For all the color Christopher Thomas Maier brought into the world — his blue eyes, the jade stone that hung from his neck, the gold Isuzu Trooper he drove, his expressive artwork — it was the silver on his toenails that first drew us together.
It was a warm night in late June of 1997. I was a rising junior at the University of Kentucky, a school with more than 20,000 undergraduates on a sprawling campus at the center of Lexington. On a map, Lexington looks like a wheel with spokes. New Circle Road encompasses the heart of the city, and state roads extend outward in all directions toward the horse farms. This is, after all, the Horse Capital of the World, where champion thoroughbreds are raised on rolling bluegrass pastures, and long stretches of white-plank and dry-stone fences delineate the farmland from the city's urban core. Lexington felt very much like a big, modern city to me. I had moved there from Evansville, a small city on the southwestern tip of Indiana that had about half of Lexington's quarter-million population and was a sixth its geographic size.
I first arrived at the University of Kentucky in the fall of 1995 to study accounting so I could join my father in our family's hotel business back home. Throughout my childhood, my dad had demonstrated how to have a highly successful career and still be fully present and engaged with our family. I wanted to emulate him and create a life like that for myself. But, as it turned out, accounting wasn't quite my strong suit. I ended up switching my major to finance, and then right after my sophomore year, I enrolled in summer session to catch up on a few prerequisites.
That summer, my friends Annie, Jessica, and I rented an off-campus apartment on the second floor of a dark red brick house on Aylesford Place near East Maxwell Street. Like most of the former family homes in the neighborhood, this house had been converted into multiple units for college students. Ours had three bedrooms and a bathroom with the most disgusting shower ever — tiny and gross with chipped ceramic and peeling walls caked in mildew that we couldn't get clean if we tried. Our kitchen sink was perpetually full of dirty dishes. The living room was stark and neutral, and the only décor was whatever could be hung using sticky tack. Without central air conditioning, a valiant window unit fought off the Kentucky heat and humidity.
The whole apartment was as crappy as a college student's apartment might be, but this was my first ever apartment, and I was having a blast.
The evening I met Chris started out with a simple quest: My best friend Annie turned twenty-one at midnight, and the girls and I wanted to take her out for her first legal drink. It was the start of a celebration that would culminate with a birthday party at our apartment the following evening. I was only twenty at the time and had been using my older sister's ID at the local bars. That night, at a nearby TGI Friday's, my sister's ID didn't work so well. The bartender turned me down and then refused Annie, too.
We drove back toward our apartment feeling frustrated. I wouldn't be twenty-one until the next January, but I didn't want my being underage to keep us from toasting Annie. On the way home, we turned from South Limestone onto East Maxwell Street and passed a sports bar and restaurant on the corner called Buffalo Wild Wings and Weck, nicknamed BW3's or B-Dubs by the locals. The bar was dark and a bit of a dive and also oddly affiliated with the next-door laundromat, Sudsy's. The two establishments had separate entrances, but if one of us needed to use the restroom, we had to go next door to the laundromat. Such are the gems housed in a college town, but all we cared about was that it was still open.
"This is perfect," I said, as we walked inside. "Happy birthday, Annie!"
The area around the university was much quieter in the summer than when school was in session. The only other people in the restaurant that night were five or six guys from school whom we'd never met before. The girls took seats at a high-top table in the lounge, and somehow I ended up in conversation with the guys around the bar. I've always been rather loud and gregarious, so chatting up strangers — especially cute boys — wasn't anything particularly unusual for me. The guys were apparently B-Dubs regulars because they all lived close by. While I was talking to a guy named Brian, the conversation turned to the silver polish on my toenails, a color I wore all the time back then. This very tall and extremely cute guy was listening to our banter. He stuck out his foot and said, "I have on silver toenail polish, too!"
And that's how I met the one and only Christopher Maier.
Chris and I started talking, and I learned that he was from North Canton, Ohio, and was majoring in lighting design in UK's theater department. Chris had started school the same year I did, but he'd already turned twenty-one earlier that June.
We all left the bar at the same time and parted ways, but not before the girls and I invited them to our place for Annie's birthday party the next night.
On the way home, I kept thinking, Man, that guy is cute. I'd felt an undeniable connection to him. But before I could voice the words, my friends were saying the same thing: "Did you see that tall guy? He was so cute."
Dang, I thought. Everyone is into him. I have no chance! But at least I'd get to see him again soon.
* * *
The night of Annie's birthday party, our apartment filled with Annie's friends from home and classmates who were still in town for the summer, along with Chris and a couple of the guys we met the night before. Chris and I gravitated toward each other and ended up not leaving each other's side the entire evening. We completely monopolized each other's time. When things started to wind down, we left the party and walked a few blocks down to Woodland Park. As lively and sociable as Chris was, he was happiest outdoors. The park stretched across nineteen acres between two city blocks and was dotted with picnic tables, sports fields, an aquatic center, a skate park, and a playground.
The park was dark and still. We meandered to the playground and sat on a swing set, our silver toes grazing the sand back and forth beneath us.
"How have I not encountered you before?" he asked.
Despite the tens of thousands of students at UK, Chris's fraternity and my sorority were fairly close and hosted a number of mixers during the years we'd been on campus. My freshman year, I joined Kappa Kappa Gamma, called Kappa for short. From sophomore year onward, I lived in the sorority house during the school year. Chris was a brother in Phi Kappa Psi — or Phi Psi. Beyond our campus affiliations, a strong part of what drew us together was how we had been raised. We both came from tight-knit families and had had a Catholic upbringing. We both had older sisters back home whom we adored, and he was also close with an older female cousin. He had a great rapport with women. He even had two girl roommates, Adrienne and Kelly. I had met Adrienne during freshman orientation, and we had two classes together — algebra and economics — our first semester. She and Chris were both from Ohio and close friends from the start of our time at UK.
"Ha! That explains the silver nail polish. It's like Three's Company."
"It's exactly like Three's Company," he said. "We even sing the show's theme song on our answering machine."
Being with Chris was a new, exciting experience and yet so comfortable. We could talk for hours. He was unlike any guy I had ever hung out with before, a modern hippie of sorts. He wore necklaces he handmade himself. One was a braided hemp necklace double-looped around his neck with a tear-shaped jade stone at the base of his throat. He loved being outdoors and often hiked in the Red River Gorge, a canyon system about an hour and a half from Lexington. He was a bicycle enthusiast and worked at the Tenth Gear Bicycle Shop on Southland Drive. He loved to walk everywhere and anywhere with absolutely no shoes on.
Chris told me about his high school years at the Western Reserve Academy boarding school in northern Ohio, and how he spent summers living and working in Maine with his good friend Justin, whose family had a farm in Cherryfield.
"I go back as often as I can," he said. "Maine is magical, there's nothing like it. I'm headed there in August to see Phish — they're playing a huge festival in Limestone."
Phish, a jam-rock band from Vermont with a following that rivaled the Grateful Dead, was one of Chris's favorite bands. It wasn't a group I knew much about at the time, and I'd never listened to their music before. Though Chris introduced me to so many new things, not just jam bands, but biking and outdoor treks, in the end there wasn't enough time for us to pursue these interests together. His passions ended up being legacies he left behind for me to explore long after he was gone.
It had grown extremely late and Annie's birthday party was likely long over. Chris walked me back to Aylesford Place. We had this undeniable connection, and after that evening, we both wanted to see where it might lead.
* * *
Our summer nights after work and classes were filled with friends, picnics, games, and any excuse to be outside. We often stopped for a scoop of ice cream at the Baskin-Robbins where his roommate Adrienne worked before heading over to meet friends at Woodland Park or UK's Arboretum to play Ultimate Frisbee. Chris was exceptionally good at Ultimate because he was so tall — nearly six foot five inches with shoes on. One afternoon we were due to meet up for a game at the Arboretum, a hundred-acre botanical garden on the south side of campus. One of my sorority sisters and I drove down earlier and went for a walk in one of the gardens. When I came out to my car, Chris had left a note on the windshield to say they changed venues. His note was simple, handwritten in blue ink.
"Holly — We went over to the soccer complex to play. There's less wind — less dog shit. You can see us from here. Look to the far right corner."
The soccer complex was just north of the Arboretum. Bad weather had turned the fields to mud, and after our game, Chris's cleats were so dirty I wouldn't let him in my car. I found a stick in the bushes near the parking lot.
"Turn around, let me help you with this mess," I said.
I dug the clumps of mud out of Chris's cleats like a farmer dislodging rocks from a horseshoe. We were both laughing at what we must look like — Chris leaning over with one leg bent behind him, completely at my mercy.
We were silent for a moment. Then Chris turned around and looked at me, while I held his ankle in one hand and the stick in the other.
"I want to be more than friends," he said.
"Well, okay then."
It had only been a matter of time.
I could tell from the start that Chris was going to have a unique influence on my life, but I couldn't have imagined to what degree at the time. I was simply enamored by this tall, handsome, kind, and generous soul who made me laugh and who inspired me with his passion for the outdoors, music, and even art. In the tiny apartment on Latrobe Court that he shared with Kelly and Adrienne, the stark living room walls held little more décor than ours did, but there was no doubt an artist lived there. Chris's room overflowed with artwork he had created.
One evening when I was hanging out at their place, Chris pulled out drawing paper, crayons, and chalk. The brilliant hues and soft pastels of his art supplies were intensely brighter than the ugly, 1960s brown plaid couch beneath us.
"You're crazy — I can't do art," I said. "I'm not creative. I can barely draw a stick person."
"Sure you can. You don't have to be good to be creative. Anybody can do this."
He pulled a sheet of paper from his sketchpad and handed me a set of colored chalks. I took the chalk and started fanning bold arcs across the page in yellow, fuchsia, green, and blue. Then I used a fork to write my name in the chalk and engrave designs into the bright arcs. While I was playing with the chalks, Chris placed his hand on the center of a piece of paper and traced it with one crayon after another. He drew concentric shapes of bright hues that radiated outward until the page looked like it was pulsating.
I couldn't help smiling, both at his childlike spirit and how he had pulled me out of myself into this new, undeniably positive experience. This was exactly what his friends loved about him. He would turn a rainy day into an adventure, splashing in puddles and shaking droplets from the trees. If the sun was shining, he'd be flying kites against the wind. Chris had an irrepressible, infectious energy. When I was with him, he made me feel like the most important person in the room. He was always smiling, and he would always greet you with a hug. He gave the best hugs.
Shortly before school started, he took off on his trip to Maine. While he was gone, he called me several times and left funny messages on my answering machine.
"Holly, I don't know how to tell you this," he said once, "but I have no concept of time right now. I'm out here, and it's just amazing."
He made me laugh. I had no idea what he was talking about. It sounded like he was reaching out to me from another dimension somewhere in time and space.
By the time he came back to Lexington, I had moved out of the apartment on Aylesford Place and back into my sorority house in preparation for the start of the semester. Chris brought me a souvenir from Maine — a plastic ring that looked like it came out of a Cracker Jack box. A purple daisy with a glittery stone in the middle and an adjustable metal band. It was simple, but it meant he had been thinking about me. He really liked me. This was amazing.
I was glad to have him back and aglow at the prospect of a new school year. Classes were starting soon, and parties would commence soon after. We had plans to go out the next Thursday night, and his fridge was stocked for a picnic we were planning for Friday. Everything about our being together in the days and months ahead seemed so full of promise. On a scale from like to love, we were firmly in the "really, really like" phase. He was truly someone special, and I could tell that this would be a relationship I would never forget.
The foliage around Lexington wouldn't start changing colors for at least another three months, but by late August, fall was in full swing on the University of Kentucky campus. As the new school year started, the campus teemed with energy.
Move-in day at a school as big as UK is an epic event. Thousands of students — along with parents, resident advisors, and student volunteers — converge on campus to help freshmen and returning students set up residence in campus housing. The streets are congested and the sidewalks are lined with moving dollies and metal carts stacked with boxes, crates, plastic tubs, small appliances, and garbage bags stuffed with bed linens and clothing. Every college student settling into the new year is entering a new phase of life. For many freshmen, it's the first time they've ever lived away from home. Other students are rising up a grade, one year closer to graduation and the start of adult life. But the best part is that it's a season for making new friends and for reconnecting with all the friends you haven't seen all summer.
By move-in day, I had already moved out of my apartment on Aylesford Place and back into the Kappa house with my sorority sisters in preparation for new-member recruitment, which took place the week before classes began. Students who were participating in recruitment also moved in about a week ahead of everyone else. About a fifth of the undergraduate guys and a third of the female undergraduates took part in Greek life at UK. Joining a fraternity or sorority was a great way to make friends and get involved in campus life. My sorority had about 120 members, and we welcomed more than thirty new girls once recruitment was complete. Being a Kappa was a source of endless fun and immense joy, though I couldn't have known back when I first joined exactly what my sorority sisters would mean to me in the months to come.
Classes started on Wednesday, August 27. Over the summer, Chris and I had admitted to each other that we were used to getting by at school with minimal effort, but we wanted to work harder that year. I was carrying a full course load, and I made a diligent effort to attend all my scheduled classes those first two days of school. On Thursday, I had a date with Chris to attend an offcampus Phi Psi party, and I couldn't have been more excited for an evening out with him.