Thursday, April 18, 2013

Here in Cologne

Delia started working in my office a few months after I did. I got on the phone with my best friend at the end of her first week and told him I’d met the prettiest girl I’d ever seen.

I learned more about her in the weeks to follow. She had roots in Upstate New York. She had sung in an a cappella group. She had come of age watching The X-Files. She loved Ben Folds.

In short, she quickly shaped up to be everything I’d ever thought I wanted in a woman.

The Ben Folds part is important.

I was at the unhappy tail end of long-term relationship when Delia and I bought tickets to see Ben Folds live in DC.

A couple weeks before the show, I broke off my relationship.

Delia and I left work early the day of the concert. I drove us down I-95, headed for the Greenbelt Metro Station, listening to a mix CD I’d put together for the occasion. A car to my left swerved and edged toward my lane. I watched that car and accelerated, aiming to clear it.

“Mike!”

Delia called out my name, but I was too slow to respond. Too slow to look straight ahead of me where, for no clear reason, a black SUV had stopped dead in the middle of the road. I slammed the brakes a second too late.

We pulled to the side of the road. I stepped outside to exchange information with the other driver. Delia came out, too. She touched my arm.

A police officer joined us and took a report. As we wrapped up, he looked at Delia, looked at me, and looked back to her. “Try not to distract this guy anymore.”

I suppose I was a little obvious.

We got to the DAR Constitution Hall just in time to hear the end of Missy Higgins’s opening set. Then Ben Folds took the stage.

I intended to hold Delia’s hand. Ideally during a song like “The Luckiest,” but anything slow and familiar would do. Little did I know Ben would, instead, spend the better part of two hours playing nothing but songs from his new album, dropping that week, plus alternate takes on the tracks that he had leaked to the Internet as a rib on fans who tried to stay ahead of the curve.

I hadn’t heard any of these songs.

More relevant, forty minutes into his set, he hadn’t yet played a song in anything approaching a minor key. Finally, I decided that the next song he played, I was going to make my move.

The song was “Free Coffee,” a fast-paced, upbeat meditation on the impact of fame on how people treat you, with an intro that sounds like something out of a 1980s video game.

The stuff of romance, it was not.

I took her hand.

She held my hand in return. Moved it to her lap, cupped the back of my hand in her other palm, and rubbed it slowly. When the song finished, I held up my free hand. We high fived in rapid succession to applaud, all the while keeping our other hands interlocked. Laughing.

Then Ben played “Cologne,” one of only two ballads on the Way to Normal album.

Four, three, two, one
I’m letting you go

I remember thinking the opposite. Dreading letting go. Vaguely offended Ben would raise the idea.

I, nonetheless, fell in love with the beauty of the song, just as I was falling deeper and deeper for the girl beside me.

We held hands all the way out of the theater, into the lobby, onto the street. She only let go long enough to pluck a free copy of The Onion from a newspaper rack.

Like I said, she seemed pretty perfect.

We held hands again, walking down a crowded DC sidewalk beneath rows of marquee lights. And I thought of my younger self, the skinny kid who couldn’t get a date to save his life, who used to walk alone along the dark, quiet roads of Utica, of Geneseo.

It felt like I had arrived.

We rode the train north, then got back in my car. I drove Delia home and walked her to the front stoop outside her apartment building, where I took both of her hands in mine and we had our first kiss.

And that’s where this story ends.

It’s easy to define a relationship based on the way it ended, and that’s unfortunate. On a long enough timeline, almost no relationships ends happily. There’s loss of interest. Growing apart. Infidelity. There are breakups and divorces, and death does us part.

Delia and I had stopped seeing each other within a month of that Ben Folds concert. In the aftermath, I took a disproportionately long period of time to get over it and to learn to appreciate our friendship.

I’m happy to say that the friendship has survived for years since, and serves as a profound refutation of the "nice guys" myth that "the friend zone" is a lousy consolation prize for a woman's romantic or sexual interest. Delia and I are better friends than we ever were (or probably ever would have been) romantic partners. And though it's strange to say, when I see her now, it's difficult to recognize her as anything but a friend--all of the feelings that once were so vital and heated have receded. Ancient, alien.

You can stay disappointed when a relationship doesn't work out. Suppress your best memories because it’s easier to move on when you demonize someone you used to care for.

But if you can remember your best moments and remember them for every bit of how good they felt at the time, I dare say you’ll live a richer life.

Every now and again, “Cologne” will surface on my iPhone and I’ll listen to it as I drive home. I’ll remember the hundreds of times I listened to the song that autumn years ago, feeling sorry for myself.

Then I’ll remember the very first time I heard it.

I’ll remember exactly how sweet life can be.

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