I tried not to stare, but it's hard to ignore somebody with bloodshot eyes and whose face is red from some emotional outpouring. As I walked by, I tried to not make eye contact.
The woman asked me if I had an extra cigarette. She had that all-trembling-from-a-good-cry in her voice. I bummed her a smoke, lit it for her. She stared at me for a few seconds, like that act was the nicest thing anyone had done for her in a long time.
Why the hell do women find the act of a guy lighting a cigarette for them so damned shocking?
* * * *Even if I were to quit smoking tomorrow, I'd still carry a lighter for just such a purpose. I was raised in the South, for chrissakes. With a very Old South great-grandmother living only a few hundred yards away from where I grew up, there was no way for me to avoid picking up a few nasty habits of the Southern Gentleman.
Sure, I can be crass, shocking, and be downright vulgar at times. But if you grew up hearing the legends and tall tales of your ancestors, ones involving pistols at 20 paces over spurned daughters in the 1800s, shared bloodlines with Robert E. Lee and ancestral claim to ancient Virginia and Louisiana plantations, you'd probably have a few nasty habits you'd pick up as well...
* * * *I asked the woman if she was doing okay.
Nope. Emotionally distraught over some high school sweetheart, now a student at another university, whom she'd just caught cheating in his dorm room when she showed up unannounced last weekend, she had a week's worth of exams lined up in just about every General Education course known to man.
She was trying to get caught up on her required reading from the previous week, trying to make notecards for studying as she'd always done, trying to just bury her pain long enough to maintain her 3.7 GPA. But her ex-boyfriend kept texting her, leaving voicemails, quasi-stalking her online.
After catching him cheating, she had apparently gone to one of her best friends for solace, who'd confided in her that she'd slept with the girl's boyfriend, that he cheated on her on Prom Night senior year, that he'd been cheating on her over the whole course of their puppy-love relationship...
And now that it was over, and she was left crying on park benches, he wanted to "get back with" her, he missed coming down to the Local U. to "see her," i.e. drink beer in her dorm room and eat off her dime...
She finally looked up, apologized for wasting my time, bummed another cigarette off me, and went back to studying and sniffling.
The only thing I asked was if she were okay.
I told her it would all be fine and to just suck it up. Guys are like bags of potato chips - one flavor gives you heartburn, chuck it and choose the Sour Cream and Chives.
Then I walked away.
* * * *
I headed up to a bar to hold a not-so-professional conference call with a Local U. alum/blog reader who wanted the sordid details of my recent love triangle and the Jack Nicholson thing. (Still don't understand why, exactly, 18-22 year-old women seem to find it fascinating that a 28-year-old librarian has - gasp! - a fucked up personal life.)
At one point in the conversation, while on my second Red Needle, I mentioned the incident. I laughed. It's a bit silly to get all worked up about some stupid high school sweetheart.
The Local U. Alum made a sound halfway between a gasp and a sigh. Apparently, I sounded like such a guy and that my advice was way too harsh to lay onto a 19-year-old. For all I knew, the Alum implied, the girl could've been contemplating suicide or on the verge of a serious midterms-driven nervous breakdown.
While, yes, my bumming a cig and simply listening was indeed gentlemanly, my lack of compassion, in spite of my own problems, was not. The potato chips analogy? Completely inappropriate.
Have I ever mentioned that certain women are able to guilt me into doing almost anything, even leaving a bar to wander back towards work at seven, just to make sure some girl was still alive and not insane.
A major character flaw. I blame it on the whole Southern Gentleman thing.
* * * *
So I walked back towards work. The girl in question was still on the bench, still scribbling onto notecards, still getting random text messages from her cheating ex boyfriend, still building her mountain of snotty used tissues.
I walked by, smiled ... and walked right on into my library. I must've looked like an idiot to the patrons studying behind the periodicals as I browsed the journals in my own frigging library, occasionally peaking out the window.
Oh, now this is pretty damned embarrassing.
What the hell was I supposed to say, anyway? I'm not Doctor Phil. I haven't dealt with the whole heartbroken 19-year-old undergrad thing since, well, I was 19 - almost a decade ago. Even then, I had more in common with the girl she'd caught in her ex's dorm room.
Hell, I was engaged to a stripper when I was 19, smack-dab in the middle of my "hoochie phase," falling in and out of love with women who sported gang tattoos and who had criminal records. I worked three jobs - student, sports reporter, and complete and total bastard.
What kind of advice can I give a college student in the midst of that stereotypical college-aged break-up with the high school boyfriend?
Rather than continue to hide in my library, I finally sucked it up and decided to, well, at least try to act my age. I'd already apparently been a cold, heartless tool; why not at least provide some comic relief as I try not to look like a creepy old guy, prying into somebody's business...
* * * *
So I went outside, found the girl sitting in the same place. I tried to play it cool - I asked her how the study session was progressing.
The girl looked up at me, said hi ... and broke down when she looked back down at her stack of index cards. She just shuddered; no tears.
Oh, for fuck's sake.
* * * *
I just stood there, again, looking like an idiot. I tried not to think about what the girl's fellow students must've thought as they walked by.
Sometimes, I hate having to be a human being.
I sat down next to the girl, and she again spilled her guts. The boyfriend had just arrived in Oxford and was on his way to meet her. He was bringing flowers. She showed me his text messages - the first 40 or so outlined how it was all her fault for his cheating, she shouldn't have gone to college here, and the oh-too-cliche a man has needs. The last 20 or so were apologies.
The last message? It was the all-or-nothing, you'll - do -what- I -tell - you kind of message only a barbarian would send to a woman. In a nutshell, the guy basically stated that because he drove all the way down to Oxford, because he'd brought flowers, he expected she'd just take him back and sleep with him, because he's a playa that every girl at _______ University wants to hook up wit.
For fuck's sakes, who raises guys like this? Do they have mothers, or did some editor at Maxim just pop one too many laxatives? Playa? Please. Dude, I saw the pictures on the girl's phone. Who the flying fuck wants to play with Eminem's dumbass brother?
I asked the student if she wanted to see the guy. She said what I'm pretty sure was no, since my suggestion that maybe we should get her some food was met with a nod and the packing up of her stuff.
* * * *
We walked up to one of the Uptown convenience stores. I bought the microwave burritos and the turkey jerky, since she didn't have any money.
She told me, as we ate, that that was the first meal a guy had ever bought her. The asshole boyfriend? She's picked up the tab on every meal they've ever had together, going back five years. She didn't have any legal tender, in fact, because she'd just paid his cell phone bill.
I walked her back to the library. She told me just about every frustrating and infuriating thing she'd experienced as a stereotypical Local U. undergraduate. The stress caused by trying to be perfect, trying to get those perfect grade, trying to be the perfect girlfriend, roommate, the perfect human being on her way to some imaginary perfect life.
And I listened. I just let her vent. In fact, at one point, I encouraged her to scream, to let loose all of the anger that goes along with discovering that there's no such thing as a perfect human being.
We spent a good two hours talking in my office. At one point, she looked at her cell - the Playa had sent her another 10 messages and left four voicemails. She started to text him back. I asked her why she would bother.
She looked at me, grinned. Then she asked me if I'd answer her phone the next time the Playa called. She really just wanted to study and needed to pull an all-nighter at my library anyway; talking to me apparently helped her feel better and ready to get her eyes back on the Higher Education prize.
Five minutes after I agreed, her phone rang (one of those god-awful quasi-muzak ringtones). She handed me the phone.
For a whopping 23 seconds, I was some Geography senior named Roger. And _____ was in my shower. And it was none of your business, bra. I asked the Playa if he was her little brother up at ______ University, the one with only one testicle...
Hey, when you've spent the majority of the last decade as the perpetual fling and escape hatch guy, you learn exactly what to say to completely crush the self-esteem of a would-be playa. It's those lifeskills librarians rarely need to use at work that often come in handy at the strangest times...
I know. It's immature. It's completely unprofessional. Juvenile, stupid, and petty.
But she got a kick out of it. Sometimes, information overload, even the kind caused by asshole playa ex-boyfriends, can best be treated with a good, ol' fashioned "Fuck You" aimed squarely at the source of anxiety.
And it made her laugh. When he called back, I made sure she had the number for the local police handy if he decided he wanted to continue waiting outside of her dorm.
She had week's worth of exams; she didn't have time to fuck with cheating ex-boyfriends.
While waiting for her roommate to call back to confirm that he had indeed left, I even helped her locate five resources for one of her papers, showed her how to search JSTOR like a pro, and taught her my patented paper writing tricks.
And downloading the all important Fuck All Men I'm Here to Fucking Graduate iTunes playlist. How is it that there are 19 year-old women, on any college campus, who've never thought to listen to Riot Grrl tunes whilst trying to get schoolwork done, post-breakup?
Good information literacy skills require a soundtrack designed to channel just such aggression into the creation one badass student scholar.
Yeah, not too gentlemanly. But, well, nobody's perfect.
* * * *
Listener, Information Literacy instructor, Completely Hardcore Librarian, and Pisser-offer of Patron Ex-boyfriends.
Not a bad way to spend a few extra hours at the office, actually.