April 13, 2005
C’mon Baby, Let’s Start Anew
by Megan DunchakRoss bursts through the door on a Friday evening with two girls trailing behind him, interrupting his roommate Steve’s quiet dinner with a boisterous greeting.
“Hey man, how’s it goin? Look, I brought guests!” Ross says with a smirk. Steve plants his fork in his bowl of spaghetti and meatballs like an American flag on the moon and looks up to inspect the visitors. He takes a swig of milk to clear his throat and stretches out his hand.
“This is Hayley. Hayley, Steve. And you know Emily,” Ross says. The two girls follow Ross into the living room. Emily is the girl next door—literally; she lives in the third part of the three-townhouse building Ross lives in on Hobart Street. She has been trying to work her feminine charm on him since she moved in at the end of the summer, but for some reason, he has not reciprocated interest. She isn’t on her game tonight, though, because instead of showing off her cleavage, she is concealed in jeans and a Semester at Sea hoodie. Ross’ other guest is a new face: a girl clad in a flowery, low-cut peasant top, a short black skirt, and knee-high black leather platform boots. Her shirt provides an unobstructed view of the top half of her ample figure; in an unpremeditated twist, it seems that she has taken over Emily’s usual role of boob-flaunter tonight.
Female visitors are an unusual occurrence around the Hobart townhouse. Ross has been single for a few months now after the combustion of an intense, two-year relationship with his girlfriend, Katie. He constantly complains about his lack of sexual stimulation. “I want boobies,” he says one afternoon, his intense, dark eyes staring off through his not-quite-shaggy-enough, not-quite-curly-enough brown hair. “Sometimes I just want to touch them. That girl has nice ones,” he laments as he gazes across the coffee shop at a raven-haired girl. She is wearing faded blue Chuck Taylor high-tops like his own; their vintage T-shirts and washed out jeans complement each other. But the boy is all talk. He hasn’t made any effort to date, or even to approach any girls. The closest he got was leaving a $5 bill and scribbling his name and phone number on a napkin for the waitress at a local bar. She never called.
Ross’ post-relationship life is an example that, as Neil Sedaka told us back in 1962, breaking up is hard to do. But the main reason Ross is having trouble moving on is that he doesn’t seem to know what moving on is.
Tonight, the Ross-Emily-Hayley trio is eager to get going with their evening, which they plan to spend getting high. So after the quick introduction to Steve, they proceed to Ross’ bedroom. He reaches for the light dimmer and reduces the single fixture in the center of the ceiling to a soft radiance. Of the three upstairs bedrooms at Hobart, Ross’ is the smallest; it barely accommodates its only piece of furniture, his double bed, which is situated 2 feet in front of the door and monopolizes 80 percent of the floor space. It has only one pillow and is clad in nubby maroon sheets that he probably hasn’t washed since the last time Katie was there at the end of the summer. Mismatched dirty socks, a pair of black Dickies pants, and some sky blue Hanes briefs peek out of his dirty clothes basket, which is pushed against the wall under a poster for Radiohead’s “Hail to the Thief.” An olive green towel lies crumpled in a heap behind the door; beads of moisture from this morning’s shower still nestling in the terrycloth. Numerous pairs of shoes are scattered across the floor: Birkenstock sandals, blue-and-yellow New Balance sneakers, the faded blue Chuck Taylors, and now a pair of knee-high black leather platform boots.
With forced nonchalance, Ross intently packs a few buds into a cheap old-fashioned corncob pipe; it looks like one a grandpa would use for his cherry tobacco, not one a 21-year-old would use for pot. He holds his translucent, red-tinted Bic lighter in the corncob bowl and takes the first drag, long and deep; his eyes are half-closed, fingers daintily holding the curved mouthpiece to his lips. When he switches off the lighter, the tiny fragments of marijuana leaf glow orange, then red, as they cool in the pipe. He keeps the hot smoke in his lungs as long as he can, and finally exhales with a flourish, tendrils of smoke swirling around his head.
“Oh, man. That was good,” Ross says. A large part of the fun of smoking weed for him is talking about it while he does it. He passes the pipe to Emily, who takes a timid, first-timer’s drag. The only inhalation she does is probably by accident when she coughs with the pipe still in her mouth.
“That’s OK, just try to keep it in your lungs as long as you can,” Ross says reassuringly. “You’ll get the hang of it.” She passes the pipe to Hayley, with her hand on her chest and a pained look on her face. Hayley takes a more experienced drag with only a bit of an unexpected, wheezing exhale.
“It’s nice stuff. Real smooth,” she says. They continue to pass the pipe, quickly hot-boxing the small bedroom with their exhaled smoke.
“I don’t think it’s working,” Emily says, giggling.
“OK, how long do you think we’ve been sitting here?” asks Ross.
“I dunno, half an hour?” Emily says in a singsong voice.
“How about four minutes?” Ross exclaims, fingers spread apart, palms parallel to the sides of his head, trembling slightly for emphasis.
With Emily convinced that the drugs are effective, the trio keeps sucking on the pipe until there’s no pot left and they’re just inhaling fumes from the burning corncob bowl.
Giggling, they trip down the stairs and into the living room. Ross sits at his desk and pops open his clunky old laptop to play some music. Pot-induced paranoia kicking in, Emily sits rigidly in a green collapsible camp chair, her legs bent, feet flat on the floor, arms crossed over her chest. Her small, dark eyes shift from Ross to Hayley, Hayley to Ross: this flirty girl was not a part of her plan to seduce Ross tonight. Hayley plops in a worn-out brown recliner and folds her legs up beneath her. She stares at Ross with her deep-set eyes and laughs, parting her pouty lips to reveal a space between her two front teeth.
DJ Ross puts on some Bob Dylan—“Visions of Johanna”—and Hayley immediately recognizes the Zimmerman croon.
“Oh! I’m going to see him! He’s coming to Pittsburgh! Are you going?” she asks.
“No. Katie’s gonna be in town,” Ross replies.
“Katie,” Ross says, offering only “I’ll be entertaining her,” as identification.
“Oh. Well, you should bring her, then!” Hayley says.
“No, her parents are coming,” says Ross.
Now, little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously, Dylan sings. He brags of his misery, he likes to live dangerously. Ross changes the song.
The fifth week of Ross’ freshman year of college, a pretty, red-haired, blue-eyed Irish girl named Katie decided he suited her fancy. Katie is two years older than Ross, and had two years of college under her belt when they met. She had already been involved in a few serious relationships. Ross, on the other hand, was straight out of high school; his version of dating was holding hands under the dinner table, sneaking kisses in his parents’ basement, copping a feel in the backseat of a 1987 Chevy Cavalier. Katie was older, aggressive, assertive; Ross was innocent but willing. She invited him to dinner and a movie; afterward, they went to his pie-shaped dorm room in Tower B and made out on his standard-issue bunk bed. They were soon inseparable. They would meet every day between classes for lunch, share dinner together at one of their apartments, and sit at a café in the evening to study. Then they would go to Katie’s place, where they would ritually pull her twin bed mattress off the box spring and spread blankets over the—voila!—king-size bed so they could sleep together. Katie’s family, conservative Irish Catholics, knew that getting her a double bed would only lead to pre-marital sex, so the twin bed forced the young lovers to go through this nightly charade to ensure they spent as much time together as possible—side by side even when unconscious.
But each attached-at-the-hip day was bittersweet, because they both knew the relationship was a time bomb. Katie would graduate in April, but her art degree was not likely to serve her too well without supplemental graduate study. She spent weeks struggling through GRE practice books, writing application essays, and soliciting recommendation letters, crying away many nights on Ross’ shoulder. She eventually received rejection letters from Columbia, New York University, Berkeley, and Harvard; she was accepted to the University of New Mexico. So the Southwest it was. They decided to end their two-year relationship with a 3,000-mile road trip from Pittsburgh to Albuquerque in a brand new, candy apple red Ford Focus station wagon. Ross helped Katie pack all the possessions she could fit in the station wagon hatchback, and shared the three days worth of driving with her. Motoring across Indiana and Missouri, burning rubber down through Oklahoma and the panhandle of Texas, and finally riding the interstate into New Mexico, the couple savored their end. Ross moved Katie into her efficiency apartment in a stucco house and helped her find some local bars and coffee shops. After Katie’s teary and borderline-hysterical goodbye at the airport, Ross hopped a plane for a long, lonely flight back to Pittsburgh.
“What do you do when your ex-significant other sends you a text message out of the blue that says ‘I love you’?” Ross asks one night over dinner.
The couple has been talking frequently on the phone since Katie moved to New Mexico, not as often as they did when she lived in Pittsburgh, but enough to ensure that the relationship isn’t completely over. Neither Katie or Ross has started dating anyone new, and she still seems to be relying exclusively on him for emotional support. While her emails to friends are upbeat and optimistic about her new life, Ross hears the worst of the worst. He fields her hysterical crying fits, and reassures her that moving to Albuquerque was the right decision for her. He leaves during an evening of drinking jug wine on the front porch to answer her phone call, and opts out of watching a movie with friends because “Katie is supposed to call later.” Moving on, for Ross, is as foreign sleeping in an empty bed.
Then the news comes one night that Katie will be coming to visit. She is to attend the 54th Carnegie International as a representative from her graduate program, all expenses paid. She will be with Ross for six whole days. He is excited to see her, and equally—if not more—excited to touch her. They decide they will allow themselves to be intimate during her visit, promising it won’t change anything or make things weird between them, on the conditions that neither one has started seeing anyone new. But when faced with temptation, the 21-year-old man can only allow his brain so much control.
The week before Katie comes, Ross decides to go on a free, pre-arranged trip to the symphony through Pitt. When he arrives at the event, he only knows one other person there: Janet, a thin, blonde girl he’s had a few classes with, whom he finds mildly annoying and not quite up to his intellectual level. But her company is better than no company, so they spend the evening listening to the music and eating complimentary cheesecake together. When they arrive back in Oakland at 11, Janet wants to hang out some more. Ross gracefully tries to bow out by saying he’s made plans with friends in Squirrel Hill, and is going up to Silky’s bar to wait for them. But Janet is not dissuaded; she hops on a 61C with Ross and they ride to Silky’s. Ross’ friends never arrive, and he ends up drinking round after round with Janet. They discuss past relationships; Ross tells her about Katie, but drunkenly admits he might be ready to start dating again, or at least causally hooking up.
At 2 a.m., Ross has had seven beers and is “drunk as shit”: Janet has missed the last bus that will take her back to her North Oakland apartment. Ross offers his couch as a suitable place for Janet to sleep, and the two trip down to Hobart Street for the night. Ross sets up the couch with a sleeping bag, an old army blanket, and a pillow that was left by his friend Matt, who used to frequently crash there in the jug-wine-and-pot days of summer. Ross stumbles up the stairs to his room, shuts the door and jams a Birkenstock sandal against it to keep it closed, because the knob doesn’t always latch. He gets undressed and falls into bed. Just as his inebriated brain begins to shut down for sleep, he hears something, or someone, pushing against his door. He staggers to open it, and Janet is leaning on the doorframe. She asks if he’s still into the random hookup he talked about earlier.
The two spend the night together, but in the morning, Ross makes it clear to Janet that this is a one-time occurrence. He tells her she isn’t his girlfriend, they aren’t dating, this isn’t going to happen again, and they should keep it on the DL. “My girlfriend, I mean my ex-girlfriend, is coming in a week, and that would make those six days with her a living hell,” Ross says. He does not plan to tell Katie about the encounter.
The next day, he receives an email from Katie. She says she can’t wait to see him, and also tells him about a nightmare she had the previous night, in which she arrived to visit Ross in Pittsburgh and found him in bed with a blonde girl.
Katie arrives on a Wednesday afternoon, and Ross is at the airport to pick her up. After a 90-minute long bus ride that tests their will power, they are finally in the privacy of Ross’ own bedroom—free to talk, touch, kiss.
The sun sinks in the sky after their period of re-acquaintance. Ross grabs a half-empty jug of cheap red wine left from a previous night of debauchery and whisks Katie away to the South Side for a dinner with some friends at their favorite restaurant, the quaint, combination kitchen-dining room Café du Jour. As the chefs cook a few feet from the table, pungent smoke from the $20 steak Ross ordered fills everyone’s nostrils and raises the restaurant’s temperature 10 degrees. Cheeks are rosy, inhibitions are down, voices are booming.
A dozen conversations take place simultaneously, and while the table is preoccupied, Katie’s elbow creeps over to the back of Ross’ chair and rests tentatively. She is unsure of how much public affection to show, what is appropriate, what her friends might see. Slowly she inches her arm closer to Ross’, so close that only the tiny hairs on their arms touch. But the receptors in their skin fire sparks to their brains, signaling the other’s presence. Katie’s fingers reach up and gently caress the inside of Ross’ forearm; she scratches this sensitive spot with her short, bitten fingernails. He moves the fingertips of his right hand to glide over hers. Their fingers loosely intertwine and lock together; they hold hands, her arm resting across his chest. She tilts her head up toward him and smiles; he looks into her eyes and moves his face closer to hers. He swoops in to kiss her on the cheek, then pulls away, sitting upright in his chair, folding his arms across his chest. She moves back to her own seat and crosses her legs, suddenly engaging again in the table’s boisterous conversation.
A slurred debate about Einstein, the theory of relativity and space travel breaks out.
“But, OK, look. The twin paradox—if one twin goes up in space for 30 years, and the other one stays on earth, the space-twin will come back only having aged a few days, while the earth-twin has aged 30 years. So what is going on? How can time slow down?” Steve asks, his eyes sparkling, the tops of his ears bright red from the wine and the excitement.
“Yeah, I mean, how would you feel in space? According to Stephen Hawking, shouldn’t your brain explode or something?” another friend chimes in.
“No, dude. It doesn’t matter,” Ross responds, with a surprisingly coherent rebuttal: “Have you even considered the Earth’s atmospheric effects on the human body?”
Katie, uninterested in this topic of conversation, catches her friend’s eye across the table. She leans away from Ross and cups her hand around her face, shielding her mouth from his peripheral vision. In an exaggerated fashion, she mouths the words, “WE. . .HAD. . .GR-REAT. . .SEX. . .THIS. . .AFTERNOON,” and grins. She feels safe; she is back with people she trusts and loves after three months of trying to forge her way in a new life.
Later in the evening, after everyone’s stomachs are full of pricey but delicious culinary creations, the party stumbles down Carson Street to the bus stop. Sometimes Katie and Ross just walk side by side, other times they lock arms. But most often, they clutch each other around waists and shoulders, holding on with all the strength they can muster, tripping over cracks in the sidewalk, sneaking kisses mid-block where the street lamps can’t reach, can’t illuminate reality.
Katie’s weeklong visit plays out almost better than expected. They don’t talk much about the past three months, or their new lives. Instead, they quickly re-acclimate themselves to the Pittsburgh they enjoyed for two years, and for this week, their now separate lives meld back into a congruous single existence. They eat at Katie’s favorite kosher pizzeria, Milky Way, and drink coffee at their old standby, the 61C Café. They watch The Royal Tenenbaums and recite all the lines; they get drunk with old friends and play charades, miming subjects like “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” a beloved Wallace Stevens poem; “Dead-Skin-Falling-Off-Face Girl,” an acquaintance from class; and “The Teleological Suspension of the Ethical,” one of Ross’ favorite theological concepts.
They enjoy each other’s physical proximity and emotional support, but on Katie’s last night, they have a talk. They decide that they shouldn’t continue to have rendezvous like the one they were now concluding. They talk about how hard it is to move on and be happy in their new lives when they are still so entwined with each other and their former relationship. In the morning, Ross goes back to the airport with her, and they say goodbye. This time, there are no tears and no hysterics, just another lonely trip back for each—one to an adobe efficiency in Albuquerque, the other to a Hobart townhouse in Pittsburgh.
Ross makes plans to see a play one Friday night with some friends from a literature class, including a “cute, smart” girl he has “had some good conversations” with in class. Before the outing, Ross goes to the Gap and buys a new button-down shirt for the event. He looks casual but cool in olive green cargo pants and the new pinstriped shirt that he picked out on his own. He has shaved the stubble on his upper lip and chin, and right before he leaves, he combs his hair and applies some pomade to keep it in check. Instead of his usual tattered, wrinkly leather bomber jacket, he dons a sharp, navy blue pea coat. His look is complete with sparkling eyes and a genuine smile, neither of which—for once—has been induced by illicit drugs or a promiscuous sexual encounter.
Perhaps Ross is finally realizing there is life beyond Katie. Maybe a visit from her, a physical intrusion from her into his Katie-less life, is what it took to give him perspective on the situation. Maybe one last fling with her gave him a sense of closure. Perhaps he is making the first steps toward moving on.
Megan Dunchak is currently completing her last semester at the University of Pittsburgh. She will spend a few months in the Czech Republic this fall before waxing metropolitan to pursue a career in editing and publishing. Her hobbies include blue jeans and beer; she is, at the moment, a temporary Marxist.