It was fall in Charlottesville. The air was still warm, leaves crunched beneath the feet of many thousand students treading brick-laid paths on their return to campus, and Annie and I were smitten with each other. We had met a month or so into our first year at college, I from Long Island and she from Lynchburg, Virginia. I lived in the dorm next door to hers.
Annie was five-foot-two and built like a jock, but the warmth in her face conveyed a beauty and elegance, and a sense of home that was eternally feminine. I don’t remember the exact moment we bonded but it was around the beginning of our second year. Perhaps it was over Natty Light in red Solo cups on a pilling, wine-stained couch at the Alpha Epsilon Pi house or Theta Chi, where most of our male friends had rushed. Even at a frat party, I think we still talked about family and books.
Annie was known for her soothing voice. It had a comforting low register and a subtle drawl. Behind that voice was the most honest, open person I’d ever met. In my memory, her apartment smelled like fresh bread and maintained a constant temperature of 72. She had a very simple painting of a woman in a red dress dancing the tango with a man in the rain above her bed. It fit perfectly; her intelligence and taste were so simple and unpretentious. Where I grew up, fancy and sophisticated ruled the day, but here was something else.
We shared a love of reading and writing, and her warmth and candor also translated perfectly to the page. An essay was the medium through which she told me about her childhood best friend’s suicide, and I’ll never forget her description of how it felt: like her ears were stuffed with cotton.
We loved travel, from a road trip to Mississippi — the speed limit 75, clear April skies, and beers shared with bearded men discussing Wilco — to studying abroad in London, where we snoozed on the late buses at 2 a.m. after dancing our asses off.
When I returned from a trip to Nicaragua in the spring of our third year with a rope hammock, Annie helped me drill holes in the roof of my little patio to hang it. We looked up sailors’ knots on my laptop, and when it was hung we took turns lying in the hammock, probably discussing a Jodi Picoult novel, which I had read on her recommendation and surprisingly enjoyed.
Annie and I bonded especially over our crushes on men. We were both single, and it seemed to me as though Annie had a new crush every week, her love of life bursting into a giddy swoon at every smile from a cute guy. Which is why I didn’t see the harm in taking one such crush away from her.
Like Annie and me, Matt and I met during our first year through the happenstance of a shared dorm, but it wasn’t until the fall of our senior year that I would really see him. On that fateful Saturday in Charlottesville, Annie and I were balancing on ladders, helping to repaint a dilapidated house with the student volunteer organization we worked for. Matt worked there, too, and he’d just come back from a semester in Spain, so we all chatted to catch up. Matt was all bright teeth and broad shoulders, his aspirations ending with the right girl and the right dog. I fancied myself deeper and more brooding, but like most women I couldn’t help but be attracted to him.
“Matt’s cute, isn’t he?” Annie asked as we drove back home from housepainting. “I think I’m going to ask him to the Colonnade Ball.”
I went to the ball with a frat boy I’d been courting but who quickly proved to be a slut. He left before dancing even started, and I went home early, feeling rejected. Matt and Annie went to dinner with us beforehand, and things seemed to be going well.
The next day, though, Matt found me in the library and asked if I wanted to take a walk. We sat against a tree on the Lawn, not looking at each other. I didn’t really know what was going on, but the longer we sat the more I desperately wanted a drink of water.
“I want to take you to dinner,” Matt said. I told him I’d think about it.
My first inclination was no. No. No. He’s not my type, in the long run. His smiles came too easily, like he’d never felt alone in the world. How could I relate to that? Plus, “Thou Shalt Not Take Thy Friend’s Man” seemed to me, at the time, a cardinal rule of female friendship. As with any moral principle, however, once interrogated by a person in their hour of temptation and need, the maxim crumbled under its own weight. After all, it doesn’t apply when your friend isn’t actually dating the guy, right?
The dilemma was forced to its crisis at a Halloween dance party in a sports bar: neon lights, sweet drinks, and Justin Timberlake in the background. It was two weeks after Matt had told me about his feelings for me, and my attraction was only growing. Meanwhile, Annie was still trying to hit on Matt, and he and I were finding excuses to dance while she wasn’t looking. Finally we made out in a corner, though I half-assedly pushed him away as if I were too good for it all. Still, I acted as her friendly ear when she complained that he wasn’t into her. After that night the deception was too much. I knew I had to tell her.
When I dropped the bomb, I still fancied myself the good guy. After all, I had waited to come clean until her affections for him had died down like so many flying sparks that didn’t catch fire. At that point in my life, intentions counted for everything, conveniently erasing any responsibility for my actions. My world was all possibilities, with no compromise required.
I told Annie that Matt had asked me out the Monday after the Halloween party, while we were walking home from class, down the red brick path that fed from the main campus into the Corner, seven blocks of student-saturated shops and restaurants.
“Oh?” I’ll never forget the look she gave me — not anger, not sadness, but surprise.
A week and many unanswered texts later, Annie called me and asked if she could come over.
“You knew,” she said.
“What? Look, you weren’t dating,” I protested. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, but I wanted to see where this would go. I didn’t think you’d care.”
“You knew before you told me,” she repeated.
“I wanted to wait to make sure there was nothing between you two before acting on anything.”
“You knew, and you let me keep thinking I had a chance. You made me feel like a fool.”
I didn’t see Annie much after that. Matt and I fell in love, and we dated for two more years, until we realized it was too early to settle for not-quite-right. There was value there — there was passion and soaring happiness and support — but I don’t think I ever related to him, or to many other people on this earth, the way I could relate to Annie.
Meanwhile, I called Annie, I texted, I even filled the blank insides of a Hallmark card with my regret and pushed it under her door. Receiving no answer, I resolved to let time do its healing work. But even though we had a couple of fun nights together after things cooled down, we’d never really be friends again. We’d never share the same connection. I wouldn’t eat Chinese with her and her brother after seeing a high school play in her hometown. I wouldn’t join her on trail runs followed by pancakes at the tavern.
And why did it matter so much? This is something I’ve pondered over and over in the 10 years since. Something about her openness — the key to unlocking it and keeping it — necessitated deep trust. In the end, the cardinal rules about taking a man or staying away from a man or the moral distinctions between taking someone’s crush and taking someone’s boyfriend — they all missed the point. The point was I’d taken us off the same level. I’d let her gush to me about her excitement, knowing the hope was false, and intending to make that excitement my own. I had made her the fool.
It had been 10 years since I’d spoken to Annie when I saw the Facebook announcement. It didn’t surprise me. I knew from our mutual friends that she’d been seeing someone seriously, and with a girl like her — a girl with a voice like home and a mischievous smile — it was only a matter of time. In the picture, she stood on a beach, holding a card (that he’d made?), his frame twice her size towering behind her. He looked kind — the kind of man she would marry. Someone who could build things and talk about books and who didn’t need to live in a place like New York City. Though it was obvious that I wouldn’t be invited to the wedding, it still stung.
Flicking my fingers across the screen to zoom in, I told myself the same thing I told myself every time I saw an announcement like this: I’m happy for her. But it wasn’t the same. Annie would always be the one that got away.
Annie died on Tuesday, August 9, of this year. I wrote this before I knew she was dying, a fact I learned from our mutual friend just two days before she passed away from complications of breast cancer. She spent the last year of her life writing, traveling, swimming, watching a British baking show with her husband, and playing strategic board games. And, I’m sure, squeezing the sap out of life with an ease that drew so many to her as I was drawn. She got away from all of us, but I’ll always have the lesson she taught me, and the memory of her smile below the painting of a woman doing the tango in a red dress.
Vicki Stork is a lawyer and writer who grew up on Long Island and currently lives in Brooklyn. Her passion is connecting to people and understanding what makes them tick, something she seeks in her writing and her daily life.