Dalia’s hand rested in mine, and my heart drummed happily in my chest.
By this time, it was getting late. On her prodding, we headed to midtown to rejoin the group.
We walked in silence through poorly lit streets. Every so often, Dalia would squeeze my hand, look up at me, and smile.
It was exhilarating—I was happy, alive. The streets were empty, and for that brief walk, it was easy to pretend the whole world existed just for her and me.
Midtown, though, was thronged with people. It was impossible to get in anywhere. Dalia had been looking forward to going to Grog, the filthy college bar she’d heard so much about.
As we stood dead last in the endless line, she pouted and made me promise I’d bring her back soon. I promised, and we made our way back to Reggie’s.
There we talked on the balcony until the group made it back. I handed Reggie his keys as he walked in, and Dalia and I headed to my place.
• • •