Powell was the centrifuge in my spiraling life, even long after we’d gone our separate ways. I’d registered this with a churning stomach at a Virginia football tailgate nearly four years after we’d split up: he was the steadfast center, and I was continuously measuring the radius between him and the new boys I dated and the new versions of myself I wore and the experience of eating brook trout not fried, and therefore not how Powell liked it, for the first time. I was at the tailgate with my boyfriend at the time, Javier, a well-dressed Spaniard who stood to inherit a fortune from his shipping magnate father, and had no qualms about his disinterest in pursuing a trade or livelihood of his own. I dated him almost by accident, shruggingly. I was living on R Street in Georgetown at the time and working as an assistant to the gentleman who ran his father’s philanthropic office. I crossed paths with him two or three times in those strange professional-but-personal interactions of the ultra-wealthy, where, for example, I boarded his father’s mega-yacht while it was harbored at the Georgetown Waterfront in order to deliver some papers for signature and ran into Javier lounging on the deck, scrolling on his phone. Similar happenstance meetings seemed to proliferate over the following weeks, and then suddenly he was inviting me to events and, without any conversation, calling me his girlfriend, a naming that hung ill at ease with our lack of intimacy and compatibility. He drove us in a red sports car from D.C. to Charlottesville, clocking two speeding tickets on 29, and wore forest green suede driving moccasins, khaki chino shorts cut about six inches above the knee, and a pristine white polo shirt with an enormous embroidered crest to the tailgate that day. He was absurdly attractive, but I found myself embarrassed by his flashiness that afternoon amidst the mud-speckled SUVs and lived-in Rainbows and red solo cups of my alma mater, and I was aware all at once that I had not been dating Javier so much as calculating the distance between he and Powell.
We were standing with some of my girlfriends, mixing mimosas, when I saw him. He had his forearm leaning against the open trunk of an SUV from which frat boys were retrieving plastic handles of liquor, and he was looking right at me. He waved once, a slow movement of the wrist, and did not smile. I saw immediately that there was no use in hiding and approached him. I was a riot behind a stone facade.
“Hi Powell,” I said, manicuring my tone with inconceivable restraint. He looked more mature, more serious — more handsome, as if he’d settled into his own features somehow — than I remembered. He was wearing a new leather belt, uncreased at the punch hole, and I could not help but project a fiction about Sumner selecting it at Eljo’s for him: her fanning around in a Lilly dress, and him looking on helpless and beholden.
“Howdy,” he said. A boy walked between us to hoist a flat of mixers out of the trunk. “Hey, Wallace, you seen George?” Powell asked him. I blanched. I saw immediately what he was doing: putting me in my place, embarrassing me with his disinterest. I turned on my heel.
“Caroline. Caroline.” I kept walking. “Hey, Caroline!” I spun around to confront him.
“You’re horrible,” I said, sifting through shades of dismay and thrill. It was bracing to verbalize a pale version of what I’d wanted to say to him for years. He lifted his eyebrows. “Treating me like that after — after –” And I couldn’t give a word to it. Because what had it been? Even after four years of laying the facts of our breakup in front of me, examining each like a specimen, I did not know. Was it a misshapen form of selflessness? Was it patronizing? Was it a feint to conceal a falling out of love? It did not compute that someone who walked back into the Harris Teeter in Barracks Shopping Center to pay for the bananas that had not been rung up in his groceries was capable of romantic chicanery. It also did not seem possible that he had fallen out of love with me all those years ago. No matter how many times I conjured his cutting words that morning in the garden, I thought mainly of the pained look on his face as he said them, and the way he always walked me to the door of his fraternity house — intolerant of the likelihood for shenanigans, projectiles, and errant comments that might waylay my progress — and his forbearance as my date at countless functions he had no interest in attending. I could see him at The Down Under, too gallant to wear his true feelings as he danced with me in the neon-dotted dark, and held my mixed drink for me, and posed with me in Party Pics, never wallflowering or sulking behind in the way I’d seen other boyfriends do. In a fit of rage against my heels on the long walk home, I had hurled them at the train tracks that ran along 14th Street.
“Good night y’all,” he’d said to the pack, summarily, and he retrieved my heels wordlessly and picked me up and threw me over his shoulder, as though a sack of potatoes, and I remember thinking how strange my size six heels looked in his hands, as though an astronaut holding a tube of lipstick in his gloved palm. The implied familiarity of this possession stirred something in me then, as it did when I stared at his hazel eyes that morning of the tailgate, ticking through these sundry nostalgias. Had there really been a time when he had fished my dropped earring out of his pocket (“you left this–“), and pushed my hair out of my face, and pulled me into himself by my waist as we jostled along the open flat bed of some fraternity brother’s truck? “I mean, you are horrible–” I repeated. I felt my voice catch and stopped short. He looked distraught, rearranging his lean build such that his shoulders — always thrown back — softened as he shoved his hands into his pockets.
“Caroline,” he said again, this time each syllable shorter than the last, as if saying my name was an accelerating answer.
“Why were you so rude just now?” I gestured to the back of the car. He ran his hand down his neck and looked back at me.
“You overwhelmed me,” he said. I knit my brow as if to demand: “What the hell are you talking about?” Even still, I was taken by his fleet-footed reaction, by its uncomplicated earnestness. He shifted feet and took his baseball cap off and curled the brim in his hands. “Seeing you — it knocked the wind right out of me.” He couldn’t bring his eyes to meet mine. I felt a breeze turn in my favor.
“Sumner around?” I asked, unable to suppress this immaturity.
“Sumner?” He squinted in puzzlement, returning his hat to his head and situating it in a compulsive gesture of his I’d forgotten. Then he rolled his eyes in sudden apprehension. “I’ve never been with her. What you saw that day — that graduation day — was not what you thought. We were never together. I’ve been alone since you.” It was other-worldly to hear him speak like this to me. It took everything I had to shrug — actually shrug — my shoulders. We stood in silence. Then —
“Caroline.” Almost an apology, now, his head at a tilt, and I had never known my name contained such multitudes. He rested his hand on my arm and squeezed gently three or four times, as if to soothe, and then moved his thumb across my bicep. I momentarily yielded to a possibility I had foreclosed upon for the past four years. The fracas around us seemed to blur and mute.
“I’m with someone,” I said finally. The thump of music and chatter of the crowd roared back. I withdrew my arm and gestured behind us. Powell closed his eyes, then nodded slowly, as if recovering from something. Though I knew I had delivered a passable performance of the revenge scene I had rehearsed hundreds of times — right down to the dismissive shrug and gratifying invocation of a new beau — I longed for the exchange to continue, or start over. I could not take him in quickly enough. His cheeks and forearms were browned from what I surmised were hours of recent fishing, and his Virginia cap was more deeply frayed and faded than I recalled, and I noticed for the first time his initials branded onto the leather of his belt — a gift from his tasteful mother? And as I absorbed these minutiae: this cannot be it, after all those years? Where I had expected the cool vault of satisfaction, I found instead an unbinding desire, and I struggled to accommodate this anagnorisis. Still, I felt myself begin to retreat, and this motion — though sanctioned, correct in my imaginings of our would-be path-crossing — ran obverse to every natural instinct in my body.
“Good seeing you, Caroline,” he said.
I was shaking, thrumming as though sick with sunburn, when I returned to my friends. The sight of Javier ran sour. I grabbed Charlotte’s hand, still aware of Powell’s eyes on me, and threaded my way through crowds and cars to McCormick Road.
I longed to retrace my steps, to find some excuse to cross his path, to feel his hands on me again. Would it do to just walk back down to that SUV? Charlotte and I exchanged meaningless observations on his appearance, the fact that he was even here, whether my Spanish boyfriend had noticed, as we absconded to the Engineering Library in search of restrooms. I stared at myself in the mirror —
“It knocked the wind out of me.”
His shy admission replayed over and over. It wasn’t just the sentiment: it was the apprehension of something primordial, as though Powell and I were nuncios, or pawns, or simply the improvised patterns of dust directed by forces greater than us both. Charlotte and I preened one another in front of the mirror, and, as we exited the bathroom, I grabbed her shoulder for a second and steadied myself. She understood from this wordless gesture that I was skating across a thin surface of indecision, and that any small shift in ballast might send me into pettiness, or tears, or some other form of scene-making I would later regret. Ill-advisedly but with the good intention of distraction, she retrieved a small silver flask from her purse, and we dipped into a window-lined nook of the library.
“To Powell Early Being Too Goddamn Late,” quipped Charlotte.
“I don’t want to, but I’ll drink to that,” he said. We wheeled around, and there he was.
It was inevitable after that. I knew it as soon as I saw him silhouetted against that empty library hall. Peripeteia, embodied. What will had he mustered to follow me there? Or had his pursuit been as inexorable as the tick of time from the clock that echoed in the dampness of Clark Hall that afternoon? I swear I could feel the day unwind in front of me in slow motion, one long scroll: Charlotte’s flustered and cartoonish extrication unfurling as if a tier of panels in a comic book, the way he pressed his palms against the wire frame of the stacks behind me, the afternoon transformed into a mid-tome spread across two pages.