Why you should care
Because love is a many-confusing thing.
When my mom called from Pittsburgh to tell me Rob was in New York, I’d been living in the city three months. If she remembered the crush I had on him in high school, she didn’t mention it.
Rob and I got together the next week so he could take me on a tour of Brooklyn, my new home. He introduced me to the Brooklyn Inn with its low light and historic bar. We went to a party in a “garden apartment.” He told me that’s what basements are called in New York. If he noticed the crush I had on him that night, he didn’t say.
Thursday nights that fall, Rob and I became fixtures at Mooney’s, the neighborhood bar on Flatbush Avenue halfway between our apartments. We’d meet after work and talk about high school and home, and the people we were dating. I knew I’d drop whoever I was seeing if Rob showed the least bit of interest, but he never did, even when he walked out of his way to make sure I got home safely after a few Rolling Rocks.
In early December that year, we spent a chilly Saturday in lower Manhattan holiday shopping for our families. At the Holiday Cocktail Lounge on St. Marks Place, we found a booth where we could warm up and inspect our haul. I went to the bar to buy the first round, but Stefan, the curmudgeonly owner, ignored me while he talked to the men in plaid shirts listing off their stools.
Stefan scared and amazed me. I had a childish desire to make him like me. While I waited for him to take my order, I occupied my thoughts with how lucky I was to be in New York City, to have my dream job, to be friends with Rob, even though I wanted so much more. When Stefan finally acknowledged me, I opened my mouth to speak, but he stole my air.
The crush I had at 21 made me demure, and demure didn’t suit me.
“And what are you? In love again?”
Was I in love again? Had I ever been in love before? Is this what love felt like?
“Two Rolling Rocks, please,” is all I could think to say.
Toward the end of that December, I’d had enough of the pining, enough of the not knowing, enough of thinking Rob might kiss me when he never did. The crush I had when I was 14 was boisterous, as if I were determined to prove his movie-star good looks didn’t unnerve me. The crush I had at 21 made me demure, and demure didn’t suit me.
“I’m going to tell him,” I said to a friend.
“Tell him what?” she asked.
“That I like him.”
“You think he doesn’t know that?” she asked. “You think we all don’t know that?”
Embarrassed, but undeterred, I continued. “I have to say something. I have to know for sure.”
I told my roommate, another Pittsburgh transplant, that I was going to tell Rob how I felt at lunch the next week. She was excited — she believed in love and Pittsburghers with equal fervor, and she thought Stefan was a seer. He always took her order quickly.
Rob canceled our lunch, and before we could reschedule, I met my husband.
Seventeen years later, my friend Michele and I are barely awake as the coach bus pulls out of the parking lot in south central Pennsylvania. The day trip to “The City” is a fundraiser for our daughters’ school. We’ve left our kids at home with our husbands so we can pretend to be young and unencumbered in New York. We’re meeting Rob for lunch, so I tell Michele the whole story.
“Does he know?” she asks.
“That I was in love with him? Apparently everyone knew, but I never told him.”
“And you stayed friends?”
When I say it out loud, I realize how ludicrous it sounds. We came through those years in Brooklyn even closer than we’d been in high school, despite how easily it could have unraveled, like the time Rob drunkenly kissed me goodbye at a party, not exactly on my lips, in front of my now husband. In my mind, I had cast us in an alternate version of When Harry Met Sally in which Harry (Rob) and Sally (me) are just friends who marry other people, text each other about parenting issues and get the families together every few years, all things we actually do.
I don’t know if Michele believes me. “You should tell him today,” she says with a devilish grin.
We meet Rob at the Polish Tea Room, days before it’s set to be closed forever, another casualty of high rents in a New York I barely recognize. Mooney’s has closed. The Brooklyn Inn has a Facebook page. Stefan has died. I’ve only been to Cafe Edison, the real name of the the Polish Tea Room, once before, with a boss who was horrified I’d never been. It’s so meta — we meet to say goodbye to something we were supposed to treasure, but never really valued.
Rob and I sit together in the booth across from Michele.
“On the way up I told her about Brooklyn,” I say.
“Our drunken youth?”
“You know I had a crush on you, right?”
“Yeah, I think I knew that.”
His aw-shucks smile puts me at ease. In coming clean, I let go of shame I didn’t know I’d been holding on to. He says he doesn’t remember why he canceled the lunch that derailed my declaration. Michele isn’t satisfied. “What would you have said?” she asks.
I shoot her a dirty look. I don’t want to hear why we were “just friends.” That he wasn’t attracted to me, that he didn’t like me “that way.” I’m married, successful in my field, nearly 40 years old, and still desperate for approval from my older brother’s cute friend. Maybe I haven’t let go of all of the shame.
When Rob speaks, he speaks to Michele.
“I would have been a bad boyfriend. She didn’t deserve a bad boyfriend.”
It’s the ultimate “it’s not you, it’s me,” but I know him well enough to know he means it. I lean into him, and he wraps his arm around my shoulders. I was in love at the Holiday, it just wasn’t the kind of love Stefan was talking about. Or maybe it was.