I wrote last summer about a young woman named “E,” one who helped me make it through my heartbreak and obsession with crush #2 as I transitioned from high school to college between the summer of ’87 and the spring of ’88. She was someone I could’ve — and probably should’ve — dated, at least during my freshman year at Pitt. It would’ve been a long-distance relationship, though, and given her own issues with her former boyfriend, not to mention it being her senior year at Mount Vernon High School and that her parents were in the midst of a nasty divorce, our friendship was what it was. It couldn’t have been anything more.
Now I write about another woman named E, one who eventually became my third major crush in the ’82-’92 period. Unlike the other two, she knew — in real time and from my own lips — how I felt about her at one point in our deepening friendship. It didn’t work out, for a whole host of reasons, but that didn’t mean that my friendship and what I called our “oscillating relationship” didn’t have an impact on how I saw myself and the women who were and would be in my life in the future. Without a doubt, E was the most important woman in my life between November ’88 and August ’91. In that time, I made the transition from asexual emotionless Donald to heterosexually active and more open Donald, as well as from undergrad to grad school at Pitt.
It all started around the Thanksgiving holiday in November ’88. It was the day after Thanksgiving, as a matter of fact. I’d seen E on campus or bumped into her at Hillman Library any number of times that fall. I usually gave a weak “Hi” or just walked by with head-bobbing acknowledgment for most of the semester. I was too busy trying to make it through my semester of homelessness and near starvation to have much of a social life. So it wasn’t until my financial situation at Pitt was fully straightened out that I began to feel comfortable enough to meet more folks on campus beyond the circle I already had.
It all started with E. I was spending the day after Thanksgiving studying at Hillman Library, working on a paper for my art history class. Otherwise, I spent time daydreaming, contemplating about how I had made it through the past seven months at 616 and on campus with hardly enough money to pay rent or feed someone who was permanently homeless. I often got up from wherever I sat at Hillman to walk around, stare at interesting books in the stacks, or look outside, since I couldn’t sit still for more than an hour at a time without become restless.
It was on one of those ten-minute walks of contemplation on the first floor of Hillman in the African American stacks that I saw E sitting at a two-person table by the windows facing Forbes Quad (now Posvar Hall). Normally in my Boy At The Window years, I would’ve just kept going or talked myself out of saying anything of real substance to E. But after months of financial struggles, which followed a year of getting over crush #2, I had already decided to turn the page. I walked up, introduced myself, said something about seeing her all the time on campus and used the day after Thanksgiving as an excuse for getting to know her. That introduction turned into a two-hour conversation. About ourselves, our majors, Pitt, her family, a bit about my family. I didn’t realize it then, but E’s obvious quirkiness and sense of humor had attracted me to her before she had ever said a word.
She wasn’t as sarcastic as anyone I knew from the New York area, and certainly not as sarcastic as I could be, but we shared a sarcastic and ironic way of looking at life and people in our lives. I’d learn that she was a huge “Stiller” fan, loved basketball, and had an eclectic music library, though not as eclectic as my own — she liked The Beatles, for goodness sakes! That one long conversation did lead to a friendship, one that became closer with each passing semester.
By April ’89, this time twenty years ago, I’d gotten to know E well enough to also know a bit about her family. She had five siblings, just like me, except that her mother and father were still together. Her parents had named their kids in alphabetical order, making E the fifth of six children. Her immediately older sister had helped her get a job at Hillman Library, which was one of the reasons why I bumped into her all of the time. As a result, I also bumped into this older sister and one of her cousins within a few months of meeting E. Before the semester was out, we exchanged phone numbers and mailing addresses to keep in touch that summer while I was in New York.
Other than the occasional letter or phone call that summer and into that fall when I returned to Pitt for my junior year, not much new had happened with us. I spent the first half of that semester dating someone I couldn’t handle, while E dated some guy that would graduate that December and move back to New England. It was at the end of that semester, during a major snowstorm, that I started hanging out with E regularly. Out of all of the women I’ve ever been friends with or dated, E was easily the funniest one. She laughed and made me laugh so easily. At her, at myself, her at herself, and her at me. It wasn’t that everything was a joke. It was that we knew not to take ourselves so seriously.
The following year led to me having ideas beyond friendship with E. We hung out so much and did so many things together. We went to a PE concert together, Pitt basketball games, a Pittsburgh Pirates game, a bunch of movies, a bunch of lunches and dinners. She helped teach me how to drive, in a broken down blue ’78 Chevy Nova no less. I got to meet her mother and father and other siblings at her parents’ home in Steel Valley country, on several occasions. It was the first time I noticed how light E was, as her mother and father were light and dark-skinned respectively. I think that she was the only woman who ever visited me when I lived in my beat-up room in South Oakland. There were moments there where I thought one or both of us could’ve but didn’t cross the line into deliberate physical contact all during ’90. That made it all the more confusing, probably for her, definitely for me.
It wasn’t that I didn’t notice the other women on campus besides E. There were more attractive women, and some did express interest, especially since it appeared to them that I was dating E. But E had something about her that touched my mind, and since I spent so much time with my head in the clouds as I pulled myself back together in those years, it was easy to see her as the person I wanted to spend all of my free time with.
It all started getting weird toward the end of ’90. I made my move at the end of October, asked her about moving beyond friendship to really dating. I told her that I knew that she was attracted to me, which she didn’t try to deny. She told me that she was still “hung up” on the New England guy that she hadn’t seen since the previous December. It was her only excuse, a lousy excuse as far as I was concerned. We didn’t talk for a few weeks after that — surprise, right?
Then she called me at the end of the semester for help, as she felt that she was in trouble in her ethnolinguistics class. E had switched majors again, and being someone who had trouble making up her mind, was in over her head. I had just finished my last final for the semester, and was looking forward to a week or ten days of rest before going back to Mount Vernon and 616 for the holidays. At first, I wanted to say, “Why don’t you ask your ex to help you?,” or “What do you need my help for, since we haven’t talked in six weeks?” But I didn’t want E to end up with an F in her new major. So I went over to Hillman Library that evening to help her with her research paper. I had no idea that I would be there and at David Lawrence Hall for the next twenty-four hours, editing and re-editing various drafts of a paper that I would’ve graded a D long before I started teaching a college course.
To use E’s language, I thought that this whole episode was an example of her “triflin’ ass” ways. Even though I don’t think that she meant to, I felt that E had used me, my sheer analytical, writing and editing powers, to get out of a major jam. She ended up with an A- on a paper that looked at the use of language in rap/hip-hop and the various themes that could be communicated through the nuanced use of language in the genre.
E did say that she’d make it up to me, and she did. We were back at our old ways in the first months of ’91, hanging out and going out as if we were dating but not. I tried to make a point of drawing some lines, like no holding hands, no back rubs, no hugs, but that only went but so far. By the end of the spring semester and undergrad — E was still a year away from graduating, even though she had piled up nearly 200 credits — I was caught up in the rapture of infatuation, again. She picked up on it, and deliberately or not, tried to take advantage.
E wanted to work on a joint piece for publication that looked at the issue of multicultural education and Afrocentric education that summer. It had gotten her attention because of the New York State report on multicultural education that had come out in May ’91. It was controversial, causing educators to choose sides between a more Eurocentric and a more Afrocentric educational paradigm. No need to go into more detail that than for those not interested in the so-called Cultural Wars of the ’90s. Despite my qualms about E and her reliability, I decided to go ahead with the work — it gave me something to focus on besides my mind-numbing work as a gopher at the Western Psychiatric Institute & Clinic that summer.
Wouldn’t you know it, two weeks later E stood me up for a date? It was the third time that month that “something had come up,” either with family or a friend, preventing her from meeting me. We were to see Godfather III and then go out to eat. I was as pissed as I’d been since my second semester at Pitt, when I was pissed with myself and with crush #2. I made myself see the movie anyway, and then went home without eating.
As I struggled with what to do next, I talked about this weird situation with one of my married Western Psych colleagues. He laughed and told me to move on, that I should ignore her and her calls for help or a dinner date for a while. And that’s what I did. At first, it was torture. E was still about the only person I could talk to about almost anything — except my Humanities years, abuse and welfare poverty, of course. But I realized that our friendship had become dysfunctional, that if we weren’t going to date as a couple, and because I still wanted that, then the friendship wouldn’t work either. For the next seven weeks, I ignored her phone calls, didn’t attempt to see her on campus, and started doing my own thing, which included a series of one-night stands. By the time I started hanging out with E again, at the end of July ’91, I no longer wanted to date her. I no longer saw her as a friend.
It was in the interim that I also realized why she was noncommittal to dating me. I was younger than her by about fifteen months, hadn’t had much dating experience before her, and my body had yet to fill out. I mean, she had a near life-sized poster of Utah Jazz great Karl Malone hanging in her room at home! I was just about six-three (and about to go through my last growth spurt — at almost twenty-two), and weighed 175 or 180 in the summer of ’91. And I might’ve come off a bit needy at times.
For her part, despite how much she talked about others as “triflin’,” she was a bit triflin’ herself. She had majored in political science, Spanish, English Lit (I think) and linguistics since she started college in ’86. Her father, the chief of police on the Greensburg campus, gave her financial cover, so she took classes year-round. She lacked focus and didn’t think or have to think about the long-term for her life. That made me too serious by comparison.
I still talked to E off and on after I started grad school that August. We even went out to see Oliver Stone’s bomb JFK that December. But it wasn’t the same. I felt sorry for E. I hoped that she would get her life and career on track. I couldn’t be the one to listen to her complain and dream anymore, though.
By ’95-’96, I had finally filled out, between weights and age, enough to where I knew E was attracted to me — again. The last time I talked to E was at Pitt’s bookstore, with then girlfriend (and now wife) Angelia in tow. She literally had gotten in between me and Angelia so that I couldn’t introduce them to each other, all the while talking away as if she wasn’t there. That was it for me. After she invited me out with her for some cultural event, it was my turn to let the other down. Until the advent of Facebook, I hadn’t talked to E in nearly thirteen years. I did keep some tabs, though, at least through the Pitt Alumni network and Google. I knew that E had pulled it together and graduated in ’92. She eventually applied and got into Pitt’s School of Library Science in ’94 or ’95, picked up her master’s, and found a career as a librarian. I couldn’t be happier for her.
I learned so much from my friendship+ with E. From what to do and not to do in relationship to how to be friends with someone and disagree fundamentally with their actions and ideas. About how to see myself as Black without changing anything about myself in order to fit in. About the power of a wonderful family, which hers was. About getting out of my head and seeing my friends and the people around me for who they are, and accepting them for who they are. About the superficiality that we all possess and the imperfections that we all have. Most of all, I learned the difference between different kinds of love and attraction. Other than my wife, I don’t think I’ve learned so much from one woman as I have from E. For that, if nothing else, I say, Mwah and many, many, many thanks.