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Romance

The sad boy's sweet sad love and lust.

(Originally from the Subway Diary, 31 July 1998)

When I was nineteen everything in my life melted. My family broke apart. I was randomly attacked and beaten by drunken assholes, and later gave my virginity to a woman who was as psychic--I believed that then--and who left me wallowing in a deep, twitching paranoia. I believed that everyone could see into my soul, right through my chest. After some bad months, when I finally sliced my face up with a knife, I went to see a counselor. Her advice was to become boring.

She was right. I needed to learn to wear socks in winter, chew my food, and listen to people as they spoke. During my next few years, I lived a boring life, ate bland meals, and wore solid clothing in black and tan. I went to most of my classes and tried to live a worthwhile, if directionless, life.

I dated a young electrical engineer, who, if you could rate relationships (you can't), was absolutely a ten. She and I brought boredom to its beautiful limit. I wish you, C----, would call, above any of the lost voices. I'm fatter and different, and I still wonder about you, four years later.

I remember her spreading out the map to a large integrated circuit she'd designed, over the white dorm room wall; it was the most erotic thing I'd ever seen a woman do, the unfurling of knowledge and ability. She was small, blond, and smart, and we both played trombone in the college concert band. I'd complain to her, upset over some triviality until the point of tears, while she sat still, and probably, tried not to smile at my insistent drama. Then I would crawl into her lap and later, rest my head against her stomach, and we would make love, or fool around, usually outdoors or hidden in the large closet of her dorm room. We fooled around on a long exposed rock above the campus, in the woods, at the top of the hairpin turn, behind some graduate student's environmental sculptures, and at the end of a long hill road. This left strange markings in the winter ground, snow angels of lust and touch. Sophomore year of college, almost 20 years old.

That was a fine time. As much as I miss anyone, I miss that young man, the person I was. He believed in God, and possibility, and he was trying hard not to hurt himself or anyone else. "You were very handsome, but too loud," C---- said about first seeing me. She preferred silence. We went for walks in the snow and passed miles in quiet; she didn't mind cold weather, the length of the walk, or my cheap, torn flannel open over black T-shirts. No litany of complaints ever appeared to darken our fondness. Fondness is the right word--it was note expressed as love, except for one vague night when our emotions were coursing to the tips of our fingers and we both felt it strong. Like her, I was content with affection and loyalty. I was overflowing with emotion and loved anything to the point of tears, and love was cheap. Fondness and loyalty mattered more.

She had no preferences or disgusts, no aesthetic with which the world needed to comply. She came from Vermont and had never shaved her legs, not once, nor thought to, and her socks never matched. She was gamy, and I liked her smell. She showered every other day, and never cared if I was unshaven or my fingernails dirty. When we met, she was fantastically ticklish, but she became used to touch over time.

The week before we became lovers, we walked a mile out to the Alfred graveyard. We looked at the names on the stones, recognizing some of our professor's parents. It's not unusual for several generations to teach at Alfred University, in succession, in the Alleghenies. We stood before a fresh empty grave, no stone. There was nothing maudlin or gothic about us. The graveyard only seemed interesting, on a hill, part of a longer walk. We sat on an embankment for a long time, until our buttocks and legs froze through. She told me a story:

"My parents pushed me to walk everywhere. We never had a stroller. I remember I was about three and a half, we were on a hike, and I was really tired and there was a pretty serious hill ahead. So my father promised, that if I could climb the hill, I would get into the Guinness book of records. I did it.

"When we went home, he pulled out the book of records, and wrote my name into the back cover, under 'Hill Climbing.'"

I laughed, and we sat close enough to start breathing in sync. The breaths came out as white puffs in late October. Finally, shivering, we rose and walked back to campus. My hand kept flexing towards her own, then returning to my pocket, and right as I had felt real bravery, and wanted to stake a claim and grasp her arm, a friend from one of her engineering classes pulled up in a beaten Subaru, and offered us a ride back to campus.

A week later, we sat on her bed, an inch away from each other, her roommate somewhere else, the room filled with heartbeats of sexual light. I asked: "who watches over you? Who tells you you are beautiful?" The light was still on, by her desk. I said, "does anyone tell you your legs are well curved? Your face is smooth? That you have sharp eyes?"

"Yes," she said. "People do tell me I have nice eyes."

I took off her canvas shoes, which I loved doing, unbolting the laces and tugging at the crepe sole, rolling off the thick winter socks. She wore a T-shirt with pictures of endangered animals beneath her flannel shirt, and beneath that--trickery--her bra opened from the front. She showed me the clasp, willing, uncertain. She turned off the light, and I listed the parts of her as I touched them, until my hand had slipped into a space where, with the tiniest motions--motions much smaller than my fingers on this keyboard--I could command her to arch her back or open her mouth and show her teeth.

It lasted eight months, until she graduated. It was not perfect. She was distant; when I was in despair over my collapsing family, she didn't know what to do with me. As I wrote, she did not deal in love, but in liking, and in affection. This suited me most of the time, and my expansive drama filled some vessel inside of her, too. I was her first lover, and I felt good that I could make the act one of compassion and sweetness and gentle pressure, awkward and silly with the condom and copious lubricant, rather than the clinical horror the act of my own deflowering (or enflowering?)

Near the end of those 8 months, we learned what had brought us to touching, why two people so different had tuned their radios into the same frequency. One night she sat on my lap, curled into my chest, and it came out that ten years earlier, we'd both been participants in strange childhood acts, similar in aspect and affect, leaving us both with guilt and occasional agony. When the secrets were out, they didn't make much difference; we were the same people the next day, I was still ten inches taller than she, after we told each other. She still smelled the same.

In May, I helped her edit her resume; we were going to stay together, against distance, but she vanished into old problems at home, we ended it, and then she moved to the West Coast. She wrote me from there, her last letter, about how she put on spacesuits and entered massive, broken industrial furnaces to fix them. I don't know where she is now, in 1998. I hope she'd like to hear from me, although she might hate that I've written about her.

She sent all her mail inside envelopes recycled from surveyor's maps. The Dear John came as no surprise. It was obvious from the distance in her voice on the phone that she didn't know what to do with me. She wrote on a castoff Xerox from her father's consulting firm, on the blank side. "I hope you can forgive me."

I forgave her, and myself, and felt bad she felt guilty. We fell out of contact, and she showed up later on campus, without warning. It was a chilled reunion, both of us uncomfortable. I saw her standing by the corner of the McMahon building, and we spoke for only a minute. I embraced her, and walked away in the winter air--six months had rolled out--and I spat out gusts of smoky breath and cried until my big face turned sharp pink. When I began to date someone new, I wrote her a letter, and discovered the story of the industrial furnaces.

Of C----, I have one picture, black and white. She looks away from the camera, smiling, hair chopped rudely at the shoulder. She wears a heavy jacket, Gore-Tex or some substitute. It was her favorite picture of herself, and I asked for it because I wanted something she valued, to keep as my own.

I am writing this because when I am next with a woman, this story will be again a secret, free for the telling only if I say, "but she was not as good; I was not so happy as I am now." But it doesn't work that way; time is not so flexible as the latest set of lips. Eventually, the millennium will fold, and the important, long months spent with C---- will become a tiny percentage of my life. And then, I will forget her as I bounce unintended, but welcome, babies on my knee and clean up the vomit, and spoon the food, watching the waves of age accrue over my hands.

To my wife, if you are reading: as we learn each other through, I won't deny you your old affections, the potency and strength of your lost lovers. They can be more than me in many ways, and I understand. I don't need to lead your list, as long as I stay there longest.

To her, in 1994, I said, "how can anyone be bored," and she said, "I don't know. It's all so fascinating."


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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