There are times in life when you feel so dead inside that you want to bite your cheek just to see if you can still feel pain. Then there are times when the emotions are so raw, and real that you feel as if you will explode into tears if someone looks you in the eye. Most of our lives are lived somewhere in the middle between these two extremes, and if they aren’t we have a long list of medications that we can prescribe to remedy that.
When I was in my junior year of High School my life was filmed in Kodachrome. As the summer was ending and the golden years of my adolescence were beginning to dawn, my best friend Bella informed me one day that she had some exciting news to tell me. A girl she knew from her job teaching tennis lessons had a crush on me. I don’t think that anything she said could have surprised me more.
A crush? On me? What, um… who, uh… how did this happen? Honestly, this was not the sort of thing that had ever happened to me, nor one that I thought ever would. The girl in question had played on my soccer team that summer. We’d seen each other 3 times a week since May, and I had never once suspected that she even knew my name, much less thought I was someone worth getting to know.
“Call her!” Bella urged me, “She wants to go out with you.” So that very evening I picked up the phone book, and looked up her number, and with sweaty, shaky hands, I spun the dial of our old telephone.
She answered the phone, and after a little stammering on my part, her voice suddenly perked up. Those first few awkward seconds of a cold call were always the worst part of being a teenager. I imagine it’s like stepping out of an airplane, you’re never sure that the parachute is going to open until you feel it pop. Thank God she recognized me. I tried to make small talk, but quickly got straight to the point, and asked her out to the movies.
The date was August 17th, 1984. I put on my best polo shirt, the one with the J.C. Penney faux-alligator on the chest. Dabbing some of my big bruddah’s English Leather aftershave on my neck, and taking one last quick look in the mirror, I tucked my comb into my tube sock, and set out for my date with destiny. In those pre-driver’s license days, a date involved either bicycles or feet, and since she only lived 3 blocks away on Bank Street, I opted to walk to her house.
Her older sisters answered the door, and I stood in the entryway like a scene out of The Walton’s as they called upstairs for her. She made her entrance down the stairs in an olive green top and skirt, that was neither fashionable, nor distinctive, but probably came from one of the local discount stores. Clearly this would be a match made in heaven, or if not heaven, J.C. Penney’s.
We walked downtown to the movie theater, and began the long process of getting to know each other. We talked about how many siblings we had, what our parents did for a living, what kind of music we liked, what activities we were involved in. She went to the Public High School, and wasn’t even Catholic. She was a Methodist, or Baptist, or something. She wasn’t too sure since her family didn’t even go to church. I named the kids that I knew at BHS, and she named the Damers she knew, and we couldn’t find a single mutual acquaintance except Bella. And yet despite these seemingly irreconcilable differences, we got along just fine.
When the movie ended, I walked her home, and we said goodnight on the front porch. I never even tried to kiss her goodnight, but on my walk home I did a mental inventory, and came to the conclusion that she was definitely someone I would like to have as a girlfriend. I asked her out again the next day. Football practices were due to start on Monday morning, and I wanted to get as much time with her as possible before I was consumed with three-a-day practices.
What our first date lacked in physical contact, we soon made up for. For the remainder of that summer I would ride my bike to her house as soon as my evening practices were over, and we would sit in the swing on the front porch talking until the shadows hid us well enough to make out. Bank Street can be a busy street, and each time a car passed, or we heard her folks get up from the couch, we’d sit up straight.
In two short weeks I had gone from being an eternally lonely and frustrated teenager to daily make out sessions, and hickeys. Teenagers are instinctual like dogs that way. A fact that now scares that bejeebers out of me as Lil’ Miss 20 Prospect approaches 13.
We quickly became addicted to those evenings, and dreaded the start of school. She had Cross Country practices, and a steady babysitting job on the weekends. I had football practices and games, and suddenly our nights together became few and far between. We talked on the phone, and wrote notes during school that we mailed to each other like long distance pen pals. This was the first “relationship” for either one of us and it showed. We picked out “a song”, and marked the day of our “1 month anniversary”. By Thanksgiving I had given her my class ring, which she wore with yarn wound around it so that it would fit on her finger.
We got to play the part of “High School Sweethearts” and do all the things that we had seen the other kids doing for our first two years of high school, like draw hearts on our notebooks, and write each others initials in the margins. It was a wonderful game of make believe. I gave her my football jersey, and she would hide it under her pillow, and sleep in it at night. She sent me letters doused in perfume that I would hold up to my face, and sniff until my sinuses hurt.
My Junior year only got better as time went on. My circle of friends began to expand, and slowly my social life came to include more than games of Dungeons & Dragons on Saturday nights. The Girl Next Door arrived at ND, and became fast friends with Bella. Soon classes and study halls became events that I looked forward to. And over at BHS, Chris & Dan’l and my connections with my new girlfriend opened up a whole other scene. With two high schools to draw upon, it seemed liked there was a dance to go to every over weekend.
Sometimes when you are too busy having fun life changes on you. My steady girlfriend worked two jobs to help make money towards college. She babysat nearly every weekend for a young couple down the street from her that ran one of the better restaurants in town. On weekend afternoons, she cleaned house for a little old lady who lived alone in a big old Queen Anne off of Ross Street. As winter deepened, I began to spend more and more weekends in the presence of my ever widening social circle, and less with her. I was living two lives. The make believe “high school sweethearts” and the party going socialite.
We were getting our drivers licenses, and discovering new ways to get our hands on beer. It wasn’t long before the close proximity of alcohol and available coeds would prove to be my undoing. Had she been around all the time it would have forced me to make a choice. But my ability to live separate existences just led me into a life of lies and deceit. Self pity got the better of me, and soon I was desperately searching for a way out of our relationship.
Nothing in life prepares you for the first time you have to break up with someone. You want to be “nice”, you want to “do the right thing”, but real emotions are messy and cowardice seems like an easier way out. The spring of that year was one long, messy, confusing attempt to change our relationship into something it never was. In the end, inertia won out, and I slid back into a comfortable double life of duplicity.
Our relationship would stagger on for another 2 years before we finally ended it. By then it had already been long since over, and I had become so used to living two different lives that I was hard pressed to know which was the real one. In retrospect, neither of them were. I had gone from a life of Kodachrome, to a colorless gray existence where I couldn’t be certain that any of my emotions were real.
It took me a long time to find my way back. I still had a lot further to fall before I hit the bottom of my barrel of self loathing. It would be 4 years before I felt real again, and during that time I would live out the entirety of my college existence in monastic isolation. Those 4 years would be the longest, and the hardest of my life, and I didn’t graduate college so much as I survived it.
As I said at the beginning of this story, There are times in life when you feel so dead inside that you want to bite your cheek just to see if you can still feel pain. Then there are times when the emotions are so raw, and real that you feel as if you will explode into tears if someone looks you in the eye. If we are lucky, most of our lives are lived somewhere between these two extremes. Learning how to live in the middle is what we call wisdom. The price of wisdom is our innocence.