Two headlights split the Ravenna darkness. The landscape was silhouetted by muted moon glow. The trees, nearly bare, cast their leaves to the October wind. From the passenger seat of the sedan of the girl I loved, I thought of my very first voyage as a hopeless romantic.
Hopeless romanticism has sort of been my MO for most, if not all, of my life. The first girl I ever officially dated had been the love of my life since kindergarten. My earliest school memories are of the young Autumn Cymannova blowing me kisses from her table across the room. I never reciprocated her affections because boys don’t do those things. By second grade, she had given up on me, citing the fact that we had moved apart over the two years when we were in separate classes. It should be said that I never really appreciated Autumn early on, but, much like the proverbial ‘bird in hand,’ once she left, I missed her tons, and hoped amongst hopes that we would find each other again.
In 5th grade, our stars aligned once more. Autumn, beautiful as ever, sat directly to my left, our desks physically touching. The powers-that-be afforded a class with a Cymannova and a DeBiase and no one in between. My temples throbbed with the activity of sitting close to someone with whom you are secretly in love. She would lean over, dark wavy hair dipping over her shoulders and smelling of fallen leaves, to ask me if I had seen last night’s episode of Full House. Of course, I had, and we engaged in many deep conversations throughout our weekdays together. I finally found the stones to ask her out at the fifth grade roller skating party. During the last couple’s skate, I had my best friend and side kick Tom Napolitano go over and ask her for me. I watched from behind a Ninja Turtles arcade game as Autumn laughed in his face. Tom skated back over, tripping once on an empty can of Pepsi, and joined me behind the Turtles game.
“She said she’d skate with you as long as you don’t fall,” Tom said.
“I can’t promise anything,” I replied.
Subsequently, I tripped over the same Pepsi can that had impeded Tom’s progress seconds ago. Autumn and I met along the half wall bordering the hardwood rink. She warned that, despite our history, we would not be getting back together. I was still nothing to her. We held hands and circled the rink with all the other happy couples. We also absorbed countless ‘thumbs ups’ from my friends.
Nice job, DeBiase!
After the song was over, Autumn and I found ourselves against the half wall. She commented on the roundness of my face, laughing at how my puffy cheeks made me look like a chipmunk. On the car ride home, I looked in the sideview mirror and practiced sucking in my cheeks. My mom turned to me to ask a question and was greeted with my puckered face. She asked what the hell I was doing, not understanding the lengths people go to for those they love.
During Reading class the next day, her friend Jen approached me and asked if I liked Autumn. Liked? I thought. I’ve been in love with her since kindergarten! Of course I didn’t say that to Jen at the time, though I couldn’t deny an obvious mutual attraction. Later, as the class was leaving for recess, Autumn came over to me.
“Jen said that you like me and want to go out with me,” she said.
“Yeah, would you?” was my delicate and tactful response.
She spent the next three weeks deliberating, which, in retrospect, might have been a red flag. But she finally agreed. We were in Art Class. It was a Friday. I responded to the news by making her a heart out of clay that said ‘Autumn + Ryan Forever.’ She gave me a Hershey Kiss. That weekend, I bought her a teddy bear to further express my undying devotion. I assumed that she likewise was composing a piano concerto about the two of us, hand-in-hand, roller skating along the Mediterranean Coast. Monday at lunch, she dumped me.
Although we had only dated for a total of 70 hours, I knew it would take a long time to get over Autumn. I relayed this sad news to Jen on the way home from school. She was sympathetic, as she thought Autumn and I had been good together, and said she would be there if I needed her. By dinnertime, I was over it.
Still, it seems they always come back when you forget about them. Sure enough, Autumn came back to me several times. Several times she dumped me. And I never really lost my affections for her, even through junior high, when I briefly entertained the idea of leaving notes in her locker that alluded to a beautiful future together, you know, because of our rich history. Halfway through that year, I found out that I was changing schools and abandoned all hope of ever being with Autumn.
Fast forward to my first year of college—I am in love with a fellow freshman named Lauren Makenzie. Much like the onset my first romantic situation, I stayed predominantly in the background and used our mutual friends as informants. This time, I confided in dormmate Justin Hofmann.
“She said you’re cute,” Justin said, as I hid behind a pillar in the basement of a house party, “but a little dorky.”
“Dorky?” I said, slightly off-put. “Okay, I can see that.”
I responded by asking her to go to an opera, The Elixir of Love, put on by the Honors College. We went on said date and it went fine. We didn’t kiss at the end of the night. I took that as a sign and disappeared for a few weeks. Our paths crossed again and again and I found myself falling more and more in love with her. We went on a few more dates, but I still lacked the gumption to make a move. With summer break looming on the horizon, I resolved to make a move, and did—on the very last day before we moved out of the dorms. Not only did I express my feelings at the very end of our time together, I did so at the last possible minute. Confronted with my rambling expression of love at 3 in the morning, she did what any levelheaded 19 year old girl would do: she ran away. Literally. I made to kiss her and she ran out the door. I packed up my things and moved to Youngstown for the summer. Lauren moved somewhere near Toledo. I didn’t expect to hear from her again.
But she called, like they always seem to, right when I began to forget about her. We chatted it up for most of the summer, and my mobile phone bill shot through the roof with overages. My summer in Youngstown was mostly a lonely one, and I invested a tremendous amount of hope in the ensuing school year. Come August, Lauren and I were getting back together. I realized we hadn’t really been together in the first place but that didn’t bother me.
That fall, we went on a few more dates but nothing seemed to pan out. I suspected that she was seeing someone else, someone older, someone who could buy her winecoolers. Damn it. So I responded by disappearing again, which proved much easier than I thought, despite the fact that we lived in the same dorm. In the down time, I ineffectually sought after a rather stork-ish girl in my architecture classes. Lauren and I ran into each other again at a free jazz show in the lobby of Eastway Hall. I was with the stork, who I quickly ditched. Lauren and I ended up walking back to our dorm together, reminiscing on how much we enjoyed each other’s company. When I went to leave her in the stairwell, she dropped the line “I need to talk to you” with an air dually of leisure and utmost importance.
My heart jumped at the statement, though I reminded myself to play this thing close to the vest. The word ‘talk’ had innumerable connotations, and I had to remind myself to keep my thoughts in order. Believe it or not, I tended to have a habit of reading into things a bit too much. My thought process was a snowball expediting toward the base of a great snow-covered mountain. The sphere grew exponentially in girth and invited disaster to anyone or thing that should stray into its descending trajectory.
Lauren offered to take me for a drive, as she wanted to get away from the University for the evening. I agreed because, well, I would have gone anywhere with her at that point. She asked me to help her find some back country roads that lurked around the hinterlands of Kent. She wanted to see some scenery that reminded her of home. Lucky for her, I had spent most of that semester taking late night burn rides with my friend Amy. Ironically enough, it had been the steady diet of marijuana that had weaned me off of Lauren during the last few weeks of separation.
Now, the two of us were alone, chugging along Ravenna highways. My back road knowledge had brought her much joy and the memories came flooding forth. We were growing close again, like filaments collecting on a magnet, but would this exchange result in another collapse? I tried to take my mind off the situation at hand by counting the high voltage electrical towers as we passed them. 37, 38, 39. . .
The dash console summoned Lauren with a low fuel beacon.
“Oh,” she said, rather disinterested, “looks like we need gas.”
“I think there’s a station up the road,” I said.
Lauren lumbered the Bonneville next to the pumps as we reentered civilization for a brief Ravenna moment. When she went inside to pay for the refueling, I switched to the driver’s side. I don’t know why I felt the need to drive; it may have been an attempt to wrestle control of our situation. She had always been in charge, that could not be denied, and in all reality, she was in control regardless of who was driving. That’s the biggest problem with hopeless romantics—they’re too busy being a boat adrift in a current of love to grab hold of the oars and steer toward their own destination. And they use metaphor way too liberally.
When the tarmac halogens had faded in the distance and we found ourselves alone again on the empty road, I switched off the headlights. Now, if one has ever attempted this on an unlit street, he or she would know that the world completely disappears around you. Lauren and I were surrounded by a perpetually rolling blackness. I flipped the headlights back on and found Lauren holding her knees to her chest, frightened out of her mind. She cursed me, said I could have killed us both.
“I hate you, Ryan!” she yelled.
“But you have to admit that was pretty cool,” I said.
She started laughing and managed a choked, “Yeah,” before I switched the lights off again. This time, she screamed at the top of her lungs, out of terror and hilarity. The presumed success of the black-out inspired me to try something else. I pulled the car to the shoulder and stopped. The road was completely deserted in both directions and we could see for miles.
“What are you doing?” Lauren asked, not at all condescending, just curious.
“You can really see the stars when it’s dark like this,” I said. “Let’s get out and have a look.”
But Lauren was already climbing out. She became possessed with a zeal I tried very hard to ignore. I exited and lay down along the yellow dashed line. The cloudy sky did not encourage star gazing. Not that it would have made a difference to Lauren either way, for she was standing over top of me. Her wavy amber hair hung against her face, which looked upon me as if I had been run over. Nah, I thought, you ran me over 8 months ago, and pulled myself to me feet. I faced Lauren. We stood on opposite sides of the yellow line. The notion to kiss her seized me. This time it felt right. October wind whistled between barren branches and shifted leaves into loose piles. I placed my hand at the small of her back. She canted her chin up. She didn’t turn and run away. I mean, where would she have went? She wouldn’t have just left me marooned in the middle of nowhere, right? Of course, at the time, I wasn’t thinking about any of that. I wasn’t really thinking of anything other than how good it felt. We kissed on that anonymous Ravenna two lane. At long last, everything seemed to make sense.
Our embrace lasted about a minute before a distant rumble suggested an approaching car. We pulled away, laughed at the implausibility of our suit, and got back in the car. I drove us away from that place, having no real idea where we were and not really caring. As best as I could manage, I plotted a course back toward Kent. For a night, we had disappeared from the grid, collected under the sinewy clouds, and tried to find direction in our hazy lives. We drew together briefly, passionately, appropriately. But at the end of that asphalt ribbon laid Kent, college, and obligations. We would no longer be able to venture out on our own, to get lost in ourselves. Life, as always, would become more complicated, and our future very much reflected the naked trees, bald, rolling hills, and encompassing grey cloudscape.
Still, on that night, I could glance over and see Lauren’s smiling face, as we both tried to navigate our way home, through the dark, through each other, on a road to absolutely nowhere.