Ed. note: republishing this essay from the archives. Every time I revisit it, I’m plunged back into the “vacillation of my teenage self,” where every interaction read like a cipher, and then moved by my early romance with Mr. Magpie, who “also told me that I was pretty and smart–just straight-up, baldly, with no nervous beating around the bush or ambiguity. If there is anything more exquisitely thrilling for a girl at the age of eighteen or nineteen, I have yet to hear about it.“
May we lean into romance this Monday!
When I moved into my first-year dorm, there was a boy with swoopy blond hair who walked down the hallways as though he owned the place. He had a laidback kind of swagger, and he was always tumbling in and out of quick conversation — affably, with a winning grin — with passersby he knew, calling the boys by their surnames or inscrutable nicknames I presumed they had earned after nights of drinking bourbon together, and often pausing, with his hands arranged somewhat shyly in his pockets, to address the girls with a demureness whose sincerity I could not parse. I later learned — in the way all girls learn things about boys they find attractive, through careful eavesdropping and artfully-feigned casual inquiry amongst friends — that he did not live in my dorm and was instead dating a girl on the floor above mine. All of which made perfect though disappointing sense, as mine was the dorky dorm, reserved for Echols Scholars, and it would have been puzzling if he had in fact been single.
Still, I couldn’t help but observe him with interest as he ambled into the large theatre-style lecture hall for an introduction to Political Theory course we both were taking on Monday and Wednesday mornings. It always seemed like he was canvassing voters, pausing in the aisles to glad-hand and kiss babies and the like, and I would watch him sprawl out in his seat afterward with a self-assurance that both repelled and intrigued me.
One morning, he slid into the seat next to mine and tapped his hand on the small square of folding desktop on which I’d neatly arranged my gridded notebook paper and pens.
“Nurmi,” he said (my maiden name), not so much a greeting as a naming. And he then held out his hand and introduced himself.
We sat next to one another in that lecture hall most Monday and Wednesdays thereafter, though I wasn’t sure why, and he often walked with me most of the way back to New Dorms after class, too. He was smart in the most appealing of ways: he read all the assignments and made meaningful contributions on the infrequent occasion the professor solicited conversation in the large lecture hall setup, but he did so without bravado. I can still remember the way his face — normally arranged into a kind of sly, knowing smile — would clear into an expression of earnest curiosity when talking about Crito or The Prince, which we sometimes did on our walks along McCormick Road. More often, though, he’d shuttle between brief conversations with other students beelining towards their next classes and then freewheeling inquiries about me and my interests. He rarely offered much about himself, often deflecting with a joke or returning the conversation to me, and I always felt as though I’d shared too much when we parted ways. One day he staggered backwards in performative agony when he discovered I was not familiar with Van Morrison —
“You’re killing me, Nurmi!” he said, just as a good friend of mine caught up with me and whisked me off into another direction.
“You know he’s dating Emily,” she said, once we were out of earshot, her eyebrows raised. And I could feel my face flush. I knew and liked Emily. For the past few weeks, I couldn’t tell whether — or refused to admit that — I was crossing an invisible line in girl code, but my friend’s reproach proved that I had been. But he had been the one to sit next to me! Can’t a girl and guy be friends? We usually talk about Leviathan, anyway! I’m not flirting! As I rallied these defenses, I also thought: The lady doth protest too much.
It seemed too dramatic or perhaps self-aggrandizing to say something directly to him, as if his company could only suggest romantic interest, and so I instead took to arriving late and sitting in the back. The first time, he turned and gestured to the seat next to him and I waved him off as if I’d explain later, and then careened out of the building before he could catch up. From then on, he sat with other friends. He would occasionally track me down on the walk back to New Dorms, but I’d give him as little of myself as I could: one-word answers, nods, distracted replies. It felt awful. However, if he was in any way confused or wounded by my sudden withdrawal, I could not tell. He seemed just as chipper as before, an observation that confounded me and also confirmed my mounting suspicion that he was, simply, a politician in the making: friendly to and unflustered by all in an impersonal kind of way. Our companionship dissipated and by the end of the semester, we never walked down McCormick together. I was pleased and irritated by my progress, but by then I had crossed paths enough times with the handsome and mature third-year in the engineering school who would one day kneel on the steps behind the Rotunda and ask me to marry him to be thoroughly distracted.
One evening towards the end of that semester, though, we found ourselves face to face at a fraternity party and he said: “Well, well, well, if it isn’t my long-lost friend Nurmi.” There was a lot going on around us, and we just stood there for a few minutes in the first awkward silence in which I’d ever seen him embroiled, me willing myself to tow the line and him just standing there, and both of us pretending that the party around us was too loud to permit conversation. Somehow, I extracted myself, disappearing into the crowd to find my friends.
The next morning, there was a CD in a thin plastic case outside my door, with VAN MORRISON / MOONDANCE scrawled on the top in black Sharpie. There was also a post-it on the case in his writing: NURMI.
It was a feeble overture, if that’s what it was? Had I imagined the awkwardness between us? Had my presence the night before simply reminded him that I’d never listened to Van Morrison and, in a moment of thoughtful friendliness, he’d burned the CD for me? The lyrics of “Moondance” were electric with innuendo, though — they represented an elaborate wooing. Or was I reading too much into them?
Well, it’s a marvelous night for a moondance
With the stars up above in your eyes
A fantabulous night to make romance
‘Neath the cover of October skies
And all the leaves on the trees are falling
To the sound of the breezes that blow
And I’m trying to please to the calling
Of your heart-strings that play soft and low
And all the night’s magic seems to whisper and hush
And all the soft moonlight seems to shine in your blush
I knew I wouldn’t want my boyfriend leaving that album on another girl’s stoop. But —
Nothing else. I did nothing to acknowledge the gift and neither did he and we barely crossed paths the rest of our four years at the University of Virginia. Or if we did, I was too deeply in love with my eventual husband — whose polite but more assertive interest in me was easier and kinder to navigate — to notice.
Re-reading the lyrics to “Moondance” brings me back to the vacillation of my teenage self, to the puzzling over social rules and romantic interludes, to my youthful tendency toward strained and under-resourced over-analysis. It was like learning to read in the dark, by feel and the occasional shard of moonlight. But learn I did: the swoopy haired boy’s enigmatic interactions with me made Mr. Magpie’s much simpler to understand, his soft and low heartstrings easier to hear. Even before we were dating, Mr. Magpie would walk me all the way home, all the way up to my door, even listening for the click of the lock on my side before leaving, though I lived in the opposite direction of his own apartment. He’d jump out of his Jeep Cherokee to open my door for me, hold up his arm to make a little bubble of space for me in a crowded bar, and shove drunken Wahoos out of my path when tailgates or football games were getting out of hand. It was chivalrous, but even then, before we officially belonged to each other, I saw that he was not only protecting me but making room for me and letting me know in no uncertain terms that he wanted me to fill that space next to him. He also told me that I was pretty and smart–just straight-up, baldly, with no nervous beating around the bush or ambiguity. If there is anything more exquisitely thrilling for a girl at the age of eighteen or nineteen, I have yet to hear about it.
Or maybe this line of thinking is not generous enough to Mr. Magpie, whose goodness and earnestness require no interpretation: he just was. He just is. He so fully eclipsed that first-year episode and a semi-serious boyfriend the following year and everyone and everything else besides — that when I now think of Van Morrison, I principally recall the moving croon of the alto saxophone in “Into the Mystic” while Mr. Magpie held my hand on a balcony in Miami a year into our marriage, and I was so overwhelmed by him–by my outsized luck in having him–by the deep-in-my-bones, “born before the wind” rightness of it–that I found tears in my eyes that I did not need to explain.
So on a random Tuesday in October, listening to Van Morrison, I think to myself: is it luck or providence or the thousands of tiny decisions I made in the year 2002 that I landed in this moondance that has lasted nearly two decades?
*Names changed or omitted to protect privacy.
Let’s Go Shopping.
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