My wife’s new book, Love Lessons, is out today. It doesn’t really matter that this is her 14th novel (counting the ones she has cowritten with Marie Sexton) – it’s always a bit of a thrill when something I know she about killed herself over is finally available for everyone to read. I beta-read Love Lessons earlier this year, just as I beta-read everything she writes, and I have to say that it is, without a doubt, my favorite book she’s ever written. I’m biased, but it really is.
Here’s the blurb:
Love doesn’t come with a syllabus.
Kelly Davidson has waited what seems like forever to graduate high school and get out of his small-minded, small town. But when he arrives at Hope University, he quickly realizes finding his Prince Charming isn’t so easy. Everyone here is already out. In fact, Kelly could be the only virgin on campus.
Worst of all, he’s landed the charming, handsome, gay campus Casanova as a roommate, whose bed might as well be equipped with a revolving door.
Walter Lucas doesn’t believe in storybook love. Everyone is better off having as much fun as possible with as many people as possible…except his shy, sad little sack of a roommate is seriously screwing up his world view.
As Walter sets out to lure Kelly out of his shell, staying just friends is harder than he anticipated. He discovers love is a crash course in determination. To make the grade, he’ll have to finally show up for class…and overcome his own private fear that love was never meant to last.
This book affected me in a way that I didn’t anticipate. I should have known better because reading a book about college inevitably results in me reflecting on my own college experiences. Obviously, my college experiences were not mirrored exactly by the ones that Heidi wrote for Kelly and Walter. But I remember the feeling of disillusionment that followed my arrival on the Iowa State campus in the fall of 1990. Like Kelly, I, too, looked forward to graduating from high school, getting away from my high school classmates who seemed to just want to drink and party and to a place where I could finally come into my own, find new friends and feel less like a weirdo because I would discover my niche. Wow, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Just as Kelly’s illusions of college life were shattered, so were mine.
If I had to pick one word that describes my college experience, it would be lonely. This doesn’t mean that I didn’t have friends or that I was constantly miserable because I did and I wasn’t, especially once I made the transfer to Iowa City and pharmacy school. Sitting in the same room for four hours with the same 95 people leads to a bit of forced socialization, even for the most powerful of introverts. Still, I do not look back on the 5 years I spent as an undergraduate as these halcyon days of bliss. If anything, the rear view mirror shows a lot of regret for the missed opportunity. Some of that was my own fault as I was not always the most extroverted person and there was a significant lack of trying on my part at times. I was also terribly depressed with an anxiety component that was completely off the rails at that time, to the knowledge of pretty much no one, myself included. I just figured that was how I had to feel while living my life. And no one knew because I didn’t want to appear a failure in their eyes. If only I had the wisdom of today back then, but that was 20 years ago and a lot has changed in 20 years.
What I really could have used back then was a Walter. The thing I love most about the way that Heidi wrote Walter is how he really takes Kelly under his wing, and I would have given anything for that. He sees Kelly for who he is and although he doesn’t get always get it, he really is Kelly’s friend first. There’s a scene where Walter takes Kelly to Target to get stuff for the dorm room and it made me think about how many times I took a convoluted series of buses to places like Wal-Mart or Target during my college years. I used to tell people that it was likely that I would meet my future wife on the bus just from the sheer amount of time I spent on the bus. Now that I think about some of the people I rode the bus with, it’s probably best that didn’t happen. I think I was always on the lookout for a Walter – the big brother I never had to show me the ropes (a phrase that never fails to make me think of this scene from The Vicar of Dibley), the friend I could hang out with and have fun with but also talk to when life got overwhelming.
Trying to find Walter was a fool’s errand because it never happened, obviously, and when I think about the squandered energy it makes me question my priorities because I should have been looking for a girlfriend rather than a big brother. But that was part of the gig at that point in my life – I felt so lousy that I couldn’t imagine anyone of the opposite sex wanting to date me so I didn’t even open myself up to that. I can look back with utter clarity and see that there were plenty of girls I knew that would have dated me, but I just couldn’t or wouldn’t see it. Ultimately, I’ve found slivers of Walter in many different people over the last 20 years. Some of those people have stuck around, some haven’t. Kelly & Walter’s story, even though this was a love story between the two of them and not just a story about platonic friends, really hit me right in the heart.
Reading Love Lessons resulted in me remembering an experience I had buried deep in the recesses of my brain. It was my first year of college and I was at Parks Library on the Iowa State campus studying fairly early in the evening. The earlier you got there, the more likely you were to get a prime spot for studying. Sittying by myself at a rectangular table with four chairs, a guy I didn’t know sat down across from me. He unpacked his books and started talking to me, asking me what I was studying (Math 165 – the ISU equivalent of Calc I, if memory serves) and what I was listening to on my Walkman (probably Eurythmics’ Savage as I played that tape a lot early on in college.) I don’t remember much else of what happened or what we talked about, but I do remember being uncomfortable and leaving not terribly long after he sat down. My introvert won that round, because I didn’t know what to do with someone sitting across from me at a study table in the library, especially someone I didn’t even know. I probably justified it in my head somehow. There was someone being friendly, and I was more or less a jerk to them.
I never got his name, but when I remembered that, I wondered he that wasn’t a Walter. It’s pointless to debate it now – we’ll never know. It does make me think that maybe I wasn’t ready for a Walter because if I had been, I would have started talking to him and maybe I would have made a new friend. Those are the kind of things I look back on with regret. I remember one Sunday night that my dad brought me back to school. I was probably being especially (and frustratingly) sour and down and he said to me “some day you will probably regret feeling this way.” He was right. I wish I could go back in time to change it.
There’s a lot of healing that has to go on for that part of me. It’s ongoing and in spite of what I have written, I don’t sit and stew about it 24 hours a day. But it comes up in my brain more often than I would like to admit. Every day that goes by I feel better about those days. I have also worked hard at accepting that sad and lonely person that I was into the me that I am today – after years of being embarrassed by his experiences and actions. Reading my wife’s book full of college students on the cusp of adulthood amplified these feelings a lot and made me face up to them. For that, I love her even more than I did before I read it.
Love Lessons ends as every Heidi Cullinan book will always end – happily. Ain’t nobody got time for sad endings! And as for college aged Dan, well, he ended up doing all right too.
You can buy Love Lessons in ebook format at any of the usual places. Heidi – I apologize for making your book so much about me.