College. February. Best friend’s birthday party in a Chinese restaurant in downtown Binghamton, New York. Huge oval table and Madge is assigning seats. I see a cute guy sitting at the far end of table. I lean my head against hers. “Who’s he?”
Madge sighs. “That’s Joe. I told you about him.”
I, of course, can’t remember. I’m in love with another guy (I’ll call him “X”), one I hope will love me back — once he dumps his girlfriend. Not that he plans to. My friends keep trying to give me a heads-up, but my heart’s playing dumb.
Madge grabs my wrist. “Come on,” she says. A few strides later, she makes introductions: “Joe, Beth. Beth, Joe.” And off she goes.
I sit, and Joe and I begin talking about the one thing we have in common: Madge.
“How do you know each other?” he asks. I tell him Madge and I transferred to SUNY-Binghamton in our junior year and lived in the same dorm.
My turn: “And how do you know Madge?”
Turns out Joe is Jeff’s roommate, Jeff being Madge’s boyfriend. A light bulb goes off. Oh, that Joe; the one Madge had, indeed, mentioned and wanted to set me up with. Interesting.
Joe and I shift our conversation to college majors. His is botany. At present he’s studying the lifecycle of the phaseolus vulgaris,aka the common bean. I’ve nothing to say — a bean is a bean is a bore — but I nod somewhat enthusiastically because he’s cute and nice, which is a somewhat unusual combination in a guy in his early 20s.
Joe asks me what my major is.
“Comparative religion,” I say, ready for the inevitable question: “What’re you going to do with that?” To which I’ll inevitably reply, “Pray for a job.” (Actually, I don’t want a job; I want to write, though I’d probably make more money comparing religions.) Joe, however, seems to think comparing religions is interesting, which makes me think he is not only cute and nice but also intelligent.
Our Chinese dinner wraps up and Joe asks if I’d like to go to his lab. Yeah, right. Your lab. What a line. But what the hell. It’s Saturday night and I have absolutely nothing else to do but wonder what “X” and his girlfriend are doing. Yes, I will go to Joe’s lab.
Turns out, Joe really does want to go to his lab to check on his beans. So I go with him and nod (and almost nod off) as he discusses their anatomy. A couple of hours later, it becomes evident that my anatomy is of no interest to him, and I head home.
Flash forward two weeks. Beginning of March. I decide to call Joe. Maybe his beans are done growing. Besides, “X” is still with his girlfriend, and I’m beginning to think I should move on.
Joe is happy to hear from me. I suggest we get together. “Sounds great!” he says, “I’ll call you this summer, when I’m done with my classes.”
Summer?! Did I mention it is the beginning of March?! I get off the phone and wonder which is worse: waiting for a guy who prefers another woman, or waiting for a guy who prefers beans?
Summer rolls around and, true to his word, Joe calls. We go to a Greek restaurant, where we order octopus and Ouzo, a Greek liquor that doubles as paint thinner. Joe’s still cute and nice, but there’s no spark, even after shots of Ouzo.
We see each other a couple more times over the next year: a couple of dinners; a hike. I graduated, prayed for a job and got one with a consumer group. He worked in a factory, saved a bunch of money, packed up his old Datsun and started driving around the country. North and South and East and West.
The Western leg turned out to be the most important leg of his journey. It brought him to L.A. one evening in late July. It just so happened I was in L.A. that night, and when he walked through the door, he was as cute and nice as I remembered. This time there was no talk of beans. But there was a spark.
To be continued…