By Caren Lissner | I noticed Steve K. on the second day of my freshman year at Penn.
During that week, I was becoming blissfully aware that my peers and I were wanted. Credit card companies set up tables among Locust Walk’s colored bricks and crumbling leaves. Restaurants shoved coupons in our mailboxes. We were the future, and everyone wanted us. We had four years ahead on a beautiful campus, with every major life choice still to be made: what to sign up for, who to be, what to major in, whom to love.
Two days in, I met the person with whom I thought I might share those next four thrilling years.
I was at the Palestra, taking advantage of “CUPID” (the Center for University of Pennsylvania Identification), where we got our Penn ID cards and picked up orientation-week freebies. I snagged a nice red-and-blue rape whistle from the Women’s Center. (A wise-guy sophomore in my dorm later teased me: “Oh, you won’t be needing that.”)
So it was in the CUPID line that I noticed Steve K.
He was short like me, a couple inches over my 5-foot-2. He had wavy brown hair, an oversized Dustin Hoffman-like schnoz, and slight stubble on his chin. His two friends were teasing him relentlessly by dumping brochures onto the pile of textbooks he had apparently just bought at the bookstore. “Steve, hold this for me,” one said, dropping a pile of coupons onto his stack of books. “Yeah, Steve, hold this too,” said the other, adding some freebies.
Steve took it all with a shy smile, harried and charming, laughing and tilting his arms to keep everything from collapsing. Dark hair on his forehead fell into his eyes. Inasmuch as one shy person can spot another right away, he instantly struck me as charming and humble.
I somehow hoped I would bump into him again. But with a whopping 10,000 undergrads at school, I wasn’t sure what the odds were. I didn’t know which dorm he was in, or even his last name.
I wasn’t sure of much of anything at the time. I was a recovering nerd who had hardly talked to anyone in high school and hoped to slip the surly bonds of shyness and have unfathomable college friendships. Maybe even a relationship—but I would never have mentioned that, and neither would most of my peers. One of the worst things an Ivy League freshman could admit in 1989 was a desire to have a boy or girlfriend; it would have seemed unliberated. At a discussion in the Kings Court dorm lounge about relationships later that week, someone brought up how women decades ago were jokingly said to attend college to work on their “M-R-S degree.” One girl piped up, “But let’s face it, we are at the age where we could meet someone.” She got stony stares in response.
Yet why wouldn’t we want to share those crisp pre-autumn nights ducking under Gothic nooks with someone? Why wouldn’t we want someone to look forward to seeing after slaving over quadratic equations all day? And why not wish to meet them sooner rather than later?
As it turned out, one girl on my dorm floor met her future husband on her second day of class (they’re still together). But it didn’t work that way for everyone. On occasions like Valentine’s Day, the pattern became pretty clear: There were the Penn Haves—the girls who floated out of the dorm in black dresses on Friday evenings and never came home that night—and the Have-Nots. Some women and men I knew never went on a single date in all of their four years at Penn.
A few days after I’d noticed Steve, a floor mate showed me a Penn publication I hadn’t known existed. The “Freshman Facebook,” or “Pig Book,” contained photos of my peers in the Class of 1993. Many names lacked photos, and some people (like me) weren’t in it at all, but I curiously flipped through the book, keeping my eyes open for Steve’s face or at least his first name.
I soon realized that approximately 33 percent of male freshmen in my year were named Steve. (The rest were named Dave.)
Then, on the lower right corner of page 17, I saw a name without a photo. “Steve Koening, Pittsburgh, PA,” it said. I got a feeling this was my little bumbling Steve. It gave his room number in the Quad. I figured next time I was in the neighborhood I’d happen past his door. Maybe I would even bump into him and find out what we had in common.
Two nights later, my freshmen floor mates and I trooped to “Casino Night” at Houston Hall. It seemed like dozens of upperclassmen were there to do the same thing the credit card companies wanted to do: get us into their clutches before anyone else did. Two guys gave my roommate their phone number. A curly-haired Wharton freshman asked for mine. My spirits rose, as this was already quadruple the male/female interaction I’d had since eighth grade. I wasn’t a complete wallflower—someone saw me as an actual girl!
After classes started, the Wharton kid—named Dave, of course—called me and we went for an evening walk across campus. We wended our way through the corridors of the Quad. The moon shined at us through crankable windows.
Dave stopped at a door. I saw the name on the wipe-off board.
I got chills. It was Steve Koening! The delicate doors of destiny were drifting open.
A roommate answered the door and I saw Steve behind him in the room, sitting on a milk crate. I felt instantly comfortable.
Dave and Steve sat in red and blue beanbag chairs. Steve said to me, “You go to this school?” It was an odd question. He and I talked about our hometowns. I was the only girl in a room with three boys, and I wanted to see if I could handle it without saying anything too goofy.
The phone rang, and Steve’s roommate told him it was “Elena.” My stomach dropped. But then Elena could also be his sister, or a friend. I suppose it was better to feel pingponging emotions than to feel nothing.
Steve disappeared into a back room to take the call, as the rest of us talked.
Soon, strange noises emerged from the room. Steve had hung up, and was now blowing into a brass instrument. He was in the Penn band. His roommate laughed. “Steve and I are having a contest to see who can make the best farting noises,” he said.
We waited for Steve to reemerge, but he never did. He blew raspberries from the back room for another 10 minutes. Then we left.
It was always safe for me to build crushes up in my mind without risking anything of myself. Steve was so much more intriguing from afar.
I occasionally saw him through the next four years. He’d be walking with his roommate, or I’d spot him in the cafeteria. I never saw him with a girlfriend. Behind those rude noises, I thought, maybe there was still someone worthwhile. After all, I’d come to learn that guys could say some pretty stupid stuff to impress their friends, even if they were hiding a thoughtful soul. But I never had a casual way to talk to him.
Over time I developed and lost other crushes. Then I graduated. I got an apartment outside New York and searched in vain for a job. I rarely saw my Penn friends, some of whom had moved back home with their parents to wait out the recession. I was lonely. No one I knew had email yet.
Valentine’s Day neared, the first one after college. I was invited to a birthday gathering in Manhattan.
All of us showed up at an Italian restaurant and sat at a long table. Three couples were there, one newly engaged. Then, who should come in—alone—but the first boy I’d noticed at Penn. Little Steve K. sat across from me, looking studious and handsome.
He stumbled a bit getting into his seat, and smiled bashfully at me. I smiled back. He asked, “You know Jay?”
During dinner, I tried to make conversation with him. “Weren’t you in the band?” I asked. “It was okay,” he said. He didn’t have much enthusiasm for anything, including the conversation.
We all finished our plates of penne and tried to find an ice cream place we’d heard about on the waterfront—a group of stumbling freshmen again. But Steve had to leave to get to class for his broker’s license.
I had initially feared not being able to find him in a sea of 10,000 undergrads. In fact, even in New York City, with its 8.4 million strangers, I bumped into him several times over the next few years. Usually he was with mutual Penn friends. He was never with a girl. But he also never had much to say when I tried to find out more about him.
I last saw him at a 30th birthday party in the West Village, but he didn’t say much. The delicate doors of destiny were leading somewhere else. (Eventually they led to someone who had graduated from California University of Pennsylvania instead. A quick check of Facebook indicates that Steve K. is still unmarried.)
Some people will flit in and out of your life, even if their role is small. But there’s a bigger picture here. When I think back to seeing Steve K. stumbling on that line freshman year, it reminds me of the dreams and fantasies I had at 18, when there was so much future ahead that anything in the world could happen. I might set up an easel and paint on College Green, or discover a new theory, or sell short stories to a major magazine. And I might meet someone unique and amazing to share those experiences with—a technogeek in the Engineering School maybe, or an artist, or a dog breeder, or someone completely different who brought me to my knees. Sprung from the stifling halls of high school and suddenly surrounded by 10,000 brainy people my age, the possibilities were limitless.
And even though all four of my Valentine’s Days at Penn were uneventful, there were so many classes, opportunities, and people surrounding me that college always stayed romantic even without any real romance.
Caren Lissner C’93 saw her first novel, Carrie Pilby, rereleased last summer. She has disguised Steve K.’s true identity, which may or may not avert another round of awkwardness when next they meet again.