I had been in the library until 11:00 every night prepping my senior thesis on real estate finance. It was Friday night, which meant everyone would be at the townie bars — The Good Neighbor or Harry’s — or still trickling into the theater to see Four Weddings and a Funeral. I had bigger aspirations. More than the culmination of my coursework at Wharton, my thesis would cement my submission for my internship in corporate real estate in New York, my admission to the big leagues.
But the Journal of Finance with the Alan Greenspan article I needed was missing. After rechecking the card catalog to make sure, I headed for the circulation desk.
“Oh hey, Ronald!” the girl behind the desk perked up. Then I recognized her. Chelsea and I had been close freshman year — and more than a little competitive in business finance — before she suddenly transferred to liberal arts. She had bleached her hair and was wearing a flannel shirt around her waist like a counter-culture stereotype.
We reminisced and chatted about our lives, my internship and corporate goals, her second job at Borders and sharing poetry on Saturdays in the library basement. The journal I needed was checked out until next week, but as consolation Chelsea handed me her copy of Sweet Ruin and told me to give it a read — she dog-eared a couple pages — we could talk about it tomorrow night.
Two of the marked pages, History of Desire and Carnal Knowledge, piqued my interest about Chelsea’s intentions. But others were less obvious to me, concerning manhood, strength, finding your way. I guess nobody writes poems about earning money and wielding power. It probably leaves a bad taste in the mouths of the unwashed masses.
And unwashed masses were what I expected to find upon entering the library’s basement the next night — long-haired flower-children and dirty potheads thrumming a bongo and snapping their fingers. But the group was more diverse — faculty and minorities and a couple of guys who were probably gay. I recognized my old calculus TA and the delivery guy from the campus pizza. People shared poems about capitalism and gun violence and coffee chains. Chelsea’s dealt with people moving in circles and crashing into themselves over and over.
I thought about the last time we’d seen each other. We had been working. Even when we were hanging out we were working, with each other, against each other. We were in competition for the top. It was near the end of freshman year and we had been partners on a marketing project, pulling late nights in the union. The project was going to be presented to board members from the chamber of commerce for potential adoption, an excellent resume-builder.
Four days before our presentation, Chelsea didn’t show for our meeting. I couldn’t reach her at her dorm and she wasn’t going to class. Sabotage? No way. My efforts were her efforts, too. A day before the presentation, I had a message on the answering machine from her saying only to take her name off the project.
The proposal was enthusiastically accepted by the board and I worked all summer instituting the plan. Concerns about Chelsea took a backseat to worrying about doing all the work myself and making it a success.
“What did you think?” Chelsea’s voice was unusually soft.
I said it made me think of how I wished I could go back and do something differently, about what had made her walk away from the work she did so well.
“We spent so much time working on that project…I went home that night and couldn’t sleep. I wanted it to be perfect so I kept working and pushed myself but then all I saw were numbers. Just this river of numbers and I was caught in the current. I didn’t want to live my life fighting to swim in that. I didn’t feel the excitement. But — we always worked so well together.”
Everyone else had left by then. Chelsea took me upstairs to the AV archives. We put on Nevermind and talked about different what-if scenarios, how things might have gone differently. The tape had been over for an hour and we had been making out for even longer when I asked her to read her poem to me again. She said she’d do me one better, fishing around in cabinets for a recording mic.
“Now you can listen to it anytime you want” she said and kissed me long and deep, tucking the cassette in my jeans.
When I made it home it was almost morning but I popped the tape in my Walkman and fell asleep to Nirvana spliced with Chelsea on repeat.
I went back to the library every night, putting in less time on my thesis and more with Chelsea, making out in the archives and making up dreams about life after graduation, about freedom, about possibility and making an impact.
Chelsea had Thursday nights off and set a picnic at her apartment — blanket, candles, a six-pack of Zima, and Chelsea’s tape. In the blur of Nirvana music and hormones, she suddenly pulled away. “So what are we? Friends or old enemies?”
I kissed her back and slid my hand under her shirt in reply. Twenty minutes later we collapsed into a sweaty pile to the sound of her poem cooing through her speakers.
Friday morning I woke up late, Chelsea was still asleep. I decided to make us breakfast with the news in the background. I didn’t finish. I scrawled a note on her dresser and I left her sleeping there.
I told myself not to feel bad for leaving like that.
I dropped off my finished thesis. I would be leaving for New York to prepare for work.
All the airport TVs were spouting the same news. Police had found Kurt Cobain’s body.
I turned on my Walkman and drowned it out to the sound of Chelsea’s voice. I hoped she would understand my note: “Stay as you are, not as I want you to be.”