By training, I'm a lawyer and a Ph.D. psychologist. By vocation, I'm a law professor. Much of my job consists of writing and publishing at the intersection of social science, race and law. For the most part, academics don't write about their personal lives. I'm no exception. I'm three and a half years in as a legal scholar and have published ten books and almost thirty articles. I think what I've written has been consequential but probably not as important as what I say here, because it deals with the most important aspect of the human experience: love.
It was August of 1999. I was a first year doctoral student at the University of Kentucky, and a fraternity brother of mine, Bobby, had invited me to a pool party. As we entered the Johnson Center, one of the first things I saw was her. She was wearing an apple green bikini, a straw "AKA" (Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority) hat, and high heels (ironic at a pool party). I turned to Bobby and asked, "Who is...?", and before I could finish the question, he told me that her name was "Marie." I assume people often asked about her. She was that beautiful. As she approached, Bobby made introductions. I never forget that hug, and in her southern drawl, how she said, "Hi, frat!"
Bobby had been dating Marie's pledge sister and roommate, Ayanna. So, a week or two after the pool party, we were at their place, extending introductions. We sat around their dining room table for an hour or two, getting to know one another. In time, Marie would go on to date someone else who she go on to marry. I would find out, through Bobby, many years after the fact that Ayanna didn't think Marie was suitable for me, so she jettisoned my efforts to get to know her.
In the fall of 2007, I was licking fresh wounds from a relationship that had taken fourteen years to come to fruition with my first true love, Jessica, and had ended some months prior. I was in the beginning of my third year at Cornell Law School and working on my third book. I needed pictures for it, so I reached out to roughly twenty people. Marie happened to be one of them. She politely responded and wondered if I had reached out because of the latest news. She had divorced the prior year. It was ugly. Her husband had been wildly unfaithful; Marie found out via phone records and was, understandably, devastated.
We spent the ensuing weeks catching up. In October, she had kindly invited me to Lexington to visit. It was too soon for me, but by November I was open to accepting her invitation to meet her at in Fort Lauderdale while she would be there for a conference. We had a great weekend together. I still remember sitting on the balcony, briefing cases for class, while I looked out on Coral Bay. And then there was our last day together. We sat on the beach watching kids fly kites. Eventually Marie turned to me and said that she didn't have any expectations of me as we set to part ways that weekend. Marie and I remained in contact that year, flirting here and there, but nothing was expected, and nothing of significance was given.
Then something interesting happened in the fall of 2008, during my first judicial clerkship. While sitting at my desk one day, I received a call from Marie. I remember looking at my cellular phone and seeing her name appear, and, strangely, my heart began to race. And from that moment on, my every interaction with her--call, text, Facebook chat--was precipitated by a racing heart, and not a day went by that she didn't cross my mind.
Two and a half years would go by between when I saw Marie in Florida and would see her again. During that time, she and I both dated other people. She found it difficult to communicate with me, because, in her words, I reminded her of something out in the world, far from her, that was missing in her life--something she didn't know how to reach out and claim. Then in the spring of 2010, she was in my city for a conference. We spent each evening together, running the streets of Washington, D.C. I never forget the day I dropped her off at National Airport. Seeing her walk away, I didn't think I'd see her again. In the ensuing weeks, I'd finally find the nerve to tell her that I cared deeply for her. Her response was hostile. She told me that it was as if she was the man and I was the woman in our relationship and that I was "lukewarm dating material." It was a statement that she wouldn't readily explain, a least not for many years. But a close friend of hers clarified Marie's sentiments, telling me that she liked and respected me, that she wanted to date me but that I was so fundamentally different from any man she had ever been involved with romantically, that she didn't know how to give in and that she was inclined to "keep running."
Whatever Marie and I would develop between us over those three years meant something to me on a visceral level. In time, I would have to yield and give up on her and any possibility of us. In 2010, or thereabouts, I caught wind that she had gone back to her ex-husband. I recall her once telling me that she was the love of his life, this, despite his abuse of her on many levels. For me, it underscored my understanding that I was too unfamiliar to her, too outside what she came to expect from and understand about men. Our dance showed me that change is hard, and that for good or bad, people often default to what is most familiar to them.
*Real names have been changed to protect identities.