I first saw her from afar in front of the Baylor Library (was it Moody? The big one with a Starbucks now?) The occasion was a fraternity event on a sunny February afternoon my freshman year.
Fresh from sorority rush in our pledge jerseys, we stood glommed together by house waiting for the chance to pour ourselves into a VW Bug. The house with the most girls fitting in a vehicle won. This archaic challenge required the combination of flexibility, small stature and mainly being OK with a banana clip full of frosted spiral perm in the mouth.
A friend pointed her out to me,
“There she is! That’s the one who asked Rick to the pledge dance.”
She was Gina Rhodes. A radiant, bright-faced beauty from Arkansas. The worst part? She was as sweet as she was gorgeous. AND had the audacity to ask my Freshman Formal date to her dance.
Remember that guy? The one I made a mix tape for probably before ever meeting him and did not deliver only because Betsy tackled me as I was marching out of our Collins dorm room to foist upon him. The line between stalker and crush, so razor-thin at 19. GOD SAVE THE QUEEN.
I admired Gina from afar and once Rick failed to fall madly in love with her either I suddenly found her far more palatable. I mean, come ON. Clearly that was on HIM. I would never imagine that those bright blue smiling eyes and the heart just South of them would impact my life for decades to come.
Through sheer grace, I wound up having this sweet one as a suite mate sophomore year in Memorial Dorm. A group of us with parents who strongly preferred another year on campus for their baby girls got a block of rooms to make it fun. It was there that the initial admiration for this person so unlike myself grew.
One evening returning from popping the nightly bag of ACT popcorn I was startled by the figure I saw through our Jack and Jill bathroom. Sweet Gina was dressed in a high-neck, floor-length white cotton gown. All we needed was a Nutcracker. Shutting the bathroom door, I drew within whisper distance to Maureen and mouthed, “What is that?” “Honey, I know. I don’t know.” she replied.
Like anyone who lives in close proximity to an oddity, I was routinely pulled aside in hushed hallways and asked “Seriously, Jinny, what is Gina like? Is she really that sweet?” Sub context question: “How is anyone that sweet?” The answer to their verbalized as well as hidden queries was “Yes. And I know, right? As the year progressed I saw not a saccharine actress but rather an authentic and loving soul.
While most of us knew we should treat people as God would and probably talked a fairly good game, the outcast of the outcast was her actual squad. Overlooked people were her wheelhouse. In the hidden and private moments away from any audience or ethics professor, Gina spent valuable study time simply sharing life with other people. Many of us operated from excellent intentions while she overflowed with indiscriminate kindness.
From 1991 to 1994 this surreal saint Gina was my room mate. She studied Marriage and Family Counseling while I hacked away at a Masters of Communication. The tears we cried over adulting and academic anxiety were only surpassed by those flowing from uproarious laughter. The disarray of our tiny bathroom, grosser than that of any dudes, was never rivaled. Each night as I would come in from my Uncle Julio’s job and she from McKay’s Steakhouse next door, our 600-square feet apartment was a safe place to fall.
When John and I began dating and he spoke of me people would correct him,
“Not Jinny. You mean you’re dating Gina? Not the comic. The sweet one?”
God knew I would need a good listener. My skill in that area improved and as iron sharpens iron, how Gina sharpened me. This counselor got me and got me through so much in 30 years. As different as we are we share an unshakable similarity in absent mindedness.
We got lost en route to DFW (which would be my engagement trip) sharing a dance party in her Impala, we performed a funeral for a McKay’s customer whose brother was a famous preacher, we cluelessly attempted to divide itemized phone bills and caught Restless Heart at Billy Bobs at least once.
It simply matters who you choose to let in your life. It is unexplainable how profoundly a sister of my own choosing has made me better in every way. Thank you, God, for Gina.