Year 2000 – 15 Years Earlier – Age 19
Throughout my life, I would occasionally experience a strange sensation upon encountering certain people for the first time. It was an eerie tingling; a prickle across my skin like a wayward ant at a summer picnic. A muted voice would whisper, “You will know them.”
This phenomenon occurred the precise moment I first saw Adam Friedman take the stage with an acapella group during the fall of my freshman year at bucolic Bucknell University. There to support my talented vocalist hallmate, my entire hall tribe was abuzz with excitement to watch him perform with The Rich Paupers. I remembered remarking on the group’s effervescent energy, their harmonious vocals soaring through the cavernous commons.
The group rearranged for their next song, and a sharply dressed and unconventionally handsome black-haired young man took center stage for a solo. He sang “Stand” by R.E.M. with comedic brilliance, flawlessly matching the distinct nasal vocalizations of Michael Stipe. His charisma and confidence was enchanting, with a feline movement that defied the typical awkwardness of my bumbling freshman class. Staring at this young man, the prickle began: my body was signaling that he was somehow going to be a significant part of my life. Thinking of my long-term high school boyfriend, I worked to quickly dismiss this thought as preposterous.
Two months later in January, I found myself newly single and knocking on the door of a music room in Gettysburg Hall to audition for fresh openings in The Paupers. My recent breakup was emotionally draining, and I was ready for the chance to start fresh by reclaiming my voice with this talented group. I rechecked and smoothed my respectably conservative outfit of blue plaid button-down shirt over a white lace camisole, unflattering beige cargo pants, and tan Birkenstocks. Sadly, the late 90’s were not the high point of my fashion career, and every day I found creative new ways to obscure my then voluptuous curves.
Passing a mirror in the hallway, I quickly appraised my hair and makeup in the harsh fluorescent lights. I wasn’t what you would call a classic beauty; strong eastern european and slightly asymmetrical features and a healthy layer of baby fat coupled with terribly acne-prone skin. I sported an unfortunate mullet-like bob haircut(no thanks to a distracted salon stylist) that was finally growing out. But it was a marked improvement over my high school legacy of metal braces and Coke-bottle glasses. I arrived at the audition room, and softly rapped on the metal door.
I was summoned into the room, a small but cheerful den with musical instruments lining the walls and a smattering of talented singers draped onto chairs and tables. I instantly wanted to be a part of this troupe. The enthusiastic greetings I received upon walking in were just the thing I needed to relax and feel grounded in preparing for my audition. A petite blonde girl announced herself as Audrey, the group leader. She recited the instructions and introduced each member of the group.
“And over here, we have Adam.” she said, motioning to a figure towards the back of the room. I started. It was the dark young man I saw during the fall performance whom I’d nearly forgotten. Our eyes locked for the briefest moment, sending an unexpected electric charge through my body.
“And what have you prepared for us today?” she ebulliently asked. I steeled my nerve to match their enthusiasm and turned to address the entire room of grinning faces as I spoke.
“Hi everyone!! So today I’ll be singing-“ I paused for a split second as my gaze landed on Adam again, and nearly forgot the rest of my sentence.
“Ah, I’ll be singing ‘Possession’ by Sarah McLachlan,” I continued while nervously clearing my throat, which had a pesky habit of closing up shop when on the spot to perform.
“Listen as the wind blows, across the great divide…” I sang soulfully, channeling the dark, passionate obsession behind Sarah’s cryptic lyrics. Concluding my final verse, I inhaled deeply and awaited their reaction. First a brief pause, and then an explosion of applause with a sprinkle of “Wow!” and “Nice!!” After the emotional roller coaster I’d been on the past few weeks, this was just the boost I needed.
Audrey finished clapping and exclaimed, “That was awesome, Ella! Thanks so much for coming to audition, we’ll let you know in a few days!” I nearly broke into a run back to my dorm in excitement, thrilled with my audition.
Several days later on cue, I was flash mobbed by my new acapella group, my hall mates enthusiastically joining in a group singing and jumping hug. The dark-haired gentleman was noticeably absent.
Heading into Calculus class several days later, I was playfully accosted by behind. Turning around, I came face to face with the mysterious dark horse. My heart dropped.
“Fancy seeing you here, gorgeous,” the mystery man flirted with a smirk.
Caught off-guard by his compliment, (I had never been called gorgeous by anyone other than my great Aunt Mona before), I gathered my wits and replied, “Yes what are the chances, it’s almost as if we attend the same school.” He laughed heartily in response.
“Adam…remember?”and proceeded to strike up a conversation about how I liked the school, what classes did I take, etc. My heart pounded in my ribs; there was something about this human that affected me in a way I’d never experienced. Although he was by no means blindingly attractive in the traditional GQ model sense, he possessed an energy that I couldn’t resist feeling drawn to. It was both exhilarating and terrifying.
The next evening, a soft knock on my dorm room door jarred me out of an intense scouring of Napster, the lilting lyrics of Fiona Apple’s “Tidal” softly emanating from my computer speakers. Not expecting any visitors this late, I peered through my peephole and nearly choked. It was Adam. I briefly hesitated, and then slowly opened the door to an unstoppable force of nature.
“Hey, Ella. Remember me?” he smiled.
I attempted to conceal my shock with feigned confusion. “Hmm…are you here to… take care of my thermostat problem?” His face broke into a dazzling smile and he quickly stepped forward to sweep me into a hug. Taking my head in his hands, he playfully kissed both cheeks in classic European fashion. He smoothly moved past me as I attempted to steady myself from his whirlwind energy.
I watched in fascination as this foreign creature deliberately took stock of my room. He appraised every inch of my humble nest, from my creatively strung christmas lights, to my framed hall family photos, to my black-and-green sunburst tie dye tapestry. “I LOVE your room!” he exclaimed. “It’s so cozy in here. My girlfriend would love it.” A tiny piece of my heart fell at these words. Of course, he has a girlfriend. How could someone like him NOT be already taken? I took him in as he took in my room; jet-black spiked hair, angular, chiseled features, small yet captivating brown eyes. Not much taller than me, but athletically enticing in his fitted black French Connection sweater and distressed Riccardi jeans.
Adam continued, “How did you manage to get a single?” I recounted how my first roommate had changed schools after one semester, and the vacancy had apparently evaded the school’s attention. He remarked on my good luck and proceeded to engage me in deep conversation about my friends, my major (or lack thereof), and my past relationships. There was no room for small talk; he insisted we go deep and I was instantly enchanted by his intelligence, wit, and charisma.
Late into the evening, a pause manifested itself into our vivid conversation. He began a lingering stare into my eyes, and immediately I felt unseated by his gaze. “You know, you have beautiful eyes,” he said softly. The hairs on my neck stood at attention; his gaze was penetrating into places I didn’t fully understand and was creating a buildup of electric charge akin to the moments before lightning strikes. I felt…vulnerable. He looked away and our conversation resumed its animated pace. Upon his late exit, I stood in the middle of my room attempting to comprehend what had just unfolded.
Several days later, Adam arrived again. We shared an Asian chicken ramen bowl and discussed the existence of God (or lack thereof, in his eyes). Then Adam showed up again two days after. After a few weeks, Adam was making nightly appearances. And each night, we would find new depths of our psyches to explore. Our conversations traversed many paths: musings on music, our high school experiences, my recent breakup, and relationship nuances with Lissa, his gorgeous high school paramour. Some nights, he would rave about her dark beauty, poise, and sharp wit. Other nights he would hint that he felt bored with her immaturity and restrained in their intimacy.
Adam’s nightly visits evolved into an unexpected real-world education for me. Our alchemical fire was stoked by our shared passionate and possessive only-child and Scorpio heritage. But that’s where our similarities ended. He was a silver-spoonfed prep school darling from Boston with terribly wealthy friends. This sharply contrasted with my modest, sober, and sheltered life in the verdant hills of Monmouth County, NJ. While my Friday nights entailed Star Trek marathons with my parents, he was dropping wads of cash with the Bostonian Euroset at the most exclusive clubs on Landsdowne Street.
As such, Adam pulled me into a world of indulgence and extravagance; trips to shopping malls upgraded from the Sears clearance rack to Armani Exchange and Diesel. He orchestrated my virginal dances with Mr. Long Island Iced Tea (complete with virginal hangover) and, most reluctantly, Miss Mary Jane. I had spent my entire high school career floating in a cloud of “smug” over my straight-laced substance avoidance. I had categorically dismissed anyone partaking in marijuana as aimless potheads whose literary contemporaries included Beavis and Butthead. But smoking up with Adam wasn’t just a means to get stupid; for us, he introduced it to me as exercise in examining depths on all facets of our short lives while watching the rhythms of Massive Attack’s trip hop beats undulate within the herbaceous clouds.
It was also an effective way to numb my increasing guilt over the emotional connection unfolding between us despite his monogamous shackles. As our tether strengthened in intellectual stimulation and emotional vulnerability, I began to fantasize about moments of weakness with our defenses lowered. The fact that I knew he was a passionate man and hadn’t made a move on me only stoked my fire. As a lover, I was quite unskilled and inexperienced, yet highly imaginative with a voracious sexual appetite for only the one I was infatuated with.
But Adam was no rookie in the lovemaking arena. His intimidating sexual roster consisted of ten gorgeous trust fund babies and Italian models by age 18. I did my best to ignore the fact that I was playing in a sandbox filled with quicksand. Oddly enough, Lissa was the roadblock I needed to protect myself from letting myself fall for him and our platonic veneer was my safety net. But I would later come to terms that this was the exact mechanism by which he would penetrate my defenses, his seduction cleverly concealed within a Trojan horse of chasteness.
But it wasn’t long for the canaries in the coal mine to begin singing their foreboding melody.
One evening at dinner the campus cafeteria, Adam made meaningful eye contact with a shifty brunette. He smiled devilishly and shouted, “Hey, Gia…” Observing her reaction, she merely returned the greeting with a snide half-smile and eye roll.
“Who is she?” I asked, unsure I wanted to know the answer.
“Oh, she’s just a girl from my hall,” he replied while avoiding my gaze. “Word on the street is, she has a massive crush on me, but we’re just good friends.” I left knowing there was more to this story, but ignorance was still bliss.
Another evening, one of my hall mates took me aside as I was heading back from the co-ed shower. “Ella, can I talk to you for a sec?” she asked.
“Sure thing sweets, come with me to get changed.” As I put on my favorite fuzzy pirate-themed pajamas, my friend recounted a story from one of her class acquaintances. Adam was the star.
“…my friend was in the a capella group last semester, but she dropped out this year. Adam began talking to her and then visiting her every day. When the Paupers took a trip to Philly for a show in October, he seduced her into having sex. She gave in even though she resisted at first because he has a girlfriend. She feels awful about it to this day. I don’t trust this guy, Ella. Will you promise you’ll be careful?”
Her warning landed like a jab to my throat. My instincts were already on high alert that I was walking a fine line of developing a friendship that looked and felt more like a relationship, minus the physical intimacy. And, that his charisma was well-practiced with other women. I nervously pushed aside my discomfort and attempted to reassure her.
“Thanks for telling me, sweetie, I really appreciate that you want to protect me. But listen, you don’t have to worry. We’re just good friends. I’m not even that attracted to him, and I would NEVER do anything to violate his relationship. Promise!” I meant to mean these words, and yet I couldn’t ignore a certain hollowness about them.
My dubiously reassuring words faded into the background several weeks later when I found myself dozing off in Adam’s bed after hours of conversation, too many Mike’s Hard Lemonades and a round on his bowl. The soft glow of his christmas lights and muted, droning beats of SneakerPimps had rendered me nearly comatose. His encouragement of me to stay over appeared well-intentioned enough, and the trek back to my hall seemed daunting akin to that of Lawrence of Arabia’s desert expedition.
Hours later, I groggily awoke to the sensation of hands traveling across my body.