Friday, February 29, 2008

Sweet Melissa

Freight train, each car looks the same, all the same.
And no one knows the gypsy's name

No one hears his lonely sigh,
There are no blankets where he lies.
In all his deepest dreams the gypsy flies
With sweet melissa...

-- Allman Brothers Band

In the first semester of my sophomore year at RPI, my living arrangements broke down completely and I moved into a big house with a lot of other guys on Hoosick St., where I passed the second semester in the bright haze of the Student Revolt that thrashed the U.S. college scene in the spring of 1970, after it became clear that Nixon's secret plan to end the war in Vietnam included a lot of war in Laos and Cambodia. There was also the Kent State thing and everything everywhere went kerflewy for a while, even in so conservative a place as RPI.

By the end of my sophomore year, I decided that living off-campus wasn't really that grand, and besides, I had a lot of on-campus responsibilities, plus, no automobile. So I went to the campus housing office and put my name in. The mad rush for the best housing had already subsided and all the better quarters were supposedly gone. But RPI had a policy of housing any student who asked, so I was sure to have a place to live. It was just a crapshoot as to how bad it would be.

That summer, my folks moved to Illinois from Nashville, and I helped them move. I made some halfhearted attempts to get a summer job, but non-farm jobs in southern Illinois are not thick on the ground, and I had no farming experience to speak of. So that was the one summer in my high school and college years when I just basically loafed.

I returned to RPI to discover the damnedest thing: for years, all RPI co-eds were housed at Burdett Avenue Residence Hall. BARH also held a fair number of male students, the fraction of RPI students who were female being that small. Also, for years, the freshmen co-eds complained of the arrangement. All other RPI freshmen were down in the Freshman Dorms, strange brick-and-cinderblock buildings with names like Nason Hall, Crockett Hall, and (the one I'd been in) Hall Hall. The freshmen women felt left out of ordinary freshmen living, disconnected from their incoming class, as it were.

So in 1970, the powers-that-were decided to do something about it, and that "something" was to make some additional renovations to one of the freshmen dorms, Warren Hall, to be specific, and use it to house the freshmen co-eds. Actually, again owing to the small number of freshmen women (I believe there were about 80), it was only the top two floors of Warren that housed the freshmen co-eds. The bottom floor held the lounge and about 60 upper class men and women.

One of those 60 was me. Go figure. I'd won some sort of strange lottery. The rooms were doubles, and each had its own bathroom, which put it way ahead of the rest of the freshmen dorms, which had communal bathrooms at the end of the halls. There's nothing like waiting for a shower on a cold morning, or finding all the toilet stalls occupied.

Warren Hall was also about 200 yards away from the Student Union, where I was to spend most of my time that year. Going into my junior year, I was still nominally the editor of Perspective, ostensibly a magazine of politics and philosophy. But I'd managed to put out two issues, not quite single-handedly, and there was never to be another. I might have turned it over to some of the New Left type guys who were kicking around, but I didn't get along with them in those days. (We're happy to spend time together at reunions, nowadays, but I can't say who has changed more, me or them. It's probably irrelevant at this distance).

In any case, I was also managing editor of the Rensselaer Engineer, which had a better budget, an actual staff, and better cachet with the professors and such. I wound up spending a lot of time that year on Engineer activities.

Early in the semester was "Activity Day," or some such, where all the student activities that had any connection to the Student Union (i.e. practically all of them, since the SU doled out money) set up a table in the Union and begged, er, asked the new freshmen to join up. I was working a small table for Perspective, but also lending John Benson, the Engineer's editor a hand, since there was (let's face it) more interest there.

I remember practically nothing of the entire afternoon except the moment when Melissa walked in.

She had, I learned later, recently given up on trying to straighten her hair, straight hair being the fashion at that time. I think the idea was to look like Joni Mitchell, which is a really great idea for Joni Mitchell, but not so good an idea if your hair is naturally curly. Melissa's was not quite Afro curly, but it did not take to the idea of straightening, and on that day, it was a halo around her head.

Also, the day was one of those bright, overcast days, where there are no shadows, but the light can nevertheless be enough to make you squint. But Melissa did not squint as she came into the room; her eyes did go a little wider, however, and the light from behind us caught them and the blue of them gave me that pressure in the forehead that says, "Okay, you got me. I'm hooked. Just reel me in and fry me up."

There were only maybe two or three other women in the freshman class who were in the running for "best babe," or whatever phrase one uses to try to cover the aching need that wells up within us when confronted by that which we desire. Melissa was the most striking of the lot. And, as you may have already noticed, she lived in my dorm.

One night, I visited her in her room and. we violated the dorm rules by my staying past the time when visitors were supposed to leave. By several hours. We left the lights off, and eventually we had to put a towel to block the light that seeped in under the door, because our eyes had become so dark-adjusted that the slit of light hurt our eyes. We mostly talked, in that time-honored tradition of young about-to-be-lovers, and even at this distance I am reluctant to reveal any of the things she told me. I have no idea what I told her, other than that I'm sure it was equally personal, equally precious, and equally unimportant to anyone other than ourselves.

Likewise, the other details of the "us" that existed for a while are not that interesting to outsiders, at least that would be my guess. But there are some lessons to be learned from the ending of it.

I don't think that much of it was my fault, though I am predisposed to grab all the blame I can manage. Essentially, Melissa could not take being at RPI. The workload was a factor, I would imagine, but not that great of a factor. No, the real problem was that Melissa was simply not able to handle being the object of everyone's desire.

Consider. If a girl is somewhat pretty, or even beautiful, in ordinary circumstances, well, there are still others who occupy that ground. In a high school of, say, 3000 students, the top 2% of the girls, (by whatever measure of attractiveness you care to use), still number around 30. Moreover, there are still plenty of other girls around, so the boys aren't all vying for the affections of just those 30.

But at RPI, the top 2% of freshmen coeds in 1970 calculates to 1.6. And there were 1000 male freshmen, and four times that number of other male students. In a random lottery, the odds that Melissa would fall for me would have made drawing to an inside straight look like a sure thing. So I was exceptional. Okay, fine. But she was even more so.

Simply having "a guy" was not nearly enough. Of the thousands of other students at RPI at that time, how many were so socially dysfunctional that they would pester the most attractive woman around, despite who else she might be seeing? Maybe if I'd been the jealous sort, always around, always snarling at any other male who looked at her, then maybe Melissa's phone would not have rung two or three times an hour with some guy at the other end asking her out. Some guy she'd never met or barely remembered. Maybe. But I was not that sort of boyfriend, and, frankly, if I had been, I don't think we'd have lasted as long as we did.

Eventually she could not take it any more. She saw the worst of male behavior on a regular basis. Regular? More like continuous. And she got so tired of it that she had to leave.

So she did. She left RPI, and she left me. She broke up with me first, explaining that she had to leave and that I was a major reason for staying, and, well, it's both flattering and distressing to be given that as a reason for a breakup. There were a few scenes between us before she left, and I accept full blame for those.

Then she was gone. I tried maintaining a correspondence, and that worked for a little while, and then it didn't. One thing about this writing thing is that it takes a while to get it under control. I suspect that had something to do with it. But, ultimately, who knows?

I think of her occasionally, and I have the heartfelt hope that she had a good life after she left RPI. She deserved the best. She deserved better than I was at the time, even, and you know how full of myself I can be.

I didn't have much of a social life for a while after Melissa left. That's the way it is with romantics. My next lover was the wife of a pretty good friend. That's the other way it is with romantics. We do so like to play it safe.


Anonymous said...

If memory serves, babes were called "foxes" by all the young campus dandies and men about town. A few years earlier in my part of the world a "fox" would have been described as "tough" which sounds so stupid now I hope it was just a regional quirk of language.

Melissa sounds a lot like the prototype of all "fox", circa 1971.

James Killus said...

I remember both "foxy" and "tough," with the feeling that there were other tags available, but memory is a liar and a thief.

Applying the word "fox" to Melissa set up a little cognitive dissonance that I resolved with a realization that I omitted something from her description (actually, I have omitted many things from her description, for reasons that would require much more self-analysis than I care to exert).

One of the things that anyone who saw her immediately sensed, I think, was that she was kind. There was another virtue that was a weakness in the circumstances. If she'd given the impression of haughtiness, or even a hint of the cruel, she would have had fewer impositions made upon her. But she tried not to hurt the feelings of even the total losers who hit on her. So kindness became another sort of vulnerability.

Hmm. That's straying close to dangerous thoughts, isn't it? Time to get my cynicism upgraded, I guess.

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