I was newly arrived at college and having survived a broken heart (well, mostly), a fall from grace, and a life derailment I was eager to move forward in the world. The idea of “a fresh start” fueled my days and my interactions. I imagined being the most perfect version of myself. My front was only a thin shell and I moved carefully so as not to break my fragile persona. I wonder now how I appeared to others. What did they see?
The first person that paid attention to the new me was a tall, thin, relatively handsome guy named Garland. I think I was particularly attracted to his name. For me the name Garland conjured images of flowers being gathered dreamily in rolling meadows and woven together by a shepherd surrounded by peaceful sheep. It also reminded me of a boy I’d known in childhood. The boy was older than me, handsome and shy. I had some romantic notion of him but was too young for it to be anything other than something vague and faraway. He died tragically in a car accident and was forever sealed in my mind as a sort of young hero. So perhaps this new Garland was initially colored by my clouded brain seeking respite. Certainly I was flattered by his attention.
Whenever I saw Garland on campus I felt a flutter of excitement but was careful to conceal it. I sat down hard on my usual enthusiasm – concentrating on being a lady with class and some air of mystery. I let him do most of the talking and so I learned that he had grown up on a farm where he worked diligently even as a child. In his teen years he continued to do the expected chores on his family’s farm but he also worked part-time in a local grocery to earn money to buy his own car. He was proud of his work ethic and what he had accomplished – as he should have been. He admired his parents and wasn’t ashamed to say so. He was especially good in mathematics and was energized by every math course he had taken. This alone impressed me – since I loathed even the simplest math. We were both enrolled in a basic psychology course, which gave us a weekly appointment together as well as fodder for engaging conversations. We took to having coffee together after class. Eventually, he asked me out and I felt the new me was working out well.
On our first date we went to the movies. I couldn’t tell you what we saw. Mostly I was nervous because he held my hand and I wasn’t sure if the new me should allow such intimacy. We went for ice cream afterwards and I was still worrying about the hand holding thing. But conversation flowed smoothly and I decided that I should let it go. When the evening came to an end he leaned toward me but I demurred and said that I didn’t kiss on the first date. That had been a rule for me in high school and was a big deal in the 1960’s but sometimes I’d broken the rule – depending. I decided the new Linda was sticking to the rules. I also decided that if this guy didn’t like the new Linda then this would be our last date. Garland did not disappoint. He smiled at me and said, “Of course you don’t. I apologize for being too forward.” Later he told me that he would have been disappointed in me had I let him kiss me.
Over the next few weeks I continued to be reserved and coy. It became clear that Garland liked me more than a little. He told me that he appreciated a woman like me “with class” – and the label pleased me. He made a few disparaging remarks about other girls – they were too loose, they weren’t studious, they wore their skirts too short and their shirts too tight. I thought the new me might be working out and I began second guessing my wardrobe.
Garland talked about his future and intimated that it would include me. When I mentioned that I was considering journalism as a major he told me that he wouldn’t want his wife to work. I was slightly confused. He had not asked me to marry him. Was this his way of asking? What if he did ask me? Did I want to marry him? I hadn’t even worked out the new me yet. Maybe the new me was working out a little too well.
One afternoon Garland asked me to go with him for a drive. It was a beautiful day for it and I thought it would be nice. During our time together Garland talked about his ex-girlfriend. She seemed to have left a bad taste in his mouth – she talked too much, asked too many questions, wore clothes he felt were too suggestive, sometimes left trash in his car, didn’t balance her check book to the penny, and placed bills haphazardly in her wallet. When he took her home to meet his parents his mother was not impressed. Initially Garland said that he defended his girlfriend but eventually had to agree that his mother’s first impression was correct. He said he thought he could help his girlfriend improve but she was uninterested. And he had begun to notice that she was a bit of a slob. Once when he picked her up he saw that she had clothes strewn about and her pocketbook was always a mess. I made mental notes of how I might fair on this checklist. I figured that I probably didn’t measure up and certainly could use some improvement of my own. When he told me he would like for me to meet his parents I cooed, “I would love that,” but deep inside I felt anxious. I suspected that his mother probably wouldn’t approve of me either.
On a lark one afternoon I went with a couple of girls shopping. We had a blast trying on clothes, modeling outfits, giggling, and being silly. I ended up buying a pair of really cute red and blue clunky shoes with tall, square heels – very trendy – as well as a royal blue miniskirt and midriff blouse. My friends insisted I looked great and I liked what I saw in the mirror, too. We went for beer and pizza afterwards and laughed ourselves silly. Their company was warm, easy, and delightful. I knew we were going to be good friends. I didn’t even think about the new me. She was apparently on hiatus.
The next day I was sitting with my new friends in the student lounge playing cards. When Garland saw me he frowned and I wondered what was wrong. Later in class together he appeared aloof and cool. When class was over I suggested coffee but he said he’d call me later. I was a little worried that he wouldn’t but he did and he sounded like his usual self. He asked me out to dinner and inferred that it would be more than pizza. I was excited and donned my new outfit – elated to be able to show off my stylish clothes. Garland was courteous but stiff on arrival. My ego was a tad deflated but I didn’t say so. At the restaurant I got lots of smiles from other patrons and one random girl even complimented my outfit and my ego recovered. I figured Garland must still be out of sorts. After we were seated Garland asked the waiter for water and then made a slow show of putting his napkin in his lap. Then he leaned toward me and asked, “What if I had taken you to my parents for dinner tonight?” I laughed a little nervously and said that I hoped he wouldn’t have done that without prior warning. He nodded slowly and said, “I can see that you certainly would need that.” Uh-oh. Garland was not happy with me. The new Linda was slipping. I decided to say nothing – that was the best way to stay out of trouble. Garland lowered his eyes to look at the menu. So did I and quickly decided I would choose the cheapest thing to avoid further annoyance. But I remained quiet until he had made the announcement of his choice. I nodded and stated what I had chosen but Garland said “no” that I should order what he was having. I acquiesced. After we ordered Garland asked about the two friends he had seen me with earlier in the week and I told him their names and went on to tell him about the good time we had enjoyed together. Garland was not amused. “So you let them influence you?” he frowned.
“Well, no. I picked out my shoes and clothes. They just gave me the thumbs up,” I explained. Garland was not impressed and then told me that he’d heard gossip about one of my new friends that wasn’t flattering.
“Gossip doesn’t mean it’s true,” I countered. Garland raised his eyebrows and then said dryly, “Gossip happens when girls put themselves in certain situations.”
Yes, I knew that all too well. Guys could be in the very same situation but they had a different scorecard. It infuriated me – the inequity of our society and Garland’s acceptance of it. I also felt defensive about my new friend. Garland apparently didn’t know her any better than I did but he was willing to let a bit of gossip color his opinion of her. I felt my self seething – like a pot of water vibrating just prior to beginning to boil. The new Linda whispered a word of caution and I held myself in check as Garland went on about reputations and guarding one’s good character and blah, blah, blah. Dinner came and Garland changed the subject while I listened and tried to eat my food. My throat felt tight and dry. Every bite felt like I might choke and I was able to eat very little. Garland didn’t notice as he waxed eloquently on his view of this and that and the other – which, by the way, included card playing. It seems he didn’t approve of that either. I declined dessert and excused myself to go to the Ladies Room before leaving the restaurant. I checked myself in the mirror and decided I liked what I saw although my face looked a little strained. I smiled at the girl looking back at me and erased the strain. A woman washing her hands looked over at me and said, “You look so cute. If I was your age I’d wear miniskirts too.” We giggled and left the restroom together. When I rejoined Garland he let me know that several men had noticed my short skirt. Clearly, he was not pleased. However, it pleased me enormously – although I didn’t say so.
On the way to the car the new Linda was trying to get my attention – reminding me of my “fresh start”. Suddenly I realized that I really didn’t know what the best version of myself was nor what she would even look like if I painted a picture of her or made a list. However, I was certain of a few things like honesty, loyalty, and kindness. Beyond that I felt my youth and my essence still being shaped. When I slipped into the car seat I felt my thin new shell crumble. And when Garland slid into the driver’s seat I told him a few things and it felt like an unleashing – or perhaps an unveiling: I liked talking and laughing. I liked my new friends and that included shopping, drinking beer, eating pizza, and playing cards. I liked wearing stylish clothes and that included miniskirts. My room could sometimes be a mess. My bank statement was inaccurate – I preferred rounding up! And I stuffed bills in my wallet willy-nilly. I also liked asking questions and I had one ready: “How about we call it a night?”
Garland didn’t say a word until we pulled into the drive. He put his hand on mine and said that he was sorry if he’d upset me. I removed his hand, told him goodnight and that I’d see myself inside. And I did just that. I don’t know how long he sat there but I went to bed feeling a little shaken but pleased with myself. After that I saw Garland in class and around campus but that was it. Occasionally I could feel his eyes on me and I wondered what he was thinking. But the good part was that I just wondered – more like an amusement. I certainly did not give a fine fat fig. I had figured out there was no old me or new me. There was just ME – rolling along and finding my way, getting knocked down and getting up again, making mistakes and making friends, learning to survive mistakes and then to forgive myself. Learning to completely like myself would take some years yet – but it would come. Poor Garland had only known the me I thought I wanted to see. She turned out to be a mistake. And thank Goodness!