On my 12th anniversary, I ran into an old friend. Sitting on a low wall at Legoland waiting for three of my five children to emerge from an exhibit, I saw Brian walk past. He was pushing a stroller. He was walking with his wife Olivia and a little boy with a head full of soft, brown curls. Brian looked older, but I would have known him anywhere.
Half a lifetime ago, when I was in college, Brian was a medical student at UCSD. I met him at a party at a friend’s house in South Mission Beach. I liked him right away. Brian moved toward me on the dance floor and said he liked my shoes. He had a head full of soft, brown curls, deep-set brown eyes, and an air of intelligent mischief about him. I remember leaving the party to walk down to the beach with Brian. We talked and kissed. We drove to Denny’s and ate breakfast at three in the morning. He drove me back to my friend’s house, and we watched the winter sun rise over Mission Bay.
Not long after I met Brian, I found out he had a girlfriend. A real girlfriend named Olivia who was going to law school in Berkeley. They had been college sweethearts. They intended to stay together. I was disappointed, naturally. Brian was Jewish, which at the time seemed exotic and mysterious to me. I grew up in Mammoth, where everyone was a WASP or a redneck. He was as smart as anyone I’d ever met. He treated me like I was smart. We talked about books and music and movies. Brian had money, which I did not. For college graduation, his father, a doctor, had given him a brand-new silver Mazda RX7. I didn’t have a car. I rode the bus or walked to school, to my job, to my little apartment in Pacific Beach.
Early on in our relationship, when we had determined that I wasn’t willing to sleep with Brian without being his girlfriend, we decided to become friends. For the next two years, we were “friends.” We went to movies together. We went skiing together. We went out to eat. We shopped. We hung out together at many, many parties and danced and drank the way you can when you’re in your early 20s and you have no real responsibilities. Underneath our friendship ran a deep, strong current of sexual tension. I knew that Brian was mostly faithful to Olivia. But I couldn’t help but hope day after day after day that he would someday dump her and I would move from “auxiliary girlfriend” to “real girlfriend.”
The irony of this hope was not lost on me the many times Brian let me drive him to the airport so he could fly to Berkeley to spend the weekend with Olivia. He left the RX7 with me so I could pick him up on Sunday night. I remember driving alone in Brian’s car down toward La Jolla Shores late on a winter afternoon. The eucalyptus trees looked black against an orange sky and the deep blue water. I blasted “Missing You” by John Waite on the stereo and breathed deep Brian’s smell. I took the corners a little too fast.
Brian and I only slept together once — a drunken, awkward groping late in my senior year. I honestly don’t remember exactly what happened that night. We played pool at a bar in Leucadia until the place closed. We went back to Brian’s house on the beach in Del Mar. I do remember the horrible silence when he drove me to work the next morning. I knew nothing would change. I knew a single night’s indiscretion wouldn’t elevate me to real girlfriend status. But when someone told me later in the morning that a man was on the phone for me, my heart leapt. Maybe it was Brian. Maybe he would say he’d had a good time. “Anne,” an unfamiliar voice came over the line. “This is Professor G. The faculty in the history department has voted you the most outstanding student. You’ll be getting an award at graduation.”
I should have been ecstatic. Instead, I was disappointed.
Brian graduated from med school. He married Olivia. They live in Los Angeles. She’s a lawyer. I went to law school. I am happy to stay home with my kids.
At Legoland, Brian smiled his old sardonic smile. Olivia said, “You have five children?”
I wanted to say a lot of things. I wanted to tell Olivia, “I’m sorry I was so stupid and selfish. I should have respected your relationship more. I shouldn’t have spent so much time and energy trying to take him away from you.” I wanted to tell Brian, “I should have respected myself more and not settled for always playing second string.”
Instead I said, “This is Angela and Lucy and Johnny. Jack is over on the airplane ride with Rebecca and Ben.”
“What’s the age range?” Olivia asked. “My oldest is almost 11, and my baby just turned 3.”
A few minutes later after a few more pleasantries, I hugged Brian good-bye. The sun was almost down, and the trees looked black against a pearl blue sky. I gathered Johnny and Lucy and Angela around me and headed off to find Jack.