The Phenomenology of Religion

Debra Spark

The first thing I did when I got to college was acquire a boyfriend. I hadn’t had one in high school, hadn’t managed to wrestle a single kiss out of an oversexed teenager, and I thought it was time to get down to business. Before classes started, I went to the bookstore with a group of students whom I’d met in the dorm. We scattered as we crowded into the textbook section with the rest of the university’s population. My parents had put $300 for books in my checking account, so I didn’t feel the anxiety that others might have while picking out books. I was excited to see what I was getting into for the next few months. I’d been a smart girl in a large, unchallenging Midwestern high school and now I was in the brainy Northeast, ready to learn.

The group—we were three boys and two girls—agreed to gather at the bookstore entrance after we’d braved the long cashier lines and made our purchases. Then we were going to have pitchers of beers at a pizza place. It was where, we’d been told, everyone liked to go, and we were eager to try it out, all of us still flushed with the idea that we were really at college. Outside, and relieved by our accomplishment, we pulled books out of our bags to show the others. It was the usual reading, I suppose, for students of that era. The Iliad, Dante’s Inferno, Introduction to Microeconomics, Walter Lippman’s Public Opinion, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Mary Daly’s Gyn/ ecology. From my own bag, I pulled a particularly large tome: Hans Kung’s Does God Exist? It was for an upper-level religious studies class that I was determined to take, even though I’d likely be the only freshman in it. I didn’t believe in God myself—cancer, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and rogue waves were among my arguments against divinity—but I was fascinated with people who did believe. I meant to get to the bottom of it. Not just by taking the class, but by meeting the people in it. “Big book,” one of the boys quipped, cocking his head in the direction of my book bag. I couldn’t remember his name, but later learned it was Stephen. “Big question,” I said in the same clipped “I’m being funny” tone. For some reason, this cracked us all up, and for the rest of the evening, we kept repeating the four words in some sort of joke form. When our large glasses of beer came at the pizza place, someone said, “Big glass,” and someone said, “Big thirst,” and so it went.

Stephen made a point of sitting next to me at the pizza place, or maybe I only thought this, because I was trying to sit next to him. “What’s the actual name of this course you’re taking anyway?” he said.

“Phenomenology of religion,” I said.

“Phenoma-who?” the boy beside him hooted.

“Don’t make fun of her,” Stephen said.

“He defends me. I love him!” I said, trying my hand at flirting, which got me out of trying to explain the idea behind the course, which I only loosely grasped from the course description anyway. I thought the course would be about how religion exhibits itself in the world. Not historically or ethnographically but existentially. How religion is. But I wasn’t going to say something that pretentious out loud. Stephen told me what classes he was taking, where he came from (a Boston suburb), what he was hoping to do (become a lawyer), and what clubs interested him (debating, if they had that here, he didn’t know). He’d been involved in the Model UN in high school and had really liked that. I didn’t have much of an answer for the questions he asked me in return, save for the one about where I was from (a suburb of Cleveland). It didn’t really bother me when he immediately made fun of how boring Cleveland was. I thought it myself. He was tall and well-built with sandy hair and a nice face, though it was pitted with old acne scars. My own looks were problematic. In high school other girls used to say, “I wish I had your figure,” so I’d developed some confidence there. I gathered it meant I was slim and had nice breasts. Well, I was, and did. But my eyes were set too close in my head, and I knew it made people think, at first, that I might be retarded (the word we used then). People told me this, of course, which was how I knew. People weren’t educated into politeness as they are now. Like my older sister, whom I considered a beauty, I had long straight reddish brown hair and pale skin. But unlike her I had a protuberant dark mole on my nose, just where the crease was, and I couldn’t get over this flaw, and it seemed others couldn’t either. “You’ve got a chocolate chip on your nose,” a boy said in grade school, and after that, people called me Chip till my mother went to school and got a teacher to put a stop to that. As a girl I’d study my left profile in the mirror. I thought I might be pretty that way, but head on, everything was off. My eyes had a way of making me look crooked. And from the right side, I thought I looked repulsive. I’d made my mother take me to a surgeon, so I could get the mole cut off, but he said given where it was located, it couldn’t be done.

My mother found me some story where a husband surgically removes his wife’s one flaw and then she dies. Perfection not being for this world. That was the tsk-tsk moral of the narrative. I didn’t take to this tale. There was a lot that was wrong with me and wanting the ugly thing off didn’t make me shallow, did it?

Luckily, my flaws were not an issue for Stephen, and later it was not an issue that I didn’t want to have sex. I was probably the only college-age girl in that era who wasn’t ready to lose her virginity, but I was scared for reasons that are obscure to me now. Still I loved making out with Stephen. It made me dizzy with pleasure, by which I mean I’d actually get lightheaded. Times when sex was clearly impossible—as when we were visiting his parents in their suburban house or driving down the highway to a football game—I’d pretend to want it (and I actually thought I did), but once screwing (it’s what we said instead of fucking back then) was practical, I was scared again. Stephen must have had some issues, too, because he seemed to be of the same mind. He told me a college girl had raped him in high school, a claim that now strikes me as curious in numerous ways, but there were certain things I didn’t want to explore then. Whatever the case, we couldn’t keep our hands off of each other. I’d go to his room and we’d make out—dry humping, as they call it—and then he’d get angry at me for having interrupted his studies. He was very serious about his work, and I never got why  he was so mad. I was naïve and hadn’t likely put together that he’d have come in his underwear and now had that mess to deal with, and perhaps a shortage of clean underwear, before he could get back to his studies. I assume now that was what the anger was about. I can’t think of anything else.

There’s a lot I don’t remember about that relationship, which is surprising, since it was my first. I remember Stephen’s roommate saying something about all the drama we always had, and I have since wondered if that included me, too, since in my opinion, it was Stephen who was dramatic, and I was just a regular person. Stephen would get sullen if he thought I wasn’t paying attention to him. I remember a walk where he shoved me off the campus path, because he was so angry, but I don’t now remember about what.

In the end, Stephen’s mood and temper wore on me, and I broke up with him. I had the idea that, given this first college success, I’d have another boyfriend soon enough (my face notwithstanding). But I didn’t. I had crushes, one after another, endless unfulfilled longings, but no one returned my affection. Sometimes in my dorm bed at night I’d feel lonely as the moon, a dumb cold rock in the sky, with no visitors since the moon landing so long ago.

One year, on a school break, my parents and sister and I went to Tucson, where we visited the San Xavier Mission. A guide explained that the sculpture of a rope that wrapped three sides of the nave was like the belt that the Franciscan monks wear, and it was placed so as to suggest encircling the congregation, pulling everyone together. I so liked that idea. Was religion, in the end, just about loneliness? I remember thinking at the time. Was all my curiosity about belief a failure to get this most obvious point? A member of the tour group raised her hand and observed that the Franciscans used their rope belts to flagellate themselves. No, I answered myself, no, it was not.

After college, I went back to Cleveland and worked as a photographer. Like most independent photographers, then and now, weddings were my bread-and-butter, which seemed increasingly ironic as the years went on, since I had no more luck with men out of college than I had had in. Of course, I did finally lose my virginity, and I got into a few short things with men. Nothing to talk about. I never found anyone who made any sort of sense to me, though I tried to pretend otherwise. I remember once awkwardly forcing myself to play footsie with a man under a restaurant table, playing at passion, I suppose, because I thought he’d like it. I don’t know why. He shook his foot away in frank irritation. It was an error from which the relationship, such as it was, could not recover. I couldn’t get anywhere with my hopes for myself. It took me a lot of years, but I finally decided the whole middle section of the country was not for me. When a college friend decided to sublet her New York apartment—she was going to San Francisco to live with her boyfriend—I took it. It was small and dark, but in the Upper West Side, near the subway line, and it didn’t cost much, because it was rent controlled. I had to keep my friend’s name above the doorbell, so as not to get in trouble, and that made it confusing for the mailman and friends, but otherwise I loved the place. I was very lonely for about a year, but then I took a class at the International Center for Photography on large format printing. For over a decade in Cleveland, I’d thought of myself as a service photographer, but I’d fantasized about getting back into art photography: the stuff you do in college, before you realize a lot of people want to do that sort of photography, but no one much wants to look at it. Maybe I just had a knack for making friends in an academic environment, because after that photography class, I had a group I hung out with. Friends introduced me to friends, and I started going to a lot of art openings, and soon enough I didn’t feel like I had to arrange to meet someone at the openings before I went. I could just go and count on running into people there and not feeling stupid after I’d looked at the photos and sipped some wine and eaten a cube of cheese.

Friends got married, though, in the way they do. New York is probably the one place in the country where that doesn’t entirely matter. People retreat into couples but new people always come around. Still my undesirability became a heavier and heavier weight as the years passed. “There really aren’t any good men,” other single friends would complain, and the truth was I didn’t really know of any myself. It was hard, I suppose, to feel rejected when there wasn’t even anyone out there to reject you. In those days, there was some statistic going around about the odds of meeting a man in New York City, and it didn’t look good for anyone least of all me, what with my face and the air of brittle spinsterhood I sometimes saw in the mirror when I pulled my hair away from my forehead.

I started going to a therapist, which everyone seemed to do back then. I was still photographing weddings but also parties in general, bar and bat mitzvahs, anniversaries. In my own life, I felt outside the world of celebration. I had my family, of course, but they didn’t have those kinds of events, and I thought I’d always be excluded. Jerry Books, my boss at the agency I worked for, was pretty nice, and when I told him I wanted him to switch me to the non-wedding events, he said, “I hear you,” like the last thing he ever wanted to do in his life was attend a wedding. Well, we both might have considered a different form of employment then, I suppose.

After a few years, a kind of funny thing happened in therapy, which was I remembered a boy in college. Not his name, but I remembered a lot about him, and I wasn’t sure why I’d forgotten him. Immediately, I remembered his whole crowd, which wasn’t my crowd exactly, but a group I used to sit with in the dining hall, when my friends weren’t around. I had met this group through a boy named Chris. Chris something. I couldn’t remember his last name either, and as I told the story to my therapist I was surprised by all I couldn’t haul out of my brain, but I did remember that Chris took a Buddhism class with me, and we got to be friends, walking to and from class. He was handsome, pale-skinned, dark-haired with an always smiling face, and sometime it made me felt better about myself to be around an attractive person.

In contrast to Chris’s good looks and physical ease, the rest of his crowd was awkward: a dutiful very overweight couple who looked already to be in deep middle age, a very scrawny woman who didn’t wash her hair, a nervous curly haired guy who had what we now would call OCD but only seemed strange then for needing to spend dinner turning everyone’s forks so the tines faced down. Otherwise, he had the feeling they would poke him in the eyes. There was also a goofy guy who stumbled a little when he talked. He had messy blonde hair, which always seemed very clean, which I only noted because he seemed in disarray otherwise. His shirt misbuttoned, things falling out of his backpack, a sort of bumbling that would have seemed comic, save it clearly wasn’t performed. He was just a bit of a mess.

He lived a few floors above me in the dorm, which I didn’t realize till early one morning when I bumped into him on my way back from the hall bathroom. I had on my too-thin nightgown, and I was all too aware of the press of my nipples under the nightgown’s nylon, the dark triangle clearly visible between my legs. He asked me how I was doing as if I was standing in a coat with a clutch of books to my chest, and not basically naked with a pink plastic pail weighted with shampoo, toothbrush, and damp washcloth in one hand. I had the idea that I was so unappealing that being, more or less, undressed in a drafty stairwell at six am wouldn’t spur anyone to desire. It only spurred me to goose-pimpled shame. Minutes earlier, I had masturbated, smelled my musty fingers afterward. Someone had enjoyed me. Oh! It was me! Not exactly whom I had in mind.

Only I guess this boy—like I say, even in therapy, I couldn’t recall his name— was an early riser, because after that he sometimes left morning messages on the board my roommates and I kept on our door. Nothing particularly memorable. “Have a good day A.”Short for Alisa. The other thing I remember about this crowd is they got into the habit of carrying toy dart guns around and shooting each other, which struck me as too silly, and also that this boy used to do other things that struck me as silly. He rode a unicycle around campus, and people said he once rode, instead of ran, a whole marathon, which seemed impossible to me—I’d heard unicycles were pretty hard on the groin—but apparently it was true.

I got a crush on Chris, the handsome man, though not as bad as my crushes tended to be. I’d visit him sometimes down on the first floor of the university library where there was a letterpress and he and the OCD boy worked hours sorting all the letters. They had the idea that they would make broadsheets of student poems, but the way the room looked and the way the press looked, it seemed like it would be a long time before that would happen. I had the idea that Chris, the handsome guy, was working solely as a favor to Michael, the OCD guy. They were all courteous that way. They were really a very nice group.

One day, when I was sitting with the group at lunch, someone asked for the salt, and another person handed it down the table, and I stretched out the pepper to pass it along with the salt and said, “Every time you separate the salt from the pepper, a sailor dies.”

“What?” Chris cried, instantly amused. “Where’d you get that?”

I’d heard it from a camp counselor at the summer camp I’d gone to as a girl, and I wasn’t even sure why I’d said it. “It’s true,” I said. I don’t know why. I certainly didn’t think it was true. I wasn’t the slightest bit superstitious. Chris needled me a bit. The others joined in. It was fun to be the focus of their good humor, and that was that.

Or that was sort of that.

Not long after—I don’t really have the chronology straight, maybe it was before that lunch—the boy whose name I can’t remember asked me to go contra dancing with him. I didn’t want to go. Contra dancing seemed corny to me, and I was working hard at being sophisticated. Plus his boyishness discomfited me. He had a big puppy dog manner coupled with the stumbling when he talked that made me feel uncomfortably maternal, like I had to fix things when I was around him. I used a falsely cheery voice around him, and I didn’t like myself for it, and yet I couldn’t seem to find a more authentic way of being in his presence. Still, I couldn’t imagine turning him down. We had to walk through a bad neighborhood to get to the dance, and we walked tightly side by side. A further discomfort. Surprisingly, when we got to the dance, I had a lot of fun. The boy really swung me around when we passed each other in the dancing. It was thrilling. He was big and joyful and really quite charming. He told me he always made a point of asking the older single women to dance, and even though I was with him that night, he kept to this courtesy. He was, one of the women told me, “a polite young man,” and I sensed it was the highest compliment she had to offer.

The notes continued on the white board outside my dorm room, and one day I woke up to see a message: “Meet me in the dining room. 8:00 AM. Don’t be late. Mr. Big.” It was already 8:00, and I didn’t want to go, but how could I not? I showered quickly and ran to the dining room. When I got there, his whole gang was sitting at a big round table. I went through the breakfast line and got some eggs then sat down with the others and started chattering about something. “What?” I said, for it seemed they were all staring at me.

“Don’t you want any salt?” one of the girls said. She had a special science scholarship and normally spent all her time in the lab. She was always the first to leave any meal.

“No thanks,” I said.

“Well, then you’ll want pepper,” Chris said. I started to form a question but stopped myself and looked toward the salt-and-pepper shakers. There was a little paper sailor with arms akimbo on his hips. In one of the round spaces between arm and torso, a saltshaker protruded. In another a peppershaker.

If someone passed the salt or the pepper, the paper sailor would tear in half. He would die.

“Oh, my God,” I started to laugh. “Oh my God. That’s hilarious.”

But what was even more surprising was that every single salt and pepper shaker in the entire dining hall had a paper sailor on it.

“My God, you guys, I can’t believe it, I can’t believe,” I said still laughing. “This must have been so much work. I can’t believe you did this.” Even now, it takes me aback. All that effort just for a joke. Or perhaps just to please me.

It was the boy whose name I can’t remember who hatched up the plan. He’d stayed up for hours in the typesetting room cutting out the little figures he’d Xeroxed, Chris and Michael offering their scissors and encouragement as he worked away.

It seems a romance should have followed. It would have in the movies, but I have no memories of seeing the boy for the rest of that semester. He would have been around, but I don’t remember anything. What I do remember is that I sunk into a bad depression around that time. A boy I knew from working on a play—I had a crush on him, but it is hard to claim that means anything, because I had so many crushes back then—died in a car crash. I couldn’t cope with it. I went to a service where my professor from the divinity school talked about how he was in a better place. I was stupefied. A better … what? Everything seemed tragic, and I couldn’t believe the boy from the play had to be dead. I thought of it this way, in active terms, as if his death was a constant hell that he had to continually experience, when in fact experience was all over for him. In between classes, I crawled into bed and fell asleep to romantic fantasies regarding whomever I just then had decided to love. I spent my nights awake considering the various terrible things people had been exposed to since the Black Death (that was one of my courses). I might have thought of giving up my morning New York Times; I wasn’t doing so well digesting present day horrors either. Exhausted, I went to class and found it nearly impossible to concentrate on anything the professor was saying.

I applied to go study in London, because I thought I needed to get away—I was spending too much time in my room crying—but when the time came to go, I was too frightened to leave. It was like sex. There were things other people were doing that I didn’t feel capable of yet. So instead I moved off campus to a big house of people who were all into social action, and I started working at a homeless shelter and taking pictures of people at the shelter, which was what got me into photography in the first place.

I sort of fell out of touch with my on-campus friends then, since I tended to get together with other people who lived off-campus, and maybe there was something a little chic to rejecting the dorms and dorm life and dorm food for our own kitchens and Moosewood Cookbooks and visits to health food stores with their yeasty smell and lesbian employees with harsh haircuts. No one threw up in our bathrooms or left cups of beer in the halls. In fact, I don’t remember anyone ever drinking at all, which was certainly not what I would have said about on-campus life. Mostly people were snotty about their left-wing politics in a way that I found fascinating and deeply intimidating.

Two things happened in my senior year with the boy whose name I couldn’t remember. First on Valentine’s Day, he tied a big plastic bag of homemade cookies to the door of my off-campus house with a Happy Valentine’s note for me. He must have had a long day of baking, because there were a lot of different kinds of cookies in the bag. He gave them to all his other friends, too, so I didn’t think of it as a Valentine’s present per se. Not a message. Just something sweet, like dancing with the old ladies.

The other thing I remember is that he came to my house for dinner. We had this thing at the off-campus house where each of us was responsible for dinner one night a week. If you were cooking, you were supposed to make enough for everyone in the house and then anyone else you wanted, and since I was cooking, I invited this boy. I had run into him on campus, and he was so nice and friendly, it seemed the thing to do.

Only the night of the dinner, no one in my house showed up. They all had events on campus they were going to, so it was just me and this boy and far too much food. I was uncomfortable because now, of course, it looked like a date, which wasn’t what I wanted, and halfway through the meal—I remember I made falafel—part of a fried patty got stuck in my throat. For my whole life, I have had a problem with food getting stuck in my throat, and I knew this could be a long ordeal with me being neither able to swallow or spit up the food. I drank some water to try to force the falafel down, but it didn’t work. I stood so I could get more water in the kitchen, but I didn’t get there in time, and spit water up all over the table.

“I am sorry, I am sorry,” I said and went into the kitchen, thinking I’d cough up in the sink there.

He followed and said, “I’ll do the Heimlich!”

I put my hand up to stop him. My chest hurt, and I had trouble explaining what was going on. “It’s not my airway. I can breathe. It’s this other problem.” I tried some more water, and there was this bubbling and gurgling in my throat— the churning water meant I’d have no luck pushing anything down—and I spit up again and then again until finally I had a sip of water that forced the chunk of food down. He patted my back in a soothing way, as if I were a small child. I knew (from previous experience) when the piece of food was swallowed, it was swallowed, and now things could go back to normal.

My eyes were tearing, and when I turned from the sink, he took me in his arms and leaned in to kiss me. “No,” I said, jumping back. It was an odd moment to choose for a kiss, but what of it? I was awkward myself and were I a boy, I wouldn’t have done much better. “I just can’t,” I said abruptly. “I mean that’s not a good idea.” I didn’t say why. I didn’t know why. After I wiped the dining room table, we sat back down in our seats and suffered through the remainder of the meal and then the overly large batch of brownies I’d made, thinking the whole house would be eating. “I’m sorry,” I said a few times during the rest of the dinner, which only made things worse. I added, “Those falafel really made me feel awful” in a campy voice, which wasn’t much better either. We were both relieved, I’m sure, when the night was over. I don’t really have a memory of seeing him after that, save once when I was sitting in a class, and it was spring, and I saw him riding his unicycle off in the distance.

It took me the whole of a long-hour at the therapist’s office to tell this story, and the thing is every detail was so charming—the dancing, the unicycling, the crazy sailor joke, even that kiss—that I couldn’t figure myself out. Why hadn’t I liked him back? I knew there was something about his shambly goofy way (goofy is the word I keep returning to) that made it impossible for me to think of him romantically and even more so sexually, but sexually, as I say, I was confused in those days. Sometimes I’d think about how everyone had genitalia, right under their clothes and between their legs, and it would make me start uncomfortably. I never got so far as to think of him unclothed back then, but I did then in the therapist’s office, and I somehow imagined his big floppy penis, the dark pubic hair to the blond hair on his head—I had slept with a blonde man in Cleveland so I had this bit of knowledge—and it bothered me.

“He really loved you,” my therapist said.

“No,” I said and argued the point, because I didn’t think he did, though all those efforts spread out over the course of two years did mean something.

“Alisa,” the therapist said my name in slow reprimand.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“That’s a word,” she said, as she had said before, “that you should take out of your vocabulary.”

There is a lot to like about New York City, and I liked my Upper West Side neighborhood, even as it seemed more and more of my friends were moving to Brooklyn and having kids. I used to always have the energy to make the trip out to see them—it wasn’t hard but long—though I sometimes got impatient at the way I always had to go to my friends, and they never came to me. A function of their parenthood, I knew, but still.

One day as I was coming home from an outing in Brooklyn—it involved the farmer’s market and a walk in the park and a visit to the Brooklyn Museum—I noticed a young woman on the subway. I am not entirely sure what made me look at her. She was chewing gum in an odd way, and she had a strangely prim, old-lady outfit for such a young woman. She was wearing a long gray skirt and an eyelet blouse, and it was cinched at the waist in way I associated with suffragettes. Her hair was pulled back into a bun, and it was the business with the gum coupled with the outfit that stopped me. I wouldn’t have thought about it if not for the fact that the very next day, I went for a run along Riverside Drive, and when I was almost through, I saw her across the street in the same outfit. She was sitting on the curb, which didn’t seem like quite a safe place to sit, given the traffic. Then I realized she was weeping. Her face wasn’t in her hands, and she wasn’t hunched over as public weepers often are. She was sitting upright—her posture was quite erect—and tears were streaming down her face.

Ordinarily, I guess you should give someone her privacy in this sort of situation, but I felt I knew her, having seen her the day before. Oh, dear, I actually murmured under my breath and then something made me cross the street and say, “Are you all right? Do you need any help?”

“What are you?” she screamed, before I’d even finished my sentence. Her face instantly rearranged itself into jagged planes of fury. 

“I …” I began, an apology springing instantly to my lips. I took a step back. She jumped to her feet and turned for a shopping cart that I hadn’t associated with her that was in the nearby bushes. She started to push it rapidly south. “Christ will serve you, Christ will serve you,” she hollered, turning her head back to look at me to be sure I understood what she was saying. It sounded like she meant Christ would serve me papers. Or get me, in some other way, in trouble. Not that he’d help me. Certainly not that he’d forgive me.

“I’m sorry,” I muttered and quickly walked north and away from her.

“Where do they even get people like you? Where do you even come from?” I could hear her call as I hurried up Riverside Drive and over to 92nd and my apartment. She was clearly mad, likely schizophrenic, and I wondered why I hadn’t registered that the day before. Still, my diagnosis didn’t comfort me. I was quite shaken then and for a long time after. “What are you?” she’d screamed, and in the moment I’d thought, but in such a defensive way that it felt like a lie, “A good person.”

I had the habit in those days of going to a neighborhood place fashioned after an old French brasserie, but I didn’t eat there. I went for a drink. I didn’t sit at the bar but at one of the small round tables, where no one much bothered me. They got to know me after a bit, of course, and I always got my same seat and my first glass brought to me without asking and then my second.

I generally went to the brasserie alone, and the one time I brought someone else there—it was my older sister—it did not go well. She asked, as everyone seemed to when they hadn’t seen me in awhile, if I was dating anyone. I allowed how I was not.

“You have a chip on your shoulder,” my sister said. “About boys not liking you in high school. Now you’ve decided not to like them back. That’s your problem.”

“Oh, do I have to have a problem?” I said as a joke. “Couldn’t I just be perfect?”

“I know what men are like, but I still like them,” she said. There was a hint of sexual knowingness in this that enraged me. If I had been the kind of person who hit people, I would have reached over the table just then and slapped her face. “That’s why I say you have a chip on your shoulder.”

I was so mad about this conversation it almost put me off going back to the brasserie. I wanted a place without any associations. But then one night it was the usual thing—my apartment was dark, and I wanted to be around people, but I didn’t have quite enough energy for actually calling up a friend and arranging something—so I went over. I sat in my usual space, and a glass of wine was put in front of me, and I looked up and over to the window, and there he was. The moment I saw him, I remembered his name. Bob Smith, the boy from college whose name I couldn’t remember, the one who had done all those kind things for me. The name was so ordinary; perhaps that was why it had eluded me for so long.

Two decades had passed, but he looked much as he did in college. His hair was mussed, and he was wearing khaki pants and a chamois shirt, which I seemed to remember was what he wore back then. I don’t think I’d ever seen him in jeans.

He was looking at the big menu they had at the brasserie, and then he put it down and folded his hands almost like a little boy who had been told he must now wait. I wanted to go over to him, but I didn’t know what I wanted to say, so I waited myself and watched him. I kept thinking he’d catch my eye. He didn’t have a book with him, as I did, and there was nothing for his eyes to do but roam the room, but though he looked to his left and right (his back was to the window), he didn’t look straight ahead to where I, more or less, sat.

Finally, I got up and went over to him. “Bob,” I said.

“Yes?” he said, looking up.

“You’re Bob Smith, right?”

He looked at me curiously. Then his eyes slid off me, in a way that I thought was a little strange. I noticed he had a book with him, after all. It was just on the seat instead of on the table where he might read it, and it was called Christ in My Heart.

“You’re Bob Smith. I think I went to college with you. I’m Alisa Spence. I knew you back then. We were in the same dorm.” All of a sudden, I remembered other things about him: that he worked at the school radio, and that he wanted to be a sound engineer, and I was always embarrassed, because I didn’t know quite what that was, so I didn’t know what sort of questions I was supposed to ask him. “I guess you don’t remember me,” I went on. “You did this funny thing in college with these paper sailors and salt and pepper shakers, and I kind of never forgot it, because it was such a nice thing to do. I remember back then you were friends with …” But I couldn’t produce a name, just remembered Chris, so I said, “Chris. Chris. I can’t remember his last name and …” I stopped. I couldn’t guess what he was thinking of my performance.

“I’m sorry,” he said, but he wasn’t looking at me, and I remembered that was an odd thing about him all along; he didn’t quite look at you when you talked to him. But he was always smiley and friendly back then, and he definitely wasn’t now. Bob’s book made me remember another thing: He’d taken me to Quaker meeting once. He knew I was interested in other people’s religious experiences, so he’d taken me along, and he seemed so good and noble then. He didn’t say anything at the meeting but listened in an attentive way that I thought was moving. There was a hovering kindness in the cool silence of the Quaker meeting of which I very much wanted to be a part. Only whatever had seemed off to me about Bob Smith all those years ago seemed off to me now. As I talked, Bob might have agreed that he’d gone to the same college as me or lived in the same large dorm or had a friend named Chris, but he didn’t. Still he’d reacted when I said his name, and I was sure it was him.

“I’m sorry,” he repeated. “I don’t know who you are.”

It was my turn to apologize. I went back to my table, quickly paid my bill before my customary second glass of wine and went home.

The strange thing was I had the feeling that he did remember me. That he knew exactly who I was, but he didn’t want to let me know

Ten years passed, and I didn’t live in the apartment anymore. I lived with my husband, Jerry Books, who had been my boss at the photo agency. One day, he’d told me that he thought he and his wife were going to split up, and if they did, he’d be asking me to set him up with my single girlfriends. “Well, what about me?” I said, and he said, “What about you? I thought you were seeing someone.” But I wasn’t, and one thing led to another, and so that was that. We became a couple. Better late than never, I joked to my friends. But that was just because I needed something to say. I was glad to have Jerry and thought in the end I’d been luckier than some of my friends who were stuck with the difficult people they’d chosen in their youth. I joined my other friends by moving to Brooklyn, though Jerry and I didn’t have children. It was too late for that, but not for other things. Jerry was fun, and we had a good time together, and we never fought, as he had with his wife, and I never felt I wished he were smarter, as I had with the various blind dates I’d been subjected to over the years.

I don’t always read everything in the New York Times—too busy—but when I saw the story about the people who jumped from the Brooklyn Bridge I was immediately drawn to it, maybe because of my old interest in people’s religious experience. A man named Peter—no one knew his real name or if he used a last name—had been going into subway cars telling people he was the 13th Apostle. He was a giant, an acromegalic is the technical term, and he had only one eyebrow. He’d shaved the other off. A lot of strange people go into the subway and say a lot of strange things, but for some reason, people—well, at least eight people— seemed to find Peter persuasive. They shaved off one of their own eyebrows and started following him around. This went on for several months and then the whole bunch of them, presumably at his command, jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge. I had always heard the Bridge was suicide-proof, but I guess not. 

It was the sort of article I would read in any case, as I’ve said. The lurid thing, perhaps, and my old interest, so I read straight through to the end, where they listed the names of the dead and their ages. Caroline Porter, 39, Jesse Given, 32, Bob Smith, 51, Harvey Bernstein, 61, Alberto Simpson, 24, Nancy Haines, 19, Didero Anasy, 23, and Sampson Barrett, 26.

All my life I have had the same feeling when I learn of an unexpected death. It probably started with that boy I had a crush on back in college, the one who died in a car crash. My bones hollow out then fill with a chill air. For me, this is the sensation of panic. After, I have the feeling—and I suppose this is dread—that I am wearing a jacket made of that same chill air. I had all those sensations now. Bob Smith. Was it him? How I hoped not. I Googled Bob Smith and the number 51. Many things popped up, nothing enlightening. I added the phrases “New York” and then “New Jersey.” Fewer names popped up. I tried to calm myself down. It needn’t be him. Why should it be him?

I asked my husband to read the story in the paper, and he did. I didn’t tell him the whole story of Bob. I just said I knew someone named Bob Smith back in my college days and that I’d seen him once in New York. He might have been 51. Jerry listened and then said reasonably enough, “But so many people are named Bob Smith.” I nodded my head in agreement. After all, the Bob I remembered was a light-hearted, kind, lovable person who would never be so foolish as to throw himself away. I felt that to be true, but not with enough certainty that I could be comforted.

Jerry and I lived on a street of brownstones in Prospect Heights. The upstairs apartments had long tall windows that looked out on the street. The ground floor apartments had grates on the windows. The previous owner had remodeled so our kitchen was located in the front room, instead of the back, as it normally might be. We could eat breakfast in the sun of the morning, though the sun wasn’t warming now.

Standing for work, Jerry bent to kiss my brow and said, “Try not to worry about it.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll walk you to the subway.” I no longer worked for Jerry but at a digital printing outfit in the neighborhood. I needed to get going to work myself.

Outside, we saw the neighbor who everyday posted a piece of paper with the number of troops lost in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on his window grate. He updated it whenever a soldier died. He had his scotch tape and a new piece of paper now. Jerry stopped to wave, as he always did, and I pointed with my chin to the paper and grimaced. I always made some comment of sympathy—“How terrible” or “Oh, God”—when I found my neighbor in the act of updating. My words seemed foolish as ever, yet I felt worse when I didn’t say anything at all. Today, though, my neighbor pointed to the sheet he was replacing and said, with a reassuring grin, “No new dead actually. The old paper just got ripped in the wind.”