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Background Story

It is always difficult to figure out where to begin a story, for the beginning is not always the best place to begin. Looking back over the road I have traveled so far, though, I can see a number of crossroads where the path I chose brought me to where I am today. It is at one of these crossroads that I will begin my story, because the decision I made at that crossroad changed my life and put me on a course that would take me halfway across the world to a land I knew little of.

I was a student at the State University of New York at Binghamton (it’s now called Binghamton University, but it’s still SUNY). I had managed to get through my freshman year without too much damage, and I was finally getting the hang of university life. I went back for my sophomore year, greeted old friends and made new ones. Among those new friends was a girl we’ll call J. She was a freshman who lived on the floor below me, and we got to be fairly good friends. I never really considered taking the relationship beyond that, but one night in November changed that.

It was the night of the yearly blind date dance, something I regarded with disdain—probably because I didn’t have a date and I couldn’t dance to save my soul anyway. Anyway, it was a blind date dance in name only, and most people weren’t brave enough to actually go with someone they had never met before. My roommate, Ian, for example, went with his girlfriend. I was sitting in our room as he was getting ready, and his girlfriend came up and mentioned that J was all dressed up for the dance and waiting for her date, but she looked bored. Being the good friend that I was, I decided to go down and keep her company until her date arrived.

I went down to her suite and was sitting on the couch when she came out, and I suddenly realized that I had never actually looked at her before. I also realized that I was attracted to her, and I had blown the opportunity. We sat and talked, and I kept thinking about how I was just waiting for another guy to show up and take her to the dance. I wondered what I would do when he arrived, took her arm and led her out the door. But as we talked, I forgot all about the dance. I didn’t think anything of it until J suddenly started and looked at her watch.

“The dance started half an hour ago. I think I’ve been stood up!”

This was my opportunity, of course. I would casually offer to go with her, and then I would be the one taking her to the dance. But instead of saying what I was thinking, I just sat there and nodded my head. What if she said no? I decided that that would be worse than not asking at all, so I just kept my mouth shut.

J had other plans, though. “Look,” she said, “I have two tickets to the dance here, and I’m not going to see them wasted. You’re going with me.”

And there it was. She had done all of the work for me--all I had to do was nod my head and I would be in. But something was holding me back, and as I sat there looking at her, I realized that I was afraid. Afraid of what? It wasn’t fear of rejection, obviously, since she was the one asking. Nonetheless, I was afraid, and part of me wanted to make up some excuse and just go back to living my safe, sheltered—albeit lonely—life.

But there was another part of me that was sick of being afraid and always asking “What if?” It was that part of me that won out in that moment. Looking J in the eyes, I promised myself that from that moment forward, I would never make another decision out of fear. I didn’t want to look back on my life and see only regret and missed opportunities, a life lived in fear.

“OK,” I said evenly, “Let me go change. I’ll be right back.”

That was the beginning of my relationship with J, and the beginning of a new take on life. There were some flaws in our relationship, of course, and I know now that we weren’t soulmates, but I loved her more than any one I had ever known, and since her there has only been one that I have loved more. Even after we broke up, there seemed to be a tie between us that was never fully broken. I can remember nights when she would call me and we would talk for a while, and she would tell me that no one understood her like I did, and she just couldn’t talk to her boyfriend. We may not have been soulmates, but we did connect on a very fundamental level.

Despite the success in my love life, though (or maybe because of it), I had an absolutely hideous semester—so bad, in fact, that I was put on academic probation. I had not declared a major yet, but I was hoping to enter the school of computer science. My grade point average for that semester, though, destroyed any chance of that happening, and I went home that Christmas break utterly desolate.

When I told my parents about my situation, my mother suggested a change of course.

“You’ve always liked English,” she said, “Why don’t you become an English major?”

“Be serious,” I snorted. “What will I do with an English major?”

Never blind to the obvious, my mother replied, “Well, what will you do if you fail out of school?”

Seeing the wisdom in her suggestion, I went back to school the next year with a new determination. I declared as an English major, specifically English Literature and Creative Writing, and began the long climb out of the pit I had dug myself into. No longer haunted by breadboards and discrete structures, I managed to do well enough that semester to get off academic probation. J and I were happy together, and things were going pretty well all around.

I went home that summer, worked at the local golf course to save up money for next semester, and spent every day I could spare visiting J in the city. One day a letter from school came, from the English department. For some reason I didn’t open it right away, but just tossed it on my desk—after all, who wants to read something from school during the summer holiday? Curiosity eventually got the better of me, though, and I finally opened it. It was about a study abroad program in London, and it sounded interesting. As I read, though, I heard a voice say, “If you go to London, J is going to break up with you.” It startled me so much that I instinctively dropped the letter on my desk, as one would drop a flaming piece of paper, and there it sat for a week.

I just couldn’t get the idea out of my head, and yet the idea of going to London for a semester really appealed to me. I reasoned that the “voice” I had heard was just a reflex reaction and I had no reason to worry. I read the letter through again and then spoke with my father about the idea. He thought it was great, and he sold the idea to my mother all by himself. In fact, I was the only one who wasn’t convinced. I said nothing about the letter to J, but when I went back to school the next semester I decided to at least go to the orientation meeting. After all, I wasn’t committing myself to anything yet.

As the semester went on, though, and I attended more and more meetings, I realized that I really wanted to go. I told J about it, and she wasn’t happy about the idea of me being away for a semester, but she didn’t try to stop me from going. I couldn’t get rid of that first nagging thought, though, and it slowly grew into a genuine fear. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the decision I had made on the night of the dance was now being put to the test. If I were to be true to myself, I would have to risk losing the very thing I had gained.

I realized, though, that the decision I had made was far bigger than my relationship with J, no matter how much she might mean to me, and so I overcame my fear once again and decided to go to London. On the day I said goodbye to her, I drove away from her house and watched her in the rearview mirror as she stood by the side of the street. We had pledged our love, of course, and promised we would be faithful, but somehow I knew it was the end.

I was still devastated when the end came, though. I had stayed up all night waiting for her to call, and when she did call she told me that it was over. I didn’t eat for four days, barely spoke to anyone, and even contemplated returning to the States during Spring break to try to win her back. Fortunately, though, my friends talked me out of it, and I spent Spring break traveling around Europe instead. J and I got together briefly when I returned the next semester, but the damage had already been done. No matter how much it may have hurt, I realized that J was not the one.

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