The summer after my freshman year of college, I decided to live for a few months in the basement of my school’s library. I was by no means the first student to live there, as the university I went to offered scant financial aid and Manhattan rent is sky high.
When I heard that other students had survived rent-free for a summer by living illicitly in the school’s underbelly, I thought that this arrangement might be perfectly suited to my flexible summer canvassing job.
And it was. I showered at the gym and squirreled away canned food in fire extinguisher boxes. My co-workers didn’t remark upon my limited wardrobe. The security and maintenance workers didn’t seem to think much of a few students sleeping on couches. When they did occasionally shoo me away, I would sleep on couches in my friends’ dorm suites. In my free time, I would splurge on dollar slice pizza and then read books for hours at Barnes & Noble.
This life would have continued uneventfully for the rest of the summer, but it all changed the morning I found a note in my shoe that said, “You were so gorgeous while you were sleeping. Call me.”
As I brushed my teeth in the library bathroom, I debated calling the number while feeling disgusted that a stranger had been watching me sleep. I remembered that someone had come into the study lounge the previous night when I had been settling in, but I hadn’t gotten a good glimpse.
You have to be a certain type of eccentric to choose to live in the library. Combine this with the recklessness of youth, and I decided to call the number.
His accent was British, and his voice was groggy, as if he had just woken up. I was brusque, demanding that he meet me immediately in front of a nearby park. When he showed up fifteen minutes late, I was already annoyed.
“Your note was creepy and disrespectful,” I said.
He gave me a shy half grin that he covered with his hand and said, “Well it worked, didn’t it?”
He wasn’t my type — shorter than me by an inch and self-conscious, yet there was something about him that charmed me when his cheeks moved up and down in amusement. As a Korean international student who had spent time studying in the U.K., he admitted that he laid the accent on thick when he wanted something.
“Is there something you want now?” I said coyly.
We went back to his humid dorm room and listened to music while lying on his bed. Maybe my guard was down by then, or maybe just because I wanted to — I leaned over and kissed him, and then we proceeded from there.
Afterward, he went into the bathroom to wash up. I got dressed quickly, made the bed and left without saying bye.
At work that night, I told my friends about the note I had received.
“Did you call?” asked the one who was obsessed with meet-cutes.
“You’re going to get yourself killed one day,” said another.
I told them everything except for the fact that I had slept with him. Somehow, I felt like it was shameful — a lapse in my moral judgment.
After work, I got ready for bed, avoiding eye contact with the student who exited a bathroom stall just as I spit out my toothpaste foam into the sink. When I got to my usual sleeping spot, there he was.
“Why did you leave without saying bye?” he said.
None of my previous one-night stands had ever questioned why I left after the hookup. Nobody wanted to sit in the awkwardness of the aftermath.
“I thought it’d be kind of dangerous for you to keep sleeping here,” he said. “Why don’t you sleep over tonight?”
“I’ll be fine,” I said, but my couch looked particularly sad that night, so I reluctantly agreed. As we rode up the elevator to his dorm room, he said, “We can just be friends. I just didn’t want you to sleep in the library anymore.”
But, squeezing into a twin bed together over the next few weeks, we were not just friends.
He showed me a world different from my minimal life — we visited art galleries in Chelsea; he taught me how to roll a “ssam” in my first Korean barbecue restaurant; we smoked in his room and munched on chips that we picked out of the bag with chopsticks. We went to see an art film, which confused and fascinated me.
“Do you usually watch these kinds of movies?” I asked him. “Ones with lots of talking and not much action or much of an ending?”
He grinned, much less shy about his teeth now. “Not necessarily, but my friend recommended it. I always try out her recommendations. She’s my soul mate.”
Soul mate. I turned that word over in my mind that night as I slept next to him. What did that mean? I had never really believed in relationships or marriage. Most of my relatives’ marriages struck me as being fraught with unspoken anger. As he and I continued to go out on dates — because that’s what they were — I learned more about his soul mate. She was a model, quiet and sophisticated, with long white legs and a trim nose.
Maybe my competitiveness started to get the best of me, or maybe it was all the free meals, but I started wondering — what would it be like to be someone’s soul mate? I had kept everyone at arm’s length my whole life, sensing that I would be judged for revealing my whole self. I was the high-achieving, obedient daughter to my parents; I censored my weird parts from my classmates and my tired, vulnerable parts from my friends. I had never had a best friend.
Instead, I lived life through amusing anecdotes that I kept on rotation at parties, and so here, a story began to form in my mind, of me wryly telling my grandchildren, “You know where I met your grandfather? Sleeping in a library where he left me a creepy note!”
One sweltering night, I dreamed of my father, who had passed away from cancer the previous summer. I woke up confused and crying, and he held me as I pieced together the dream’s aftermath.
Searching for something to console me, he fished a handkerchief from his drawer, which was so old-fashioned to me that I laughed at it through my tears.
“Fine! If you don’t want it, I’ll take it back!” he said, but he wiped my blotchy face. The rotating fan gradually lulled us back to sleep. In his arms, I felt safe, and it made me wonder — maybe this could last forever.
His summer classes then came to an end, after which he returned to Korea to do his military service, and I put my stuff back into the library locker. Before he left, he told me he loved me, and I told him that I loved him too, without really knowing what it meant.
I was in love with the idea of him. It was easy to fall in love with carefully crafted emails, shared playlists and phone calls that always felt too brief. Much easier than falling in love with a real person and having to hear about their monotonous days and controversial opinions and to learn about their bad habits and annoying tics.
The city emptied out — the first half of my summer job ended, and all my work friends left for home except for one, who asked if I wanted to sleep over where he was staying. I turned him down. I preferred sleeping in the library now and rereading emails from across the ocean, staying up late and trying to intersect in time zones.
I started noticing the other people who had made the library their home, sleeping late into the night on the hard couches. I ignored these new roommates. It was one thing to joke with your friends about your unconventional living situation; it was another to be so directly confronted by it as you settled in for another late night with your towel drying on a computer chair beside you.
Eventually, our email exchange petered out, leaving me lank in the heat. In his last email, he wrote: “I had the most fun ever since I landed in New York a year ago. I only started eating out and trying all that New York is famous for because I met you. It’s sort of sad, and I’m trying not to cry right now, but I wish we could have met in a few years when we wouldn’t have had to say farewell so soon. You know how people are always excited about summers, and are dead set on making summers so memorable? I finally got a summer worth remembering.”
I did too.