It was the first term of my first year at college, maybe October. In Michigan it snows early; we’d already been through a couple of freeze thaw cycles.
We were 18. We barely knew how to walk around inside our own bodies. Everything felt new and perilous as lava pooling at the Mid-Atlantic Rift. We demanded the kind of everyday intensity reserved for religious fanatics and the prescient few who know they are participating in Important Historical Moments.
What we actually had was a free weekend and two handles of 5 O’Clock: one vodka, one gin. This early in the term, nobody had anything important due on Monday. When you’re 18 and set loose in a dorm, the party starts when a friendly upperclassman arrives with booze and ends, well, no one is sure. Weekends shambled along and we leaned into their momentum. We bashed into each other with about as much finesse as icebergs. We meant to be human.
C and I had graduated from the same small high school, though I hadn’t known her very well. Her roommate was a new friend, and their room was the locus of the party. However drunk we were, she was farther along. She needed to tell us things that were important, we couldn’t understand how much this mattered. Even then I couldn’t keep track of the details. It had to do with a close friend, a boy at a different college, one she’d never dated and to my knowledge never did. C talked and wept and would not be consoled.
I must have said and done as many stupid things as anyone else, but I remember the party as if I were an anthropologist. I was terrified of slipping out of control, which was a subset of being terrified of unfamiliar social situations, which was a subset of being terrified of of human interaction. I like to think I’ve improved since. The safest way through the night was to focus on the unimportant. I could try to tidy up the detritus of the party. I could fuss over C. I could monitor the new and strange physical sensations of Being Really Drunk Right Now. This was also when I learned that 5 O’Clock anything brings its own special variety of hangover, a clenching headache that comes down the night of, while you are actually still drunk. Damned if the liquor won’t leave your body without a fight.
C wasn’t doing well. She wouldn’t drink water, couldn’t stop crying, wouldn’t sit down, felt sick but wouldn’t come down the hall to the bathroom. “Don’t tell me what I know about love,” she said. “Don’t -tell me what I know!” And then she puked on her shoes.
She tried to shoo us out, swore she’d clean up everything, and started fumbling around for paper towels. Many years later I would recognize her sense of shame in my own behavior. We did what we knew how to do. Shh, shh, cup of water, wash your face, sleep. The party had exploded itself.
We were half-drunk the next morning and hung over for days. Tuesday midday I remember sitting in our corner of the dining hall and feeling the world pivot to steady. It was a relief to come down. I don’t think I kept a journal at that time, but I hung onto that phrase: Don’t tell me what I know about love. Sometimes writing is just listening to people and telling their stories back to them so they can hear their writers own beauty. I kept C’s words in reserve for a poem I knew I’d write.
When I finally built a poem around that line it wasn’t a love poem. I’m not sure if I have that in me. Instead it was a poem about love in the abstract. I read it as an invocation at the wedding of two friends. Their marriage disintegrated in 18 months. Only one is still a friend. So maybe you could tell me what you know about love? My friends and I are clearly hopeless.
ENDNOTES: You can read the poem in question on my personal blog: http://katherinemarty.tumblr.com/