the smartest guy at college

I started out as a music major, and once I cried in a practice room, sitting next to a chipped old grand piano, because everything felt wrong.

I was dating a French horn player and all of his friends were brass players too (they were really very nice but I never fit in) and all of my classes were about music, except that somehow they were boring and difficult at the same time. The other sopranos were better than me and also harder, somehow, and the one who made herself throw up in the dorm bathroom was the most popular.

I signed up for one academic class. Religion and Psychology. Professor Jones, a commanding man with exactly the right amount of facial hair to be distinguished-looking, and a low, thoughtful voice made for oratory. I sat towards the back, but soon I was raising my hand a lot, because I wanted to talk about everything. And the other students in the class wanted to talk, too. There was a really smart girl who sat in the front, a little to my left, and took notes in the neatest handwriting. There was a lumbering guy with a baseball cap who sometimes debated with her. And then there was the smartest guy at college.



That’s what I called him in my head. He had a lilting accent I couldn’t identify because I wasn’t worldly enough. It made me want to be more worldly. He had very black, thick hair that did a sort of sweep because it was long enough to and because it had natural style. He had glasses that looked almost decorative, because I thought glasses were really cool. He had read everything. He could quote everything. He didn’t even sound like a jerk about it. Well, maybe he sounded like a tiny bit of a jerk, but I didn’t mind. I thought he sounded fascinated and, by immediate extension, fascinating.


It wasn’t exactly because of the smartest guy at college that I decided to quit music and transfer into a different school in the university where I could study the sociology of religion full-time. It was also Professor Jones and the girl with the handwriting and the satisfaction I felt when I knew things that mattered about the world because I’d learned them in class.

I signed up for more classes. The smartest guy at college wasn’t in any of them, but I heard about him from time to time. Jones was mentoring him. He was a senior already and he was writing an honors thesis. I ran into him in the cafeteria one day. He recognized me from class, but only a little. Still, it was cool. I was wearing a nice outfit that day, with my favorite thick belt.

I asked Jones to be my mentor. I did an independent study project about how children imagine God and what it says, if anything, about their religious community. I interviewed kids at my synagogue and it was so much fun it felt like being a homeschooler all over again. I decided I was going to be a professor one day.


(me, facing off with a chalkboard this one time)

The smartest guy at college was at grad school in the city—Columbia. The professors in the religion department still spoke fondly of him.

I loved the professors in the religion department. Johnson, with his white beard, taught a class on sexuality in western religions, and it was great. He talked about ovulation and stuff in this dry, even voice, with only the faintest hint of a sparkle in his eyes. I was a feminist, so I liked to challenge him, and he liked to be challenged. They finally hired a woman professor, and it seemed like a good time to be around. I was working on an honors thesis with Jones about masculinity and Christianity and the Promise Keepers. I heard that the smartest guy at college had gotten highest honors. I wanted it, too. I really, really wanted it.

He came back, for a department holiday party. I didn’t expect to see him, but there he was, with his hair slicked back a little, lounging on the staff couch, looking completely at home. I was wearing my new brown leather boots with heels and I felt like I looked good just then, even though by then I was totally serious about getting a nose job and sometimes I looked at myself naked in the mirror and said out loud, “You are disgusting.”

I sat down next to the smartest guy at college and we started talking, just like it was no big deal. He was fascinated by my thesis. He was fascinated by gender studies. He told me about his work in grad school, and it sounded so sharp. Relevant but brainy, mixing spirituality with neuroscience with psychoanalysis with good old-fashioned textual analysis. English was clearly his second language but he knew all the hottest big words.

I didn’t know the girl on his other side was his girlfriend until the end of the evening, when she suddenly said, “Honey, can we go, please?” We’d been talking that whole time. He’d gotten my email address.

“Ha,” I thought, not interested in examining my slightly mean sense of triumph.

He never wrote to me.

I defended my honors thesis in front of a panel. Johnson didn’t buy some of my conclusions about normative masculinity and we got into a little argument.

“I’m a white man, and I don’t even think about this stuff,” he said.

“Exactly,” I said. “You don’t have to think about it because you’re a white man.” I surprised myself with my bluntness.

The new woman professor sided with me and I tried not to grin. It went on for over an hour. I was sweating through the armpits of my nice shirt. Then they sent me out into the hall while they deliberated.

I was awarded highest honors. Soon, I got into Columbia. I was going to be a professor!

My first day in the city, I ran into the smartest guy at college, in front of the gates of my new school. This time he definitely recognized me.

“Kate?” he said, and I turned around, and he was charming and offered to show me around sometime. I gave him my email address again.

He wrote to me and we met up for Cuban food. I made this joke about the girls in my classes who were always trying to reassure everyone that they weren’t that feminist. Not in an unattractive way or anything. “I mean, I’m a feminist, but I LOVE to give blow jobs!” I chirped, imitating them.

He burst out laughing, slapping the table with both hands and making the silverware jump. “You’re hilarious!” he said. “I really like you.”


(me, about to take over the world. maybe)

I was flush with my own academic upward mobility and, cockily, I told him he could take me out on a real date if he also wrote me a poem.

He did. It was pretty good, too. He did poetry slams sometimes, he said. I had done poetry slams, as a teenager. No one knew that about me. I felt like a fuller version of myself, for telling him.

We fell into a relationship before I could even really think if I wanted it or him.

“Wouldn’t this be a great story?” I thought. “To tell our kids?” Because, yes, I’m one of those girls. I always think that way.

In the end, he was the one who broke up with me.

We’d fought bitterly, regularly. We called Fridays “fighting Fridays” because we were on a schedule. He was so fascinated with his research, he didn’t seem to miss me even when we were apart for long stretches of time. And I was attracted to other guys. And on and on. But I loved him. He did this ridiculously funny impression of Freud. We made fun of French existentialism together and read Zizek together and I thought his glasses looked so good on my nightstand.

He broke up with me in a text message. “I just can’t do this anymore.”

I sat in Riverside Park in the rain and cried and then didn’t cry but kept sitting. I went home and cut his leather jacket up and then sat in the middle of my rug from Target, surrounded by strips of black leather. He was the smartest guy at college. We had the best story. I was never going to find someone as good as him.

And also, by then I knew that I didn’t want to be a professor. So what the hell was I going to be? Nothing, maybe. Maybe I was already nothing?

I humiliated myself. I begged him to take me back. I don’t even want to remember it.

“See, the problem, Kate,” he said patiently, in his therapist voice with that lovely rolling accent, “is that it just doesn’t seem as though you’re going anywhere in your life. And I’m very ambitious.”

That was the meanest thing he said. It was maybe the meanest thing he could have said. We were standing on the platform and the train was pulling up to take me away. A train to nowhere. He had won awards and published papers and he was going somewhere.


(there’s always something a little bleak about NJ transit. source. Oh, here’s a post I wrote about some guys on an NJ Transit train.)

I sat at my keyboard in my dirty little apartment, half naked, writing a song called “lost.” It felt like the night that had settled over the city would never lift into day again. It was a dramatic time. The end of everything good.

I sat in a café with a close friend from college and tried to sort out my whole life. After a while, we went to a movie instead. Because she was always a good friend, she slept over. In the middle of the night my throat suddenly closed and I thought I was going to die.

My brain went weirdly calm. No longer able to speak, I wrote, “Call 911” on a pad. My vision got blurry. She was so scared, she was messing up the address over and over, and I kept underlining it on the pad.

I don’t remember the ambulance ride.

I remember lying on a cot behind a blue curtain and there was a woman screaming and screaming in the next room over and Elena, my amazing friend, was sitting next to me. I could breathe fine again. I had been grabbing at my neck and then something shifted and the air came back through. After most of the night was done, and Elena and I had been singing in harmony with the humming machines for a while, a young, amused doctor told me that it seemed like there was a weak ligament in my jaw and I must have partially dislocated the jaw when I yawned or something. Which caused swelling? I don’t know. I was really tired. “Or maybe you were doing something else?” he teased. “With a guy?” So that chapter of my life concluded with a joke about blow jobs, too.

I had popped my own jaw back into place, not knowing what was happening. “Just be careful,” the doctor said, and he might as well have winked because his whole face looked like a wink.

I decided that I was going somewhere in my life.


(we got out of the ER at sunrise. source)

A few months later I signed up for online dating and got tentatively asked out by a guy whose name I didn’t yet know but whose quick, smart humor and unpretentious ease with words intrigued me. He hadn’t studied the humanities. He was a science and computers guy. I didn’t want anything serious. I thought maybe it was time for a break from all that. But, you know, I fell shockingly, whole-heartedly in love. It was not a very romantic story.

I couldn’t have predicted it. And of course, it’s totally ordinary. It’s been a long time, too, since I looked in the mirror and felt that consuming disgust. And god, I’m glad I get to write every day. These days, I can’t even imagine being a professor.

Which is not to say that I’m even close to finished, with everything.


that day, when I got on the train, we were in New Jersey, where the smartest guy at college had moved to continue his research. So the train took me right back to New York City. And let me tell you, this is not nowhere. This is a place where things are always becoming and always about to become. It’s also my home.

So, at the start of this new year, here’s to starting again, always, any time, accidentally, on purpose, forever. Here’s to beginnings. Here’s to it never, ever being the end of everything good.

*  *  *

What do you want from this upcoming year? I want to lose weight off my SOUL. :-)

Unroast: Today I love the way my thin hair looks parted on the side. I’m figuring it out! There’s hope for my head! My MIL told me I look like a movie star from the 30′s! I think that’s a good thing.

P.S. One of the great things about being a Jew in the Gregorian world is that there are two new years. So you get to evaluate life and make yourself promises and repent and forgive and be forgiven and get existential and solemn and gather with family and eat delicious things and reaffirm goals and just generally sit around thinking hard about who you are as a person twice a year. I love this shit. Happy New Year, guys!


Kate on December 31st 2013 in fear, life, new york, relationships, uplifting

32 Responses to “the smartest guy at college”

  1. Alpana Trivedi responded on 31 Dec 2013 at 12:24 pm #

    Hello, Kate. You know, I’m not a big fan about the comments regarding “going somewhere.” I don’t know that at my age I’m going anywhere, at least not in the conventional goal-oriented sense.

    In any case, Happy New Year and here’s to not having resolutions, because every time I make those, I break them. But we CAN be discovery-oriented and be open to life’s surprises.

  2. Lauren responded on 31 Dec 2013 at 12:52 pm #

    I really liked this post, lovely writing.

  3. Lisa F. responded on 31 Dec 2013 at 1:04 pm #

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, Kate.

  4. San D responded on 31 Dec 2013 at 6:13 pm #

    My bucket list was completed 10 times over already. But there is always more….just got my first puppy today. While everyone else my age is enjoying grandchildren, I will be in love with my new softcoated wheaten terrier….now off to find a suitable name for her….Happy New Year!!

  5. Sarah Bradford responded on 31 Dec 2013 at 7:35 pm #

    This post made me smile, so thank you for that. Good Luck in 2014!

  6. Katie (katilda) responded on 31 Dec 2013 at 9:24 pm #

    This is exceptional, for reals. I got chills like 10 times. First, I started out as a music major. The other sopranos made jokes about Steinway pianos and I was like, “Music theory sucks balls,” and that was that for my freshman year. And then the rest of this, the love story part, I really needed that today. I’m about 30min away from getting on a train to the city (San Francisco) with a group of friends and dealing with the sting of my own leather-jacking-wearing guy who, if we ended up together, would be the most exceptional story. But it’s not much of a story if he doesn’t ultimately decide he wants me, right? This sentence slapped me in the face: “I was never going to find someone as good as him.” Because I realized the knot in my chest the last few days has been because I was believing that thought, even though I didn’t know I was thinking it. And I read it when you wrote it and thought, “Ooh but this has a good ending, because she DOES find someone better!” And then I was like “Oh, life lesson, I will too.” I’m just in the leather-jacket-cutting phase right now instead of the be-strong-move-on phase, is all. But, thanks for this :)

  7. Maggie May responded on 31 Dec 2013 at 9:44 pm #

    two new years! that is mind boggling.

  8. Katie responded on 01 Jan 2014 at 3:49 am #

    Ah Kate, you are such a perfect storyteller. I can relate to the difficulty of a break up when the meeting and love story is so intricate and romantic. Such a disappointment to let go of that narrative! But then I met my husband on OKCupid and that was kind of a dull “how we met” story to tell. I’ll take happy over great story though :)

  9. olivia responded on 01 Jan 2014 at 7:49 am #

    this is my favourite post of yours – and that’s saying a lot because I love so many of them. Apart from being just a beautiful piece of writing, I and probably a few other people needed to hear something like this now :)

  10. Maya responded on 01 Jan 2014 at 9:29 am #

    I think there’s something about a certain point in life where the story is just so perfect that you think it will make the relationship, or the job, or the friendship just so wonderful because of it. It’s romantic. It feels like a story. I’ve definitely had that feeling- that the combination will hold thing together, because “this is how we met” so it will always be important.

    Maybe that works for some folks. Often, it seems like it doesn’t, though. Instead, I met my husband at a birthday party, in a place I was in only temporarily, in a restaurant that has since closed. And you know, so what? The relationship is the key, not the trappings it came in. I’m so glad you have that in your life, and the smartest guy in college can just be a story- because he’s a great story, and sounds like he’d have been a less-than-great partner.

  11. Amy responded on 01 Jan 2014 at 12:53 pm #

    I love your writing. I read so…many…blogs. So many that recently I’ve just had to start deleting them from my inbox w/o reading them- not enough time! But whenever I see yours I open it up and start reading. I eventually turn off anything that I’m listening to in the background so I can focus. Your writing is so raw and open and honest- I feel like you speak the words of so many of us! Keep it coming! And Happy New Year!!

  12. April responded on 01 Jan 2014 at 9:27 pm #

    Aw, Kate. I think the following lines

    “But, you know, I fell shockingly, whole-heartedly in love.
    It was not a very romantic story.”

    are totally oxymoronic together. There’s now way you can fall head-over-heels in love with someone without it being romantic! EVERY story about love is romantic.

  13. Kande responded on 02 Jan 2014 at 7:51 am #

    At the risk of sounding like a cheesy cliche … just like a ” house” is similar to, yet completely different from a “home”; the leather jacket guy is a nice love-story – Bear is your LIFE. I choose real life over a story any day.

  14. Kate responded on 02 Jan 2014 at 11:25 am #

    @San D
    YAY! Brave move.

  15. Kate responded on 02 Jan 2014 at 11:26 am #

    That means a lot to me! Thanks for letting me know!

  16. Kate responded on 02 Jan 2014 at 11:28 am #

    @Katie (Katilda)
    I’m really glad this resonated. I was hoping someone reading this would be in that spot with a leather-jacket guy, because god, it made me feel sick it was so scary at the end of that relationship. But yes, there is more to your story. It’s ridiculous how obvious it turns out to be, but in the moment, it’s completely inaccessible. Or at least, it was to me! Good luck with this part!

  17. Sarah responded on 02 Jan 2014 at 2:06 pm #

    This post made me buy your book, which I read in two days because I couldn’t put it down. Your writing makes me want to write and makes me want to read all day long- my two favorite things, so thank you! And happy new year.

  18. MaryAnne responded on 02 Jan 2014 at 3:44 pm #

    I sat down to read the next book for my book club but I wasn’t enjoying it. And then I remembered that I hadn’t yet read your most recent post, and I instantly became excited. Thank you for always sharing such personal stories with us and writing them so beautifully. Happy 2014!

  19. Stephanie responded on 03 Jan 2014 at 6:40 pm #

    What a great read! I have one silly question though….do feminists not give blow jobs? Or do they give them but don’t enjoy them?

  20. Kate responded on 03 Jan 2014 at 6:46 pm #

    LOL!!! I have no idea how many self-identified feminists enjoy giving a blow job and am pretty sure there aren’t any official statistics. What I meant, by my hilarious impression of some classmates was just that sometimes women seem nervous about identifying as feminists because they’re afraid it makes them sound like they don’t like men, so they are eager to clarify, “No, no, I LOVE men!” Thus the blow job reference.

  21. Kelly Park responded on 05 Jan 2014 at 10:12 am #

    that was a joy to read.

  22. Jenny responded on 06 Jan 2014 at 2:17 pm #

    My husband and I have an excellent story (we met on the Pacific Crest Trail), but after three years together, it doesn’t matter in the slightest. We’ve grown and changed, and while being hiker trash is always going to be at our core, our life looks totally different now (hello, baby on the way!)

    I find myself reluctant to even tell the story. Certainly not out of a lack of love, but more because I know it can’t possibly sum us up and a small part of me thinks of it almost like a curse. I had other relationships with “good stories” that ended very poorly, so I know it’s not what counts.

  23. Dev responded on 06 Jan 2014 at 4:29 pm #

    This is amazing. Thank you so much!

  24. Rae responded on 06 Jan 2014 at 9:39 pm #

    My love & I have a good story but I don’t like telling it because it sounds cliche but its not. I enjoyed hearing more of your story!

  25. Kate responded on 08 Jan 2014 at 10:32 am #

    That IS a great story! And exciting, about that baby!

  26. Kate responded on 08 Jan 2014 at 10:32 am #

    I can’t help but want to hear it….

  27. Kate responded on 08 Jan 2014 at 10:33 am #

    @Kelly Park
    Good. I’m really glad you thought so!

  28. CL Mannarino responded on 10 Jan 2014 at 2:39 pm #

    This is one of my favorite posts of yours. It reads kind of like one of my favorite books: Stay with Me by Garrett Freymann-Weyr. :) I love the tone of this and the story.

  29. Kate responded on 10 Jan 2014 at 2:46 pm #

    @CL Mannarino
    I love to hear about favorite books– I’ll check this out

  30. Eat the Damn Cake » the Jews in Williamsburg responded on 15 Jan 2014 at 11:25 am #

    [...] But I was JUST twenty-two, myself. I remember it so clearly. I was standing at the top of Morningside Park, looking over the sunset roofs of Spanish Harlem, the elegant crowns of the sycamores in between, feeling full of social theory and the enormous, cancerous unknown of the rest of my life and the intrigue of sleeping with witty, cultured men. [...]

  31. Jade responded on 16 Jan 2014 at 8:39 am #

    I absolutely loved this

  32. Eat the Damn Cake » stop analyzing your single friends responded on 07 May 2014 at 9:20 am #

    [...] to insult myself, but let me be real: when I met my husband I was twenty-three and cocky, insecure and earnest and full of pretentious grad school-isms. I had no idea what I was doing with my life. I was scared. I had frizzy hair and a pimple on my [...]