The Influencers

For me, high school was nothing more than a building I walked to and from for four years and college was a blur of boozy nights with people I had little in common with except a desire to have a good time and a similar socioeconomic background. Simply put, they were eight years of my life that happened. Years that produced sadly few memories, but thankfully few battle scars. I can’t remember the specifics of my childhood, high school, or college, but I can remember the people who played a role in making me the person I am today.

When I was in college, my friend from high school informed me very matter-of-factly she only wanted to be friends with people who were just like her. I remember being shocked she’d actually admit such a closed-minded sentiment out loud. I also remember being conscious that given the context she was implying I was not exactly like her. But unlike her, I couldn’t wait to know people who weren’t at all like me. For that reason, I approached the real world with a show me everything you’ve got mentality.

My first love and the first person to have a significant impact on me was a man I met briefly in college who I didn't get to until know after. Shortly after graduating, he moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and I moved to New York. When I was settled in the city, he wrote me a postcard and told me to call him. That first conversation, like most of the ones to follow, lasted seven hours. We built our relationship on words, what we said, and later, what we didn’t say. We talked politics, literature, American values, music, childhood injustices, writing, and so much more. At 22, we had the weight of our futures and the world on our shoulders. Or so we thought.

I was seduced by his words and his mind. I loved what he said and how he said it. I loved how I could hear him thinking when he talked. I loved what he wrote, his fiction beautiful, his emails poetic. It wasn’t long before I was in love with a person I had only met once.

With high expectations, I went to Jackson Hole to visit him. It was good, until it wasn’t. I’m not entirely sure what happened. It was a small moment that turned into a larger one. He never explained it to me, I never asked, but I let it tear me up.  

After I returned to New York, I wrote him a letter. I thought I had something to prove, so I said entirely too much, for no reason. He didn’t write, call, or e-mail. And just like that, he was gone. Years later, he mailed a copy of that letter to me with a Post It note that read, what does present Carrie think of past Carrie? It took me a while to read the letter after getting it back. When I did, I discovered it was a raw journal entry an intelligent person writes, but never ever allows anyone else to read, much less MAILS to someone. Obviously, I’ve never made that mistake again.

Years later he showed up on my doorstep in Amsterdam with an apology. I accepted his insufficient acknowledgment that he was a coward and decided to let the past be the past. Conscious of the limited time we had together and the years we had to catch up on, we closed down bars and took our words to the street. Drunk and delirious, we didn’t stop talking until the sun came up each morning. When it came time for me to leave him behind and catch a train to Berlin, every part of me wanted to miss that train accidentally on purpose. I wanted him to give me a reason to stay. Instead, he escorted me to the train station.

We were hungover and I was late. We ran down the platform together towards my car. As the train doors were about to close, I slowed and debated letting them close in front of me not behind me. My heart told me to stay, my mind told me I had a friend who had flown in from Chicago waiting for me in Berlin.

The car started to pull away from the station and I forced one foot onto it, then the other. As the doors closed, I turned back to him, and watched as he exhaled deeply, fell back on a bench, and buried his head in his hands. I wanted to bang on the train window with everything I had and scream: what does that mean? Instead, I spent the eight-hour train ride listening to “Gravity Rides Everything” by Modest Mouse on repeat and crying. Crying for what never was, what never will be, what was, and for not having the courage to ask the questions I so obviously needed answers to.

My first love taught me I’m attracted to peoples’ minds. My first love taught me how it feels to be ghosted. My first love taught me precisely how much that hurts. My first love broke my heart. My first love left an invisible scar.

I’d moved to New York because I’d accepted a job offer to work in the Creative Department at a modeling agency. There I had an intern.  He was in law school, but more than happy to make photocopies as long as beautiful women surrounded him while he did.

For me, music had always been on the periphery. I knew it existed in the world, it just didn’t necessarily exist in my world. There was music when I turned on the radio, but to me that music all sounded the same, so I never turned it on. Plus, I hated commercials.

I didn’t realize I’d never before heard music that actually spoke to me until my intern forced me to see his favorite singer songwriter perform. I’d been crying at movies and TV commercials for years, but for the first time, I had the experience of being moved to tears by music. To this day, I can still visualize that life-changing performance (even without any help from YouTube).

I dedicated the following year to catching up on what I’d missed. I downloaded CD after CD. I went to every show I could. I memorized lyrics. I cultivated my taste. Soon, I knew what bands I liked and why. I had an opinion and always had recommendations.

My intern was the cool older brother I’d never had who taught me there was music that wasn’t played on the radio that was better than what was on the radio. Without him, I’m not sure I’d know that good music existed (kidding, I would’ve found Pitchfork at some point).

The next person I allowed to leave a mark was a 25-year-old German model with a massive ego. He understood the power of his beauty, sometimes using it for good, others for bad. I knew he expected me to be in love with him, so on principle I wasn’t. The time he hit on me, I knew he didn't mean it, that he was drunk, lonely, and he’d regret it. Most importantly, I knew he’d let it ruin our friendship, so I didn't let it happen.  

I was attracted to his passion to experience life and how free he was with his love. He was happy, yet conflicted, serious, but fun. He could be open and loving, but harsh. He acted on his instincts, sometimes dealing with the consequences later, but usually running from them with a guilty conscience.

When he came into town, he’d take up residence on my couch. Sometimes weeks would turn into months and he’d get me in trouble with my roommates. Our goodbyes were always hard because the distance was so far (he lived in France) and the next visit always unknown. I’d savor the details of our time together long after he left. 

That day after the day, I wanted to be with someone I loved and he was in town.  Our movements forever frozen in my mind. There was the unfamiliar bedroom in an older townhouse that offered solace from the suddenly dangerous world outside. The courtyard lunch with fresh vegetables from the garden. The farewell at Columbus Circle that was by far the hardest, most dramatic goodbye. Knowing what kind of world we now lived in, we acted like we might never see each other again. We did.

When I was living in Amsterdam, I frequently visited him in Paris. The last time I was there, we argued. He said things he shouldn't have, things that hurt. I remember he wanted it to hurt, which to me was worse than what he’d actually said. I left him at a club and walked the two miles from the Arc de Triomphe to his apartment in the Marais by myself at 2am without an iPhone to guide me. I let my pride in the fact that I was able to navigate the streets of Paris on my own outweigh my anger and forgave him in the morning.

I met his Parisian friends. They spoke five languages and worked for Jean Paul Gaultier. Switching between languages with ease, they inadvertently made me feel guilty for only being capable of speaking my own language. Because of them I yearned for a lifestyle I was never going to have. Because of them I learned the French know more about U.S. history and politics than many Americans I knew, myself included. Because of them I learned what it looked when culture was not something you sought out occasionally, but was a way of life.

At some point, we lost touch for no particular reason. We found each other again, then lost touch again. Years later, we found each other again. He and I have the kind of love that will always exist regardless of the miles between us or the time that’s passed.

The next man was also a male model. He was attractive to me because he didn’t acknowledge or exploit his beauty. For him, being a model was a means to an end, instead of a dream come true. He needed to pay off his Ivy League college student loans. When he did, he quit the industry.  Along the way, he tried not to let any of it matter to him, but for a moment it did. As we stood together in the middle of Times Square gazing at his brightly lit Gap ad, a Richard Avedon black and white portrait, his pride was tangible.

But he was so smart he made me feel stupid. He was constantly referencing things I knew nothing about. Unintentionally, he made me aware of how little I actually knew (an important lesson for a 25-year-old know-it-all to learn). He introduced me to Jim Jarmusch. To the quiet brilliance of Forest Whitaker. To Kim's Video (R.I.P.). And bowling. He was like a tutor I didn’t have to pay for. But when I was with him, I didn’t like myself. After I was with him, I’d go home and do research, so I could teach myself.

I pretended to care about things I didn't. I pretended I knew things I didn't. It was tiring. I was tired. I didn’t want to pretend, I just wanted to be myself. Eventually we grew apart and I learned to like and to be myself again.

After New York, I moved to Amsterdam to get my Master’s degree. There I met the Goth Greek girl and the Russian writer.

First the Greek Girl. I loved getting to know her because there was so much to know. She was serious, cultured, sensitive, contemplative, and wise beyond her years. She was the kind of person who: used the word louche to describe the boy she was dating, who was able to admit to feeling jealous of the girl she used to once be, who didn’t let people in easily, who had a hard time living in the outside world because her inner world was so interesting.

I had a year with her before I had to go home to Chicago to write my thesis. In an attempt to delay her foray into the real world, she stayed in Amsterdam. When I first left, our e-mails were novels, a year later they were a couple sentences.  In those e-mails, we shared the mundane and the intimate. They were diaries of our lives intended for another person to read. We reveled in our solitude together from afar. She’d sign those e-mails, kiss you, miss you.

Because of her I became more understanding, more accepting, and more sympathetic. Because of her I know a little about depression. Because of her I let people's stories unfold. Because of her I know about her country, it’s culture, it’s people. Because of her I always swipe left on Greek men. Because of her I know who This Mortal Coil is. Because of her I know it’s possible to have a meaningful, non-competitive friendship with a woman. Because of her I understood my value a little bit more.

When I was in Chicago she called me from Greece crying. I tried to console her, but she ended the call abruptly because she didn’t want to burden me. Although I’ve e-mailed her so many times my pride won’t let me e-mail her again, I haven’t heard back. At some point, I lost her number, so my only option was to scour the Internet for her. I knew she didn’t do social media, but I discovered she had absolutely no online presence. Occasionally, I search to see if that’s changed (it hasn’t). Often, I wonder if she’s okay, sometimes if she’s even alive.

I don't expect to ever meet anyone who was as analytical about the arts, the world, and herself again. Neither do I expect to ever meet anyone who has the ability to feel as deeply as she did. I cherish the experience of knowing her even if it was only for a couple of years and hope the world didn’t end up crushing her.

The Russian Writer fell in love with me in Amsterdam, but I didn’t fall in love with him. He was the one person who could stop me from doing things I knew I shouldn’t. The one person who’d tell me what I needed to hear, not what I wanted to hear. The one person who’d consistently call me out on my bullshit and bring me back to reality. It didn’t always work, but in retrospect he was usually right.

Once after I told him I wanted to travel the world and write, he said this to me: “Most people want to travel and do whatever the fuck they want whenever they want. What are you, a child? You have a gift that you need to exercise. And you've actually got something to say. It's your chance to leave something after you die and to affect others. You owe it to yourself. It's your responsibility to at least try. You won't be able to forgive yourself if you don't. If you want money and freedom to write and travel, then fucking earn it. By selling your shit. You need to focus on that and not on extraneous bullshit.” He told me that three years ago and I didn’t listen. He told me it again last year and I’m finally doing my best to listen.

In LA, there was another man boy. He was French. I didn’t find out until later he was also damaged. Around him, I didn’t have to explain myself. I didn’t have to be a particular person, I could just be. I was open and free. He was like a drug and I was high off him until he packed his bags and flew back to Europe.

Through the years, there’ve been many people who’ve come, gone, and stayed, but these particular people will be a part of me forever. Because of them I know more. Because of them I know myself.