June 10, 2007

"I was doomed before I started. Possibly even before I was born."

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In seventh grade I suddenly found myself with a real live girlfriend. Completely identical in uncoolness and pre-pubescent unattractiveness as well as equally bashful, Frances and I wrote each other long, friendly letters on notebook paper every single night. Each morning we'd exchange the letters before school and glow as we read them during Algebra 2, and every afternoon the dread and delight of holding that hand as we walked to the bus was almost too much for me to bear. I considered kissing to be a huge step, highly invasive and personal-- it was nothing I would spring on a lady before we were both completely ready. I was not ready. I hid in my image as a gentleman, and did not think that my male contemporaries who boasted of frenching and "dirty dancing" with their girls were of my caliber. Frances and I shared the easygoing comfortable love of retired lesbians, the kind that travel in RV's and put photos of their dogs at Old Faithful on their Christmas cards. Ours was a rarified world of respect and inner beauty and real human feeling that was in total opposition to the status quo, and at that time I still had only the dimmest idea of how tragic and fatally pathetic it was.

One morning I received not a letter delivered by hand, but a note in my locker, and I knew even before I opened it that something had gone impossibly wrong. It had: her parents had decided she wasn't ready to be so serious about someone at such a young age, Frances wrote, and she had no choice but to obediently bend to their pressure. I grew numb, and broke into a sweat of relief that we hadn't kissed
how cheap it would have seemed to me now, to have thrown away such a valuable, intimate gesture on such a weak-willed Delilah! We would, of course, remain friends.

The entire community rallied to support me in my time of crisis. Nobody liked to see a cute nerd-couple break up; it violated a sacred tenet of the middle-school universe that we all clung to, in which the barest minimum of conformity assured even the lowest of the low a chance to take solace in the arms of an equally disadvantaged other. Beautiful girls who were stratospherically out of my league would approach me to offer condolences and helpfully reassert the social order by pointing me in the direction of girls that were appropriate matches to my own undesirable self. My attention to hygiene placed me a cut above some of the more scurrilous and even less physically developed males. I did not reek or pustulate; an added bonus, I was no longer in any special education programs catering to either the gifted or the handicapped. The attention was nourishing-- I'd had no idea I was such an eligible bachelor, and after wasting months not kissing Frances I was suddenly dizzied by how many equally underwhelming girls with inner beauty I was now free to not kiss.

I set my sights low and began to cultivate new love-interests. The most surefire method I knew of was to survey the girls who sat directly adjacent to me in all my classes, as they were the only females I would ever have the slightest excuse to talk to. I could compile those girls into a list ranked by desirability and cross-sorted by availability, and then select the one squarely in the middle. Even by such middling standards, chances are I would still be outclassed by whomever this formula named as my new objet d'attraction.

To my surprise and delight, I needn't have bothered. I was breathily informed during lunch that week that Elaine Reade "liked" me. Elaine sat next to me in science class, and had a lot going for her as a potential girlfriend. For one thing, she looked a lot like Frances. Same basic hairstyle, same glasses, a little more athletic perhaps, but basically familiar terrain for me. In fact, they were friends. I scanned my memory feverishly trying to recall whether I had ever done anything deeply humiliating in front of her, and immediately hit a snag: one day Mike and I had discovered that we could fire staples with surprising accuracy by squeezing them like springs between our front teeth, and we spent an entire class filling the back of Elaine's puffed-out ponytail with glittering missiles as she obliviously studied the periodic table. (This experiment wound up providing me with a fashion maxim that I stand by to this day, which is that one should never have a hairstyle too stiff or thick to keep them from detecting projectiles being fired at one's head.) Having never been caught in the act, I figured I could begin my courtship of Elaine in good standing. As I lay awake that night, exhausted with excitement and longing, I prayed to God. If you let me have Elaine as a girlfriend, I will never ask you for anything else, ever. Please, God. God probably knew then what I only suspected: that I was driving blind, with nowhere to pull over and no help that I could trust. During this tender time, when it came to love
and just about anything else I was doomed before I started. Possibly even before I was born.

Elaine and I started "going out" a few days before Christmas vacation. How cruel it seemed, to be torn apart for two weeks when our couplehood was just blossoming! I had been panicking over choosing an appropriate Christmas present for a girl that I barely knew; my mom was the only real girl I had on staff, and in such situations she always tried to steer me toward our neighbor, the Avon Lady, for some nice-smelling soaps. I could never tell for sure whether this indicated playful malevolence on my mother's part, or was simply a ploy to keep from having to drive me anywhere. At least time was on my side: Elaine's family were Mormons, and very devout-- we would not be allowed to see each other or talk on the phone for the entire two weeks. Perhaps a lovely card might win them over.

On the eve of our parting, Elaine took my hand as we walked to the buses. I gulped, feeling like a pervert: it had taken Frances and I weeks to start holding hands in public; at this rate we'd be having babies in high school. I should have gotten her the soaps. "I have something to tell you," Elaine said with a smile as she got on the bus, "I'll write it to you in a letter." "I'll write you too," I said. We exchanged addresses; her handwriting was small and rational, nothing like Frances's at all.

I spent my vacation resting on my laurels. As far as I could tell I'd handled the transition from first girlfriend to second girlfriend stupendously, and now I had two whole weeks to get used to the idea of liking her. This, I realized with awe, was how one laid the foundation to growing up: what seemed strange and uncomfortable at first felt more natural over time. Perhaps eventually I would actually feel enjoyment, not just anticipate and demonstrate it. No matter what Elaine's letter might have to tell me, it all seemed too good to be true. God had answered my prayer.

Two days later the letter arrived. I skimmed it urgently, too excited to read every word, and then suddenly I froze. At first glance, Elaine's letter was not much different than anything Frances might have written, arid little details about holiday fun. And then two paragraphs down, it all cracked like a plate. In plain terms, Elaine explained that for months her older brother had been coming into her room and sexually molesting her. It so happened that her parents had recently uncovered this atrocity, and having spoken to the church, they decided it was best not to punish the brother or get the police involved-- they would handle the entire situation through the Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter-Day Saints. Meanwhile, the older brother had been thoroughly reprimanded and was no longer allowed to enter her room. "Please don't tell anyone," she wrote, "Everything will be fine now. I just wanted you to know... I hope this doesn't change how you feel." Incidentally, her parents loved my card.

Elaine had basically laid more real-life Greek tragedy on me than I'd ever heard in my entire life. I knew that I should be feeling something specific, but I had absolutely no visceral reaction except a general caved-in feeling. Was I supposed to feel protective of her like a man, or gently sympathize like a friend? Was she in danger, was this the kind of emergency situation that called for Telling A Grownup? Or was this one of those divulgences that pass between people unacknowledged, like gas passed in confined spaces? I sat there, dull and restless. I was 12 years old. I had never even kissed a girl yet, but had suddenly been defeated by an incestuous sexual rival (an older man!) who had ruined the perfection of this girl that I had only days ago begged God to give me. And perhaps I really had grown up, because at that moment I was flooded with instinct and hidden wisdom, and for the first time in my life I knew exactly what had to be done: I must never speak to her again. Ever. And just like that, I became a man.

I sent a reply affecting a sort of held-at-arm's-length tone of concern. It was easy to lapse in communication during the days we spent on vacation. And it was surprisingly easy to write that note once school was back in session, and to leave it in her locker; I was shocked that matters of the heart could be resolved so bloodlessly. She chose not to write back. Afterward it was as if we had never spoken at all, as if we had never held hands. As if she had never exposed her sordid and frightening secret to me in a letter that I had handled like a used tissue. As if she had expected as much, having grown used to no one helping
or perhaps she too wised up in a flash, just as I had, and learned to scream "Fire!" instead, which they say people are more likely to respond to than "Help". Now, but not then, I have the luxury of wondering what it was like for her, becoming a woman.

We would, of course, remain friends.

contributed by Tom Blunt

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