Monday, March 5, 2012

The Road Taken

On a frigid winter day in 1972, I went for a ride with a friend. It changed my life. He had suggested that we drive from New York City upstate to Bear Mountain. But a fork in the road took us in a different direction, one that has made all the difference to me.

I hadn't quite turned 23 and was living in New York City. I shared a two-bedroom apartment with three friends in the Vermeer, a nice building at the corner of 14th Street and 7th Avenue. I could walk out my door and down the stairs to the IRT subway, which would take me uptown to my job in the Personnel Department at Columbia's Teachers College.

The job wasn't what I'd had in mind when I graduated from Smith College the year before. Actually, I hadn't had much in mind. I loved college and longed to stay there. In fact, I interviewed for a position helping to run the Five-College Consortium, a group which included Smith as well as Amherst, where I'd spent my junior year. I was offered the job, then panicked because all my friends were leaving the area, several of them heading to New York. I followed them there, signed up as a part-time graduate student in the English department at Teachers College and got a mind-numbing day job there that, at $100 per week, barely covered my rent, food, and classes. My first day on the job, a campus police officer ran up to my desk and grabbed the phone. "We got a guy outside with a sawed-off shotgun," he said. Welcome to Manhattan in the 1970s.

The best part of my job was the IBM Selectric, an electric typewriter with a self-correcting feature that eliminated the need for Wite-Out. I used it to type office correspondence but, in every spare moment I could find, I also typed poems. The words poured out of me, full of loneliness and angst. I wondered in verse who I was and what exactly I was doing on West 120th Street.

In early January, my friend, Steven, suggested we take that drive to Bear Mountain. I accepted enthusiastically, delighted at the chance to escape the city for a day. Steven was younger than me, a junior in college, home on Long Island for his winter break. I knew he liked me. I liked him, too, but not in that way. Still, it was fun to put the anguished poems in a drawer and pull out my flirty alter-ego.

So, there we were, heading north on the New York Thruway, listening to Don McLean singing "Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie," when I spotted a road sign—left for Bear Mountain, right for Amherst, Massachusetts. Seized by a sudden fit of nostalgia for Amherst College, I said to Steven, "Let's go to Amherst instead. I'll show you the campus. It's really beautiful." Steven obligingly careened across several lanes of traffic and took the right fork.

As easy as three lanes, the course of my life changed. When we arrived in Amherst, I took Steven to see Memorial Hill, with its splendid view of the Holyoke Range. I showed him around the rest of the campus, which was almost deserted during winter break. Its classic brick architecture glowed with an austere beauty in the weak winter sunlight. After we walked around for a while, I suggested we head to the snack bar. I had whiled away many an afternoon there when I was a student.

The snack bar was open but empty. We checked the menu, then decided we weren't hungry after all. As we started to leave, I heard someone call my name. The next thing I knew, E. was hugging me and I was hugging him right back. He and his friend, Brian, had been sitting at a table in the far corner of the snack bar and I hadn't noticed them. E., sitting with his back to me, hadn't seen me either, but Brian had. "Isn't that a girl you used to date?"  he asked.

We had dated during our sophomore year and it hadn't ended well. E., who had barely spoken to me for two years, jumped up and called my name. In that moment, I saw my future and embraced it. Less than six months later we were married.


  1. A beautiful story. One zen teacher says that there is no such thing as cause and effect because a cause (or condition) won't predict a given effect. Your reuniting with E was made possible by going back to Amherst, but other effects could have occurred. I'm curious if you went back because you wanted to see E.

  2. I had no idea that he would be there or that I would ever see him again.

  3. What a great story! Thanks for sharing it.


    p.s. I do anonymous because I haven't figured out how to do a profile. None of the options seem to apply to me.

  4. Ditto to all the above! Bonnie