by Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman
Have you ever had a crush—the type that sends poetry bubbling to the lips? Who hasn’t?
One minute you’re sitting on your mat in the kindergarten sharing circle, peaceably noshing graham crackers and milk, and the next, that boy with short blond hair and flinty grey eyes—Marty Fishburn!—rocks the planet. Not that he knows it. He’s too busy unraveling his paper straw, and shows more interest in the fly that lands on the teacher’s head than in you.
Later, when you’re mature, words are required to get a crush rolling. You’ve acquired some confidence in your powers of attraction. A cute cashier in the college bookstore crooks an eyebrow and asks about your day, and you respond with a direct look and sunny smile. Experience leads you to expect a fair fight—or at least an entente cordiale in which both parties attend the negotiations. It might take weeks before you realize you’re not the only customer in the checkout line being checked out. But it’s too late and now you’re besotted. Only careful consideration of the dirt under his nails gives you any hope of recovery.
The most complicated crush of all—and now you know you’re getting older—is one on an institution. It starts insidiously, when you head to the old alma mater for reunion day. Here is the ivy-covered bell tower and the scruffy classrooms where you spent many a day in mild contemplation of the trees outside the window. There is the corner behind the chapel where night-blooming jasmine caresses the walls and you gave up a kiss twenty years earlier. What was that boy’s name?
The soft pump of sprinklers is the only sound when you take an early walk along brilliant lawns while shiny undergraduates set out scones in the alumni center. You pause under a shady oak tree, inspired to scribble a few lines that might turn into a new story. It’s always peaceful on a college campus in the morning, and the woodsy perfume of wet mulch wafts up from pansies that have been planted just in time for your arrival. You—and a thousand others.
Is it your imagination or are students smarter than they were twenty years ago? Logarithms sprawl across blackboards glanced through open doorways. Colorful posters announce lectures by famous writers of whom you’ve never heard, while laughter flashes from the window of a seminar room. What would it be like to be inside that glorious building once more?
Professors with bulging foreheads stroll the quad with far away expressions that suggests E=MC2 in the hopper. You look critically at the lines you’ve written and close the notepad. They wouldn’t fetch a gentleman’s “B,” you fear.
You’ve entered snowball phase. You now love your old school more than when you were a student. Fortunately, the reunion ends before you can get into too much trouble. Monday finds you back in the real world.
Unless, as happened to me, you are suddenly given—voila!—the gift of a year’s residency at the old college. I’m a professor at San Diego State, and last year I won a writing fellowship at my alma mater, Stanford, which has an endowment rivaling the treasury of a European principality.
So I arrive with my research notes and sturdy rolling backpack. A pencil protector isn’t far behind.
The visit starts innocently enough. I’m issued keys, including one to the building next to the iconic bell tower. Roses grace the foyer. My new office is large, with freshly washed windows overlooking the old stone library. At State, the maintenance staff doesn’t do windows. Ever.
A new computer arrives. I log onto the precious university website with its endless collection of e-books and journals available only to subscribers. Bingo! My new ID number and I’m in the castle.
I can just feel brain cells multiplying. Words crowd onto the page, jostling to get there first. I kick out second drafts with the speed of a laser printer.
Crumpled pages that miss the wastebasket are gone the next day, as if Aladdin’s genii worked for Facilities Management. At a public school, trashcans are emptied once a week. Communal bins placed in crowded hallways help out when an unfinished cheese sandwich turns ugly on day three or a redolent banana peel becomes embarrassing.
Every week the elite alma mater seems a little more posh until, at the end of the second month, it hits me. I have a hopeless case of unrequited love. This university may enjoy flirting, but it will never be my steady. My heart is swelling and breaking at the same time.
Until the morning when I pass the bell tower as the gardeners are sprucing the campus for graduation weekend. A protective mask over his nose and mouth, the friendly worker gives me a nod and turns back to his task, spray-painting the lawn a bright emerald.
So that’s how they keep the grass greener at a private college.
It took a few months, but I finally got over my crush. Thankfully. My overheated writing pace steadied into a routine that I could maintain when I returned to State.
The best moment in an infatuation is when it ends. But please don’t tell Marty Fishburn that I still like him.