I met Anthony* when I was 18, a first-semester college freshman living in the dorms. He was 20 and lived in the upper-classmen apartments, also on campus. At the time, I had a soft spot for dark, brooding types and saw their contempt for social norms and regular haircuts as a sign of deep intelligence.
Anthony, who had shaggy dyed-black hair and a fondness for turtlenecks, was a David Lynch-loving film major with a part-time job at a movie theater and aspirations to direct the next Blue Velvet. He routinely quoted lines from Jack Nicholson movies (e.g. "I may be crazy but it keeps me from going insane" and "I'm not gonna hurt ya, I'm just gonna bash your brains in!") and claimed to be the second cousin of Francis Ford Coppola. The first time we met, he was lounging across my friend Nicole's dorm room bed, wearing a black beret, and drinking a Mickey's Big Mouth.
I fell for him immediately.
My girlfriends found him entertaining, and we all benefited from his fake ID; therefore, he was a reoccurring guest at our dorm parties. It didn't take long for Anthony to notice my yearning glances, and one night after a few drinks, he led me to a lonely stairwell for a hot and heavy make-out session. I was in heaven.
But in true 20-year-old guy form, Anthony was hot and cold. At parties, he'd flirt with me like crazy. He'd come by my room sometimes, and we'd talk about movies and music and everywhere we wanted to travel after college. He'd tell me about the film scripts he wanted to write, and I'd tell him about the novels I wanted to write. But the next day, I'd run into him in the cafeteria or walking across campus, and he'd act like he barely knew me.
His inconsistent behavior only made me want him more. "I know he likes me," I reasoned aloud to anyone who would listen, "otherwise why would he keep coming around? But I don't understand why he totally blows me off sometimes. Is it because he's afraid of his feelings for me? I think he's a very sensitive person. He's an artist."
My friend Nicole would say nothing, changing the subject as soon as possible.
This went on for eight long weeks.
One Saturday night, a girlfriend and I decided on a whim to check out a new nightclub, where we ran into a few other friends, Anthony among them. He was leaning against a wall and appraising the room with his lip curled into a small sneer. My friend and I said our hellos to the group, chatted for a few minutes, and then hit the dance floor for the rest of the evening. Even in my love-blind state, it was clear to me that Anthony was in no mood to fool around that night.
The next morning, on our way to the cafeteria, my friend Nicole said, "I have to tell you something and you're not going to like it."
She'd been standing next to Anthony when I'd arrived at the club the night before, close enough to hear him declare: "She only came tonight because she knew I was here. How pathetic is that?"
My heart sank into my stomach. Not only were my feelings hurt, I was nauseous with embarrassment. How could he have said something so cruel, and right in front of my friend?
"Honestly," Nicole said to me, "he's such a piece of crap. I don't know what you see in him."
And in a moment of clarity, I realized she was right. He was a piece of crap. And he treated me like crap! I was both heartbroken and outraged by his behavior, and even more upset with myself for having put up with it.
I avoided him for the next couple of weeks and was relieved when classes let out for winter recess.
When we returned to campus after break, Anthony had a new girlfriend: a bony, dark-haired girl who rarely smiled and seemed only marginally interested in his proclamations of love. Her name was Karma. Seriously.
While I no longer sought out his company, Anthony often joined my group of friends in the cafeteria and then monopolized the conversation with stories about the fabulous Karma. Karma knew Nicholas Cage. Karma was going to be an actress. Karma had been to London, Paris, and Amsterdam. While I no longer wanted to date him, his constant chatter about her still stung. I had been nothing but attentive, only to be disregarded. But Karma's aloof nature seemed to heighten his affection for her. It just didn't seem fair.
When the semester ended and everyone packed off for the summer, I didn't see Anthony again.
Until nearly 20 years later.
I was at a summer festival at a well-known tourist locale when I spotted him. He was dressed as if he was on his way to a Dickens Fair: a frilly white shirt with ruffles, black vest and trousers, and a velvet top hat. A crowd of sugar-high children surrounded him, clamoring for something I couldn't quite see. I moved in a little closer.
The guy who was destined to live in Europe and become the world's next big avant garde film maker was making balloon animals. And extravagant hats and angel wings, and bouquets of flowers for the mothers.
He was the balloon man.
I don't have anything against balloons or the men who love them. And I don't have any particular issue with top hats or frilly shirts. But seeing these elements combined within the former film snob who had trampled on my delicate teenage heart was one of those small victories that make life worth living.
I didn't go up to say hi or ask how he'd been. After all, he was working. But I did text my friend Nicole to tell her I had a great idea for her daughter's next birthday party.