When life is cold, warm hearts can ease the chill

When life is cold, warm hearts can ease the chill

The story I’m about to tell is the truth as I know it, but that doesn’t mean parts of it aren’t fictional. Because when others apply their interpretations, reality gets a little blurred.

In other words, reader beware.

Let’s start with a nod to the Shangri-Las and their 1964 hit, “Leader of the Pack.”

I met her in the language lab. You get the picture?

Yes, you’ll see.

It was a very bleak winter in South Bend, which is a little like saying it gets a bit warm in hell, but even by Northern Indiana standards, the winter of 1976 was particularly cruel.

Or maybe that was just me since, on the very day I returned to the Notre Dame campus after the Christmas break, my girlfriend casually informed me that over that two-week period she’d rekindled her romance with her HTH.

Hometown honey, that is.

To her everlasting credit, she didn’t elaborate beyond the salient central point; to wit, after a semester together, we were finished.

What I remember most about that brief encounter there in my dorm room was the silence that followed her matter-of-fact confession of her teenage treachery.

The only sound was the gentle hissing her snow-covered gloves made as they dried on the old-fashioned steam radiator.

All I could think to say was, “I’ll miss you.”

Which is precisely what I did.

There were times when we’d pass each other on the South Quad — she surrounded by her gaggle of giggling gal pals, me slogging alone through the drifts of yet another lake-driven snowstorm — but I learned to avoid those near occasions of contact.

Isolation was my closest friend; after that it was textbooks, homework, essays and exams. There’s really nothing like a broken heart to deepen your commitment to something — anything — that will lessen the hurt of losing.

My grades were in their ascendancy, and for a while it looked like I might pull a perfect 4.0 GPA from the ashes of my crash-and-burn experience with the social scene at ND.

It was with that goal in mind that I refocused my academic attention on my worst class — Advanced French — and slogged my way through the grey slush and dull ice all the way to the language lab where, my professor assured me, resources awaited that just might turn my lackluster B into a shiny A.

As you might guess, the place was packed with overachievers, and it took me a while to reach the front of the line where, as God as my witness, the most beautiful girl I’d seen in my 2 1/2 years on campus was asking if she could help me.

Scratch “girl.”

That’s wrong.

This was a woman, a dazzling, striking, sexy, awe-inspiring vision of perfection with her green eyes, copper-colored hair cut in bangs, a black turtleneck sweater, faded blue jeans and, oddly, ski boots.

“You ski too?” she asked as she followed my eyes to feet.

“Well, I sort of skidded my way here,” I said, happy to spit even the semblance of a coherent sentence without tripping all over myself. “But no, not really. I tend to fall a lot.”

She laughed politely, and we made small talk for a minute, and I checked out the tape I needed and sat down and threaded the reel-to-reel machine, all the time trying not to stare too much.

If I told you she and I became friends over the next couple of months, you probably wouldn’t believe me, so I won’t even try to explain how it happened because I honestly don’t know either.

Part of it had to do with the fact we were both juniors and we were both English majors and we both lived on the South Quad, which meant we both ate at the same dining hall.

Some of it was because she liked jazz and I had a fairly decent collection of records by John Coltrane, Chick Corea, Billy Cobham, Larry Coryell and Stanley Clarke — and that was just the C’s.

But most of our time together was spent listening to each other because both us were still smarting from failed relationships, and you can learn a lot from someone who’s going through the same pain.

In short it was accidental therapy.

For my 21st birthday, she planned a small surprise party that ended with a bunch of us riding a bus into town for a midnight showing of “Yessongs,” a concert film featuring one of my favorite bands.

We attended lectures and readings, took in a rally for a Democratic candidate for president, studied together and walked the lake a lot.

This, naturally, led to rampant speculation on behalf of my dorm friends who assumed that there was more going on than there was.

After all she was a regular visitor to my room, and not to be crude about it, she was not your average-looking co-ed. She drew attention wherever she walked down the hallway and was used to it, but I tried to protect her, which was a fool’s errand.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “They’re just boys.”

And you’re probably wondering, too, if anything happened as winter melted away and the weather warmed and ski pants gave way to cutoff shorts and guys put stereo speakers in their windows and blasted “Frampton Comes Alive” and “Physical Graffiti.”

Well, yes, something did happen. We got involved in a festival that had something to do with the vernal equinox and bacchanalia of all kinds including a tug-of-war over an oozing bog.

At the end of the event, which went on for a long time, we were mud-covered and laughing, a moment captured by a photographer from the South Bend paper, where it appeared the next day.

Of course you couldn’t tell who was who — everyone being splattered and soaking wet — but I could see us very clearly.

We were friends doing what friends do.

Pulling together for a common purpose, helping each other in times of difficulty, having fun even when it looked hopeless and not caring whether we won or not, just being side by side, happy.

I learned a lot at Notre Dame, not the least of which was that if you’re pulling on a rope against the odds, you will need help.

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