It was a Friday night, and I was moping alone in my dorm room when my friend Julia rushed in, breathless.
"Rachel," she gushed, "you have to come upstairs because Caroline's brother is visiting and he's so hot and he's 6'5" and I think you'd really like him! Come on!" she said while tugging on my arm.
"Julia," I sighed, "just because he's tall doesn't automatically mean I'll like him, or he'll like me, for that matter. I mean...I'm watching Rain Man, here. I really don't want to...ow! Ok, fine, I'll come up for a few minutes, just let go."
Upstairs there was already a small party in the works; alcohol was circulating and the room was dimly lit with Christmas lights. (And as everyone who ever went to college knows, the most important ingredients for a successful dorm-room party are alcohol and Christmas lights. That and some inflatable furniture, and you're automatically the most popular kids on the floor, or at least that's how it was in the late nineties. By now the kids probably all have laser shows and hover furniture, for all I know).
"Rachel, this is Colin," Julia trilled a tad too meaningfully as she introduced us. I looked him over. Yup, it was just as I thought; tall, handsome, broad-shouldered. He was way out of my league. I smiled politely and rolled my eyes in a show of embarassment at this obviously off-target attempt at a set-up.
With introductions out of the way, we settled down to the serious business of Asshole. We played, we drank, we made up rules and accused each other of cheating. Waterfall. Social. Clear. Sorry, not fast enough. Drink. I think I even attained the coveted position of President, at one point. However, as the evening and the level of intoxication progressed, people got...weird. There were sudden emotional outbursts, spontaneous and bizarre dance moves; pretty much what you'd expect from a bunch of eighteen and nineteen year-olds only recently out of high school and drunk on freedom and Jose Cuervo. I must have been more sober than the rest, or else better at holding my liquor (Señor Cuervo and I have always been good friends). Of course Colin, being twenty-two, and in the military nonetheless, was also functional enough to raise an eyebrow at the debauchery unraveling around us. We made eye contact. "This is getting weird," he said.
"Yeah," I agreed.
"I'm going to take a walk," he said.
"Oh," I said.
"Do you want to come?" he said.
"Oh!" I said. "Yeah, sure."
We headed outside into the crisp fall air and asked each other the typical kinds of questions. He was a navigator in the Marines, and he flew planes. The sky twinkled with stars overhead, the kind of night sky you can only see when the closest city is still miles and miles away, and Baltimore is a distant glow on the horizon. The kind of sky I lived under my whole life and never really thought much about until I moved to a city full of bright lights and tall buildings, and suddenly realized that I couldn't see the stars anymore, even on the darkest of nights, even if I squinted. But that night there were stars, there had always been stars, though perhaps I had never looked at them before like I did on this night.
We gazed upwards, mouths agape, as he pointed out the constellations, and the stars you could use to navigate by. We turned our gazes earthward and stumbled our way through the near-darkness towards the golf course, navigating by the stars and the vague shadowy outlines of winter-bare trees. "Hop on," he said, and I did, and he took off running with me on his back, as we laughed and were breathless. We reached a steep hill, and he said, "Let's roll down it!" He went first as I looked on with terror and exhilaration. "Come on!" he said from the bottom. It was a steep hill, and where normally I would have shaken my head stubbornly and picked my way carefully and patiently down the incline, this time I hurled myself to the ground without a second thought, visions of Princess Buttercup in my head as I bounced and jolted against the unforgiving ground, laughing all the way. We reached the golf course where he stole a red flag marking the ninth hole on the green. "Here," he said. "It's for you, so you'll remember tonight." I clasped the piece of red cloth reverently; for some reason this act struck me as the most outrageous, most rebellious, most romantic gesture in the world. We made our way to a pavillion, and just beyond it we made our most fortuitous discovery of the evening: a gigantic, fluffy, pillowy bed of leaves contained in a sort of trough between the side of the pavillion and a retaining wall, just begging to be jumped in and burrowed into. We waded in up to our thighs, spread our arms wide, and let ourselves fall. We scooped up armfuls of leaves, threw them in the air, at each other, and then lay still, exhausted. We covered ourselves completely, lying perfectly still, so that someone could have walked by right next to us and never have known we were there. Insulated from the cold air, warm, hidden, our small secret. Outside was so quiet, but under the leaves the noise was deafening; the rustling and crackling of dried leaves, every time we moved ever so slightly, every time we breathed. Under the leaves we held hands. Under the leaves was complete darkness, like being blindfolded in an unlit, windowless room, but our mouths found each other. Under the leaves...
We kissed and whispered, silly things; our favorite lines from our favorite Simpsons episodes, food, movies. He mentioned Rain Man. "I have that movie," I mentioned. "In my room."
"Oh yeah?" he said. "Here? Well let's go watch it." And so we left our warm cocoon, and we picked leaves out of each other's hair, off of our clothing. Leaf fragments in my ears, in my shoes, between my toes; I would still be finding leaves in my room days later, and I would keep them in a box with the red flag, to remember. Back in my room we watched Rain Man from my twin bed. We watched parts, anyway. Raymond dancing shyly with Charlie Babbitt's girlfriend. "I love this part," I sighed.
"Come on," Colin said, standing up, pulling me to my feet. And we danced, too. I looked up and saw the the tin foil stars I had made in a fit of frugal but well-intentioned decorating frenzy, and hung from the ceiling tiles with clear thread.
"We're dancing under the stars," I sighed happily, incredulously, already knowing that I had reduced the moment to a bad movie line, knowing that at this point the audience would be gagging into their popcorn, but not caring. Because no one else mattered; it was just him and me, and I knew I would always remember that night as being movie-perfect, wholly unexpected, and utterly, bitterly sweet.